Here’s a post I probably first drafted at the beginning of this blog (aka five years ago) and then let sit in the blackhole of my drafts folder: the best Korean dramas I recommend to anyone who will listen!
I have been a watcher of Korean dramas for a decade and an Asian drama watcher for even longer. For years I suffered through bad kiss scenes, questionable fashion choices, and frustratingly conservative romances complete with aggressive wrist grabs. You guys don’t know how good you have it these days!
Anyway, I completely missed the first Hallyu (Korean Wave), so I never got sucked into “Winter’s Sonata” and its contemporaries. Instead, my introduction came because one of my favorite Taiwanese dramas, “It Started with a Kiss,” was turned into a Korean one called “Playful Kiss” in 2010. The drama was cute but forgettable. What it really introduced me to was how much better quality K-dramas were.
I went from “Playful Kiss” to “Boys Over Flowers” since it was based off my favorite manga. Considering “Boys over Flowers” helped launched the second Hallyu, you can see how quickly I was sucked in!
Now, ten years later and I feel like a seasoned pro! Keep in mind, I’ve watched significantly less dramas than a hardcore fan. I probably average a few a year and walk away loving even less.
Before I tell you my favorites, here are some quick tips for viewing!
My Best Korean Drama Tips
I know what you’re thinking. It’s easy TV, why the heck do I need tips for watching? Trust me, friend, as any K-drama watcher knows, there’s a certain art to enjoying them, especially if you don’t speak Korean.
1. Korea is much more conservative than you might be used to.
Socially, Korea is like… the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Trust me, it’s progressed a lot in the last decade, but it’s still got a ways to go. The fact that “Itaewon Class” had a trans character is like the most risk-taking I’ve ever seen.
This means the restrictions for dramas are crazy high, and why if you get a love scene, it’s like the most PG love scene known to man. It’s also probably why kiss scenes back in the day were so, so, SO bad.
2. The best stations these days are tvN and JTBC.
You know how HBO and Netflix can get away with all sorts of tawdry things ABC, NBC, and CBS in the US can’t? Same with TvN and JTBC. Keep in mind this is still Korea, so add about ten more layers of conservative restrictions.
Anyway, I’m not super sure when tvN and JTBC became the phenomenons they are today, but they far outperform KBS, SBS, and MBC in terms of cultural relativity. I’m sure regular network dramas still get higher numbers, but you don’t hear people talking bout them nearly as much as you do about tvN or JTBC dramas.
3. Never watch a drama live
Of all the times I’ve watched a drama lives, I’ve been satisfied once. Every other time I’ve wanted to throw my laptop at a wall. There’s this curse most dramas face because of how they produce them. Without fail, the second half of most dramas do two things: 1) dragggggg and 2) begin to make no sense and go off the walls. If you’ve ever experienced this, I’m sorry. It’s caused a lot of distrust in me. After two back-to-back betrayals, I actually stopped watching them for a year and a half!
Why does this happen, you ask? Well, the problem is when a show goes live in Korea, it’s actually only been pre-filmed for the first six or so episodes. Which means after those six, everyone is on set trying to pump out at least two episodes a week. That’s minimum an hour a week but usually it’s closer to three with the big dramas. With 30-minute episodes, you’re looking at a minimum of an hour/week but most dramas wind up being 90 minutes, which means it’s more like three. Movies half that long take months to film and edit, so imagine how hectic and crazy drama sets are.
This also means drama teams get realtime feedback on their plots and couples and it can really affect how the plot goes towards the end. It drives me NUTS.
For example, one drama I kind of liked but am not recommending below is “The Producers.” Initially it was like a mockumentary-type show and I thought the premise was so fun! Sadly, Koreans apparently did not find the style interesting, so PDs scrapped the whole thing before it got going and it became paint-by-numbers drama that not even the charm of the main cast could make unique.
4. Remember, K-dramas take more concentration than regular TV.
This kind of a “duh” tip, but I do think it’s important to note. With a K-drama, you need to focus 100% because otherwise you won’t understand a thing going on. I feel like when we watch shows in our native language, we can do ten other things simultaneously and still know what’s happening, but unless you speak fluent Korean, this will not ring true.
