In a country where two years military service is mandatory for all males, there has been little public interest in stories about the experience, which is seen as somewhat commonplace.
Until now, that is. Real Men has, according to Nielsen Korea, captured 14.8 percent of the viewing audience, making it number one in its time slot.
The show's premise is six celebrities experiencing military life. Since it claims to be a reality show, there are no scripts, and the celebs are treated as rank-and-file soldiers. Producers and staff try not to interfere during filming.
Real Men kicked off in April of this year with worries about its appeal and lack of scripts. But viewers loved the chance to experience military life vicariously, especially through well-known celebrities.
With the show’s realism, male viewers can empathize with the struggles of the participants. Indeed, the show’s popularity has encouraged Korean men to begin to share their own stories of military life.
One fan, 23-year-old student So Seok-hun, says, “The show reminds me of my own military experience. It’s just fun to watch. Plus, since more female friends of mine watch this show, I feel more comfortable sharing my experience with them than before.”
Real Men has also heightened interest in the topic among Korean women.
Says 24-year-old Cho Han-sol, “I used to get bored when my male friends were talking about their military life because I didn’t understand what they were saying. But now I think I have a better understanding about it thanks to the show. I’m happy that now I can talk about military things with my dad and younger brother.”
Of the show’s stars, a favorite is Sam Hammington, an Australian comedian living in Korea. The only non-Korean on the show, he never had a chance to experience Korean military life, and viewers both laugh at his fumbles but cheer for him as an underdog.
“The show has so many dynamic characters. It’s a team effort, a brotherhood of sorts and I hope that people remember that everything I do on the show is in a big part due to the other members being there for me,” Hammington told The Diplomat. He adds, “Nearly every single Korean male goes to the army which means that everyone has some connection to the show. Women don’t get much of a chance to experience the military and this is their chance to live it through us.”
Commenting on the show’s success, culture critic Han Sang-deuk said, “TV shows are a product of capitalism. When the economy is good, fiction is popular, while non-fiction takes off when the economy is sagging. As people feel the Korean economy is struggling these days, a show like Real Men, which has elements of non-fiction and documentary, is getting attention. The thing is, people don’t need to think or get serious when they watch non-fiction shows. I think that is also one of the factors that contributes to the show’s popularity.”
Tae-jun Kang is a journalism student at the University of Hong Kong.