If you're not watching Korean dramas, better known as K-dramas, then you're missing out in several ways. First, there's the big-picture, cultural impact to consider: K-dramas have become a worldwide phenomenon, and if you're going to be a pop culture connoisseur/productive denizen of the entertainment-loving internet—and you're here, so you obviously are both of those things—then you need to be versed in all things K-drama. And then there's the more important reason to watch K-dramas: They are addictive and amazing, and you'll thank yourself for adding them to your pop culture diet.
Known for their interesting storylines and intense (if sometimes predictable) plot twists, Korean dramas can go from super sappy to incredibly heartbreaking to "WTF, what was that?" in a heartbeat. That variety is exactly what keeps viewers coming back for more. Here, we've listed the best K-dramas to watch.
If you haven't yet checked out Squid Game, which is set to become Netflix's most-watched show ever, then here's one more recommendation: This edge-of-your-seat Korean thriller is definitely worth a look. In the viral hit, a group of people in serious debt sign up to play a series of children's games for a chance at 45.6 billion won (about $38 million). The catch? If the players loose at Tug of War or Red Light, Green Light, they die.
Crash Landing on You
A South Korean heiress, Yoon Se-ri, gets caught in a storm while paragliding and finds herself blown off course into North Korea. Se-ri then runs into Ri Jeong-hyeok, Captain of the North Korean Special Forces and a member of the North Korean elite family. Captain Ri eventually hatches a plan to get Se-ri back to South Korea with the help of his squad, but not before they all tackle the obstacles that come their way—and then some. This drama mixes romance with comedy and ultimately tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers. It's currently the highest rated tvN drama and the second-highest Korean drama in cable television history.
Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God)
This series, written by Kim Eun-sook, is the fourth highest-rated Korean drama of all time. The fantasy romance is about a modern day goblin, Gong Yoo, who needs a human bride (Kim Go Eun) to end his cursed immortal life. His life then becomes intertwined with a grim reaper, Lee Dong-wook, who is unable to remember his past. The story evolves as all these strangers lives intertwine.
This series follows the journeys of four women and their families as they try to maintain the status quo among the upper crust of South Korean society. The drama revolves around one mother's obsession with getting her daughter into an elite university by any means necessary...sound familiar? This one is a nice mix of romance, soapy drama, and comedy, so if you enjoy human-interest stories, Sky Castle is definitely the K-drama for you.
If you're looking for something in the middle of the Venn Diagram of "K-Drama" and "Mafia Drama," then Vincenzo is the show for you. In it, Song Joong-ki stars as a Korean man named Vincenzo who was adopted by an Italian mafia family and raised in the mob life in Italy. When his adoptive father dies, his adopted brother sets out to kill him, forcing Vincenzo to flee back to Seoul.
How to Get Away With Murder fans are sure to love Law School, which focuses on students and professors are prestigious Hankuk University Law School. The show's plot kicks off when one law professor at the school is found dead and another, Professor Yang (played by Kim Myung-min) is arrested for the crime, forcing the students to team up to prove Yang's innocence.
100 Days My Prince
In 100 Days My Prince, Prince Lee Yul is forced to flee the palace after he discovers a secret that puts his life at risk. After an accident causes him to lose his memory, he's nursed back to health by a commoner and told he's betrothed to their daughter, Yeon Hong-shim. The story focuses on their next 100 days together, with Lee Yul living life as a commoner and their love story growing in the process.
Boys Over Flowers
Boys Over Flowers is an old-school teen drama, focused on a group of popular/privileged/not-so-nice boys at the prestigious Shinhwa High School. The group, known as F4, bully others to get their way—until a working class girl named Geum Jan-di arrives at the school on scholarship and stands up to the boys.
Fair warning: Navillera is the kind of show that is best watched with a full box of tissues at your side. The series focuses on Shim Deok-chul, a 70-year-old retired mailman who dreams of being a ballet dancer. As Deok-chul pursues his dream, he also battles advancing Alzheimer’s.
