THE ULTIMATE K-DRAMA STARTER PACK: WHAT TO WATCH & WHY
All hail the K-drama in all its enthralling, addictive glory. Short for Korean television drama, the K-drama has long been one of the central mainstays of the ‘Hallyu Wave’ – the exponentially influential wave of South Korean pop culture taking the world by storm – its exports include music, films and TV shows, gaming, fashion, beauty – and even cuisine. The ‘Hallyu Wave’ phenomenon has overseen 3 distinct eras since its origins in 1980-90, and alongside K-pop, the humble status of the K-drama has also evolved with the times. Starting with a flourishing number of East, South, and Southeast Asian viewers that boosted the success of K-dramas such as Winter Sonata (2002), My Girl (2005), Boys over Flowers (2009), Coffee Prince (2007), and Jumong (2006-07), today’s international K-drama audience base points to viewers across virtually every continent – with contemporary shows Itaewon Class (2020), It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020), Crash Landing On You (2019-20), and Start-Up (2020) performing exceedingly well outside South Korea. While the cultural cachet has been over decades in the making, the pandemic has undoubtedly ushered in a new cohort of K-drama fans.
Now that K-drama titles and actors such as Park Seo-joon, Lee Min-ho, Hyun Bin, and Jun Ji-hyun have catapulted in recognition outside of their domestic fanbase, we can see the permeating popularity of K-dramas through their extensive offerings on streaming services such as Hulu, and the release of Netflix’s first confirmed original K-drama, Love Alarm in 2019. We are truly living through a K-drama golden renaissance overflowing with compelling narratives, dazzling casts, and exceptional production – and part of the overarching success of these dramas can be attributed to their formulaic approach (although there are a few exceptions). A typical K-drama consists of a single season that ranges between 16 to 20 episodes; each lasting around an hour in duration, and aired twice a week. The relatively brief run-time of a current drama allows the average viewer to swiftly binge-watch a staggering number of shows – and with that comes the recognition of recurrent tropes and motifs. Without further ado, we’ll be delving into the most common of these tropes in this starter pack for all things K-dramas.
The Love Triangle
It’s a classic, boy-meets-girl heteronormative love story between our protagonists, complicated by the arrival of (usually) another male character, giving viewers plenty to buzz about with romantic competition and a gripping stand-off between the 2 handsome beaus. Numerous iconic love triangles within K-drama history have given rise to what is known as ‘2nd lead syndrome’: when a sizable portion of the audience ships the 2nd male lead with the female lead, as they are somewhat a better emotional or satisfying pairing. Love triangles result in split fandoms and heartbroken viewers, with each side furiously supporting their favourite character as they spend the bulk of the drama vying over the female lead’s affections. Frustratingly, the endings of most K-drama love triangles are entirely predictable, though recent subversions show a fresh and rejuvenated approach to their formulated narratives.
Some stand-out challenges to central couples include broody Han Seo-jun in 2020-2021’s True Beauty (played by the impossibly handsome Hwang In-youp) and his attempt to wrestle Lim Ju-kyung (Moon Ga-young) away from Lee Su-ho (Astro’s Cha Eun-woo); spunky Kim Shin-hyuk (played by Choi Si-won from Super Junior) and his impressive tenacity against Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) for the heart of Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) in She Was Pretty (2015), and Love Alarm’s (2019-21) sweet Lee Hye-yeong’s (Jung Ga-ram) foil to Hwang Sun-oh’s (Song Kang) and Kim Jo-jo’s (Kim So-hyun) eventful, yet toxic relationship. There’s even the oblivious Dr Jung Jae-yi (Lee Jae-yoon), who unknowingly comes between his younger brother Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) and his crush Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) in the eponymously titled Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016-17).
L to R: Seo-jun, Ju-kyung, and Su-ho of True Beauty
Admittedly, I’ve suffered from the ‘2nd lead syndrome’ curse and its ensuing heartbreak more times than I’d like to admit, especially in the cases of True Beauty, Love Alarm, and Hwarang. You can thank the writing team behind these crushing plotlines – K-drama newbies, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
More recommended viewing: Romance is a Bonus Book (2019), Strong Woman Bong-Soon (2017), Start-Up (2020), Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016-17), The Heirs (2013), Reply 1988 (2015), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Cheese in the Trap (2016), Oh My Ghost (2015), Record of Youth (2020), Reply 1994 (2013)
The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ couple
Whether our main lovers are separated by economic class lines, political family lines, or quite literal geographical demarcation lines, the ‘forbidden lovers’ trope remains extremely popular among K-dramas due to the levels of danger and adrenaline-inducing risk involved. There also remains the fantastical, earnest invitation to dream of an unlikely future for the star-crossed couple.
