Class is in session - on the TV: Variety shows ruminate on the world’s trivialities

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Class is in session - on the TV: Variety shows ruminate on the world’s trivialities

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Left: On the JTBC show “Differential Class,” teachers deliver lectures and engage in discussions with celebrities. Right: Politician-turned-writer Rhyu Si-min frequently appears on shows like “Differential Class” and tvN’s “Dictionary of General Knowledge That is Useless to Know” to discuss topics in the humanities. [JOONGANG ILBO]

The title of cable network tvN’s latest variety program, which began airing this month, literally translates to “Dictionary of General Knowledge That is Useless to Know.”

The program is produced by renowned producer Na Young-seok, whose claims to fame include travel shows like “Grandpas Over Flowers” and “Youn’s Kitchen.” His latest project follows a similar format: the hosts travel to destinations across Korea, eating together and engaging in conversation.

The only difference is that the hosts are not necessarily celebrities but experts in various fields of academia, ranging from food and music to politics and literature. While they travel, they engross themselves in discussions on trifling questions like whether there is biological evidence to follow a father’s last name or how long it would take for the air molecules in Korean Adm. Yi Sun-shin’s lungs to come out again.

The show appeals to the armchair intellectual, the viewer who wants to learn something new while being entertained. It’s akin to popular science or pop psychology, and there are many more programs like it in Korea. On cable channel JTBC, there’s “Differential Class,” where teachers give lectures to celebrities. Rival network tvN has a similar program titled “Our Life School.”

Another tvN show takes the concept one step further by incorporating travel. On “Change the Classes,” viewers are invited to reflect on Korea’s education system as the show’s crew visits schools in northern Europe.

“Previous television programs that dealt with the humanities were more serious in tone,” says culture critic Jeong Deok-hyeon. “Shows these days, however, show viewers information they can ponder in their daily lives.”

“The humanities and variety programs are coexisting,” says Kim Heon-sik, another culture critic. “This trend is due to a combination of viewers being fed up with previous versions of variety programs and desire for the humanities.”

The humanities boom started in the late 2000s as a remedy to the economic slump. The business world was doing some soul-searching and found its answer in the classics.

In particular, a remark by Steve Jobs during the launch of the iPad 2 in March 2011 sparked interest in the liberal arts. “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough - it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Soon, the Korean book market was flooded with publications like “Wide and Shallow Knowledge for Intelligent Conversations.” Lecture programs on television started hiring popular speakers to liven up their shows.

The trend in television these days is making the humanities more approachable by incorporating everyday rituals like drinking and traveling. Some believe this trivializes subjects that deserve far more weight.

After watching “Dictionary of General Knowledge That is Useless to Know,” culture critic Bae Guk-nam quipped, “I got the impression that the show seems like the sort of conversation that a bunch of drunk guys would say. I feel like shows these days are commercializing the humanities.”

Indeed, there has been public debate about the nature of such programs and the way they treat heavy and serious topics in the humanities with such light entertainment. Apologists argue the shows contribute to the popularization of humanities. If not for shows like “Dictionary of General Knowledge That is Useless to Know,” where else would they have learned why eels cannot be farmed or how to trace their ancestry through mitochondria?

“Even just showing the viewers and arousing their curiosity is an interaction between the humanities and variety programs,” says culture critic Kim Kyo-seok.

BY NOH JIN-HO, JEON SO-HYUN [jeon.sohyun@joongang.co.kr]
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