(Important note: all of these are not “dramas” in the sense of very sad, cry-every-episode shows that we have come to know and use the term in Western literature, theater, and film.)
Everyone who knows me personally associates me with Korean dramas. I spent a large portion of my late high school and early college years binge-watching, especially to avoid doing homework and studying. The appeal of Korean TV shows is hard to pinpoint: it isn’t outrageously funnier, or more dramatic, or more realistic than what we see on TV in the US. (Or maybe it is, I don’t know!) There is not just one formula or one genre (there are crime, historical, and medical dramas, of course) that works. There is a wide variety of actors, writers, producers, and soundtracks, all with highs and lows that work and don’t work. (However Korean horror movies are truly unmatched.)
I think a major reason that I enjoy them is because: (1) I get tired of watching white people, (2) I was learning Korean back then and it was excellent language practice, and (3) many shows are free and available in their entirety, subtitled in English (and many other languages!), in high quality on DramaFever or Viki. Instead of pirating or getting cable or paying for Netflix, I was able to watch Boys Over Flowers and Dream High in high definition for free on my laptop.
With a wave of lack of inspiration and boredom, and because I finished some other shows that I was watching, I turned to reliable DramaFever for entertainment and decided to share my favorite 10 Korean TV Shows. For those seasoned watchers present, some of this may be redundant, but I do have a few readers who aren’t familiar with Korean dramas so I want to cater to them as well. Please note: this is ranked, with #1, the last, being my favorite. Lastly, I have included links to each show in the captions of the show poster.
Flower Boy Ramen Shop
Flower Boy Ramen Shop is bad. It is funny at times, but it’s also super inappropriate and I didn’t enjoy the story line at all. The only reason it is on here is because Lee Kiwoo (who plays Kanghyuk) was amazing and looks hella good. Eunbi’s father dies and leaves his business, a ramen shop, to a friend’s son, Kanghyuk, whom he hopes will eventually marry his daughter. Eunbi just got dumped and meets a cute boy whom a fortune teller says will be her one true love. Unfortunately for her, he’s a student at the high school she’s interning to teach at, and then he begins working at the ramen shop under his dad’s orders to torpedo the business. It’s a really shitty love triangle, and I only enjoyed Kanghyuk’s parts so he is the only reason this is on the list. Please, please, please watch this with a critical eye.
Surplus Princess is a modern retelling of Disney’s The Little Mermaid amid a work competition drama. Hani is a mermaid who becomes a human and must find true love in 100 days. Lucky for her, she found her love when she saved him from drowning (and touched his butt) and now she just has to find him again (based on his butt). In the meantime, she moves into a share-house for recent college graduates trying to find employment. It is cute and hella funny, doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and, like all Korean romance dramas, the love triangle turns into a love decagon and chaos ensues. I’m sad that it was shortened because it wasn’t doing well. I definitely enjoyed it.
Playful Kiss is based off of the Japanese manga and TV show イタズラなKiss, and tells the story of Oh Hani, whose house collapses after an earthquake and she and her father move in with a family friend. Luckily for her, her father’s long-lost best friend is the father of her one true crush, Baek Seungjo. Yes, she is living with her crush. Unfortunately for her, Seungjo “doesn’t date stupid girls” because he is the top of the class and she is at the bottom. So she studies her butt off to win his love. Very terrible message, but it was dramatic and funny and pure nonsense that quenched my high school thirst. Please enjoy with a critical eye.
Boys Over Flowers
Also on par with very terrible messages for young people is the trendsetter, Boys Over Flowers. Also based on a Japanese manga and TV show (花より団子), Jandi is a poor girl who wins a scholarship to a very wealthy, elite school. There, she is bullied for being poor and ugly and catches the eye of the “Flower Boys,” the wealthiest, super handsome heirs (in Korean, “chaebol”), particularly its two leaders, the bratty Junpyo and the pretty boy Jihu. Typical love triangle ensues, accompanied by so much wealth it will make you sick. It features Lee Minho, one of the most successful and good-looking male actors in Korea, who goes on to star in many other dramas. Also Kim Hyunjung, who plays Seongjo in Playful Kiss. This is the most famous and popular Korean drama.