If you thought Big Little Lies and Sky Castle laid the melodrama on thick, just wait until you take a bite out of this rollercoaster of a series. Penthouse follows three wealthy families vying for power in the exclusive Hera Palace community–a luxurious 100-floor high-rise that juts out of the Seoul skyline. Like its forebears, the series centers on three women who hide behind their various secrets and traumas with piles of money and their boundless ambitions for their children. Their world begins to crumble after a mysterious girl falls to her death and the trio attempt to cover up the location of her death to protect the reputation of Hera Palace. It’s messy, and I am living for it.
The Uncanny Counter
This show loosely reminds me of Ghostbusters, but with an eclectic group of characters who each possesses special abilities. The five-person group, called "Counter," work at a noodle restaurant by day and at night, hunt down evil spirits who have escaped from the after life to go after humans. (Their red tracksuits in the show are iconic and honestly would make for great group Halloween costume in 2021—just putting the idea out there.) This K-drama has been very well received by the audience and will have you binging all the episodes in one weekend.
If you enjoyed Korean movies like The Call and Alive, you'll be able to stomach and love Sweet Home. The show follows a guy who moves into a new apartment complex after the death of his family. Depressed and a loner, he starts witnessing frightening things in the building from some of his odd neighbors. If you're a peek-over-the-blanket-type person when watching horror shows like I am, then I'd advise you to tune into this during the day time. (I made the mistake of starting this show at night—never again.)
The storyline: Ki Seon-gyeom, a popular sprinter turned sports agent, meets Oh Mi-joo, who writes subtitle translations for movies, and Mi-joo believes they were destined for each other. The story centers around their budding romance alongside some strong secondary characters. Mi-joo is played by actress Shin Se-Kyung (from Rookie Historian) while Seon-gyeom is played by Im Si-Wan (from Strangers From Hell), so if you're familiar with both famous faces then give this show a chance.
Suzy Bae and Nam Joo-hyuk stans will want to tune into this drama, which mixes comedy with romance. The show centers around a group of young individuals who are all eager to start their own businesses. When Bae and Nam's characters, Seo Dal-mi and Nam Do-san respectively, are chosen to join Sandbox (a tech accelerator for entrepreneurs), along with Seo's sister Won In-jae, the three are pitted against one another in a contest to be the best. Little does Dal-mi know, however, someone important from her past (Han Ji-pyeong, played by Kim Sun-ho) has her back throughout this start-up journey. Viewers will be rooting for Dal-Mi to end up with Do-San or Ji-pyeong. Personally, we are team Ji-pyeong.
Tale of the Nine Tailed
You might want to keep the lights turned on for Lee Dong-wook's new show because it's a little scary (think scenes with ghosts and a water well à la The Ring). Aside from some minor scenes that make you shudder, however, the story largely revolves around his character Lee-yeon, a mythical fox known as gumiho, and a documentary filmmaker Nam Ji-a (played by Jo Bo-ah) who were once lovers in the past. (The foxes adopt human appearances, but have special powers.) Circumstances in the present bring the two on a treacherous journey that involves solving Ji-a's parents mysterious deaths and the two rediscovering their love for each other.
Record of Youth
New to Netflix, this show centers on three ambitious individuals from different social classes working in the cut throat world of show business and fashion. Sa Hye-joon (played by Park Bo-gum) and Won Hae-hyo (played by Byeon Woo-seok) are models who aspire to be actors. They end up becoming friends with makeup artist An Jung-ha (played by Park So-dam) and together the trio must face a variety of obstacles that threaten to stop them from achieving their dreams in the entertainment industry.
Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung
In a Romeo and Juliet-esque storyline, this show revolves around a romance between an aspiring palace historian and a lonely prince. Together, they go on a journey to break societal norms and uncover secrets from their pasts that could have consequences on their present day lives. This show is suited for those seeking sweet, heart-fluttering moments and will have you rooting for the couple until the very end.
It's Okay to Not Be Okay
The story centers around a caretaker at a psychiatric ward, Moon Gang-tae, who crosses paths with a children's book writer Ko Moon-young. Gang Tae has lived life on the run while taking care of his older brother, Sang Tae, who is autistic and suffers from reoccurring nightmares of the day their mother was murdered. He is a big fan of Ms. Ko, who is known to be antisocial and has a difficult personality. After a series of events, all three lives become intertwined and their dramatic back stories are revealed. Gang-tae, Sang-tae, and Ms. Ko share more in common with one another than they think. Aside from the fact that the two leading romantic pairs are both gorgeous, this show will keep viewers glued to their seats thanks to Gang-tae and Ms. Ko's push-and-pull dynamic.
