Whether you agree or not, Netflix has more or less captured the essence of the Korean film industry with an unlimited supply of Korean dramas, movies, and documentaries. Not only many of them are exclusive to Netflix, but most of them have so far been unheard of, due to reasons like them being limited releases or restricted for only Korean television, etc. The wait is apparently over and on Netflix US, there are more than 40 different Korean television dramas that can be binge-watched.
20. The Inheritors (2013)
Kim Tan (Lee Min-Ho) and Cha Eun Sang (Park Shin Hye) meet in a chance encounter in Los Angeles, United States, and then again in Seoul, South Korea. Eun Sang’s mother is a housekeeper in Kim Tan’s family home and both Kim Tan and Eun Sang attend the same elite private school for the rich and the spoiled (Eun Sang is a scholarship kid, of course). They fall in love but are kept apart by the steep difference in their social classes. The show, even though exciting and energetic, falls victim to several common tropes and cliches of the older K-dramas that came before it. The highlight of the show is not the romance though, but the rivalry and the power struggle between Lee Min Ho and Kim Woo Bin’s characters, who are childhood frenemies.
19. Cinderella and The Four Knights (2016)
In this modern-day fairytale, Eun Ha Won (Park So-dam) is a bright and athletic high school girl who is often bullied by her stepmother and stepsister. She works part-time to save up for her college tuition. One fine day, Ha Won meets a rich old man who offers her a job as a live-in caretaker at a palatial mansion which is inhabited by three gorgeous men – billionaire cousins and spoilt heirs to the substantial Kang family fortune. This show is light and airy, full of harmless fluff that one could enjoy as escapist entertainment. The characters are funny, silly, and very engaging.
18. Was It Love? (2020)
Noh Ae-Jung (Song Ji-Hyo) is a tough cookie, a single mother who has not dated in the last 14 years. That changes drastically when she suddenly meets and starts getting wooed by four men with very different personalities. Oh Dae-oh is an attractive man of questionable morals, Ryu Jin is handsome and rich but a bit pathetic, Goo Pa-do is scary yet quite alluring, and Oh Yeon-woo is a flirtatious younger man. Ae-Jung has a history with three of them, who she used to know closely before her pregnancy. The “who’s the baby daddy” trope is done and dusted, but this show makes it seem fresh, it’s so fun. The actors have all acted well, and even the side characters are nicely fleshed out. Good for a one-time watch.
17. One Spring Night (2019)
After a chance meeting one night at the pharmacy, prim librarian Lee Jeong-In and pharmacist and single dad Yu Ji-ho feel the tug of a mutual attraction, which soon develops into full-blown love. The handsome, charming, smart, and kind Ji-ho is head over heels for Jeong-In, but she comes with baggage (and a boyfriend of 4 years who she doesn’t love anymore). ‘One Spring Night’ is not a teenage romance indulging in giddy first love, but a mature and sober narrative of what an actual adult relationship looks like in modern-day Korea. Darkly realistic themes like adultery are explored in an elegantly nuanced manner and the characters are depicted as flawed, at times selfish people. You will not find any silliness here (the kind that is so prevalent in Korean dramas).
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16. Boys Over Flowers (2009)
One of the most famous K-dramas of all time, ‘Boys Over Flowers’ is a rite of passage for all Korean drama initiates and a huge crowd-pleaser. A rich, spoilt, and entitled brat meets a poor and kind girl who refuses to bow down to him like the other students at his elite school do, and he is instantly smitten. But she likes his friend. Even though this drama is the king of stereotypical characters and cliche storylines (there is even a makeover paid for by the rich guy), it is still eminently watchable. With a peppy soundtrack that will burrow itself into your brains, this show is just plain oodles and oodles of fun. It does get a bit melodramatic and frankly, ridiculous, towards the end but you can ignore that.
15. My Mister (2018)
‘My Mister’ is the story of love, but not the kind you would imagine and expect. A stoic 40-something man and a burdened, emotionally closed off 20-something woman form a beautiful friendship that remains undefined. They act as a soothing balm for each other’s battered souls and start to heal together through warm companionship. Their relationship is sweet and chaste and you find yourself rooting hard for them. This is a drama very different from its contemporaries and it’s definitely worth a watch.
