The Best Korean Dramas – as voted by you!

It’s such a big question. What are the best Korean dramas? And how do you answer the question without letting your own personal quirks and biases get in the way?

Well, after three surveys and many months I get to present the best of the best of the best – as voted by you!

Thanks so much for everyone who participated in this mega event. It’s produced a great list for anyone looking to get into kdrama and for those looking for their next watch.

Not to say the list is without controversy. There’s at least one popular drama with a loud and devoted fan base that made it to the final round but didn’t make the top ten (I’ll let you guess which one).

But even with the possible controversies (why isn’t my favourite drama here?!) this is a great list. To quote Jo Jia from I’m Not a Robot: You’ve done well.

NOTE: You also voted for your favourite dramas. These will be the subject of a follow-up post.

The Very Big End of Decade Korean Drama Poll

As we’ve been ordered inside to watch TV, the question of what to watch has no doubt come up. Maybe you’ve decided to watch the best Korean dramas of all time? And it’s a great choice.

But, what are they? What are the best dramas ever?

So I devised a cunning three step process. As part of round one, I asked people to tell me the Korean dramas they considered the best and favourite. Then in round two I took the 100 top dramas you’d told me about and asked people to vote on them. For round three, you ranked the dramas that were left.

And after all of that hard work and around 300 votes, here it is! Finally!

What you like and what you don’t

Like: Slice of Life

Korean writers are particularly good at slice of life dramas; the subtle dynamics of human interactions being one of the greatest strengths of the narrative tradition. In that context it’s not surprising that slice of life featured so heavily in both the best and favourite Top Ten. However, slice of life dramas rarely generate the kind of passion reserved for splashier fantasies and melodramas. So from that perspective it was surprising to see how many made the top ten across both lists. And yet, while two dramas dominated both the best and favourite lists, this has definitely been the slice of life century so far.

Dislike: Makjang

If Korean writers are known for finely tuned characterisation and sometimes exquisite dialogue, they are just as well known for larger-than-life soap operas. Think of a classic kdrama and you’ll no doubt think Makjang: crazed chaebols, scheming mothers-in-law, naive Candies and intense plot twists like amnesia, fake pregnancies, cancer scares and Trucks of Doom. And yet only one Makjang made either list and it’s one of the dark modern crackjangs that emerged in 2018. Where have all the Makjangs gone? I guess their day is done.

The Best Korean Dramas Ever – as voted by you!

Here they are. The best of the best, as voted by you! And with Netflix buying every Korean drama they can get their hands on, all of these dramas are now available through streaming in Australia. So get watching!

Number 10: I’m Not a Robot

When did it air: 2017/18

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about : A modern day fairytale about a Prince in a castle saved by a Warrior Queen. A classic mistaken identity romcom about a man with a human allergy who falls in love with what he believes is a robot but is actually a real woman in disguise. A story about women trying to assert themselves in a world that keeps trying to (quite literally) put them in a box. I’m Not a Robot is also a post-Covid tale of isolation in a dangerous world of disease. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

What makes it so good: The ratings for I’m Not a Robot were woeful when it aired in 2017, but it’s been a cult hit that spawned some fascinating analyses about feminism, bodily autonomy, the commodification of people, technological ethics and the subversion of Korean drama tropes. Yoo Seung-ho was his wonderful heartbreaking self as Chaebol Kim Min-kyu who prefers technology to people. But it was Chae Soo-bin who put in an extraordinary dual performance as aspiring entrepreneur Jo Jia and the robot Aji3. What separates I’m not a Robot from other romantic comedies is its depth and its heart. It will make you laugh, cry and think. And so it’s not a surprise that it made a list of the Top Ten dramas ever made

Number 9: Sky Castle

When did it air: 2018

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about : One of the first dramas in the new genre of surreal, fast-paced Makjang we’ve now dubbed Crackjang, Sky Castle is a surprisingly dark and searing polemic on the elite’s obsession with educational achievements. The show follows the increasingly crazed machinations of housewives and their doctor husbands who live in a luxurious residential area called SKY Castle. It looks at the intense pressure to get children into the SKY universities in Korea – Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – and is an unrelenting ride from beginning to end.