And you know how I said many dramas suffer from the second part curse? Yeah, imagine having to sit through minutes of just staring without playing Candy Crush on your phone.
5. The best places to watch are Netflix and Viki.
*Puts on bifocals* Back in my day, we had to find all sorts of way to watch our favorite Asian dramas. I remember downloading a special video player just to get subtitles to work or scrounging Youtube for bits and pieces.
Bonus: I also like going over to Drama Beans to read recaps and comments after I’ve finished an episode.
6. Don’t sleep on the OSTs
So unlike US shows, which typically use songs that already exist, Korean dramas create brand new original soundtracks (OSTs). Yes, every single drama gets its own score and original songs. And if a drama does well, those songs usually dominated the digital charts. I highly recommend getting into the OSTs; you’ll have songs you still listen to years later.
The Best Korean Dramas I Tell Friends to Watch
Alright, now what you came here for! My picks for the best Korean dramas; aka the ones I tell all my friends to watch. These are all listed in chronological order, not by my preference!
1. Squid Game (2021)
- Korean Name: 오징어 게임
- Best OST Song: “Pink Soldiers” by 23 (of course!)
Seong Gi Hun is in some serious debt from gambling when he gets a mysterious invitation to join a series of children’s game in the hopes of winning money against 455 other players. However, what seems like an easy challenge proves sinister after the very first round.
WHY I LOVED IT
I mean, how could I not add “Squid Game” to my list of recommended Korean dramas? This show took the world by storm to the point that even my sister and brother watched. I don’t even think they saw Parasite!
This drama is not for the faint of heart and because it’s a Netflix production, it didn’t have to deal with all the rules and restrictions of a normal network. It feels more like an extended movie than a K-drama. It’s a very violent portrayal of how messed up capitalism is not only in Korea but worldwide.
I’ll say my only big fault with it is the English-speaking characters. The acting is atrocious, and it seems like such an oversight given how much attention to detail the director gave to literally all other aspects of the show (including the actual set design of the English parts). I think it would’ve sent a much stronger message to keep that section as all older Korean men to represent the many chaebols that absolutely run most of the Korean economy and beget some pretty unsavory offspring. (See: “nut rage” heiress)
2. Crash Landing on You (2019-2020)
- Korean Name: 사랑의 불시착
- Best OST Song: Too many, but “Photo of My Mind” by Song Ga In was my KKT song for a while
When Yoon Seri falls into North Korean territory after a freak accident, she must rely on a group of soldiers to keep her safe all while falling in love with their leader, Ri Jeong Hyuk.
WHY I LOVED IT
Remember when I said of all the dramas I’ve watched live, I was satisfied once? This was that one exception! I still can’t believe I watched it live after all the betrayal I’ve suffered, but between Hyun Bin’s cheek bones, Son Ye Jin, and the plot, I just had to.
The premise honestly sounds ridiculous but “Crash Landing on You” turned out to be SO GOOD. It’s just the right amount of funny, sweet, and utterly heart-wrenching. Two dramas have made me cry at the end, and this was one of them. Every character was so well done, from the duckling soldiers (got that term from Drama Beans) to the funny ahjummas and more, our lead couple was so well supported.
On a bigger scale, I think this did a LOT to humanize the typical North Korean. One of the things I’ve heard is that the longer the peninsula remains split, the more foreign North Koreans seem to the south (and the world), and I think this show and its popularity has done a lot to combat that.
3. Hotel del Luna (2019)
- Korean: 호텔 델루나
- Best OST Song: “All About You” by Taeyeon (of course!)
Jang Man Wol runs a peculiar hotel right in Myeongdong. Hotel del Luna isn’t just any old luxury hotel, it’s a luxury hotel for ghosts, and Man Wol has been running it for over a millennium. After meeting Goo Chan Sung’s father, she makes a deal with him that Chan Sung will come work for her hotel as their human manager in return for his father’s life and financial security.
