A few episodes into the Korean drama series “Reply 1988,” a slacker schoolgirl named Deok-sun and her rascal pal Dong-ryong show off their language skills. In a study group with her friends, Deok-sun is chided by her older sister, Bo-ra, for ranking dead last in her class. “English is just memorization, just memorize it!” she taunts. “Do you even know any words?” Deok-sun and Dong-ryong take turns meekly rattling off conjugated pronouns that prove they at least got through first-year English—“He, his, him, his!”—and Bo-ra, a student at Seoul University with an ace transcript, isn’t impressed. Dong-ryong ups the ante with a tumble of gravelly German articles—Derdesdemdem diederderdie!—before Deok-sun seizes the chance to derail all productivity. “Hey, I know Spanish!” she shouts, and bursts into “Directo al Corazón,” the 1982 hit by the Mexican teen idol Luis Miguel, goofily running through verses rewritten in Korean and the instantly recognizable Spanish chorus. Bo-ra grunts, enraged at the immaturity on display, but her sister’s gag resonates: why read from a textbook when there are awesome songs to learn in every language?

The scene typifies the quirky humor, nostalgic lilt, and borderless perspective that’s made “Reply 1988” a record-breaking success in Korea last year: its final episode, in January, was the most viewed season finale in Korean cable-TV history. As the title suggests, the series is set in 1988, a significant year for Seoul. The Summer Olympics brought the world’s eyes to the developing city, and the year came to represent the influx of culture from around the globe to a nation that was still shaking off a generation of dictatorship, conservatism, poverty, and protests. Real-world events like these are woven into the plot: in the pilot, Deok-sun is ecstatic to bear the flag for Madagascar in the Olympic opening ceremony, mainly because she gets to be on television. The series delights in her spunky outbursts and deceptive wit; she’s an alpha female growing into her own as her friends and their families bounce between potluck dinners and sleepovers on a sleepy street in their neighborhood of Ssangmun-dong. The parents hand-wring over money and nag about homework while the teen-agers—Deok-sun and Dong-ryong, along with the neighborhood boys Taek, Sun-woo, and Jung-hwan—obsess over new music, don high-waisted jeans and Air Jordans, sneak into R-rated movies, navigate newly raging hormones, and scream, nag, and slap each other over the last slice of pizza.

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Comparisons to “The Wonder Years” or “That ’70s Show” extend beyond the temporal shtick: “1988” is the latest in a trilogy produced by South Korea’s tvN network, preceded by shows set in 1997 and 1994. This iteration, like its predecessors, certainly doesn’t reflect the slick melodramatic romances and revenge arcs that may spring to mind when one thinks of K-drama blockbusters. Good gags prevail over plot twists: there are no dramatic deaths, scenes of infidelity, or fixed villains. The kids that “1988” chronicles exist in an unhurried world of their own making, streaming past parents in single file to while away hours on each other’s bedroom floors. Despite its dominance in the ratings, the show’s fraternal slant was born largely of low expectations. Last fall, the director and producer Shin Won-ho explained that, even though the first two “Reply” shows had performed very well, the writers were uncertain of the demand for a third, and so they took liberties to make a particularly comical show about family, friends, and common struggles. “In my memory, in 1988, Korea still had a lot of warmth and affection in interpersonal relationships,” he told the Korea Herald, “regardless of the economic, social or political conditions . . . We tried to depict history as ordinary people experienced it.”

Deok-sun, the only female in her crew, is played glossily by the Korean pop star Hye-ri. She indiscriminately bats her eyes at her four buddies and would-be suitors, who are initially too confused or grossed out by their childhood friend to reciprocate. The show’s rhythmic cuts, symmetrical frames, and earthy color palette recall Wes Anderson, and the shout-along covers of K-pop classics insure that reality might suspend at any minute—soundtrack sales soon skyrocketed along with the ratings. Cultural in-jokes litter the production: in a meta-epilogue, an adult version of Deok-sun is played by Lee Mi-yeon, an eighties and nineties star whom the young boys had ogled in her first role just a few scenes prior. The snappy, droll humor carries strongly through the English subtitles. One hilarious scene finds an impish father refusing to take back a rude comment over lunch: “Instead of an apology, I’ll give you a B-pology,” he quips. “God damn it!” his wife barks, whacking at his arm across the table. “Stop it with your stupid dad jokes!”

