By Colette Fitzpatrick
Around the time that I rediscovered K-pop, shortly after graduating from my Masters, I also stumbled upon Korean dramas. It coincided with getting my first adult job and exhausting all the shojo anime I could find that matched all of my requirements. Suddenly, I was out of television to binge and short on the time required to sit up all night doing so.
I think it started with a rather poor web-drama based around the group EXO, who I was majorly obsessed with at the time. From there, I somehow found Boys over Flowers, one of the most iconic Korean dramas of all time, which is based on a shojo manga that I had read, consumed as an anime and watched as a Japanese drama as well, years prior. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is so dumb,” while watching the first episode but I watched the whole show, all the same. And, suddenly, a whole new world opened up before me…
“Drama,” is essentially a catch-all term that kind of refers to all scripted, fictional programming in Korea. Dramas vary in content, style, audience and more, so saying I like Korean dramas is simply like saying I enjoy Korean television shows; I have watched dramas that were teen romances, medical dramas, courtroom dramas, crime procedural dramas, thrillers, rom-coms, horror, melodramas and more.
The way they air suits my need for regular interaction with the things I fall for and there is an endless stream of them to choose from. Multiple networks have several dramas airing at a time and they air two episodes a week of each show, each lasting an hour to up to ninety minutes in length. They each air on two consecutive days of the week (normally) and usually fall into one of the following categories; Monday-Tuesday dramas, Wednesday-Thursday dramas, Friday-Saturday dramas or Saturday-Sunday dramas.
After work, I just want to watch one to two hours of television and I want to fall so far into another world that I can check out of real life for a little while and really unwind. Dramas, with their varied worlds and regular content, are perfect for this. I have one or two episodes to watch each evening when I come home and the nine-hour time difference with Korea means that they are ready and waiting for me to watch by the time I get back to my house.
As you might imagine, this is perfectly suited to my highly obsessive personality and it is very easy to fall into the rabbit-hole that is Korean dramas. However, one up-side is that most shows only last for one season and have 16 to 20 episodes in total, which means you’re not ever juggling more than a few shows at a time and not over the course of years – you also don’t have to wait for a next season or through hiatuses for the story to continue, it runs its course quickly and neatly. However, shows are often made week to week and the strain on the writers, cast and crew means that promising shows often go in weird or boring directions. When I was researching this article, I looked over the shows I had watched in the four years since I started and I would say I gave up on about a third of them before they finished.
In saying that, there are some that I’ve actually rewatched, despite always having current shows, and many that I now want to rewatch after being reminded of them. If you’re interesting in falling into this trap with me, here are my picks of some of the best Korean dramas I’ve ever seen and that I’ve even rewatched multiple times…
1. Another Oh Hae-Young
This is, perhaps, my favourite K-drama of all time. As the name suggests, it centres around two people being called Oh Hae-young and the dramatic events that unfold when they get confused.
Park Do-kyung (Eric Mun), a sound director in his 30s, hears that his ex-fiancée, Oh Hae-young, is going to get married after leaving him at the altar a year before. The Oh Hae-young (Seo Hyun-jin) that is actually engaged to be married has her world upside down, when, thinking his ex is moving on after hurting him so badly, Do-kyung drunkenly decides to ruin her new beau’s life. This results in the Oh Hae-young that he doesn’t know having her heart broken and, somehow, their lives become entangled.
Heart-breaking and incredibly romantic, this drama had me on the edge of my seat throughout and the chemistry between the two leads is insane. The plot is masterfully paced and the twists and emotional peaks are visceral. My heart twists just thinking about it.
(Don’t forget to turn on the subs!)
2. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
Speaking of heart-ache, if you want to break your heart into smithereens, this is the drama for you. Normally, I’m not too interested in historical dramas but I adored this criminally underrated show that did not do well at the time among national audiences but was beloved of international fans and gained much interest during reruns in Korea, later on. It stars pop sensation IU as Go Ha-jin, a 21st century woman who gets sent back in time to the year 941 and becomes involved with the royal family (and many handsome princes) of the time. Based on true events with Ha-jin’s character inserted and a lot of poetic licence, it is an epic tale of love, heartbreak, ambition, betrayal, and political intrigue.