WHY I LOVED IT
It’s always fun to watch IU play a feisty character because what got her famous was being the Nation’s Little Sister! I’m definitely a fan of where she’s taken her career the last decade, and “Hotel del Luna” is one of her many amazing decisions.
The mystery of why Man Wol is made to be the hotel CEO is interesting, and the blossoming romance between she and Chan sung is hilarious. Plus I love the secondary characters so much! Quite the crush on Block B’s PO after this and his variety stuff.
A big thing that makes “Hotel del Luna” unique is how it handles death, and we see it throughout the whole show. I feel like it’s actually been very cathartic for me watching the different ghost plot lines of each episode.
Oh, and Man Wol’s fashion is incredible.
4. Hello My Twenties! (2016 & 2017)
This drama follows five girls who wind up rooming together at a house called Belle Epoque while attending the nearby university. Throughout the show you get to know each of their personalities and follow their different trials and tribulations. There are two seasons, and one of the girl is swapped out for a new character while one of the original characters changes actresses. It’s done really well, don’t worry. I’m still mad we don’t have a Season 3.
WHY I LOVED IT
This drama! I love it so much and I just want to hug all the girls and make sure they get through life okay. You’ll be rolling with laughter and then wishing you too lived with a group of girls in a city like Seoul.
It also has SO MANY good messages for women, especially in Korea, and I’ve never seen a show that so casually references things we all go through. Sex? Periods? Adult diapers? Female sexuality? It has it all. Plus, it also goes into a lot of heavier material incredibly well: work harassment, stalking, domestic abuse, childhood trauma… I promise it doesn’t feel forced.
5. Reply 1997 (2015)
- Korean Name: 응답하라 1997
- Best OST Song: “All for You” Cover by Eunji & Seo In Guk (org. by Cool); Did you know there’s actually no official OST for Reply 1997? This cover was done after the fact!
Turn back the clock to 1997 and experience what it was like to be a Korean teenager in the late nineties during the First Generation of K-pop stars! In the present day (2012) our cast meets up for a high school reunion and we must guess who the main character’s husband is based on the story that unfolds 15 years prior.
WHY I LOVED IT
You know, maybe “Reply 1997” was what started the cable channel storm. It seriously did SO much in its run:
- 7.5% viewing at a time when successful cable dramas got 1 to 2%
- filmed mostly in Busan, complete with the satoori dialect, at a time when nearly all dramas were filmed in Seoul
- featured an LGTBQ character in a satisfying way
- sparked the retro trend that is still very much a thing today
I binge-watched in college at some point during my junior or senior year because I liked APink and Eunji. It immediately became my favorite drama. The pacing is perfect as all 16 episodes are under 30 minutes, so you can watch this in a day or two.
Even if you have no relation to Korea in the nineties and won’t get 80% of the pop culture references, you’ll enjoy the ride. Just the pure fact they managed to get Eun Ji Won, a First Gen idol, to convincingly play a high school student in 2012 is a joke goldmine. By the end, you’ll have all the feels for this rowdy group of friends and wish you had twice as long with them.
6. Reply 1988 (2015-2016)
- Korean Name: 응답하라 1988
- Best OST Song: “Ice Cream Love” by Im Byeong Su; like 1997, there are SO many 80s songs and references. Had to pick “Ice Cream Love” because it’s in Spanish and Korean and I went and learned all the lyrics lol. “Last Night Story” is a close second for this gem of a scene
Turn back the clock another nine years to Seoul in 1988! This is the year of the Seoul Olympics and takes place right in the middle of Korea’s rapid growth from a war torn country of the 50s to the technological behemoth it is today. In a little Seoul neighborhood, lives a handful of families whose kids are all teenagers navigating the late eighties.
WHY I LOVED IT
As you might guess, the success of “Reply 1997” spawned two more spinoffs with the Sung Dong Il and Lee Il Hwa playing the main parents in every iteration. While there’s a “Reply 1994,” I didn’t love it and thought it got a bit draggy towards the end, which why it’s not on this list.