When substitute teacher Soo-jin (played by Lee Bo-Young of When My Love Blooms) discovers one of her students Hye-na (played by the brilliant Heo Yool) is being abused by her mother and her boyfriend, she impulsively decides to run away with the little girl. Soo-jin sets out to travel from South Korea to Iceland (she is a bird researcher and has been given a grant to work at an institution there), but before she can make it to Iceland so many unexpected events happen. Viewers will discover why Soo-jin is so drawn to Hye-na and they will grow into the quite unexpected mother-daughter pair we're all rooting for. This show will ask viewers to think about what it means to be a mother/who gets to be one and will leave your eyes puffy from sobbing after every episode. Mother is one of South Korea's most highly-rated series.
In a world where an app lets you know whether or not someone is in love with you within a 10-meter radius, feelings are transparent even when you don't want them to be. The story centers around a hardworking and studious student Kim Jo-jo who catches the eye of two guys (who just so happen to be best friends and basically are like brothers) in her school: Hwang Sun-oh and Lee Hye-yeong. Sun-oh is a model from a rich family and could not be any more different from Jo-jo but they fall for each other. As time passes, the two drift apart and Hye-yeong sees this as a chance to finally confess his feelings for Jo-jo. At the end of season one we're left with a cliffhanger: who will Jo-jo choose to be with?
Strangers From Hell
If you're looking for a creepy, pull-blankets-up-to-your-eyes kind of drama, watch this show. It follows a young man in his 20s, Yoon Jong-woo, who moves to the countryside to Seoul after his friend offered him a job. He needs a place to live and ends up finding Eden Gosiwon, an unkempt but inexpensive apartment with a communal kitchen and bathroom. He decides to stay for six months until he has enough money to move out, but starts noticing weird behaviors and strange happenings in the apartment building. One of his neighbors, played by Goblin's Lee Dong-wook, is a dentist by day and serial killer by night. We'll stop here and let the other suspenseful events shock you to your core.
The King: Eternal Monarch
This Korean drama has it all: parallel universes, time travel, a handsome king, a strong female detective, tragedy, and romance. The show tells the story of Lee Gon (played by one of South Korea's most popular actors: Lee Min-ho), a Korean emperor who rules The Kingdom of Corea (the North and South are still unified in this world) and discovers a portal opening in the bamboo forest that leads him to a parallel universe—the world that we know today. He meets, and falls in love, with detective Jung Tae-eul (played by Goblin's Kim Go-eun) in this world and they have to work together to close this time portal before their two worlds collide and freeze in time forever. Will they succeed in their journey and will their love be able to transcend time?
Grey's Anatomy and other medical drama stans will want to dive right into this drama that depicts the stories of people working at a hospital. The five doctors have been friends for 20 years (they all went to the same medical school) and now they're colleagues navigating through a career centered around life and death. This show is currently one of the highest-rated Korean drama in cable television history and a second season is set to premiere in 2021!
Sky Castle's Kim Dong-hee stars in a lead role as Oh Ji-soo in this show. The drama centers around three high school students who commit crimes to earn money and along the way encounter dangerous enemies and obstacles. It will take an episode or two for you to fully grasp what is happening before you appreciate the intricate storytelling that is being told by director Kim Jin-min. Hang in there for the journey.
Mystic Pop-up Bar
This show checks off the boxes for drama, fantasy, and mystery. The storyline centers on Ssanggab Cart Bar, which is only open at night on the rooftop of a building. Wol-Ju (played by Hwang Jung-eum) runs the mysterious food cart and customers who visit her consist of the living and dead. While drinking and eating, they converse with Wol-Ju about themselves and their internal struggles.
Memories of the Alhambra
This fantasy drama is perfect for Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye fans (you may remember her from the popular show The Heirs). The two actors play each other's romantic interest in Memories of the Alhambra, which is set between Spain and South Korea. (Fun fact: Park Shin-hye learned Spanish for the show, so her voice is not dubbed!) They encounter each other in Spain when Hyun Bin's character, Yoo Jin-woo, arrives to the hostel owned by Park Shin-hye's character, Jung Hee-joo, because he wants her to sign over the rights to develop her brother's augmented reality game. (The brother, meanwhile, has vanished into thin air). Jin-woo starts playing the game and eventually realizes it is causing those around him to die. If he wants to save himself and Jung Hee-joo's missing brother, he has to complete the dangerous quests.