14. Oh My Ghost! (2015)
Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) is a timid girl with low self-esteem who also sees spirits of the dead because of a shaman (mediator) ancestor. She works as an assistant chef at a hip restaurant and keeps getting reprimanded by her unbelievably good-looking boss for sleepwalking the entire day. The reason she is perpetually exhausted is that the spirits keep pestering her at night. One day, the ghost of a dead virgin girl possesses Bong-sun and agrees to leave her alone and move on as soon as she completes the unfinished business of losing her V-card. What the girls – dead one and alive – don’t anticipate is them both falling in love with the same man – Bong-sun’s charming boss, who is pleasantly bewildered by the sudden change in Bong-sun’s shy mannerisms. Cute and funny majorly, but the show also delves into some dark places dealing with death and loss. Overall, a nice watch with some amazing performances.
13. Cheese in the Trap (2016)
‘Cheese in the Trap’, based on the popular South Korean webtoon by the same name, follows Hong Seol (Kim Go-eun), a hard-working college student as she navigates through a tough life and juggles studies, friends, family, and a new romantic relationship. Hong Seol catches on to the fact that her deceptively kind and nice senior is not kind or nice at all, but a sociopath with a tendency to manipulate people around him and destroy the ones that annoy him. He is not a bad person though, because he only targets low-lives who totally deserve their comeuppance. Things take a weird turn when he takes a liking to Hong Seol and asks her out. Still undecided on whether he is a good man or not, she accepts and starts an initially uneasy relationship with him that eventually grows deeper and blossoms into true love. Just watch it for the hero/ anti-hero character – he is absolutely captivating and an enigma that you will want to figure out.
12. A Korean Odyssey (2017 – 2018)
Seon-mi, a young girl who can see ghosts and demons, frees an immortal being from his prison after he promises her his protection whenever she calls him. Only, he turns out to be a rogue and steals the memory of his name from Seon-mi before running away. Years later, they meet again, and in a fateful twist, they fall in love with each other. But the previously immortal Son Oh-gong is on a quest to restore his immortality and to do that, he must eat the flesh of a “Sam-jang” who, it turns out, is his girlfriend. So their romance is doomed to end in one of two ways – either Oh-gong eating her flesh to gain immortality or Seon-mi killing him while he’s mortal. ‘A Korean Odyssey’ is chock-full of mysticism and grandiosity, plus a hauntingly gripping romance between the leads.
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11. Something in the Rain (2018)
‘Something in the Rain’ follows the taboo romance between a 30-something woman and a man much younger than herself, the 20-something younger brother of her childhood best friend. Jin-ah (Son Ye-jin) and Joon-hee (Jung Hae-in) get reacquainted when he returns from the States after 3 years and go from being friends to lovers, even as they try to keep their feelings at bay, deeming them inappropriate. But love knows no age in this sweet romance and they ultimately come out with their relationship, much to the shock and disapproval of the people around them. This show deals with sensitive subjects like workplace sexual harassment as well, in a secondary plot. Watching shows like these, one finds out a lot about South Korean culture and the rules of society. For example, in Korea, pouring your own drink first before refilling your colleague or senior’s glass is unspeakably rude and is considered to be a grave social faux pas.
10. Mr. Sunshine (2018)
Eugene Choi, born a slave in Joseon but escaped to the United States in 1871, returns to Hanseong (the historical name of Seoul) as part of the US Marine Corps. He meets an aristocrat’s daughter and falls in love with her but she is already betrothed to a nobleman who she doesn’t love in a match arranged by her father. Also vying for her attention is a ruthless Samurai assassin who is in love with her as well. Amidst all the romantic entanglements, Eugene discovers the Japanese’s plans to invade and colonize Korea. He soon gets caught up in the fight for the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty, leading the rebellion against the Empire of Japan. This show is known for its superb cinematography and a well-written, well-acted script (written by Kim Eun-sook who is known for penning epic fantasy dramas). The battle scenes are unbelievably epic, worthy of the big screen. Because the show is set in the historical Joseon era, the costumes and the language have great significance and have been admirably done. If you like watching historical or period films and dramas, then ‘Mr. Sunshine’ is an absolute must-watch.