By the time “Reply 1988” premiered in 2015, the show’s team knew what to do to make the perfect drama. While the first two relied more heavily on the main romance, they must have realized the real reason Korean audiences loved them was more for the accurate nostalgia and cast camaraderie. So what to do they do with a bigger budget? Amp up the scenery and the cast!
More than 1997 and 1994, which are in the past but still somewhat resemble the present, 1988 really does feel like we’re seeing a whole different Korea. Not only do you care about the main teen crew, you care about each and every one of their families and their individual plot lines. If you got nostalgic watching the first two, you’re going to be sobbing by the time Duk Seon warns her friends not to try to revisit their old neighborhood because too much as changed in the last 30+ years.
Guys, I loved this drama so much that I’m not even mad about the romantic ending. It’s so much more of an ensemble cast than any other drama on this list, so it softens the blow. I watched it semi-live, so I was pretty ticked off at how shoehorned the romance ending was, but looking back, in a 90 minute episode, that was maybe 5 minutes of disappointment versus 85 minutes of happiness.
7. She Was Pretty (2015)
- Korean Name: 그녀는 예뻤다
- Best OST Song: “Close to You” by the Carpenters; also not an official OST but by far the most prominent song in the drama
Kim Hye Jin wants her childhood friend, Ji Sung Joon, to remember her as the pretty preteen she once was, so she gets her friend, Min Ha Ri, to pretend to be her when they reunite as adults. The only problem is he’s now her superior at The Most magazine.
WHY I LOVED IT
Listen, if you developed a crush on Park Seo Joon from “Itaewon Class,” you’ll adore him in “She Was Pretty,” and he has better hair. This has to be one of my favorite “realistic dramas” as the cast is so damn charming and the plot is fun and light. Super Junior’s Siwon absolutely steals the whole show as the goofy, eccentric senior feature editor, and I still haven’t looked at danmuji the same way since.
Of all the “makeover” dramas, this one does the best job. A reviewer pointed this out, and I agree, one of the best things about the male lead is that he never once comments on her appearance, no matter what changes she goes through. And I love that her makeover is temporary and more of a confidence boost than a complete lifestyle change.
8. The Last Empress (2018-2019)
- Korean Name: 황후의 품격
- Best OST Song: “Deep Voice” by Park Ji Min
What if Korea still had a monarchy? Pretty much the premise of this drama as Emperor Lee Hyuk marries commoner Oh Sunny, and she must go from being a silly girl with a crush to the Empress of the Korean Empire.
WHY I LOVED IT
I watched this drama in 3 days. THREE DAYS. Sure, the episodes are around 35 minutes, but there are FIFTY-TWO episodes and I watched it on Viki, which meant commercials! From the initial scene where they’re exhuming the body of the first empress to the very last scene, this is the most bonkers K-drama train I’ve ever ridden. I struggled to even give you a quick plot because there’s SO much going on every episode!
Let us all take a moment to appreciate Jung Nara who is a national treasure who manages to go through so many different emotions in one drama. Also honorable mention to Princess Ari, who is hilarious, and Sunny’s family, who have the best reactions to everything.
9. Fated to Love You (2014)
- Korean Name: 운명처럼 널 사랑해
- Best OST Song: “Goodbye My Love” by Ailee
A remake of the Taiwanese drama, Lee Gun and Kim Mi Young find themselves in a shotgun marriage after their accidental one night stand ends up with a pregnancy.
WHY I LOVED IT
This was another K-drama where I’d seen the original first, so I knew how much heartache I was asking for. I do feel like they sanitized things a lot (this is where I learned that pounding rice cakes is a euphemism for sex) and added a lot more plot elements the Taiwanese omitted, but it’s still a lot of fun and pulls at your heartstrings. Plus we’ve got Jung Nara again, this time with Jang Hyuk, and the two are just perfect in their roles.