Yoon Hee-jae is a handsome attorney who's confident in crushing his opponents in court. He has a "chance" meeting at a laundromat with a mysterious woman and ends up falling for her only to later discover that the woman, Jung Geum-ja, is actually an attorney representing the opposite side. She had strategically won Hee-jae's heart (and his case files) because she really needs a win to save her struggling business. Despite being wronged, Hee-jae is attracted to Geum-ja and the pair duke it out in court. If Yoon Hee-jae looks familiar to you it's because the character is played by Ju Ji-hoon, who also plays the dazzling Crown Prince in Kingdom.
Hi, Bye Mama
If you like a little supernatural pizazz with your drama, this show is for you. Cha Yoo-ri is a ghost who died five years ago, leaving behind her husband, Jo Kang-hwa, and their child. In a move to become a living human again, Cha Yoo-ri carries out a reincarnation project for 49 days. When she reappears to Jo Kang-hwa, however, she finds that her husband has changed a lot since she died.
Where to start with this one? This series tells the story of Park Sae-roy, who opens a restaurant in Itaewon after having spent a few years in prison for beating up Jang Geun-won, the son and heir to Jangga Group. The two have a rough history and now, with a fresh start, Park Sae-roy wants to not only franchise his restaurant DanBam, but have it overtake Jangga Group as a household name. (His ultimate goal is to get revenge for his father's death, which was caused by the Jangga family.) The CEO of Jangga Group is a self-made man of success and he will not let Park Sae-roy defeat him or his son. The two engage in a power struggle throughout the entire series that's filled with juicy plot twists and turns.
This drama tells the story of a group of rich, privileged high school students who will one day take over their families businesses. The coming-of-age themes explored in the drama include identity, wealth, and relationships. One of the main characters is Kim Tan, a chaebol heir to Jeguk Group, who hasn't had the easiest relationship with his older half-brother Kim Won because he thinks Tan is trying to steal their father's company from him. To make Tan's life even more difficult, he ends up falling in love with his housekeeper's daughter, Cha Eun-sang, much to his father's disapproval and he has to compete with classmate Choi Young Do's sudden interest in Eun-sang too when she transfers into their elite school. Tan seeks to overcome all the obstacles to be with Eun-sang no matter what his family or friends at school say.
Legend of the Blue Sea
This fantasy romance show explores the relationship between a con artist and a mermaid who meet and fall in love. The mermaid, Shim Cheong, (played by the talented and beautiful Jun Ji-hyun) follows her lover Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) to land unbeknownst to him that she is a mer person. Juxtaposed against present day, the storyline also focuses on the two's Joseon-era incarnations, town head Kim Dam-ryeong and the mermaid Se-hwa. That pair met a tragic fate, so what does this mean for their current counterparts? Will Shim Cheong and Joon-jae meet the same bad fate?
Autumn in My Heart
This 2000 South Korean drama's legacy and popularity is the equivalent to that of Titanic. The show is considered a pioneer in Korean melodramatic series and helped launch the "Korean Wave." The plot: Two girls are born in October and an accidental switch of their name tags at the hospital leads them down very different paths. Eun-suh has a happy life with her loving parents and brother, Jun-suh, while Shin-ae is raised by a single parent in poverty. One day Eun-suh gets into a car accident and a blood test reveals Eun-suh and Shin-ae were swapped at birth. The girls go back to their original parents. Years later, Eun-suh and her "brother" Jun-suh meet again, the start of a love story. Make sure to have some tissues on hand because this show is a major tearjerker.
Touch Your Heart
I'm somewhat biased because I am an unabashed Lee Dong-wook stan, but Touch Your Heart is really, really fun to watch. Things take place in a high-powered law firm, where a washed-up actress works as a secretary for a cranky attorney. The two leads have great chemistry—they've played star-crossed lovers in another drama, Goblin—and they're both extremely good-looking. Plus, it's another workplace love story! Is the universe trying to send me a sign?