In Crash Landing On You, the chance encounter between protagonists Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) – the haughty CEO heiress of a chaebol family – and Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin) of the Korean People’s Army, is set in motion by Se-ri’s freak storm paragliding accident across the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Since the odds of their meeting were inconceivably slim to begin with, so does their prospective future split across the border seem impossible, with plenty of barriers to overcome. Of the dramas exploring love across class divisions, The Heirs (2013) remains a classic. Cha Eun-sang (Park Shin-hye) – a high schooler and poverty-stricken daughter of a lowly maid – finds her world turned upside down when she falls in love with the affluent son of a powerful conglomerate family, Kim Tan (Lee Min-ho). Through a web of messy turns and events, Eun-sang’s transfer to Tan’s high school, which doubles up as a toxic playground for the children of the privileged and uber-elite, introduces her to a cut-throat world of social exclusion, status, and family politics. In perhaps the most eyebrow-raising ‘Romeo and Juliet’ situation, the couple falls in love while living under the pretence of being family members, lending another layer of taboo to ‘forbidden lovers.’ Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016-17) utilises this plot device when Moo-myung (Park Seo-joon) is forced to secretly assume the identity of his slain best friend; the long-lost brother of Kim Ah-ro (Go Ara) – to her complete obliviousness. As they spend time together, navigating through numerous plots and turmoil in the treacherous Silla kingdom, they develop feelings for each other – despite their ‘sibling’ status. Combined with love triangles, betrayals, and narrative twists, the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ trope lives on as a hallmark of K-dramas and firm fan-favourite.
Not even a militarized border can come between Crash Landing’s Se-ri and Jeong-hyuk
More recommended viewing: Encounter (2018-19), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Bring it on, Ghost (2016), Jugglers (2017), My Girl (2005), Secret Garden (2010), Mr Sunshine (2018), Summer Scent (2003), Something in the Rain (2018), Temptation (2014), You’re Beautiful (2009), Secret Affair (2014)
The Beauty Makeover or Plastic Surgery Transformation
Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and the interior workers of K-drama writer rooms are no exception. With the popularity of plastic surgery ‘tweakments’ and a world-leading beauty industry, most Korean audience members are no strangers to topics of cosmetic makeovers and issues of societal lookism. In K-dramas, transformations are a common trope, employed as often as forbidden love, mistaken identities, and amnesia.
True Beauty (2020-21), based on the popular webtoon of the same name, features meek high-school student Lim Ju-kyung (Moon Ga-young), who is relentlessly bullied until she discovers the power of makeup and transfers to a new school, earning the title of ‘goddess’ due to her impeccable allure. Similarly, the character Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) undergoes a transformation midway through She Was Pretty, when she straightens her frizzy hair, conceals her signature flushed freckles, and dons more sleek and stylish outfits while working at The Most. It’s a ‘glow-up’ to match that of Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – after all, both Hye-jin and Andy wind up working at glossy fashion magazines, and are coerced into looking the part, too. My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018) explores the consequences of young college student Kang Mi-Rae’s (Im Soo-hyang) plastic surgery procedure, and the ensuing backlash from her peers as they label her ‘강남 미인’ (Gangnam miin, meaning ‘Gangnam beauty’), a derogatory term for those who have undergone the knife for cosmetic reasons. In the case of Gangnam Beauty, Mi-Rae’s transformation isn’t depicted as a celebratory moment, so much as a conversation-starter for addressing impossible beauty standards for women. Whether written for humour or a wider critique of society-at-large, the transformational makeover is a rich, recurrent K-drama motif for the modern age.
