Winter Quarter is now officially in the swing of things and that means aside from the occasional trek to class or a dining hall, many of us will be spending more time indoors to avoid the frigid cold and premature pitch-black sky.
If you find yourself unsure of what to do with all this extra time indoors, allow me to suggest one of my favorite activities: watching Korean dramas.
For your personal enjoyment and procrastination pleasures, I have compiled a list of the best Korean dramas in recent years (throughout the 2010s), ranging in all different genres, lengths and styles, so you’re bound to find something for you. These are must-watch dramas that are guaranteed to take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions: make you laugh, cry, breathless, shocked, scared, happy - basically feel all the feels. And when you’ve finished watching one K-drama on this list, you’ll be hooked and hungry for more. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Alright, let the binging begin.
10. “Doctor John” (2019)
Do you love “Grey’s Anatomy?” Watch “Doctor John.”
I’ll be completely honest. I can’t handle watching blood or medical procedures. Despite this, I couldn’t not watch “Doctor John.” This medical drama displayed strong acting and hooked me in from the beginning. The main character Cha Yo-han (Doctor John) is an ex-convict who is recently reinstated as a doctor of anesthesiology. Though to many he is arrogant, aloof and even cold at times, there is no one better at identifying and diagnosing illnesses than him. Kang Shi-young is a resident of anesthesiology working under Yo-han. Whereas Yo-han is detached and reserved, she is warm and open to her patients. They and the rest of their pain management team work together to solve not only the problems of their patients, but their own inner battles and secrets.
Debates on topics that would be considered taboo, such as euthanasia in relation to the patient’s choice versus the doctor’s, drew me in. Although “Doctor John” is primarily labeled as a medical drama, it has a little bit of everything: romance, comedy, suspense and heartwarming scenes. With 32 episodes that are each 35 minutes long, “Doctor John” is perfect if you just need a quick study break between classes (who knows, it might even help some of you pre-meds) or are in it for the long haul.
Note: If you happen to like the main actor in “Doctor John,” stick around to read about another one of his dramas below.
9. “I’m Not a Robot” (2017)
A young millionaire with a secret allergy of people. A struggling entrepreneur with attitude who gets roped into pretending to be a robot that looks exactly like her. I know it sounds crazy, but trust me, it somehow works. Kim Min-kyu seems to have it all: success, money, intelligence and even good looks. Yet he stays out of the spotlight due to his mysterious allergy of people. Unable to interact with people, he orders a robot to become his personal assistant. But there is just one problem: the “robot” that is sent to him is actually a human (Jo Ji-ah) pretending to be the robot. What could possibly go wrong?
This rom-com drama was definitely out there for me in terms of a realistic storyline (but then again, so are most K-dramas), but the plot itself is cleverly played out. Once you get over the fact of how absurd it is, you fall in love with the characters and are in for some good laughs throughout the episodes. The unique story will keep you coming back for more, curious to see where the next episode will take you. If you’re looking for a light-hearted drama with romance thrown in, “I’m Not a Robot” is for you.
8. “Strong Woman Do Bong-soon” (2017)
If you’ve already watched “I’m Not a Robot” or simply can’t get enough of rom-coms, “Strong Woman Do Bong-soon” is definitely worth taking up some of your screen time. This drama is centered around a petite yet fiery character (Do Bong-soon) who is born with superhuman strength despite her size. This strength is both a blessing and a curse as she is able to help others with it, but it also gets her into unwanted trouble. An Min-hyuk, CEO of a popular video game company, hires Bong-soon to be his bodyguard after receiving threats from an anonymous stalker. As their relationship deepens, a series of kidnappings plague Bong-soon’s neighborhood. With the help of Min-hyuk, she sets out to use her strength and power to catch the culprit.
In all of the K-dramas I’ve watched, this drama is consistently on my list as one of the funniest dramas I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Bong-soon and Min-hyuk is absolutely hilarious, cute and heartwarming all at once. Both lead actors were absolutely stellar in portraying their characters, surrounded by an equally amazing supporting cast. Amidst the comedy and romance, there is also a twist of suspense and thriller, making this drama so much more than your typical one-dimensional rom-com K-drama.
Fun fact: “Strong Woman Do Bong-soon” is set to be adapted to the American screen, with Bong-Soon’s character being played by none other than professional wrestler and (very) strong woman Ronda Rousey.
7. “Prison Playbook” (2017)
Kim Je-hyuk is a promising superstar baseball player set to sign with a major league baseball team in the U.S.. However, he soon ends up in prison while trying to protect his sister from an intruder. “Prison Playbook” focuses on the daily lives and stories of Je-hyuk and the rest of the inmates he lives with as they navigate life behind bars.