When I rewatched this show, I knew everything that was going to happen and I still painfully sobbed throughout. Not for sad days or moments in your life but ideal for when you want to have a good cry, I recently suggested this to a friend and she loved it but chastised me for not warning her how invested she was about to get or how much it was going to hurt.
3. Beautiful Gong Shim
While this show is full of heart and has its painful moments, it is a much more easy-going experience. Beautiful Gong Shim stars Girls Day’s Minah as the titular character of Gong-shim, a young woman who is over-shadowed by her beautiful older sister Gong Mi (which is patent television nonsense as, of course, a girl group member like Minah is gorgeous in her own right) who is very much favoured by their parents and, well, everyone. Gong-shim’s bedroom was long ago given to her sister as a closet by their parents (seriously?!) and she had moved to a cheap apartment upstairs to have her own space. When she realises she needs money and can’t afford to stay there, she decides to rent out her apartment and move back into the now-closet (Harry Potter, much?). Her tenant is the hilarious Min Nam-goong as Ahn Dan-tae, an eccentric lawyer who offers free legal aid and is very kind at heart, and misunderstandings and chaos in his life lead the two into all sorts of hijinks.
The unfairness Gong-shim faces in this show will make your blood boil, Dan-tae will make you laugh until you cry and the romance is just too cute…basically, this show will have you in the palm of its hand.
4. Marriage, Not Dating
This is one of the first dramas I watched and it was mostly because 2AM’s Jinwoon plays the second male lead. Despite my love for him and my fondness for rooting for the guy who is never going to get the girl, I actually fell for the first male lead and this plot, in general. It’s a bit of a basic bitch story, the whole “fake relationship because of mutual benefits but they end up falling for each other” trope but it’s done so well. Once again, it is hilarious and the chemistry between the two main characters – the firmly anti-marriage and wealthy plastic surgeon Gong Gi-tae (Yeon Woo-jin), who is being nagged by his parents to get hitched, and Joo Jang-mi (Han Groo), a hopeless romantic who is crushed by his friend – is undeniable but the extended cast is also great.
Totally fluffy but with enough sincerity that you’ll find yourself completely invested, this is a perfect rom-com to ease yourself into things.
5. Boys Over Flowers
There’s not much to say with this one. It’s a silly and dramatic and totally over-the-top high school romance about class differences, star-crossed lovers and the aspirational lifestyles of beautiful teenagers (played, of course, by a cast of perfect-looking actors in their twenties) but, like Gossip Girl, it’s fun and completely captivating. I’ve now consumed almost every adaptation of this particular tale (manga, anime, Japanese drama, Korean drama, Chinese drama) and I don’t regret a thing. If you just want to switch your brain off without the same kind of emotional investment of many of the other entries on this list, then this tale of Gu Jun-pyo (Lee Min-ho), the leader of F4, an elite group of four handsome and popular boys at the prestigious Shinhwa High School and Geum Jan-di (Ku Hye-sun), a strong and proud scholarship student who dares to stand up to him, and how they fall in love, is ideal. The characters grow on you and Jun-pyo, in particular, changes dramatically during the course of the show. Just sit back and enjoy the mad hairstyles (it’s almost a decade old), cheesy moments, and melodramatic soundtrack.
It’s easier than ever to get your hands on these shows, too, with some now on Netflix (on the Irish Netflix Boys Over Flowers is currently the only one from this list) and on officially-licensed streaming sites like Viki and DramaFever though (and you didn’t hear it from me) it’s pretty easy to find them for free online but I do recommend supporting all creative endeavours monetarily – artists need to eat! What are you waiting for? There are so many amazing dramas to start watching rn!