9. Prison Playbook (2017)
PD Shin Won-ho (of ‘Reply’ fame) casts his unique magic again with dark comedy ‘Prison Playbook’. The story is of Kim Je-hyuk, a famous baseball player about to make his pro debut in the American major leagues. Before he can sign on with the Boston Red Sox, his life takes a dramatic turn and he lands himself in prison for beating up a man who was attempting to sexually assault his sister. During his one-year prison sentence, the simple-minded Je-hyuk meets and befriends several inmates serving time for a variety of crimes but there’s more to the convicts than just being criminals. The drama takes a deeper look at the lives of the prison inmates and the guards working there and the strange friendships they form. There are such beautifully written characters that you would simply want to burst out cheering for them and look at them like they’re actual humans who matter and not just society’s bad apples to be thrown away. I personally got super invested in the stories of each and every character – the menacing long-timer, the drug addict, the brash prison officer, the low-life goon who almost killed Je-hyuk his first week in. But that’s what PD Shin is known for, to make you care so much for the characters that you don’t want the drama to end.
8. Crash Landing on You (2019 – 2020)
In this delightful romantic dramedy, Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), a South Korean fashion heiress, finds herself crash-landed in North Korea after a freak paragliding accident blows her off course. Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), a member of a powerful political family of North Korea, finds the out-of-bounds Se-ri and hides her from the authorities. As he provides her with a safe shelter and comes up with a plan to secretly smuggle her back to South Korea, the two star-crossed lovers fall hard for each other. But their destinies, it seems, are not aligned because Jeong-hyeok is already engaged to another woman (whom he agreed to marry purely out of a deep sense of duty). ‘Crash Landing on You’ is as witty as they come, the banter between the leads will likely leave you in splits. The script is fast-moving and balances the romance and comedy perfectly with the action and politics. Totally, utterly, charmingly binge-worthy.
7. The King: Eternal Monarch (2020)
Now here’s a mind-bender that will leave you brimming with intrigue with each and every episode. From the pen of ace fantasy writer Kim Eun-sook, the story of ‘The King: Eternal Monarch’ may be a bit too convoluted to make sense of right away, but it’s convoluted in the best possible way (any Christopher Nolan fans here?). The Emperor of the modern-day Kingdom of Corea, Lee Gon (played by a disarmingly good-looking Lee Min-ho), finds out that there is an alternate universe that can be accessed by using a magical flute that opens a doorway between the different worlds. He unwittingly crosses over to the modern-day Republic of Korea, where he falls in love with homicide detective Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun). Things get tricky when they realize that there are doppelgangers in each alternate reality and the murderous villain, Lee Gon’s evil uncle who wants the throne, is building himself an army of doppelgangers that he brought from the Republic of Korea to The Kingdom of Corea with the promise of a better life. While sometimes things may not make sense as they are happening (and that can get a bit frustrating), but trust me, it all comes together in the end in perfect clarity, and it is totally worth it. This drama is pretty high levels of epic.
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6. Itaewon Class (2020)
Based on a webtoon of the same name, ‘Itaewon Class’ has ranked in the top ten highest-rated dramas in Korean cable television history. And it’s completely well-deserved. The show revolves around Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon), an ex-convict who got expelled from high school for punching a bully and then got served three years of jail time for attacking the same bully because the boy’s rash driving had resulted in Park Sae-ro-yi’s father’s demise. Park Sae-ro-yi opens a bar-restaurant in Itaewon 7 years after he gets out of prison. Along with his restaurant’s seemingly sociopathic manager and the hard-working staff, Sae-ro-yi strives to make his business a great success and eventually have a chain of restaurants. But in order to get ahead in the food business, he has to lock horns with a huge food conglomerate. This drama about breaking societal norms and achieving dreams is as inspirational as it is moving. It’s heartwarming and sincere and features a pretty sweet soundtrack.
5. Kingdom (2019 – present)
Netflix’s first original Korean series, ‘Kingdom’ is one of the very few K-dramas to continue a longer storyline stretched over multiple seasons. Usually, Korean dramas wrap up within 16-20 episodes. But even though ‘Kingdom’ has had 2 seasons so far (and a third one in the works), it does not feel “draggy” because they have that much story to tell. Set in the Joseon era, the show’s plot centers around Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who is barred from seeing his father the King of Joseon, by the Queen’s orders. His stepmother just tells him that the King is ill and cannot see anyone. The Prince takes it upon himself to investigate the King’s illness and the cause for it. Turns out that there is a plague that brings the dead back to life as forever-hungry cannibalistic monsters (so, zombies). Aside from defending his rightful claim to the throne, the Prince now also has to fight and kill zombies. And we all know (from movies like ‘Train To Busan’) that Korean zombies are fast and scary. This one makes it so high on our list purely on account of the sheer thrills it provides. Take note, Hollywood, this is how you do zombies.