Hye-jin before and after her Mostesque makeover in She Was Pretty
More recommended viewing: Oh My Venus (2015), The Beauty Inside (2018), Birth of a Beauty (2014-15), Perfume (2019), Miss Korea (2013-14), The Secret Life of My Secretary (2019), Dream High (2011)
The Time Travel Adventure
Entering the realm of science-fiction, the time travel plotline is beloved among many K-drama fans, namely for its introduction of mystery, intrigue, and peril. Characters face fatalistic choices – should they alter the course of history, with the perspective of hindsight? Would they make different choices in their past? How would a glimpse of the future change their present way of living?
For troubled 25-year-old Go Ha-jin (Lee Ji-eun, otherwise known as national sweetheart IU), a near-death accident during a lunar eclipse transports her to the Goryeo Dynasty, under the formidable rule of King Taejo in tear-jerker Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016). While living in the body of noble lady Hae Soo, Ha-jin is caught within the web of the royal family; tethered between the affections of 4th Prince Wang So (Lee Joon-gi) and 8th Prince Wang Wook (Kang Ha-neul), while she attempts to change the bloody fate of future King Gwangjong, and therefore altering Korea’s history. Moon Lovers remains a deeply beloved drama for its swooning romance scenes and lightning chemistry between IU and Lee Joon-gi, but its sorrowful, yet creative depiction of historical events makes for plenty of entertainment for romance and history fans alike. In a similar vein, The King: Eternal Monarch (2020), known for its highly-anticipated ensemble cast and production, also deals with time travel with the bonus intrigue of parallel universes. Emperor Lee Gon (Lee Min-ho), the 3rd King of Corea discovers a portal to modern-day Korea; a new universe where each character’s counterpart exists in tandem with the current word. Amidst the complexities of moving between the two parallel universes, Lee Gon must race to stop his father’s killer, his half-uncle Lee Lim (Lee Jung-jin), and stake revenge. In a more comical spin, Rooftop Prince (2012) also addresses the chaotic implications of time travel, when the Crown Prince of Joseon (Park Yoo-chun) Lee-gak and his counsel randomly land on the rooftop of his reincarnate Tae-yong (also played by Park Yoochun) 300 years into the future, in present-day Seoul. While time travel narratives can often become marred by confusing timelines and cumbersome pacing, they are nevertheless engaging and offer a refreshing break from more conventional K-dramas.
The cast of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
More recommended viewing: Mr Queen (2020), Chicago Typewriter (2017), Signal (2016), Marry Him if You Dare (2013), Sisyphus: The Myth (2021), Familiar Wife (2018), Queen In-Hyun's Man (2012), Tunnel (2017), Queen And I (2012), Faith (2012), Splash Splash Love (2015), Go Back Couple (2017), Hit The Top (2017), Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)
The High School or College Drama
While most of us wouldn’t dream of reliving the awkwardness of our high school or college years, we can still allow ourselves to romanticise the coming-of-age experience and all the highs and lows that come along with growing a little wiser.
Set at a sports college, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016-17) is a charming drama following the eponymous Kim Bok-joo and her friends as they work towards becoming professional weightlifters. While Weightlifting Fairy is based on the life of Olympic bronze, silver, and gold medalist Jang Mi-ran, the plot takes liberties with her college experience: there’s a central love triangle, but Bok-joo eventually falls for aspiring swimmer Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) – the on-screen chemistry between the leads is so palpable that the co-stars eventually dated for a while after filming. The 2nd instalment of the famed Reply series, Reply 1994 (2013), is another university-set drama, following the lives of six students and their stay in a boarding house in Seoul. Whereas most dramas follow a purely fictitious narrative, the Reply series is often praised for its interweaving of culturally significant events into their show writing, in addition to its intriguing use of nonlinear storytelling. Starring Go Ara, Jung Woo, Yoo Yeon-seok, Cha Sun-woo (otherwise known as ‘Baro’), Kim Sung-kyun, and Son Ho-jun, Reply 1994 takes a nostalgic look at student life in the 90s, as well as being one of the best heart-warming shows around. For a darker spin on the high school drama, Extracurricular (2020) – starring Kim Dong-hee, Park Ju-hyun, and Jung Da-bin – tells the story of a group of students turning to a nefarious life of crime. It’s atypical, gripping, and totally binge-worthy.
