About a year before I moved to Korea, I started binge-watching K-dramas. I could sit here and write about how it was such an educational endeavor in my academic pursuit to both expose myself to Korean culture as well as become familiar with language – but the reality of the situation was I was a senior in university, and had exhausted what was available on Netflix already.
Two years into living here, and I would have to say that I’ve found watching K-dramas really beneficial to not only language learning but as a way to get an idea into the customs/traditions and behaviors in different social settings that I might not have been exposed to otherwise. It made me much more curious about the country as well in relation to the food shown on camera, the filming locations featured, and overall Korean mentality regarding things such as age, gender, and class.
I picked up a lot of table manners from watching dramas, an example of which is when out with men, maybe on a date, women would often take meat off the grill and place it in the man’s plate, then say something that roughly translates to “eat well.” It’s a bit silly, but small behaviors like that are something to take notice of so you can remember it and mimic those behaviors later on.
So, I thought I would compile a beginner list of my favorite dramas so far in the past few years, just as a place to get started. I tried to find trailers and clips from each drama, so if it is included in the description, it means, hooray, I was able to find one. If not, there might not have been an English translated version of it readily available, and for that, I apologize. But hey, we are all avid users of the internet here; you go look it up. Most of these dramas can be found online on sites like Kissasian or Dramanice. The rest are available on Netflix.
So, are you ready? Cool. Me neither. Let’s get into it.
For those who want something light-hearted…
1. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (2016)
Starring two of my favorite actors, Lee Sung-Kyung and Nam Joo-Hyuk, this coming-of-age drama centers on the university life of Kim Bok-Joo, a gifted weightlifter, at Haneol Sports University. As weightlifters, Bok Joo and her friends aren’t popular with the guys and are often seen as a bit outlandish in the way they carry themselves compared to their more stereotypically feminine counterparts on the rhythmic gymnastics team. Jung Joon-Hyung, a swimmer at the same university, runs into Bok-Joo while on his bike and realizes that they have come across one another when they were children years before. Romance ensues!
I personally really love this drama (like, it is at the top of my list for no reason other than I was beaming the entire time I watched it), simply because the two leads have great on-screen chemistry (it was later revealed they were secretly dating during filming). This was also a refreshing departure from the more feminine roles that Lee Sung-Kyung was normally cast in where she was often pitted against the female lead. While this drama did a lot better internationally than domestically, I really loved the exploration of different types of femininity (and how both are equally legitimate) when comparing the weightlifters to the gymnasts – it was a new perspective I’ve yet to see done in a drama. On top of everything, this drama is just funny. I don’t know who was in charge of the sound effects in the editing room, but that whAT? that was thrown in whenever something ridiculous happened sent me.
2. My First First Love (2019)
When Song-yi (Jung Chaeyeon) is kicked out of her home after her mother runs out on her, she goes to her childhood friend Tae-o (Kim Ji-soo) looking for a place to stay. This drama touches on the nuances and complications behind the nature of the relationship between Song-yi and Tae-o as they begin dating other people, while still trying to maintain their friendship.
Currently, the first season is available on Netflix with the second season’s release date still unannounced. I am a big fan of slice-of-life dramas and found this one to be incredibly sweet. I’ve been a fan of Ji-soo since the beginning, and find Jinyoung (lead singer in B1A4, swoon) to be a very good actor as well. If you aren’t a fan of love triangles, then maybe skip this one, but I think it’s a great drama to learn some basic conversation Korean.
3. My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018)
It’s no secret that plastic surgery is popular in Korea; from double eyelid surgery to jaw shaving to nose jobs, many people here go under the knife. Kang Mi-rae (Lim Soo-Hyang) undergoes cosmetic surgery after being bullied for years at school due to her looks. She starts her university life with a new beautiful face, gaining her a lot of attention, but as her past begins to surface, she is ridiculed by those around her.
Based on the webtoon with the same name, the title alludes to the term used to describe women in Gangnam who have had a lot of plastic surgery and all have a similar look (or similar face). There’s an undertone here of the importance of being “beautiful” on the inside, which is how Mi-rae lands the popular Kyun-Seok (Astro’s Cha Eun-woo), but in a society that prioritizes appearance, I wonder how much this show rather than changing the conversation, reinforced these norms. I did like the overall message, and while it was a bit cheesy at times, I thought the show was overall pretty enjoyable. I originally watched this as a way to practice Korean since the language wasn’t too hard to understand but ended up liking the show a lot more than I thought I would.
