It is true that when it comes to Korean TV series, there are a multitude of dramas that are well-written, beautifully delivered, and entertaining. However, there are some that can be considered the “cream of the crop”. So if you want good material, here are 15 shows that earned impressive performance during its release.
World of the Married
This riveting drama has set a new record for the highest viewership rating in Korea’s cable network history previously held by Sky Castle. It’s a remake of BBC’s Doctor Foster, and it smashed viewing records every week during its run. People got hooked on the intense drama and emotional rollercoaster between the main characters.
The story narrates how the marriage of Ji Sun Woo (Kim Hee Ae) and Lee Tae Oh (Park Hae Joon) went for a downward spiral when the husband is found having an affair. Sun Woo’s seemingly perfect life starts to unravel, which also reveals a lot of betrayals in between. But things even get more intense when the tables turn.
Sky Castle (2018)
Even though it doesn’t follow the usual romantic storyline that most popular K-dramas are known for, this black comedy series which is based on a highly competitive education system surprisingly climbed up the ratings chart. It attracted a wide following because its main topic is directly related to one of the major social issues predominantly prevailing in Korea. But it’s widespread popularity didn’t stop there as it also turned out to be a massive hit in China and across Asia.
It follows the struggles of four housewives to get their children admitted to prestigious universities in South Korea. They live in a lavish neighbourhood called Sky Castle, an opulent gated community high up in the hills which is exclusive only for wealthy individuals who work in esteemed professions. Sky Castle is also metaphorical because SKY is an acronym for Korea’s top 3 most renowned universities—Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei. Entry into one of the three is seen as a guarantee of future success. The story exhibits the parents’ responsibility and conflict in a realistic way, earning empathy from the audience.
Crash Landing on You (2019)
This smash hit melodrama has caused an enormous craze across Asia because of its captivating portrayal of true love beset with extraordinary forces. In this tale forbidden love has never been so forbidden especially when political strife runs in the middle. What also attracted interest for this drama is its depiction of the realities and internal affairs of North Korea in such detail.
This love story started when Yoon Se Ri (Son Ye Jin), an heir to a South Korean conglomerate, goes paragliding and is swept into North Korea in a freak incident, where she lands on a tree and is discovered by Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin), an elite military officer and the scion of a powerful political family. This sets into motion a series of attempts to bring her back home under the radar, while finding love along the way.
Having debuted in 2015, the South Korean series has aged like a fine wine — becoming a classic K-Drama half a decade later. It doesn’t need an over-the-top love story, no villains, or tragedy for it to work. Rather, the story offers a slice-of-life plotline that gives a sense of nostalgia. Among the three Reply series, this instalment has succeeded its two prequels, and is even seen as a perfect example of a silently prevalent hit.
The series follows the everyday lives of five friends and their families living in the sleepy neighborhood of Ssangmun-dong in Northern Seoul way back in 1988. It also highlights the love triangle between Deok Sun (Lee Hye Ri), genius Go player Choi Taek (Park Bo Gum) and Kim Jung Hwan (Ryu Jun Yeol).
The success of the show can be traced back to the considerably formidable mix of high concepts and the undeniable appeal of its male lead. It’s a combination of fantasy with deep roots in Korean folklore, but at the same time, it offers a very sleek modern love story with just the right elements for a well-structured romantic-comedy.
The show centers around Kim Shin (Gong Yoo), a general during Korea’s Goryeo Era, who is double crossed by king Wang Yeo who grew jealous of his success. He is cursed to a lonely life of immortality as a Goblin for supposedly betraying his kingdom. The Goblin can only see an end to this curse if the fated Goblin’s Bride (Ji Eun Tak) pulls his magical sword from his chest, but it will also ultimately lead to his death.
Mr Sunshine (2018)
This period piece is about a time in Korea that most K-Dramas don’t really cover—right before the Japanese occupation of the country. Even though it was met with criticism from Korean audiences for altering history, it turned out to have a successful run, even beating crowd favorite – “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim”. After Netflix bought the rights to this series, it became the first South Korean drama to be aired synchronously across the globe.
Eugene Choi (Lee Byung Hun), the Korean child of runaway slaves, runs off to America, and returns to the Kingdom of Joseon (Korea) as an American soldier and consul in the midst of a significant historical change. The newly independent kingdom, liberated from centuries of Chinese Qing domination, is now struggling to avert Japanese encroachment against its fragile independence. Eugene’s bitterness and ill intentions against his homeland fester beneath a calm exterior, until he meets a woman from the noble class, the class he holds responsible for the violent deaths of his parents.
Itaewon Class explores the social issues that are considered “taboo” in South Korea. The main protagonist of the story is an ex-convict, and in South Korea a social stigma already surrounds that kind of reputation. But on top of that, the story includes a dark-skinned biracial guy, a transgender, and a high school dropout—basically all the social misfits. However, inside their own circle this diversity is celebrated as underdogs working against industry giants in a country that is widely known as homogenous.
This story revolved around Park Sae Ro Yi (Park Seo Joon) who was wronged and unfairly accused. Determined to rise above the circumstances after he spends years in jail, he gathers a team of social misfits to help him establish a pub in the bustling Itaewon district in hopes of beating his enemy—a big conglomerate in Korea whose arrogant scion caused Sae Ro Yi to be expelled from school and imprisoned.