Because I too love me some Lee Minho, I needed to include Heirs on this list. It is similar to Boys Over Flowers, poor girl meets rich guy, love ensues. It is also about friendships and families
and the problems of rich people. Tan and Eunsang meet abroad in California, Tan on exile by his father and Eunsang went to visit her sister who then stole her money and left her on the street. Because he speaks Korean, he takes her in and helps her, he starts to like her, but has an arranged engagement to a spoiled rich girl, they return to Korea, love and pain ensues. Oh, by the way, Eunsang’s mother is mute and works as an indentured servant in Tan’s father’s household. Of course.
Dream High had some bops! It is the most famous idol drama, meaning that majority of the cast are also singers, dancers, and idols. It tells the story of students at Kirin Art School, a high school that trains students to become musicians, dancers, etc. and the teachers who prepare them. Sam Dong is a poor country bumpkin who loves to sing but then develops tinnitis, a condition that causes intermittent deafness. Hyemi (Suzy from Miss A) goes from wealthy opera prodigy to the reject who had to beg for admission. Becky (Eunjung from T-ara) is her arch rival. It also includes Taekyeon and Wooyung from 2PM. It is dramatic and funny and uplifting at times. I highly recommend for beginners. Super content warning for fatphobia though.
I generally don’t care for princess and royalty dramas, so I have no idea why I like this one and not others (like Goong). I originally started watching because it features Lee Kikwang, my original and only everlasting k-pop idol crush, but I enjoyed the parts he wasn’t in. A wealthy businessman, struck by a wave of nationalism, decides to donate his wealth to reinstate the Korean monarchy and search for the last living heir. It turns out to be orphan Lee Seul who, quite literally overnight, becomes a princess under the guidance of Haeyoung, the businessman’s son. Haeyoung must decide whether to help and protect Lee Seul or protect his wealth, and naturally he falls in love because she’s charming. This show is actually on my list to rewatch, because I enjoyed it so much. I highly recommend for beginners.
Answer Me 1997
For those of who are new to Korean dramas, I also highly recommend Answer Me 1997 (also called Reply 1997). It is a cute, heartwarming and heart-wrenching story of being a teenager and growing into adulthood with your friends. It is split between the present and 1997, where friends meet up for a reunion and someone announces that they’re getting married (okay, but to whom????). It’s little things about obsessing over your favorite band, having your first heartbreak, coming out to your best friend, and so much more. It had one of the highest ratings of a Korean TV show during its time, and it was so popular that they remade for 1988 and 1994. The subtitles do explain some of the references for those of us who aren’t Korean, and this didn’t detract from the story at all (I may not have known H.O.T but *NSYNC was that bad for me.) and I absolutely love the goat noises for awkward moments.
High Kick! 2 (Through the Roof)
Unlike the rest on this list, the High Kick! series is actually a sitcom. It is a family comedy, where the episodes are about 25 minutes long as opposed to the typical 40-50 minute drama. I only watched High Kick 2, not the original, but it is a new cast and new story line. This show is about two households, the Lee family lead by a principal, his daughter and son, the daughter’s husband, and their two kids. They also take in a pair of orphaned sisters from the countryside, of which the oldest becomes an indentured servant. The second household is that of the principal’s secret girlfriend, a teacher, and the four young adults who rent rooms in her house. I recommend giving this a try, as it is very lighthearted and rarely deals in serious drama.
What’s Up is the only hardcore drama on this list. It is dramatic from the first fucking episode, and so fucking good–the acting, the vocals, the writing. Similar to Dream High, it follows students at a fine arts university and the various highs and lows of their lives. There is Jaehun, a poor con artist who decides that his dream is to go to college, Doori, in love with her professor and also trying to find her place away from her controlling mother, Taeyi, sensitive crybaby whose father died right before she got in, Chaeyoung, a celebrity forced to take acting classes, and Byunggun, who breaks family tradition and decides to become an actor/singer instead of a computer scientist. He’s also too afraid to sing in front of (living) people. It also features Dosung (Daesung from Big Bang), a famous rockstar who always wears a mask to hide his true identity as the product of a politician’s affair. You laugh with them, you sob with them. If you want intensity, I highly recommend this.
Have you seen any of these? What dramas are you watching these days? Let me know on here or @email@example.com!