For those who peaked in high school…
4. Sassy Go Go! (2015)
This drama is set in the elitist Sevit High School, a competitive and rigorous academic environment that places achievements and scores above everything else. Kang Yeon-doo (Jung Eun-ji), the leader of a street dance club “Real King” are forced to merge with the Kim Yeol’s (Lee Woo-keun) top 5 percent club to form a cheerleading squad. Following the group of friends, this drama aims to explore the familiar set of high-school drama involving friendships, love, heartbreak, and learning how to balance the expectations of parents with student hopes and dreams – cheesy but we’ve all been there.
This was the first K-drama I ever watched, and it was a really great introduction into the genre because this one was just so well made and had a solid story I think anyone who feels pressured in school can relate to. This is not for the faint of heart though, there are some pretty heavy scenes that deal with mental health. While sad at times, I loved how this drama pointed out some of the hypocrisy behind the education system and discussed taboo topics in Korea such as depression and suicide as a result of academic pressure. Also, the second male lead syndrome was so real in this one, I’ve never been more bitter over a relationship before.
5. The Heirs (2013)
This series follows Chae Eun-sang (Park Shin-Hye) after returning from the States to attend high school amongst a crowd of extremely wealthy and privileged kids; the heirs to business empires. Throughout the drama, Eun-sang must overcome the difficulties of not only being an outsider but being discriminated and manipulated by those in power as classmates and parents try to keep her and Kim Tan (Lee Min-ho) apart.
This is one of those “must watch” K-dramas, not necessarily due to its storyline and acting, but because it’s one of the most well-known amongst high school dramas. It was widely popular at the time of its release and featured a lot of actors who would go on to be well known later on. If you look closely enough, I’m sure you’ll find at least five actors who show up in other dramas as leads on this list. The one thing I like about this drama is it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which when dealing with high school level relationship drama, can, unfortunately, become a bit cliche and difficult to watch.
For those who are just trying to get by…
6. Age of Youth (2016)
The premise of this drama is relatively simple. The first episode opens on the newest addition of Belle Epoque, Yoo Eunjae (Park Hye Soo), moving into the share house to live among four other girls, Yi-Na (Ryu Hwayoung), Ye-eun (Han Seungyeon), Jiwon (Park Eunbin), and Jin-myung (Han Yeri), while attending university. Each episode focuses on one of the girls in the house as they learn to navigate relationships, work, school, and dealing with their own past traumas. I really loved the slice-of-life style of the show, as each episode deals with different struggles while tying into the overarching plot until the finale. I recommend this show to anyone in their early twenties, as it paints a sympathetic and highly relatable portrait of what life is like at that age.
Both seasons of this show are available to watch on Netflix.
7. Cheese in the Trap (2016)
Based off a popular ongoing webtoon, Cheese in the Trap shows the relationship between hard-working university student Hong Seol (Kim Go-Eun), and her senior Yoo Jung (Park Hae-jin). Seol, part-time worker and top of her class, attends school on a scholarship, lives with her family, and helps out at their restaurant after classes. Jung, her senior, is rich, smart, and athletic; all the qualities of the perfect boyfriend, but Seol remains skeptical of his motives. Throughout the show, they struggle to maintain a healthy relationship, with issues of miscommunication, jealousy, pride, and Jung’s manipulative tendencies and somewhat dark personality. This drama explores more mature themes with episodes on stalking and assault, as this is a college drama. Perhaps most expertly done in the drama was the portrayal of self-victimization, or the fabrication of victimhood to justify abuse, manipulation, or seeking the attention of others, shown in each of the characters.
I am one of the few who fell into the camp of absolutely loving this drama, despite its negative reviews and complaints from avid readers of the webtoon. Recently, there was a movie adaptation, which I have yet to see, simply because one of the main reasons I loved this drama is Go-Eun is really wonderful to watch onscreen. I think she’s one of the most underappreciated actresses in Korea.