100 Days My Prince
This drama was heavily anticipated, but it was also a major success after its run as it also broadcasted in six different countries such as Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, Chile, and the Philippines.
The series, set in the Joseon period, features an interesting love story between an unlikely couple: The crown prince, (Do Kyung Soo), who loses his memory following an accident and gets to marry the country’s oldest single woman (Nam Ji Hyun), who doesn’t know her husband’s true identity and thinks him useless and completely out of touch with reality.
Even though it aired around the same time as the phenomenal World of the Married, this series still raked in an impressive following thanks to its unique and refreshing plotline. The story gives a laid back progression where there is no headache-inducing hospital politics, no abusive hospital director, and the medical emergencies are not over-the-top. It’s also a winning point that patient storylines don’t extend for too long, and it also shows that the characters actually have lives outside the hospital.
It is a story of five friends who have known each other since med school. Now with their own specialties and the realities of adulthood in the way, this group maintained a tight bond. They are always there for each other even in the face of a cancer scare, a divorce, or through the struggle of having a sick family member. Each friend has a different method of showing that they care, but what remains true is that they always have each other’s backs.
This drama strips away the fancy cinematography, product placements, and high fashion and banked on something more elusive.The past and present element was woven seamlessly creating a narrative that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats with every episode. It’s also captivating that they patterned cases to real-life stories such as the Hwaseong serial murders. It was very well-received that it inspired a Japanese remake in 2018.
The story revolves around a mysterious walkie-talkie that lights up sporadically at exactly 11:23 in the evening. It allowed a detective from 1989 to communicate with a criminal profiler in 21015. They work together to change the past and thereby change the present.
The Lady in Dignity (2017)
This series showed the different influences behind the struggles of women caught up in the mess caused by their filthy rich husbands. It also captures audiences as it brings hard truths to light about how grandiose lifestyles are often used as ‘cover-ups’ for a dysfunctional marriage. The story is also attractive because it gives a new look at rich and powerful women who are often portrayed negatively in Korean dramas. The lead’s strong character shows how a woman can stand her ground with dignity despite distressing circumstances weighing her down.
In this drama Woo Ah Jin (Kim Hee Sun) is married to the son of a chaebol family. She has been in charge of the entire household for a few years, including all their idiosyncrasies. She did everything like clockwork. Her fate takes a drastic turn after she brings two women into their lives—Yoon Sung Hee (Lee Tae Im), a painter who starts an affair with her husband and Park Bok Ja (Kim Sun Ah), a live-in caregiver who turns out to have ulterior motives.
Hotel Del Luna (2019)
This drama earned explosive popularity thanks to the passionate performances by the actors which developed lovable characters. It’s an unpredictable horror-romance that delights with exquisite visuals set against an atmospheric cinematography.
Magic happens in the busy city streets in Seoul, in what would be one of the priciest real estate, there stands an old building. At first glance it looks like an empty one waiting for extensive reconstruction, but it’s not, because it’s a special hotel for special guests. When the night is deep and the city sleeps, Hotel Del Luna is in business and it caters to wandering spirits who have yet to settle their unfinished business before crossing over to the afterlife. Managed by Gu Chan Sung (Yeo Jin Goo), a top hotelier, and the ill-tempered boss Jang Man Wol (Lee Ji Eun), their tales with their guests from the beyond now begins.
This is an earlier instalment of the Reply series that also made the top 15 because it offers a heartwarming sense of nostalgia. It was received with much anticipation as a prequel to the Reply 1997 series which came out the previous year. Number revealed that this drama completely broke the sophomore curse and enjoyed phenomenal popularity that surpassed the previous work.
Set in 1994, six university students from different provincial areas come to know each other when they live in the same boarding house run by a couple with a daughter named Na Jung (Go Ara), in Sinchon, Seoul. The timeline moves back and forth between the past in 1994 and the present in 2013, making the viewers guess who will end up becoming Na Jung’s husband among the male characters.
Prison Playbook (2017)
This 16-episode black comedy drama that follows the lives of people deprived of liberty. It’s plot-driven story steadily gathered increasing ratings. Perhaps, some of the reasons for its success are the reputation and trustworthiness behind director Shin Wonho and writer Jung Bohoon, two important figures from the famous Reply franchise.
In this story, Kim Je Hyuk (Park Hae Soo), who is a fallen baseball superstar who finds himself in prison one day. Apart from his struggle behind bars, the story also shows the lives and stories of the other prisoners as well as events that take place there.
The Crowned Clown (2019)
The much-anticipated drama is an adaptation of the popular 2012 film “Masquerade” which attracted over 12 million moviegoers. So, it was expected that audiences would tend to compare the performance between the two male leads, Yeo Jin Goo for TV and Lee Byung Hun for the movie.
Set in the middle of the Joseon era when upheaval and power struggles surrounding the throne reached its peak. The story tells the story of Yi Heon (Yeo Jin Goo), the king who brings in a clown who looks identical to him and puts him on the throne to escape an assassination plot.