What makes it so good: It says something about the thematic underpinnings to a show like Sky Castle that while it was airing there was a massive US college admissions scandal involving millions of dollars. So no matter how ridiculous the plotting, how darkly surreal the imagery, how crazed the heightened tension got, it cannot compete with real life. Which ultimately is what makes a show like this work. People who heard the word ‘satire’ went in possibly expecting something funnier. But the claustrophobic, achievement-obsessed hermetically-sealed chamber in which these families live is not something you can easily laugh at. Sky Castle works by being both aggressively ridiculous while getting its emotional core exactly right. It is not an easy watch but is nonetheless a first class piece of television.

Number 8: Coffee Prince

When did it air: 2007

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: This classic romantic comedy may have been made in 2007 but it has barely aged and is still as enjoyable today as it was then. A gender bending romp about an impoverished woman who pretends to be a boy to get a job at a cafe that only employs young, good-looking men, she inevitably falls in love with her hot boss (played by an always-excellent Gong Yoo). A classic cross-dressing romance with the requisite dash of homoeroticism, Coffee Prince is also about finding and pursuing your dreams, even if they fly in the face of social expectations.

What makes it so good: From Gong Yoo to Kim Jae-wook to Oscar-winning Lee Sun-kyun, Coffee Prince starred a veritable host of fantastic upcoming actors. This includes Yoon Eun-hye’s portrayal of the crossdressing tomboy – one of, if not the, best gender bending performances ever shown on screen. With cracking chemistry between our leads, a delightful supporting cast, and a thoughtful and finely-tuned script, it’s no surprise that Coffee Prince has endured while other pre-2012 dramas have fallen away. And while I doubt anyone is interested in the second couple, you can just fast forward their snooze fest like the rest of us.

Number 7: Because This Life is Our First (Because This is My First Life)

When did it air: 2017

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: Introverted IT developer, Nam See-hee needs help to keep his house. Struggling writer, Yoon Ji-ho needs a home. Armed only with logic, quirky blunt honesty and a mutual benefit to the arrangement, the two decide to enter into a contract marriage for two years. Yes, Because This Life is Our First is a contract marriage romcom but even more than that it is a thoughtful and brave examination of the institution of marriage in modern Korea.

What makes it so good: The one thing that separates a good romantic comedy from a great romantic comedy is the strength of the core couple, not just as a couple but as individuals. Right from the beginning, Because This Life is Our First, presents us with two people we like and want to see happy. Unlike other contract marriage romances that imply that cohabitation is the only prerequisite to love, Because This Life is Our First instead demonstrates why these two people are perfect for each other but just happen to fall into marriage first. Can their unconventional relationship survive a conventional world?

Number 6: Reply 1988

When did it air: 2015/16

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: The Reply series (sometimes known as Answer Me) is a trilogy of nostalgic slice-of-life dramas recapturing the vibe and the energy of recent periods in Korean history. While 1994 and 1997 have their own proponents and their own unique qualities, it is Reply 1988 that has made the Top Ten list. Set in the year 1988, it revolves around the very ordinary lives of ordinary people in a neighbourhood in Seoul.

What makes it so good: Widely considered the best of the Reply series, 1988 has a star-studded cast of pop idol Lee Hye-ri, noona killer Park Bo-gum, the popular Go Kyung-pyo, and film stars Ryu Jun-yeol and Lee Dong-hwi. While it’s most known for an epic shipping war that split Dramaland down the middle, it’s loved for being a classic slice-of-life drama that resonates deeply with people whether they lived through the era or not. Reply 1988 is simple, heartwarming and relatable with a great soundtrack.