The weightlifting sports team in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo
More recommended viewing: Cheese in the Trap (2016), True Beauty (2020-21), The Heirs (2013), Love Alarm (2019-21), Dream High (2011), My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018), Hip Hop King: Nassna Street (2019), Hello, My Twenties! (2016-17), Heartstrings (2011), Go Back Couple (2017), When My Love Blooms (2020), Tempted (2020), Sweet Revenge (2017), Extraordinary You (2019), At Eighteen (2019), Cheer Up! (2015), Schoolgirl Detectives (2014), Orange Marmalade (2015), Who Are You: School 2015 (2015), To the Beautiful You (2012), White Christmas (2011), Hi! School: Love On (2014), Reply 1997 (2012), School 2013 (2012)
Tales of fantasy, mystery, and the supernatural are hugely popular among K-drama audiences; ghost stories are a favourite, followed by chronicles of the folkloric nine-tailed gumiho or malevolent demons, alien encounters, and terrifying zombie attacks.
One such drama that explores life after death is Hotel del Luna (2019); a fun-packed story of a hotel for ghosts, owned by Jang Man-wol (IU) and managed by Gu Chan-sung (Yeo Jin-goo). All guests and staff members remain as spirits due to their unfinished business on earth, abiding by guidelines set by the deity Mago (Yi-suk Seo) and the Grim Reaper (Kang Hong-seok) – while the hotel itself stays invisible to the living. In the Joseon-period horror Kingdom (2019-20), Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) and his royal subjects must survive a devastating zombie plague, all while investigating the murkiness surrounding the late King’s death. As the first K-drama to physically stream on Netflix, Kingdom’s popularity garnered the show a second season, due to its captivating combination of historical events, political plotlines, and harrowing zombie narrative. For fans seeking a less terrifying drama, the romance classic My Love from the Star (2016), starring Jun Ji-hyun as top actress Cheon Song-yi, and Kim Soo-hyun as Do Min-joon – a stranded extra-terrestrial who first landed on Earth in the Joseon Dynasty – explores a blossoming love between a human and an alien. The supernatural fascination of human-non-human relationships has long existed in the public imagination, but My Love from the Star somehow perfects this with tantalising promise, giving us a highly recognisable OST in the process too.
IU as the perfectly spooky ghost proprietor in Hotel del Luna]
More recommended viewing: Legend of the Blue Sea (2016), Oh My Ghost (2015), Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (2016-17), Bring it on, Ghost (2016), Arang and the Magistrate (2012), My Girlfriend is a Gumiho (2010), Black (2017), Orange Marmalade, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Sweet Home, He is Psychometric (2019), The Uncanny Counter (2020), Blood (2015), My Roommate is a Gumiho (2021), A Korean Odyssey (2017), Chicago Typewriter (2017), Master’s Sun (2013), W: Two Worlds Apart (2016), The Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015), Gu Family Book (2013), Possessed (2019)
The Sageuk Period Drama
For fans of period settings, you can’t go amiss with the sageuk drama – covering the lives of royals, noblemen, and the peasant classes during the various Korean dynasties (namely Goguryeo, Goryeo and Joseon). Asides from exquisite costume design featuring traditional hanboks, intricate hanok and palace architecture, and sweeping nature cinematography, sageuk dramas remain popular due to their romantic and political appeal – characters are often forced to make life-altering decisions such as marrying, choosing allyship, and fighting for the nation, or evading dire situations such as executions and prisoner escapes.
Set in the early 1900s, Mr Sunshine (2018) is a critically-acclaimed drama depicting Joseon independence fighters prior to Korea’s occupation by Japanese forces. Starring Lee Byun-hun as protagonist Eugene Choi – an American adoptee and Captain in the US Marine Corps, originally born as a Korean slave under the name Choi Yoo-jin – and Kim Tae-ri as noblewoman Go Ae-shin, the drama follows Ae-shin’s involvement in the Righteous Army and her forbidden romance with Cpt. Eugene. Difficult decisions are made due to warring allegiances, characters face assassinations and treachery, against the political backdrop of the brink of Joseon’s independence, making Mr Sunshine an excellent drama to binge on. Similarly, Gunman in Joseon (2014) starring seasoned sageuk actor Lee Joon-gi as Park Yoon-kang, explores great change and upheaval in the Joseon dynasty. Set in the late 19th century, Yoon-kang is forced to trade his craft as the last great swordsman for a new Western-made rifle in order to protect his people, in the violent conflict between the Sugu and Kaehwa political factions.
