Can’t live without SKZ Family

They’re baaaaaaack… and it’s a MESS. And I love it I love it I love it.

(This issue is very image/GIF-heavy! I’m sorry if it’s a lot for your email client… but obviously not sorry enough to take out the visuals. You can read it on the web if you prefer!)

I’m not writing about a k drama today. Or am I? If I am, it’s the most condensed makjang I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if they have writers on this show; if they do, the writers are both not doing much and not paid enough. 

Wait, wait, let me back up and explain. It’s not going to make sense otherwise. I mean, it probably (definitely) still won’t make sense even after I explain, but at least you will have ~context~ for the chaos that I’m about to recount in this newsletter. There are no spoiler alerts because, trust me, this is not something where spoilers matter. 

Let’s start with the basics. SKZ is an abbreviation of Stray Kids, an eight-member K-pop boy group. SKZ Family is a recurring concept in Stray Kids’s web variety content, where, in some episodes, the members dress up as different characters—both male and female—who are ostensibly related. 

As colleagues and friends, SKZ are chaotic. As a concept, SKZ Family is… deranged. There’s no point trying to approach it like a sensible person. Logic left the building a long time ago.

Here are the members of SKZ Family:

First, we have Grandma I.N and Grandpa Felix, extremely sprightly and trendy for their age. Grandpa Felix is on TikTok, and Grandma I.N obsesses over her Stray Kids bias, Felix. (Yes, it’s meta.)

The grandparents have two sons. The older one is Papa Han, who is married to Mama Hyunjin. They are generally a loving couple, but not without their problems, as you’ll see later. 

While Mama Hyunjin is a sassy queen, Papa Han is, if we’re honest, kind of trash. He’s a mediocre father who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on half the time. (“The biggest reason why I fell for my husband was his geekiness and nerdiness,” Mama Hyunjin admits.) Papa Han and Mama Hyunjin’s older son is High Schooler Changbin, a cool guy who has very little time for his kid brother, the five- (or foive-)year-old Bang Chan. 

Then we have Grandma and Grandpa’s younger son, Uncle Seungmin. Uncle Seungmin has a tumultuous marriage with Auntie Lee Know. They’re always bickering and talking about divorce, but never actually seem to do it. 

Apart from these characters, there’s very little that keeps SKZ Family coherent. Some members fully commit to their bit—Bang Chan, the leader and oldest member of Stray Kids, remains a perpetual pre-schooler and almost never breaks character. On the other hand, Han can barely remember how he’s related to everyone else.

In fact, much of the drama of SKZ Family emanates from Papa Han; while his grasp of the family tree is extremely weak, he makes up for it by letting his intrusive thoughts win. He loves his wife Mama Hyunjin, but it’s quickly revealed, from the very first episode of SKZ Family, that he’s also smitten with his sister-in-law, Auntie Lee Know, who is extremely willing to flirt back. 

It is also because of Papa Han that the second instalment of SKZ Family derails. While praising Auntie Lee Know for her watermelon cutting skills, Papa Han slips up and calls her “jagi (honey)”... leading Mama Hyunjin to ask, “You were cheating on me?!” Papa Han tries to save his skin for about ten seconds before he gives up and yells the line, now iconic among Stray Kids fans, “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH FALLING IN LOVE!”

This is why I said Papa Han is trash. But somehow everyone loves him anyway.

As if that’s not messed up enough, it seems as if Uncle Seungmin and Mother Hyunjin have also been stepping out on their spouses…

I thought it couldn’t get messier after that SKZ Family episode from two years ago, but the return of SKZ Family last Thursday proved me wrong. In this new edition, Grandma and Grandpa have gone to the water park for a holiday (more cheery than saying they’ve died), leaving their offspring, daughters-in-law and grandchildren to prepare the house for the Chuseok holiday. I.N and Felix have been given new characters: I.N is now Auntie Lee Know’s younger sister, a savage Gen Z back in Korea from the US. Felix’s new role is Babygirl Yongbok, the three-year-old daughter of Auntie Lee Know and Uncle Seungmin.