8. Fight for My Way (2017)
Watching this show is such a pleasure because it’s so relatable. As someone who is currently struggling in their twenties, Fight for My Way gives an unapologetic depiction of mediocrity, feelings of hopelessness in the job hunting world, and frustration with figuring things out as an adult that doesn’t feel much like one. Dong-man (Park Seo Joon) and Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) are in the midst of their quarter-life crisis, both working jobs they are not happy with, failing at maintaining romantic relationships, yet still striving to achieve dreams as the underdogs in an increasingly unfair world. Old friends, Ae-ra and Dong-man have a childlike report with one another, often brash and rude. The chemistry between the two leads is a refreshing one, as they are both unabashedly themselves: callous and sarcastic, but always supportive of each other’s goals. For anyone currently navigating the job market as a new graduate, this show is for you.
For the melodrama addict…
9. Goblin (2016)
This show moves in between timelines, switching from the past during the Goryeo era, to the present. Once an accomplished general, Kim Shin (Gong Yoo), is killed by the young jealous king, Wang Yeo (Lee Dong-wook) and turned to a Goblin. While he protects souls and possesses supernatural powers, he is cursed to wander and live an immortal life until he finds a human bride who can remove the sword from his chest and allow him to move to the afterlife. In the present day, Ji Eun-taek (Gim Go-eun), an optimistic young high school student, is able to see ghosts and is told that she is to be the Goblin’s bride, though she is unaware of who that person may be. She lives a borrowed life, for she was meant to die in the womb, but was saved by the Goblin years before. Because of this, a grim reaper (Lee Dong-wook), regularly appears every number of years to try to guide her to the afterlife, but each time, she narrowly escapes death, due to the Goblin’s interference. On her birthday, Eun-taek summons the goblin after blowing out candles on her cake, and through chance encounters, she begins to fall in love with him. The main characters all have their souls tethered to one another, their lives intertwined, and though none are aware, they are mysteriously drawn to one another.
Though the plot may seem a bit confusing, the show is very well executed and easy to follow, with beautiful cinematography and a score when heard will immediately make me tear up. The characters have great on-screen chemistry, and the scenes with the Goblin and the Reaper, who end up being housemates by chance, are light-hearted and silly as they both try to adjust to modern day life in Seoul. These breaks work to balance out the drama following the rest of each episode. Sometimes we just need those happy little interludes to distract us.
This is definitely a melodrama, so you will cry. But, Goblin is such a staple for modern k-dramas, as almost everyone knows/has seen this show.
10. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
In the middle of a solar eclipse, Go Ha-jin (IU), is taken back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and wakes up as Hae-soo, a serving lady in a ruling family among a handful of princes. As time goes by, Hae-soo finds herself in the middle of a love triangle between princes, between rivalries, foul play, and politics as each prince fights for his right to the throne.
To be honest, I only started watching this show because of the cast, and by cast I mean men, and by men I mean there were five of them. Honestly, I think that was the motivation for most people. There are definitely aspects of this show that are a little melodramatic for the sake of being so, but I felt that IU has become a lot stronger as an actress and could hold her own amongst the rest of the male cast. She is stunning in this show, which is not surprising. I will admit though, this show snuck up on me. At first, I didn’t take it too seriously, then, there I was, balling in the middle of my bedroom, waking up my roommates in the middle of the night. If anything, push through because the ending is one of the best in recent memory.
11. Uncontrollably Fond (2016)
Shin Joon-young (Kim Woo-bin) and No Eul (Miss A’s Suzy), once classmates, were separated during high school after a failed relationship, only to meet years later as adults. Eul, a documentary producer, is paid to film Joon-young’s documentary of his life as a famous singer/actor. Though annoying most of the time, Joon-young plans to charm Eul and win her back to make up for the time they lost when they were younger. The show goes from past to present, detailing the couple’s relationship and showing their growth as adults before they, inevitably, run out of time together.
It’s revealed early on that Joon-young has a disease that will eventually kill him, so the rest of the show is spent watching him and Eul play hot-and-cold with one another until she finally gives in. A lot of people didn’t enjoy this show, mostly because of the level of drama packed into each episode, almost at times feeling a bit cliche. There are moments where the camera lingers on cherry blossoms, or show characters staring forlornly at the ocean – but it’s all shot beautifully so you forget what you’re watching. This drama is one to remember simply for its cinematography and use of color design. But, as shown in the first episode, this drama is set up to be a loss for both characters. Their relationship is sweet at times, more so at the end, and if you are okay with crying, this is a good one to watch.
Hi, I cried so much, and you will too. It’s like when you watch The Notebook and you know what’s going to happen, but you cry anyway because you are a sap.