Number 5: Healer

When did it air: 2014/15

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: On the surface, Healer is about a “night courier” (codenamed Healer) and his romance with a Lois Lane-esque celebrity reporter, Chae Young-shin. But what connects the two is a decades-old conspiracy around the illegal pro-democracy broadcasting station their parents were a part of during the Fifth Republic in South Korea in the early 90s. With the help of a famous establishment journalist, they uncover the truth and challenge the shadowy forces that are trying to control modern-day Korea.

What makes it so good: On the surface, Healer is about a superhero in the shadows and his romance with an intrepid reporter: a high energy Parkour-filled romp full of secret identities, espionage and even quite a lot of punching. But while the show’s delightfully deliberate Superman references are a joy and the romance is believable and full of sparks, what sets Healer apart is its exploration of the role of frank and fearless journalism in a functioning democracy. Healer embodies the adage ‘Knowledge is Power’. Ignorance may appear to be bliss but that comfortable complacency is a room you need to escape from. Healer is so popular because it’s fun and cracky but also because it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Number 4: Signal

When did it air: 2016

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: Based on the American film, Frequency, about a cop who communicates with his father across time using a ham radio, Signal is about a cold case profiler from 2015 who communicates with a cop back in 1989 using a walkie talkie. A time-bending crime thriller with a supernatural bent, Signal is about the endless and ongoing fight against corruption and the powerful impact a good superior officer can have on a young police officer finding their feet.

What makes it so good: Genuinely gripping from the first scene, Signal combines the crime and supernatural thriller genres perfectly and uses its strong characterisation and excellent cast to full advantage. Lee Je-hoon (criminal profiler Park Hae-young) and Kim Hye-soo (Detective Cha Soo-Hyun) ooze chemistry and the show creates powerful parallels between the past and the present at every turn. Based on real cases (some of whom inspired other dramas as well), the show is a no-holds barred twisty-turny ride as the teams try to stop the mistakes from the past repeating. Plotting a show like this takes skill and it’s no surprise it was penned by a veteran crime writer who took the supernatural element in stride as well. Fans are still waiting for the promised second season and hopefully it’ll eventuate in 2021.

Number 3: Misaeng

When did it air: 2014

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: Misaeng is Korean for Incomplete Life and that sums up the underlying theme of this deft slice-of-life workplace drama from 2014. Jang Geu-rae is our everyman: a former Go champion forced to sacrifice his dream for the realities of a pay cheque. Misaeng charts the daily life of Geu-rae and his friends and colleagues as he tries to make sense of his new internship at a large multinational corporation.

What makes it so good: Like most slice-of-life dramas, Misaeng is quiet and unpretentious but speaks profoundly to those who identify with the world it depicts. Like all of us, Geu-rae could have been great things if the harsh realities of life hadn’t forced him onto a different path. A victim of the quarter century midlife crisis (what have I been doing with my life?), Geu-rae is so familiar to all of us that, even with his genius, he is an avatar for almost anyone. And yet Misaeng is also a successful ensemble drama that deals with the question of how we survive with the mundanity of the workplace from multiple angles.

Number 2: Forest of Secrets/ Stranger

When did it air: 2017

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: This brilliant study of corruption was (astonishingly) written by a rookie who, despite their lack of experience, penned one of the deftest crime dramas ever written. Following brain damage as a child, Hwang Shi-mok cannot feel emotion but it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a dedicated prosecutor. Following the murder of a man with corrupt connections to many in the prosecution and the corporate world, Shi-mok connects with police officer, Han Yeo-jin on a journey to find the secrets in the dense forest of the Korean justice system.

What makes it so good: Brilliantly and intricately plotted, wonderfully acted, with an amazing soundtrack and artful direction, Forest of Secrets (Stranger) is the whole package. The core of the show is an amazing buddy-cop drama with the seemingly-emotionless Shi-mok fitting perfectly with the warm and quirky Yeo-jin in a perfect partnership. But where the show really shined was in its complex and nuanced portrayal of the humanness of corruption and the fact that the fight against it is eternal. Forest of Secrets gave rise to a 2020 sequel that was possibly even better.

