I’ve been a fan of Running Man for a long time, long enough to remember how difficult it used to be to find a decent stream of subtitled episodes without poking around in the uncertain spaces of the internet. But how does one talk critically about Running man? At once a mixture between comedy, sport, talk show, and hide-and-go-seek, Running Man has been known to turn a Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament into successful TV. The show defies categorization, which in turn makes it nearly impossible to say why it’s so well-loved. But I’m going to try regardless, to say why every time I watch Running Man, it’s the best episode I’ve ever seen.
It’s Not Yoo Jae-suk...
...though you would be forgiven for thinking so. There’s a reason why Yoo Jae-suk is considered by many as the best host in Korea, and it has everything to do with his understanding of what makes good television. In episode 38, he famously ousted Kim Jong-kook by spitting water onto his nametag without any of the other members understanding what had happened. It was the first time any solo member had so dominated the game, and it earned him the nickname of “Yooames Bond.”
Not only does Jae-suk immediately recognize and exploit good television, but he is also adept at reversing negative situations. Consider episode 229, in which the preeminent grouch of the historical drama, Lee Seo-jin, consistently shied away from any form of participation in the episode. It could have been a disaster, but instead, Jae-suk constantly nagged Seo-jin until it became humorous, then an inside joke, then downright silly, until even Seo-jin was laughing and enjoying himself. The viewers, let me tell you, enjoyed it too.
It’s Not the Other Six Members...
...even though a better cast could scarcely be imagined. There are comedians and clowns, performers, hosts, backstabbers, and yes, one lone woman in Song Ji-hyo. It is a group of incredibly diverse personalities that somehow manages to form a cohesive unit. More than anything, it helps that the cast has been so steady through the years.
Six of the seven have been there since the very beginning (and the seventh, Ji-hyo, was a regular by episode 7). Many were sad to see Song Joong-ki leave after episode 41, but in the nearly 200 episodes since that time, the seven current members have solidified their relationships to the point that it’s difficult now to watch an episode pre-41. It’s why I wouldn’t recommend a newcomer to watch from the start, because much of the joy of Running Man comes from that stability.
Stability allows for a level of comfort where long-term gags reward the devoted viewers. We laugh every time Ji Suk-jin is eliminated first, because now the race can begin. We smile each time the Monday Couple teams up, and wince when perpetual backstabbers Haha and Lee Kwang-soo attempt to form an alliance. We cry out when yet another chance to eliminate Jong-kook is wasted.
It’s Not the Boundless Creativity of the Producers...
...although it’s impossible not to be wowed by the men and women who produce Running Man. The word that best encapsulates the show is innovation. Not every concept hits the mark, but the amount of thought that goes into each and every episode is staggering. There are new games, new locations, secret messages, and more in every episode. There are frequently casts of extras that number in the hundreds, and often they are costumed and given specific gameplay instructions.
The members of Running Man have been zombies, superheroes, and olympians. They’ve bungee-jumped and they’ve solved puzzles. They’ve eaten a lot of delicious food, and they’ve also rubbed shoulders with the biggest stars in Korea. They’ve been tasked with besting Park Ji-Sung at soccer, besting Choi Hyun-Ho at sit-ups, and besting Sistar at a three-legged-race variation of elimination. They’ve even had to eat cookies off a moving treadmill.
But none of these reasons can adequately define why every episode of Running Man is the best episode of Running Man. The real reason?
It’s the Relationships Running Man Makes with the Viewer
The relationships in Running Man begin with the cast, with the seven charismatic members who have spent over 200 episodes filming together. Those relationships are guided and directed by their host, Yoo Jae-suk, and finally, they are presented to the viewer through the lens of a camera.
The camera is important here. Because the members of Running Man are hyper-aware of the cameras pointed at them. It’s a level of awareness beyond comfort, beyond being able to simply ignore them, to the point where they actually use the cameras to their advantage. The cast of Running Man have found a way to be themselves while performing at the exact same time. Look at the difference when they bring in guests, even big stars that are used to having a camera pointing at them. The atmosphere shifts noticeably, and glass walls become visible.
The thing is, Running Man works best with only the seven current members on screen. Sure, a guest or two is fine now and then, but it’s not their bread and butter. That’s because only Jae-suk, Gary, Haha, Suk-jin, Jong-kook, Kwang-soo, and Ji-hyo are able to project themselves into our homes so effortlessly. The reason, the real reason, why every episode of Running Man is so great, is because the cast members are able to bypass the lens that so often alienates actor from audience. Running Man feels like family.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.