More recommended viewing: Jumong (2006-07), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016-17), The King: Eternal Monarch (2020), The Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015), Arang and the Magistrate (2012), Kingdom (2019-20), Rooftop Prince (2012), Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019), Empress Ki (2013), Love In the Moonlight (2016), Queen Seonduk (2009), Faith (2012), My Sassy Girl (2017), Iljimae (2008), Gu Family Book (2013), Rebel: Thief Who Stole The People (2017), Six Flying Dragons (2015), The King in Love (2017), 100 Days My Prince (2018), Haechi (2019), Queen for Seven Days (2017), My Country: The New Age (2019), Crowned Clown (2019)
The Serial Killer or Abduction Plot
True crime fans rejoice. While K-dramas are usually recognised for their sweeping romance plots and adorable aegyo moments, there’s also a huge selection of sensational thrillers focusing on grizzly murders and investigation units.
Flower of Evil (2020) focuses on the enigmatic life of Baek Hee-sung (Lee Joon-gi), a metal craftsman happily married to his police detective wife Cha Ji-won (Moon Chae-won), except his true identity is that of Do Hyun-soo, the son of notorious serial killer Do Min-Seok (Choi Byung-mo). As a series of murder investigations picks up again after 18 years, Detective Ji-won is confronted with her husband’s dark past – and possible involvement. The tense drama is riddled with unexpected twists and turns, as it explores what it means to truly know someone – even if that person is your spouse. The adorable drama Strong Woman Bong-soon (2017), more often known for its fan-divisive love triangle, delightful supporting cast, and enchanting romance between Do Bong-soon (Park Bo-young) and Ahn Min-hyuk (Park Hyung-sik), tells the story of a young woman with hereditary superhuman strength. However, the chilling backdrop of serial abductions in Bong-soon’s local district means she’ll need to partner up with her childhood crush – police officer In Guk-doo (Ji Soo) – to keep Min-hyuk safe, and use her strength to catch the culprit. When the Camellia Blooms (2019) is another award-winning drama that drew praise for its mesh of romantic comedy and thriller. Oh Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) is a single mother who has recently relocated to a new town – and to the shock of the locals, opens up a bar called ‘Camellia’. Young and naive local police officer Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul) falls in love with her – but his unrequited love becomes complicated when a serial killer named ‘Joker’ targets Dong-baek as his next victim.
More recommended viewing: Stranger (2017), Extracurricular (2020), Gap-Dong (2014), Less Than Evil (2018), Memorist (2020), Voice (2017-2021), Tell Me What You Saw (2020), Suspicious Partner (2017), Train (2020), Beyond Evil (2021), Tunnel (2017), Mouse (2021), Dark Hole (2021), Watcher (2019), Nobody Knows (2020), Defendant (2017), Possessed (2019), Criminal Minds (2017), Signal (2015), Voice (2017-21)
The Kkangpae Gangster Drama
K-dramas depicting the lives of gangsters, or kkangpae as they are known in Korea, were exceptionally popular in the early to mid-2010s. With overlapping plotlines centring on revenge, corruption, and vigilantism, most gangster dramas balance equal levels of grit and slickness.
Lawless Lawyer (2018) is one such thriller that focuses on gangster-turned-lawyer Bong Sang-pil (Lee Joon-gi), raised by his uncle’s gang after the unjust murder of his mother – understandably, he isn’t afraid to use his fists as and when needed. Able to seamlessly exploit loopholes in the law to win cases, Sang-pil teams up with fellow lawyer and love interest Ha Jae-yi (Seo Yea-ji) – who is mysteriously connected to his past – to seek vengeance for his mother. For those looking for a lighter-hearted yet tightly-paced show, Netflix hit Vincenzo (2021) tells the story of Italian lawyer and Mafia consigliere Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joon-ki), who departs Italy following the death of his boss and adopted father, and returns to Seoul to take on the conglomerate Babel Group – reclaiming hidden gold from Geumga Plaza. Amongst his new team are young and plucky associate Hong Cha-young (Jeon Yeo-been), and her righteous father lawyer Hong Yoo-chan (played by the excellent veteran Yoo Jae-myung). Filled with quirky characters and a plethora of comedic moments, Vincenzo is an unconventional gangster drama measured with a perfect dose of silliness.