Not only is this drama extremely touching, funny and filled with bits of action, it also showed me a different side of convicts that I had never considered before. The more I learned about how each inmate ended up in prison, the more I began to view them as holistic human beings, instead of holding onto the image of heartless criminals that is often portrayed in society. “Prison Playbook” showed and taught me a lot about the power of empathy, compassion, love and justice in humans, no matter who they are.
6. “100 Days My Prince” (2018)
If you’re like many K-pop listeners, the sole fact that the main character of this drama is played by main vocalist D.O. from the widely popular K-pop boy group, EXO, is enough for you to watch. Having seen D.O. in a couple other films and dramas, I knew his acting skills were worthy of a lead role in a drama and was curious to see how it would play out in “100 Days My Prince.”
D.O. plays Lee Yul, a cold and unlikable Crown Prince who ends up in a small village having lost his memory while escaping an ambush meant to kill him. There, he meets Yeon Hong-shim, who happens to be the oldest single woman in the village. By a marriage decree set by none other than the Crown Prince, Hong-shim is given two options: become the concubine of rich nobleman or marry Lee Yul (now called Won Deuk) whom she had just met. Hong-shim chooses to marry Won Deuk and the rest of the drama follows their new “married” life together. This drama is cute and hilarious because although Won Deuk has no memory of who he is, he maintains the speaking style of an upper-class noble and talks down to the villagers, much to their annoyance. He often gets in trouble because despite being book smart and skilled at martial arts, he is completely useless as a husband to Hong-shim and is unable to complete daily chores and activities of a villager.
Overall, this is a very endearing and well-produced drama. I thought D.O. excelled in portraying his character and was complemented nicely by Nam Ji-hyun, the actress who played Hong-shim. Their friendship and eventual blooming romance in the drama is very innocent and pure, in addition to being quite entertaining.
5. “My Secret Terrius” (2018)
Aside from the lead actor (So Ji-sub) being one of my favorite Korean actors, his most recent drama “My Secret Terrius” is incredibly fun to watch. So Ji-sub plays a legendary National Intelligence Service agent named Kim Bon (anyone else getting James Bond vibes??) who withdraws from the world and lives a secluded life after a failed mission. He moves into the apartment next door to Go Ae-rin, a recently widowed woman with two young kids. All Kim Bon wants is to live a quiet life, but he reluctantly gets entangled in the messy and chaotic lives of Ae-rin and her children. Ae-rin’s husband died very unexpectedly, and the more she gets to know Kim Bon, the more she suspects the real truth behind her husband’s death. Together, she and Kim Bon work together to uncover the massive conspiracy that her husband was somehow involved in.
I had an absolute blast watching “My Secret Terrius.” It’s one of those special dramas that people of all ages can watch and enjoy. So Ji-sub and Jung In-sun (who played Ae-rin) were both amazing in their characters and perfectly balanced a sweet romance with action, humor and suspense. Also, if you’re a sucker for cute kids, you should watch this drama if only to see the adorable relationship between Kim Bon and Ae-rin’s kids. Did I mention they were cute?
4. “Defendant” (2017)
For all of you thriller, crime and mystery lovers out there who have been patiently waiting for me to list something even remotely to your interest, this one's for you. Dig in.
For all of you more faint-of-heart folk (like me), here’s your fair warning: “Defendant” is intense. It immediately starts off intense and doesn't let up until the very end. It messes with your head and tears through your emotions. With that being said, this is a powerful and complex drama. Each episode had so much going on that by the end of an episode, I was rendered breathless.
“Defendant” centers around the story of prosecutor Park Jun-woo (played by veteran actor Ji-sung) who is one of the best at what he does: proving people’s innocence. He lived a happy life with his loving family and successful career. However, all of that is soon taken away from him. The drama begins with Jun-woo waking up in prison convicted on death row and suffering from amnesia, unable to remember what happened and why he is in jail. All he knows is that he is innocent. As the story unfolds, Jun-woo struggles to piece together the fragments of his memory and find the truth behind how he was framed. Throughout the episodes, scenes switch between the present and past in the form of pieces of Jun-woo’s memory leading up to his framing.
One unique aspect of “Defendant” is the stellar role of the antagonist in the story. Um Ki-joon, who plays twin brothers, one of whom is the villain in this drama, does an absolute spectacular job conveying the duality of his evil character. The best part of this drama for me was the brilliant acting from Ji-sung as we see him in a more vulnerable role than his previous ones. His intensity while displaying raw emotions really elevates the plot and amplifies the emotional ties I felt to his character as a viewer.
