These days, I almost exclusively watch Korean dramas—or K-dramas as they’re commonly called. These South Korean shows typically only span a single season, but they pack one much of the drama in
Just as there are different genres in US television, K-Dramas focus on a variety of subjects, from wholesome romance novels to dystopias that seek to emphasize sociopolitical points.
Before some streaming sites like Netflix made Korean dramas available, the only legitimate option was to watch whatever was offered on cable. But even then, many Korean immigrants (like my parents) supplemented their outlook by renting grainy fake VHS tapes and DVDs from their local Korean grocery store. Previously, subtitles weren’t needed because the market for these videos was specific: Korean speakers who didn’t need language support.
In today’s market, viewers have the luxury of watching shows almost at the same time as they are released in South Korea – and with subtitles. K-Dramas, once considered niche, could only be streamed on sites that specifically catered to Asian content (Viki, Kocowa, the now-defunct Dramafever). But these days, premium streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ — which have traditionally showcased Western content — have dipped into the k-drama market.
But both still have a long way to go before they catch up with Netflix’s impressive catalog of K-Dramas.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix has spent $700 million creating Korean content, including over 80 shows. The streaming service paid off for its investments with the Korean hit series “Squid Game” and “All of Us Are Dead”. On the way? A Korean remake of the popular Spanish series Money Heist, out this summer.
Below are some of my favorite Korean shows available on Netflix. Some are romantic while others are gory. But they have one thing in common: they are a treat and unforgettable.
‘Squid Game’ (2021)
An allegory for South Korea’s hyper-competitive society, Squid Game is Netflix’s most-watched show as of 2021. Lee Jung-jae plays an unlucky fellow who is willing to risk everything to win a game of life and death in the series that is impossible to turn away from. “Squid Game” starred newcomer HoYeon Jung, who plays a North Korean defector trying to win enough money to reunite her family. This series is gory, shocking and not for the faint of heart. But the stories it tells evoke very real feelings of despair, fear, and betrayal.
‘Thirty Nine’ (2022)
Starring Son Ye-jin (“Crash Landing on You”), Jeon Mi-do (“Hospital Playlist”) and Kim Ji-hyun (“The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”), this female-centric series is a reminder that life it can end at any time – but somehow it’s more uplifting than somber. This trio of 39-year-olds have been best friends since high school. When one of them is diagnosed with a terminal illness, her friends try to make her the happiest dying person ever. This K-drama also beautifully shows how survivors can cherish the memory of a loved one while also processing their own grief.
Jung Hae-in (“Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food”) plays a private doing his mandatory 18-month military service in South Korea. After joining a team called the Deserter Pursuit, he diligently works to bring back fugitive soldiers – often unsure if he’s doing the right thing. “DP” is unabashed in its portrayal of military brutality and the consequences of ignoring victims’ cries for help.
‘Crash Landing on You’ (2019)
The chemistry between leads Son Ye-jin (‘Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food’) and Hyun Bin (‘Memories of the Alhambra’) is off the charts in this romantic action series. So it’s no surprise that it’s a mega hit with a musical adaptation imminent. Son plays a super-rich South Korean businesswoman who accidentally paraglides into the DMZ, where she is rescued by a ridiculously handsome Korean People’s Army captain. While the series finale was bittersweet, CLoY fans were thrilled that there was one happily ever after in real life: Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin got married last March.
‘Twenty Five Twenty One’ (2022)
The series begins in 1998 when many South Koreans faced financial difficulties due to the IMF crisis. Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri, “The Handmaiden”) is an elite high school fencer who has no idea what it all means. Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk, “Start-Up”) is all too aware of this. His once-affluent family lost everything, forcing him to drop out of college. The title of the K-Drama refers to Yi-jin and Hee-do’s age when they allow themselves to pursue a romance. The show may remind you of how earth-shattering and meaningful things felt as a young adult.
‘Mr. Sunshine’ (2018)
A gripping story set in the late 19th century, ‘Mr. Sunshine” features a masterpiece by Lee Byung-hun (“Squid Game”). Lee portrays the slave child who sneaks into the United States. When he returns to his native country, he plays Eugene Choi, a US military officer. After meeting Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri, “Little Forest”) – a noblewoman who is the orphaned daughter of freedom fighters – he suspects their goals are more in sync than anyone would have thought. Like many K-Drama endings, the finale doesn’t leave much room for a happy ending. But it applies to the characters fighting for a free country.