10. I Need Romance 3 (2013-2014)
- Korean: 로맨스가 필요해 3
- Best OST Song: “Don’t Cry” by Lee Hyori
A noona romance! Heh heh. Shin Joo Yeon is 33 and committed to her job at a home shopping network. Her love triangle includes the 26-year-old Joo Wan who she used to babysit until he went abroad 17 years ago, and her sunbae, Kang Taeyoon, who’s still hurt by his ex-girlfriend, Oh Se Ryung.
WHY I LOVED IT
There are three “I Need Romance” series, but the third is the only one I really liked (more on the others below). Of all of them, this one balances the romance with the workplace and friendships the best. The main romance is really sweet, and at the time there weren’t a lot of shows where the woman was the older, more established one in the relationship.
11. Secret Garden (2010-2011)
- Korean Name: 시크릿 가든
- Best OST Song: “That Man” by Baek Ji Young (followed closely by “Here I Am” by 4men)
Gil Ra Im is a tough stunt woman whose only weak spot is her fan love for Oska, a Hallyu idol, while Kim Joo Won is a prickly department store CEO and also cousin of Oska. While the two initially clash, they develop feelings for each other. Toss in a case of body swapping, you’ve got the biggest drama of 2011!
WHY I LOVED IT
I’m honestly not sure how this drama would hold up today because technically it’s pretty full of cliches. However, it was my favorite drama for a long time even though the second half just barely avoids the curse. I think it’s a lot because Ha Ji Won and Hyun Bin were so good in it and their chemistry was off the charts. I remember I used to have the finale saved to my iTunes, and I’d watch it for a pick-me up!
2 Drama’s I’m in the Process of Finishing or Need to Start
12. Mister Sunshine (2018)
- Korean Name: 미스터 션샤인
I’m about halfway through this historical drama and it’s just utterly breathtaking. The shots of the Korean countryside are something else. It focuses on the Korean Empire in the late 1800s as Eugene Choi returns to his homeland as an American soldier.
It feels more like a complete movie production than it does a drama, especially with names like Lee Byung Hun and Kim Tae Ri attached. The only things I don’t love is the massive age gap (luckily romance is like 1/100th of the drama), and the English acting, which is the best I’ve seen in an Asian drama but not great.
13. Kingdom (2019 & 2020)
- Korean Name: 킹덤
Autumn has been telling me to watch this for a year, and she is the pickiest person I’ve ever met when it comes to pop culture, so I’ll take her word. It sounds kind of ridiculous: zombies in Joseon, but it’s supposed to be amazing. And Autumn says the cinematography is some of the best she’s ever seen of Korea!
4 Dramas Not to Waste Your Time On
1. Cheese in the Trap (2016)
This drama starts off SO good. Like the webtoon is incredibly clever and nuanced, and the show seems to do a good job taking that on and then…. the main guy disappears half way through the show! Turns out there was drama behind the scenes that we’ll never know the details of, but it makes the show go from clever to bad in a matter of episodes. I don’t even think I watched the finale once I read the recap!
2. 12 Years Promise (2014)
I could not get through this drama. It was so drawn out and boring, and the characters made no sense. Even how they wind up sleeping together is weirdly forced and awkward. I started skipping through it to see what would happen, and when I realize the way they reconcile in the end was crappy too, I gave up altogether.
3. I Need Romance
Cho Yeo Jeong (who you guys might recognize as the rich mom from Parasite), is one of my favorite actresses. However, this drama was a mess. Her character was insanely annoying (like you know Cho is an amazing actress when you realize she was doing Concubine and Bangja around this time). The whole relationship between In Young and Sung Soo is weird and toxic, and I don’t really think he ever did anything to deserve being forgiven for cheating on her.
4. I Need Romance 2012
So… I didn’t hate this one as much as I disliked the first one. But it didn’t really do anything for me. I remember thinking Ji Hoon and Yeol Mae got way too serious way too fast for the plot, and Yeol Mae was just kinda whiny.
Phewww! If you just read nearly 4,000 words on my K-dramas, I’m sorry haha, But also, I hope it was helpful! Now I have a proper list to send my friends when they ask me for recs!
What do you think are the best Korean Dramas to watch?
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