4. Hospital Playlist (2020 – present)
Medical dramas are nothing new, even in the K-drama universe. But a medical drama where the protagonists are all top surgeons in their specific fields of study and have a rocking band together, that’s fresh. ‘Hospital Playlist’ is another gem by PD Shin Won-ho (after ‘Prison Playbook’, ‘Reply Series’) that captures the everyday lives of doctors and hospital workers at a very basic, human level and delves into the depth behind seemingly simple and mundane things. ‘Hospital Playlist’ follows the extremely engaging story of five medical school friends who are still very close at age 40. They work at the same hospital (but in different departments) and play in a band together on the weekends. The five have a comfortable, easy-going dynamic – the kind that comes from years of friendship. They are kind and funny, absolutely charming, and very talented at both surgery and music (well, apart from the fact that their lead vocalist sucks). Another Netflix Original with a Season 2 coming in 2021 (literally cannot wait!).
3. When The Camellia Blooms (2019)
This is a romantic-comedy-thriller that will keep you engaged from start to finish. It’s a murder mystery that has some nice whodunit twists up its sleeves and you will not be able to guess who the killer is until the big reveal. The story revolves around single mother Dong Baek (played by the wonderfully versatile Gong Hyo-jin) as she opens and successfully runs a bar named Camellia in a reserved neighborhood where a single woman running an alcoholic establishment is looked down upon. But Dong Baek, who seems timid at first, is a strong, honest, and resilient woman, who perseveres until she has everyone in the neighborhood on her side. She also falls in love with Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul), a do-gooder police officer with an unbending sense of justice and a smile to melt women’s hearts everywhere. The show does not pull punches when it comes to showing some dark themes like serial murders and slut-shaming. The serial killer, while a menacing malicious presence throughout, does not take focus away from the lead pair, who are so cute together. It is gratifying to see Dong Baek’s transformation from a timid rabbit to a fierce dragon. Watch for heavy doses of romance and intrigue.
2. It’s Okay To Not Be Okay (2020)
Moon Gang-tae (wildly popular actor Kim Soo-hyun) is a strong, kind, and caring healthcare worker who works at the OK Psychiatric Hospital. At home, he cares for his older brother who is on the autism spectrum and harbors a dark fear of butterflies. Ko Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji) is a successful children’s book author with an antisocial personality disorder. Gang-tae and Moon-young both had troubled childhoods and are emotionally battered. They don’t have many close personal relationships until they meet each other. While Gang-tae makes it clear that he doesn’t have time for love, Moon-young constantly obsesses over him and goes to some hilariously extreme lengths to gain his attention. Together, they start to help and heal each other emotionally even as their horribly entangled past is revealed. The emotional journey is not just the lead pair’s, it’s also inclusive of Gang-tae’s brother whose phobia of butterflies is rooted in his witnessing their mother’s brutal murder as a kid. The show ‘It’s Okay To Not Be Okay’ has been praised for its openness and the sensitivity with which it deals with mental health issues, shedding a much-needed spotlight on issues that society would rather ignore. This show is thought-provoking and powerfully moving, and not just an airy love story.
1. Reply 1988 (2015 – 2016)
Precious. Warm. Endearing. Deeply moving. Achingly beautiful. And those words are still not enough to describe ‘Reply 1988’. Without a doubt, the best K-drama (or any language drama) that I’ve watched so far. It doesn’t have a singularly focused plot. Set in the late 80s, ‘Reply 1988’ tells the story of five childhood friends and their families, who all live in the same middle-class neighborhood of Ssangmun-dong in Seoul. The major focus of the show stays on the five best friends, whose bromance will give you so many feels that you’ll cry and laugh at once and think it’s totally normal. This drama’s raw slice-of-life approach is nostalgic and hits close to home, especially when it tackles relatable themes like class differences, financial struggles, family dynamics, friendships, coming-of-age issues, and matters of the heart. ‘Reply 1988’ gets all too real when it focuses on mundane everyday life – like a single mother’s anguish when she realizes that the cuts on her boy’s face are not the marks of violence at school as she suspected, but the byproduct of his clumsy attempts at shaving. PD Shin Won-ho manages to give so much depth to each and every character, regardless of how much screen time they have, that they’re all real actual people and not just 2D supporting characters. The scenes are so engaging and funny and sweet and serious and sad, a myriad of different emotions that you feel while watching. I guess the best way to describe ‘Reply 1988’ is that it’s like a warm hug. This show has my heart and I can honestly say that watching this will make you a better person.
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