Number 1: My Ajusshi (My Mister)

When did it air: 2018

Where can I watch it: Netflix

What is it about: A study of mediocrity, failure and the dead-end cul-de-ac of middle age, My Ajusshi is a show about a man on the cusp of a midlife crisis and a young woman who never had a youth at all. Park Dong-hoon (played by the star of Oscar-winning film, Parasite, Lee Sun-kyun) is an unhappy structural engineer with two unhappy brothers who are experiencing the existential pangs of midlife failure. He connects with temp Lee Ji-an (IU in her extraordinary – even breathtaking – breakout performance), a woman who has discovered the disappointment of life too soon. My Ajusshi is absolutely not a romance but is instead a story of mutual healing between two people who realise they’re the same despite everything about them that is different.

What makes it so good: My Ajusshi is a transcendentally beautiful piece of television. And like most pieces of art, it has to be felt rather explained. The performances of the entire cast are extraordinary but it’s the sparse script, off-kilter cinematography and haunting pensive OST that give the show a sensibility that’s hypnotic, almost mesmerising. It’s melancholic and a little weird, grim and there’s very little joy in it but the tone and lack of joy is presented in a way that makes it analogous to the disappointments and mindless drudgery of middle-age. But beyond the themes of failure and the cold darkness of winter as a metaphor for dissatisfaction, this is a show about the triumph of kindness. Portrayed so often as a weakness, it is instead Dong-hoon’s kindness that is his greatest strength. It is kindness, community and love that is celebrated and through that celebration this show finds a beauty that transcends mere television. I personally feel it is an uncontroversial best show ever.


22 thoughts on “The Best Korean Dramas – as voted by you!

  1. OMG LT – you have ALL my favorites here. (Although I SUS you and Mindy may have rigged to have INAR and BTLIOF make the cut… Just kidding πŸ˜‰ ) I’ve already shared this onwards with tons of friends who have been misguided for years about what kdramas are really about. Hopefully at least one will convert and I will have one friend IRL to spazz with over these terrific shows.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. if they rigged it, they didn’t rig it enough. INAR, the best drama anyone will ever watch in their lifetime, number TEN only?

      im joking, kindof, but only because i have to admit that the rest of the shows on this list are all really really exceptionally good as well.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. No rigging but a bit of nail biting there at the end (will it make it??)

        It is a fantastic list though, you’ve all done well.

        Like

  2. Wow! I’ve seen 7/10 (yay, for having good taste XD). I think it’s a great list worthy of “Best Kdramas of the Decade”. Too bad I wasn’t around when the voting happened or I would have given 100000pts to Prison Playbook! Heeh.

    Thank you for the article, LT! (omg, i can’t wait for you to check out cherry magic and review the show)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lotus. And, yes, Cherry Magic is on my list! I just need a few days off to really sit down and enjoy it. I’ve heard a lot of really good things about it and it’d be nice to review a Japanese BL for once.

      Like

  3. I’m fairly satisfied! We’ve got Reply 1988 (which I would argue should be second if not first), Signal and My Ahjussi so I think the voters must have had great taste!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I’ve decided it’s probably criminal that no-one considers Buamdong Revenge Club one of the best of the decade! I think if I watched that again, I wouldn’t be bored for a second, and I know you wouldn’t either.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I rewatch it all the time, it’s my stress watch. It’s such a lovely, understated little drama. But that’s the subject of another blog post [spoiler]

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for your hard work LT!!!
    A great selection of dramas and I’m hoping this will encourage more people in my life to start watching kdrama.
    I’ve heard such great things about Reply and Misaeng,can’t wait to try them out πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  5. How close was the margin between one and two? In my head it would go back and forth because they are both perfect. Also, US Netflix subscribers are being robbed of good content.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Really really close. It could have gone either way. Just a few more votes and first and second would have flipped places. And I agree – they’re both pretty well perfect and could easily been a joint first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The dramas that impacted me are, in no particular oder, the following.