Lawyers in crime. Mafia consigliere and Vincenzo Cassano and Hong Cha-Young, Vincenzo
More recommended viewing: Puck! (2016), Bad Guys (2014), Heartless City (2013), Two Weeks (2013), Sweet, Savage Family (2015), Last (2015), Triangle (2014), Cruel City (2013), When a Man Falls in Love (2013), Giant (2010), Healer (2014-15), Time Between Dog and Wolf (2007), Lovers of Haeundae (2012), Come Back Mister (2016)
The Gender Disguise
Any OG K-drama fan will instantly recognise the gender disguise trope – usually a variation on a theme of a female character disguising herself as a male, only for her ruse to spectacularly backfire when she falls in love. Otherwise known as ‘gender bender’ shows, these dramas also include comical instances of Freaky Friday-style body swaps, while also traversing more serious topics of forbidden love and sexuality.
In Coffee Prince (2007), Choi Han-kyul (Gong Yoo) is the affluent and carefree grandson of a successful company chairwoman, and has never had a job. When his grandmother threatens to withdraw her financial support, Han-kyul faces an ultimatum. To redeem himself to his grandmother while also impressing his first love Han Yoo-joo (Chae Jung-an), he must successfully run a coffee shop, ‘Coffee Prince’ – and employs tomboy Go Eun-chan (Yoon Eun-hye), whom he believes to be a man. Romance soon blooms, which complicates matters further. The Tale of Nokdu (2019) is a more recent sageuk offering, following a young man, Jeon Nok-du (Jang Dong-yoon), as he disguises himself as a woman in order to enter an elusive village, where the truth of his birth may be found. Kim So-hyun plays Dong Dong-joo, a vengeful gisaeng (performing courtesan) in training, who befriends him.
Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun-hye in the K-drama classic Coffee Prince]
More recommended viewing: Painter of the Wind (2008), You’re Beautiful (2009), To the Beautiful You (2012), Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), Love In the Moonlight (2016), Nail Shop Paris (2013-14), Secret Garden (2010), The Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015), Splendid Politics (2015), Ma Boy (2012), Mr Queen (2020), Splash Splash Love (2015)
The Childhood ‘First Loves’
K-dramas are undoubtedly fond of the ‘first love’ trope – either childhood crushes who meet again as adults (usually unrecognisably so), or lifelong friends that become lovers over time.
Fight for My Way (2017) is a delightful drama exploring the lives of four friends as they pursue their abandoned passions and dreams. There’s Ko Dong-man (Park Seo-joon), a disgraced taekwondo fighter finally pursuing a future in MMA; Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won), a headstrong woman with dreams of becoming an MC; Kim Joo-man (Ahn Jae-hong), a spiritless office worker in a six-year relationship with the meek, but loyal Baek Seol-hee (Song Ha-yoon). Dong-man and Ae-ra’s deep friendship over the years and their suppression of feelings for one another as adults means that Fight for My Way is one of the more enduring romantic dramas – viewers can expect plenty of highly realistic and adorably awkward scenes. Another ‘first love’ show, Radio Romance (2018) stars Kim So-hyun as Song Geu-rim, and Yoon Doo-joon as Ji Soo-hoo, who first meet in the hospital as teenagers, but have since diverged onto separate life paths. Geu-rim is a radio station writer who aspires to greatness, while Soo-hoo is a successful, but lonely actor. When Geu-rim casts Soo-hoo in order to secure her future, they meet again; though their initial dislike of each other soon paves way to affection, especially when Soo-hoo remembers his first love.
Childhood loves and the couple to root for, Dong-man and Ae-ra, in Fight for My Way
More recommended viewing: True Beauty (2020-21), She Was Pretty (2015), Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016), Reply 1997 (2012), Love Rain (2012), School 2017 (2017), My Cute Guys (2013), I Can Hear Your Voice (2013), Who Are You: School 2015 (2015), Love in the Moonlight (2016), Princess Hours (2006)
The Cold or Absent Mother
Dramas depicting difficult childhoods and parental trauma often involve emotionally distant – or even absent – mothers. Often shown as an omnipresent obstacle to the main couple’s relationship, or as a psychological source of unhappiness for the lead, the cold mother trope remains popular across contemporary shows for dramatic effect (I’m just glad that the ‘mother splashing water’ trope has toned down somewhat in recent years!).