3. “Oh My Venus” (2015)
He’s baaack. I told y’all So Ji-sub is one of my favorites. While I might be a little biased, “Oh My Venus” is definitely a classic that everyone needs to watch. This time, So Ji-sub plays Kim Young-ho, a celebrity personal trainer who suffers from a severe illness as a child, which motivates him to live a healthy lifestyle. Back in her high school days, Kang Joo-eun was famous in her hometown for her beautiful face and slim figure. Now a lawyer, she has gained a significant amount of weight and is a laughingstock and embarrassment to those who knew her before, including her boyfriend. Young-ho and Joo-eun meet by chance through a medical emergency and Joo-eun eventually convinces Young-ho to help her change her lifestyle and lose weight. As Joo-eun begins her physical transformation, she and Young-ho develop a deeper relationship as they help each other navigate their own personal struggles.
This is one of the few dramas that I would—and have—rewatch multiple times, and I’ve gotta say, it’s just as entertaining every time. I love how down-to-earth this drama and its characters are, reinforcing a realistic component that I feel many K-dramas are sometimes lacking. In particular, Joo-eun is relatable on so many different levels in addition to struggling with her body image. Her quirky and adorable relationship with the ever serious Young-ho is absolutely hilarious and their chemistry is so effortless, leading them to win the Best Couple Award in the 2015 KBS Drama Awards, among many others.
2. “Descendants of the Sun” (2016)
Arguably one of the most popular and commercially successful dramas in recent years and possibly even in K-drama history, “Descendants of the Sun” focuses on the complicated romantic relationship between a soldier whose work requires him to kill to protect lives, and a doctor whose work requires her to try to save all lives. Yoo Shi-jin is a captain in the Korean Special Forces. He is handsome, funny, quick-witted and stubborn. He is also prone to getting into trouble. After one particular situation, he ends up in the hospital where he meets the beautiful and smart Doctor Kang Mo-yeon. There is an immediate connection between the two and they start spending more time together. However, their polar opposite occupations and busy schedules work to drive them apart. When they meet again, they are in a foreign, war-torn country, once again protecting and saving lives.
The famous love story between Yoo Shi-jin and Kang Mo-yeon, along with the almost equally as beloved relationship between the secondary couple, propelled “Descendants of the Sun” into international popularity and commercial success. I absolutely fell in love with both of the couples in this drama and enjoyed the combination of action, suspense, romance and humor into a beautifully written drama that instantly established itself as a K-drama classic.
1. “Reply 1988” (2015)
And now, what you all have been reading for, the number one K-drama, in my opinion: “Reply 1988.” Set in Korea during the late 1980s, this drama is the latest in a trilogy (“Reply 1994” and “Reply 1997”) and is wildly popular, breaking records in 2015 becoming the most viewed season finale in Korean cable-TV history.
When you think of popular Korean dramas you probably think of melodramatic romance or revenge-centered storylines. “Reply 1988” has none of that; it is a drama like no other. It is extremely down-to-earth, covering the daily lives of five childhood friends and their families in a small neighborhood in Korea during the 1980s. That’s it. No advanced computer graphics, no gory violence and no melodramatic plotline. And that’s what makes it so special. When you get a simple, stripped-down drama, you are able to be more invested in the development of the characters and focus on a brilliantly written plot that brings feelings of nostalgia to older viewers and provides a new perspective of the 1980s for younger viewers.
“Reply 1988” is a family drama more than anything, and a complete drama that incorporates several actual events in Korea during the '80s, capturing family dynamics, friendships, love, coming of age and the unity in the community. In each episode, we see the main character Sung Deok-Sun and her neighborhood friends navigate their lives as teenagers going through many of the same experiences and feelings that many of us had, have or will go through. The relationships of their parents are also highlighted throughout the drama, adding another unique layer to this show.
For these reasons, “Reply 1988” earned its way to the top spot on the list. It will make you laugh (a lot), cry, yell in frustration, smile and walk away with a warmth inside that you won’t be able to describe. This is an all-around feel-good drama and one of the best at that. So try watching it; you won’t regret it.
This is my ultimate guide to Korean dramas, with some of the best (in my humble opinion) dramas to date. While there are many others that definitely merited being included on this list, I based my rankings on how well I remembered the drama, rewatchability factor, originality of the storylines as well as the diverse array of emotions each drama was able to evoke in me as the viewer. I recommend watching all of the dramas mentioned in this list as well as branching out to explore other dramas. You’ll be glad you did. Happy watching!