I am a person who loves urban fantasy, and it is precisely this genre that I tend to gravitate towards when I’m choosing my next K-drama to watch; although I must admit that I started my adventure with this type of dramas only last year, so there are still many titles I have yet to watch. However, even with my limited experience, I couldn’t help but notice that during the last three years, a certain setup has been getting more and more exposure among the urban fantasy K-dramas:
A protagonist with supernatural abilities who hides behind a mundane type of business in order to help ordinary people resolve their problems through supernatural means.
The most popular dramas that fit this description are Hotel del Luna (2019) and Mystic Pop-Up Bar (2020), but there are also a few others: Handmade Love (2020), Sell Your Haunted House (2021), and The Witch’s Diner (2021). One could argue that The Uncanny Counter (2020) and even The School Nurse Files (2020) also qualify to be categorized as part of the same group of dramas, but let’s put them aside for discussion in the later part of the article.
All of the five previously mentioned dramas have decent ratings on MDL: the highest one belongs to Hotel del Luna (8.7), the lowest to the short web-drama Handmade Love (7.8).
It made me wonder: why is this type of setup so appealing to many viewers (myself included), and why do we keep wanting to see yet another iteration of it?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the core components of these five “uncanny business” dramas.
The Main Character with Special Powers and a Tragic Backstory
An ancient ghost, a dream-walking shaman, an exorcist, a witch, an exiled god… They differ in origin and the powers that they possess, but all of them are unusual and charismatic characters who easily draw our attention.
At the beginning of the story, they are shrouded in mystery, but it quickly becomes clear that in the past, they had been hurt in one way or another and that they themselves have not exactly been morally upstanding, either. Now they are living their lives helping ordinary people because of certain external or self-imposed obligations, which often serve as a way to redeem themselves.
A tragic backstory and inner demons are not the only features that define these characters, though; they also have particular quirks and character traits that make them feel more “human” and thus relatable to the audience: the pretty ghost is addicted to spending money on luxurious life, the easily annoyed shaman wears hanboks with trainers and reads romantic web novels, the cool witch embraces the stereotypical “witchy” aesthetics without shame, the taciturn exorcist will stop wearing black when they’ll make a darker colour, the aloof god could kill you over a tear in his favourite fabric… These recognizable human behaviours coupled with the mysterious past and a potential redemption arc get us readily involved in the story and the fates of its characters.
Different personalities and motivations, but same goal: to live through the consequences of past deeds and find a way to move on.
A Regular Kind of Business… on the Surface
How to operate a business that deals with the supernatural and yet stays under the radar? Easy - the darkest place is the one under the candle, so just make it look like a prosaic facility for customers! Thus we get a hotel for ghosts preparing for their journey into the Afterlife, a tent bar where you can have a special drink that allows the shaman to enter your dreams, a real estate agency that sells previously haunted places (after providing the necessary exorcisms), a restaurant offering dishes that make wishes come true, and a tailor shop which provides clothes specially designed to give you courage and strength to face your difficulties.
These quite mundane-looking establishments gain clients thanks to either word of mouth, an invitation, an accident, or fate. There is an undeniable allure in the concept of such places; after all, in real life, how often do we wander into a cozy coffee shop, a small bookstore, or an exotic-looking flower shop, feeling as if there was something a little bit magical in the air? These dramas answer our needs and fantasies of actually seeing a bit of urban magic in action!
Co-Workers Who Know about the Past and Recent Struggles of the Main Character and Provide Support
As the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work! Our supernatural protagonists would not have made it without the help of their friends and co-workers, most often also of supernatural origins. They know about the past of the protagonists (at least to a certain degree), understand their motivations and provide support, be it actually help in operating the business or simply lending an ear to help share their burdens. Together with the protagonists, they often create a sort of family; and as we all know, found family is generally considered one of the most beloved tropes among the viewers!
More or Less Ordinary Human(s) Hired to Help with the Business
To make the drama even more relatable to the viewers, at the beginning of the story, the owner of the uncanny business is always joined by a troubled and often reluctant human (who may or may not possess some mystical abilities of their own). Such a concept also serves as an introduction of the uncanny services to the viewers since the new employee needs to be taught about the nature of the business and all its mysterious ways.
This human character is usually the second protagonist, which allows the viewers to participate in their journey of discovering the new, exciting world that has just been revealed to them, embracing or learning to live with their unusual abilities (if they have any), and, in general, growing up as a person.
Case of the Week
Let’s not forget about the customers of our supernatural service! Thanks to the range of problems they bring with them in the hopes of finding resolution, we can see exactly how the business works and what the main characters’ superpowers can and cannot do. Moreover, each case leaves an impression on the protagonists that allows them to gain a new point of view and make a step forward on their personal journeys.
From the viewers’ perspective, it is rather fascinating to watch the process of finding solutions to different kinds of supernatural problems. When the nature of the customer’s trouble is mundane, though, we have a chance to observe the consequences of taking a “shortcut” in life by using uncanny means; after all, as the fairy tales teach us, every magic comes with a price.
There are also cases in which the supernatural means are either useless or provide only a subtle encouragement for people to take matters into their own hands. It often turns out that, just as in real life, what the client really needs to do is: first, acknowledge and accept their current situation; second, realize their self-worth and the potential to change their lives for the better; and third, move on with it! Watching such cases, in which the characters’ struggles hit close to home, may even give the viewers motivation to stand up for themselves and face their own problems.
An Overarching Story Revolving around Struggles or Grudges of the Protagonists
As I mentioned in the previous sections of this article, in addition to resolving various issues of their customers, both the supernatural and human protagonists have to deal with their own struggles as well. They undergo character development, which ultimately leads to vanquishing at least some of their inner demons (and sometimes outer foes), and consequently being able to live (or leave...) more happily and comfortably.
Obviously, having an overarching story that develops the protagonists during the course of the entire drama makes the viewers more inclined to come back every week for yet another episode than in the case of relying only on the case-of-the-week format.
The “uncanny business” type of drama ticks a lot of the boxes which, taken together, constitute a well-crafted and intriguing story: a crew of unusual characters, a mystery from the past, life lessons, character development, a satisfying ending; and despite having so many features in common, the five dramas that I mentioned in the article differ by numerous details, which make watching each drama a unique experience.
A Slightly Different Formula
At the beginning of this article, I promised to talk about two other dramas, The Uncanny Counter and The School Nurse Files, which seem to have a similar premise. Indeed, both dramas feature supernaturally-gifted protagonists troubled by their past and hiding behind ordinary and unassuming professions (a noodle restaurant worker and a school nurse). So what makes them different from the previously mentioned dramas?
The protagonists do not take on clients; their mundane existence serves only as a smokescreen to conceal activities aimed at protecting ordinary citizens (most often without their knowledge) from threats of supernatural nature. Therefore it is hard to call them “uncanny business” dramas, as there is no real business involved. They are both interesting dramas, though; I recommend watching them when you are looking for something similar to the “uncanny business” formula, yet with a few more tweaks.
Questions for the Readers
Do you watch dramas with the “uncanny business” kind of setup?
If not, do you feel inclined to give them a chance?
If you do, perhaps you are aware of other titles with a similar premise?
Do you think we need more dramas like that, or are there plenty in dramaland already?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Thank you for reading. :)
This is my first MDL article, and I’m very grateful to azyjtevol, Size15FeetJames and WandereR for their encouragement, proofreading my first draft and offering various suggestions which improved the quality of this article!
All of the images are edited by me from the official drama posters and stills uploaded to MDL galleries.