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In our golden age of meaty, long-view, “Breaking Bad”-esque television, these kinds of breezy laughs and insular bonds are themselves nostalgic. The Norman Lear sitcoms of the seventies, whose familial spirit carried up to the edge of the aughts, now scan as cliché. The most lauded American shows today are angrier and achier: whether zombies, dragons, or modernity, evil forces plague our heroes from the outside, and bring emotions to the surface through scenes of fury, agony, or both. Perhaps it’s not an accident that binge-watching as an American pastime has coincided with TV’s growing moodiness: are we stuck on these shows, or under them?

In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reporter John Glionna wrote a story about han, a complex moroseness—an “ineffable sadness”—cited by Koreans as a definitive pillar of their culture. Glionna interviews local shop owners and elders who say that han is a part of everyday life in their homeland. The Korean-American scholar Elaine Kim considers how han has manifested across the diaspora, citing the reaction of Korean-American victims of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: “The discussions were all about whites and blacks; Korean losses were shunted to the side,” she explains. “The injustice was they weren’t responsible for the problem, and they couldn’t solve it. As I see it, that’s the definition of han.”

It makes sense that American studios would eventually look toward Korea for story lines to attract strife-hungry audiences. Skybound Entertainment, the studio behind “The Walking Dead,” has signed on to produce an upcoming pre-apocalyptic Korean drama, “Five Year,” in partnership with the video-streaming site Viki—think Hulu, but full of Asian dramas, Bollywood films, and anime. In the series, a meteor looms toward earth, projected to impact in five years (or seasons): the doomed cast is left to reconcile their finite existence while waiting out the days.

David Alpert, the president and C.E.O. of Skybound, talked with Variety about sidestepping the traditional American heroism that appears in many comic books and TV shows, including his own: “There is no Bruce Willis we can put on a rocket ship to blow up the meteor,” he says. Instead, “Five Year” aims to combine dramatic tropes from both countries. Alpert says that the show “highlights the intense interpersonal moments that Korean dramas capture so well, and sets them against the epic backdrop for which Skybound has become known.” Some American audiences may already recognize this blend of sadness, rage, and despair in our public discourse, and in the art onto which we map its themes. Even Beyoncé’s Vaseline smile turned downward this year under the weight of sinking patrol cars.

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It’s tempting to view the nostalgia and good-natured vibe of “Reply 1988” as a counterbalance to this mood, and the show’s wide success in Korea as a nudge against han_’s_ cultural prominence there. However, the show’s true power is in the specificity of its setting. “Reply 1988” captures the curiosity and energy of a young generation at a turning point, newly empowered by its sharper view of a world beyond its shores. Throughout the series, pop culture lets the characters see and hear a world their parents cannot; it empowers them to sing about love in English and Spanish, whether or not they can speak the language.

This April, “Reply 1988” arrived on Viki, allowing subscribers in Chile, New Zealand, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and beyond to tune in. The company announced its arrival with an eager tweet: “Your wish has been answered!” The site itself, with its hundreds of shows from dozens of countries (many of them subtitled and synched by teams of multilingual fans), offers curious viewers the same unprecedented windows into other cultures that fascinated Deok-sun and her friends and helped change South Korea almost thirty years ago. One marked comfort found in “Reply 1988” may be the evidence that, across space and time, families yell about the same things, friends geek out over the same things, and songs are written about the same things. The challenge now is to actively commit to this larger scale of consumption: to seek out ideas from outside our own silos, by choice, in order to find entirely new viewpoints—or, at least, entirely new TV shows.