For the tiger moms…
12. SKY Castle (2018)
This drama follows the housewives, husbands, and children living in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the suburbs of Seoul. The wives of doctors, lawyers, and surgeons work to get their children into Seoul National University’s prestigious medical school through any means necessary.
This show took over Korea when it aired. By took over, I mean, this show was everywhere. The night of the finale, I remember overhearing multiple conversations about what was going to happen from people in restaurants, cafes, and even two grandmas on the subway. It was a big deal for a reason. Not only does this show feature a superb cast of actors, but it is also really well written, and does a fantastic job at dissecting the psychology behind the families that live in such prestigious communities. Each story used in this show is based off something that really happened, and considering the lengths that the parents of such elite families go through to not only ensure their success but the success of their children, it isn’t surprising to imagine. I think I spent the majority of the show with my jaw on the floor. This drama definitely started a conversation amongst the older conservatives and the younger generation as far as higher education and the role the parents should play. This issue doesn’t just begin and end in Korea either; I think Sky Castle points out the issues both money and power play when it comes to buying a student’s way into university/forcing them into a major just to continue the family legacy.
For the supernatural seekers…
14. Oh My Ghost! (2015)
Na Bong-Sun (Park Bo-young), a shy and timid assistant chef, is possessed one day by a virgin ghost, Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seulgi) who has been unable to move into her afterlife. Believing the reason she cannot leave to be due to the fact that she was never with a man during her short life, she makes it her mission to use Bong-Sun’s body to resolve her grudge by seducing her boss and head chef at the restaurant, Kang Sun-woo (Jo Jung-suk). Bong-sun, who always had been harboring a bit of a crush on Sun-woo, finally manages to get his attention when possessed by Soonae. She decides to strike a deal with Soonae to use her body so they can help each other out by seducing Sunwoo so they can both get what they want.
I really loved Seulgi in this role as such a bubbly and confident character. Alongside Bo-young, who often plays cute and underrated characters, the pair worked great together. This drama, while sounding a bit silly, was actually quite intense, with the overtones of a romantic comedy turning into a bit of a who-done-it murder mystery. Thoroughly enjoyable. Ghosts are cool too.
15. He is Psychometric (2019)
This drama centers on the life of Lee Ahn (GOT7’s Park Jinyoung), who obtains the ability to read a person or object’s past through the power of touch, an ability he acquired after losing his parents in a fire when he was young. The drama spans over the course of several years, starting in high school, where Lee Ahn meets Yoon Jae-In (Shin Ye-eun), a transfer student with a goal to become a prosecutor so she can reopen the case that wrongfully put her father in prison. Alongside Lee Ahn’s foster guardian, Kang Sung-mo (Kim Kwon), Lee Ahn and Jae-In work together to try to discover the truth behind who set the fire that killed both Lee Ahn and Sung-mo’s parents.
All right, full disclosure, I only started this one for Jinyoung, but I actually ended up really liking it. I’m not normally one for dramas that focus on solving a murder case, but because of the nature of the main character, I enjoyed it. I was really quite surprised by how good of an actor Jinyoung was, especially since this was his first leading role. His character really shines in this drama, though he’s a bit of a 바보. I highly recommend it.
Honorable mentions: Descendants of Sun, while definitely a triumph, was not a favorite for me, simply because I don’t really like war-themed dramas. They feel a bit dry, and I couldn’t get into the romance aspect of the show either, though Joong-ki is very much a heartthrob on screen. But, I know that the show is regarded as one of the best, so if it sounds like something you would be into it, go ahead and check it out (the full season is also on Netflix). She Was Pretty has a similar premise to My ID is Gangnam Beauty, but instead of getting plastic surgery, the female lead just gets her hair straightened and learns to love herself – hooray. I found her character really grating though, which may have been intentional, but I couldn’t get behind her annoying personality. The second male lead syndrome was real with this drama though. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon was another favorite of mine, and the only reason it didn’t make the list was because I really hated the side story with the mob boss and his gang. It got to the point where I started skipping it, not really caring what I was missing because those characters bothered me so much. The Liar and His Lover is definitely a recommendation of mine as well, but you have to be cool with an older guy going for a high school girl. It shows a bit of the idol culture as the show gives a bit of the behind the scenes drama following a rookie group scouted from a high-school. The Producers, featuring IU, is another good one. It’s a bit more office style and takes place in the entertainment division of KBS following a newly hired employee.