‘Move to Heaven’ (2021)
Tang Joon-sang (“Racket Boys”) plays a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Lee Je-hoon (“Signal”) becomes his guardian after the boy’s father dies. They work together in the family’s Move to Heaven, which does the cleanup after the worst of the deaths have left families traumatized and unable (or unwilling) to collect their loved ones’ belongings. Both actors bring complex nuances to their characters, who must sort through their own complex feelings and emotional wounds.
“It’s Okay Not to Be Okay” (2020)
After a macabre children’s author, her life changes when a selfless younger sibling (Kim Soo-hyun, “My Love From the Star”) is put in charge of his autistic older brother (Oh Jung-se, “When the Camellia Blooms”) (Seo Ye-ji, “Lawless Lawyer”) becomes friends with them. There is a plot twist involving a beloved character who turns out not to be what she seems. But the real revelation is how we sometimes twist past memories into something that never happened. Much of the series is set in a mental hospital, where the thesis of K-drama—it’s okay not to be okay—is reinforced.
“We’re All Dead” (2022)
This zombie-centric series is all the more frightening because it’s set in a high school. When an infectious disease turns students into zombies, the survivors do what most children probably would: wait for adults to be rescued. When they realize that nobody is coming to save them, they try to save themselves. But even when classmates die around them, issues of wealth and hierarchy influence some of their behavior towards one another. Years of class indoctrination are not erased, even during an emergency. And that’s the real terror – even more so than the zombies.
‘Hotel Del Luna’ (2019)
The titular hotel serves as a high-end purgatory before the deceased can move on to heaven (or hell!). Accompanied by a grumpy young woman (Lee Ji-eun, “My Mister”) – who is actually over 1,300 years old – she is accompanied by a smart (and lively) man (Yeo Jin-goo, “The Crowned Clown”), he finally adapts to the unusual clientele of the hotel. United, the two help the undead come to terms with their demise so they can enter the afterlife. The owner is also making amends for her actions centuries ago that put her in this predicament.
Divided into two seasons – each six episodes long – Kingdom is a historical drama and a clever twist on the zombie genre. Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon, “Hyena”) hears about a mysterious disease that turns people into zombies and suspects his own father has been zombie infected. With the help of Seo-bi (Bae Doona, “Cloud Atlas”) – a doctor who learned about the disease from her mentor – he tries to save his country from being destroyed not only by the creatures but also by the greedy politicians to become Take control of Joseon.
‘One Spring Night’ (2019)
The protagonist of this series is a single father in his 20s (Jung Hae-in, “Prison Playbook”). Although he has a good job as a pharmacist and looks as good as any celebrity, he faces discrimination because he and his college girlfriend had an illegitimate child. As his parents often remind each other, the best their son can hope for is to marry a widow or a divorcee. After all, who else would want to get involved with him? The answer lies in a pretty and slightly older librarian (Han Ji-min, “Our Blues”) who doesn’t care about his past but has to navigate her way out of a longtime relationship with a friend who refuses to be dumped .
In this time-travelling crime series, two cops (played by Lee Je-Hoon and Choi Jin-woong) communicate with each other…while living decades apart. With one in the past and the other in the future, they can prevent tragedy and close cases that were previously unsolved. Kudos to Kim Hye-soo (“Hyena”) for portraying the first cop on the team. Initially viewed as little more than the department’s coffee machine, she blossoms into a combative and effective leader.
‘Our Blues’ (2022)
Set on Jeju Island, this slice-of-life series features some of South Korea’s biggest names – Lee Byung-hun (“Iris”), Lee Jung-eun (“Parasite”), Shin Min-a (“Hometown Cha- Cha-Cha”), Kim Woo-bin (“The Heirs”). Our Blues tackles a variety of themes in a casual and deliberate manner that allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the lives of the characters.
‘Answer 1988’ (2015)
The third in a trilogy, Reply 1988 is the best of the series, each of which follows a high school girl as she makes her way through high school. The series – which includes Reply 1997 and Reply 1994 – also share characters, with familiar faces appearing between eras. It’s fun to watch the five central teens’ friendships grow and mature. But her parents’ storylines are just as interesting.
This is the rare K-drama not centered on a romance. Rather, the story revolves around a talented but poor young ballet dancer (Song Kang, “Sweet Home”) who is tasked with teaching a seventy-year-old (Park In-hwan, “Miss Granny”) how to dance. The latter is pursuing his childhood dream, although his family is embarrassed that he doesn’t behave like one normal Grandfather. Even with some soapy elements added, “Navillera” is a poignant series that affirms that nobody is too old to pursue their dreams and that those dreams should never be neglected.