        1. Fated to Love You —- Brought Jang Hyuk to my attention. Never noticed him before it. Loved Jang Nara. Loved the first half of the drama. The second half waa not good. This drama broke my heart. I loved the OST.

        2. The Last Empress —- Fell in love with the dark, twisted, deranged hero. SSR was brilliant and charismatic, and I cried for him and Jang Nara. These two loved and hated each other and plotted against each other, but there were moments of sadness and wistfulness and regret for what might have been.. I was consumed by the drama, and wandered about in a daze for days when the drama concluded.

        3. The World of the Married —- Never had a drama affected me so much, I was repulsed and fixated at the same time. The emotions it evoked were so raw and gut-wrenching I was drained at the end of each episode. The level of rage I felt was just so intense I couldn’t breathe in parts.

        4. The Light in Your Eyes —- This was such a beautiful, poignant story about aging, memories, the search for answers, and forgiveness. I cried from start to finish. The end scene still haunts me, even thinking about it now makes my heart ache.

        5. Memories of Alhambra —- I developed a huge crush on Hyun Bin here. The rest of the (unfortunate) story you know. Funny how I loved him here, but found CLoY boring and unengaging. Many people hated this show, but I loved the whole wide-eyed, innocent Candy – cynical Hot Swashbuckling Hero premise.

        It’s weird how Jang Nara is the FL in three of the dramas I like best. There is another drama that she starred in, VIP, which deserves a mention too. She broke my heart in there, too.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I think The Last Empress was the first of the Crackjangs (I’m sure someone will correct me if my timing is off). Such a crazy off the wall drama and unfortunately not a lot of those made it. As I said, there’s a noticeable lack of Makjang in this list. Although, even though World of the Married is also Crackjang I think it mostly fell through the cracks since it aired this year and voting for this might have started before it aired or when it was airing.

        But the drama that you mention that I think could have been here was Light In Your Eyes. Such a beautiful and devastating show. But slightly polarising too. Some people didn’t like how it played out and as we saw with another high-profile but polarising drama that made the finals but not the Top Ten (Goblin, alright, it was Goblin), the way this poll was conducted tended to sift those out.

        Thanks for your list, it’s interesting the shows that had the most impact on people.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. ‘My Mister’ is my favourite show (of all time) as well.
    Sadly I can’t rewatch it since it’s so beautiful.
    Even the song from the show can evoke a deep emotional response.

    Also I recently checked out I am not a Robot, which is a show I had decided not to watch but am so glad I did.
    And that’s a thanks to your post on it.

    I think there are 2 more shows which should make the list IMO
    Be Melodramatic and Live. Hoping to see your views on them soon

    Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh I’m so glad that I convinced you to check out I’m Not a Robot and that you enjoyed it. It’s definitely high on the list of underrated little gems. I also think My Ajusshi is one of the most profoundly beautiful pieces of television I’ve ever seen. It deserves its top spot (although I think that Forest of Secrets is a brilliant piece of work too with a lot of insightful points to make about corruption).

      Thanks for the recs of Be Melo and Live. I’ll add them to my truly ridiculous To Watch list.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you, thank you for the list Lee Tennant. Thank you for sharing your thoughts too, along with the list. And this is my first visit to your blog, looking forward to read more.

    The list brought back really good memories. I have just rewatched Misaeng again after a few years. It has not aged a bit! However, I have, and I saw it differently. Baekki’s kindness winning over his pettiness. The full extent of Manager Oh’s affection for “uri maekne”. That line “uri, gachi, gesok”.

    One drama I wish to mention is Just Between Lovers. And speaking of Junho, Chief Kim too. And any drama in the future Junho is in πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

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