All they do in this first episode of a Chuseok special two-parter is introduce themselves, yet things spin out of control almost right away. Auntie Lee Know and Uncle Seungmin are still talking about splitting up, although by this point I think “threats of divorce” is their love language. High Schooler Changbin has developed a massive crush on Gen Z I.N, the hottest noona he’s ever laid eyes on. 

Papa Han is still a serial cheater who wants to be with his long-suffering wife but also low-key (not that low-key) wants to elope with his sister-in-law.

Mama Hyunjin is the baddest k drama bitch to grace our screens in 2023… and still has a bit of a something-something going on with Uncle Seungmin.

At one point, Auntie Lee Know casually says she doesn’t know who High Schooler Changbin’s real parents are—while also getting the gender of the character wrong, because who cares about details, amirite—prompting Papa Han to jump out of his seat and gasp, “The secret of his birth!” No further elaboration is given, leaving fans to wildly speculate if they mean that High Schooler Changbin is actually Auntie Lee Know and Papa Han’s love child (which would be wild and weird ‘cos wouldn’t Mama Hyunjin know she did not birth a Changbin?) or that he’s Mama Hyunjin and Uncle Seungmin’s secret baby (which would be more logical, if we thought SKZ Family cares about logic). Either way, it’s fucked up. 

This is obviously all nonsense. None of it makes sense, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s just about coming up with the most outrageous shit for laughs. It’s so stupid I feel like I should spell it “stoopid”. If you’ve got this far, you’re probably wondering why you’re reading this at all. 

Yet there is magic in the mess. I think the K-pop industry really knows this and capitalises on it. To a casual observer, SKZ Family might come across like gibberish, but what’s happening here is the creation and perpetuation of in-jokes between the idols and their fandom.

Some of SKZ Family’s more outrageous ‘plot twists’ draw on existing dynamics: when Papa Han flirts with Auntie Lee Know and accidentally calls her “jagi”, it’s even more amusing to Stays (i.e. Stray Kids fans) because, outside of SKZ Family, Lee Know and Han are besties, do actually call each other “jagi”, and have joked about being boyfriends and husbands. They’re one of Stray Kids’s most popular friendship duos, and the flirtation of Papa Han and Auntie Lee Know feed into that. In the same vein, the “divorced couple” dynamic between Lee Know and Seungmin generates plenty of amusement outside of SKZ Family episodes as they tease each other and banter in other Stray Kids content or interviews.

The far-fetched developments of this new SKZ Family episode have already made their way into fan edits, fan art and social media posts. These references will circulate for years, brought up by both fans and the idols themselves. It’s entertaining, but it’s also about cultivating parasocial relationships that make fans more invested in the group’s success. This fun silliness pulls you in, connects you to others who are laughing at it too, and creates a feeling of an “imagined community” within the fandom. (When I was writing my Masters dissertation on nationalism in the Singapore media, did I ever think I would one day apply my Benedict Anderson readings to K-pop variety content? No, m’am, I did not.)

I know that the fundamental motivation of all this is to make fans like me buy shit—K-pop is unapologetically capitalist and consumerist in that way. That said… it’s just fun. And comforting. It doesn’t require deep thought—frankly, it works better if there is no thought at all—and lets me unwind and just laugh. And after I’ve watched the episode, it’s also so much fun to rehash the best bits with friends who are also fans, or check out the memes sprouting up on social media and laugh some more.

As a concept, SKZ Family loudly declares “no more questions!” when there are clearly many more questions that need to be asked. There are no answers. There cannot be answers, because the people making this shit up probably can’t explain most of it themselves. There’s no choice but to just let things go. At a time when there are so many cares, so many things that cling on to us even when we crave release, this escape feels, even if just for 25 minutes, like a little bit of freedom.

I can’t wait for next week’s episode.