Angel's Last Mission: Love
In this KBS drama, a tough as nails former ballerina tries to regain her prima donna status with the help of her mischievous guardian angel. Blinded in a tragic accident, Lee Yeon-seo is desperate to get back to the stage, but the scheming and conniving of the people around her prevents her from making her return. Dan, a guardian angel just one mission away from completing his duties on earth, gets suckered into yet another assignment and falls in love on the job.
(True k-pop stans will immediately recognize the lead character in Angel's Last Mission: Love—it's L from the iconic group Infinite! Sadly, I don't think we'll be getting much singing in this drama...but you can stream "The Chaser" on all platforms.)
Fans of Shin Sung-rok (The King's Face, The Last Empress), rejoice—your second lead syndrome is over! The actor finally snagged a leading role in the KBS romantic comedy Perfume as Seo Yi-do, an eccentric fashion designer plagued with endless phobias. He's known for often playing the villain (he's really good at being bad), but in this drama, you can actually root for him to get the girl!
The premise is simple, at least for a Korean drama: A depressed housewife on the brink of a breakdown receives a magic perfume that makes her into an entirely new person. With her new face and identity, she decides to pursue a modeling career, and ultimately clashes with the prickly self-proclaimed god of fashion.
Chief of Staff
Remember House of Cards? The Netflix original series followed the complex and super sheisty lives of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C. The show was nothing short of a hit, but it came to an unfortunate end once its star became embroiled in a very serious, very disturbing controversy.
Chief of Staff is a lot like House of Cards, but rest assured, the drama is maintained within the show. There's scheming, manipulation, illicit affairs, serious criminal activity, and a whole lot of lying to the general public by the voters by the very people they put in office—sounds appropriate for the day and age we're living in, no?
Something in the Rain
Although we love outrageously plotted k-dramas, Something in the Rain is a more straightforward and realistic look into an ill-fated romance and workplace discrimination. Yoon Jin-ah is a single career woman who begins a romance with her friend’s little brother after he returned from a stint abroad. But their relationship draws an immense amount of scrutiny from their families, who don’t approve. Jin-ah also faces a sexist workplace, where she and her female co-workers are demeaned by their male colleagues.
Because This Is My First Life
Does broke millennials working underpaid jobs and dealing with today’s high cost of living sound familiar? The characters in Because This Is My First Life are just like us–following their dreams, working in high-powered industries, all the while just barely reaping the benefits. Nam Sae-hee (Lee Min-ki) is a software developer working for a start-up who suffers from a mortgage that eats up all his disposable income. Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) is a struggling screenwriter who dreams of developing her own k-dramas, but she’s relegated to being a highly underpaid writer’s assistant on mediocre shows. After she’s forced to move out of her apartment, she ends up renting out a room in Sae-hee’s house. When they realize that a fake-marriage would be mutually advantageous for both their precarious financial situations and societal expectations, they decide to tie the knot. Obviously, one thing leads to another and they’re unable to separate their contractual marriage from the real feelings that they begin to develop.
My Mister tells the story of two people struggling with financial troubles, family drama, and loneliness. Park Dong-hun (Lee Sun-kyun) is a middle-aged engineer working under a boss who is younger than him, all the while providing for his two unemployed brothers and their mom. To make matters worse, Dong-hun’s wife is having an affair with his boss (yikes). Meanwhile 20-something Lee Ji-an (K-pop star IU) is in a mountain of debt and will do just about anything to get the loan sharks off her back. After she catches Dong-hun accepting a bribe, she decides to steal gift certificates he received in an attempt to pay off her loans. Heart-wrenching and hopeful, the show tells the story of two people developing a sweet kinship while trying to dig themselves out of trouble.
Dear My Friends
Featuring a star-studded cast of industry veterans–most notably Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung (!)–this heartwarming slice-of-life drama follows elderly friends who are just vibing in their last years of life. After Park Wan (Go Hyun-jung) decides to write a novel about the life of the elderly at the behest of her mother, she gets close to her mother’s group of lifelong friends and learns their small but significant life stories. The series is a love story about friendship and lifelong connections that looks through time at old memories and the ways those moments thread into our twilight years.