The combination of actress Song Seon-mi’s wintery allure and pristine beauty has seen her cast as cold and aloof mothers in high-profile dramas Love Alarm (2019-21) and Start-Up (2020); as Hwang Sun-oh’s celebrity mother Jeong Mi-mi, and Seo Dal-mi’s calculative mother Cha Ah-hyun respectively. In both dramas, her characters face unhappy and loveless marriages, leading to strained relationships with her children. Perhaps the most universally agreed upon villainous mother in K-drama history is Kim Mi-yeon (Gil Hae-yeon) of Something in the Rain (2018). As the mother of female lead Yoon Jin-ah (Son Ye-jin), Mi-yeon is fixated on status and tirelessly coerces her daughter to find a husband from a prestigious family – driving a wedge between Jin-ah and her younger love interest Seo Joon-hee (Jung Hae-in), and even becoming physically abusive and destructive in the process. The abhorrent means by which Mi-yeon tries to control her daughter’s life has been well discussed in the K-drama community, with some even dedicating whole blog posts and forums to this most nefarious character.
Cha Ah-hyun, the frosty and absent mother of Seo Dal-mi in Start-Up
More recommended viewing: The Heirs (2013), Fight for My Way (2017), Boys over Flowers (2009), Pinocchio (2014), Secret Garden (2010), Strong Woman Bong-soon (2017), My Lovely Sam Soon (2005), My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018), Another Miss Oh (2016), Sky Castle (2018-19), When The Camellia Blooms (2018)
The Chaebol Family or Corporate World
For those looking for a masterclass in ruthless manipulation and cunning, look no further than the chaebol family drama. A portmanteau of the Korean terms for wealth (‘chae’) and clique (‘bol’), chaebol is used to describe powerful conglomerate families – in K-dramas, unusually young and dashing men arise to CEO or ‘rich son’ roles, fitted in designer suits and characterised by lives of opulence.
Those looking for a K-drama equivalent of NYC’s Gossip Girl may turn to the teenage worlds of The Heirs (2013) and High Society (2015), but if you’re looking for heavier topics, heightened realism, and unnervingly tense drama, Sky Castle (2018-19) and The Penthouse: War in Life (2020-21) best deliver on these promises. Sky Castle focuses on a group of wealthy housewives living in an exclusive residential area in Seoul of the same name. Through conniving means, they push their children to elite universities and spur on their ambitious husbands, attaining competition through measured success. Starring a formidable lineup of Yum Jung-ah, Yoon se-ah, Oh Na-ra, Lee Tae-ran, and Kim Seo-hyung as steely wives and ruthless mothers, the calculating premise of Sky Castle grants a whole new meaning to ‘tiger parenting’. A recent release in the same vein is Penthouse, whose premise also centers around the drastic lengths a group of women would take in order to secure success and scramble to the top. A hazardous war of real estate and education ensues, ensnaring Shim Su-ryeon (Lee Ji-ah), Cheon Seo-jin (Kim So-yeon), and Oh Yoon-hee (Eugene) in its ugly stead.
The cast of Penthouse
More recommended viewing: W: Two Worlds Apart (2016), Monster (2016), Start-Up (2020), What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim (2018), Suits (2018), Crash Landing On You (2019-20), Revolutionary Love (2017), Cinderella and the Four Knights (2016), Boys Over Flowers (2009), Strong Woman Bong-Soon (2017), Secret Garden (2010), Elegant/Graceful Family (2019), Cheongdam-Dong Alice (2012), My Fair Lady (2009), Secret Love (2013), Tempted (2018), I Am Not A Robot (2017-18), The Secret Life of My Secretary (2019), Encounter (2018-19), Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (2016)
As much as we love K-dramas for their original storylines and identifiable tropes, there are several shows that manage to exceed expectations as adaptations of beloved international TV dramas, films, and books.
Suits (2018) follows the young and prodigious Go Yeon-woo (Park Hyung-sik) as a rookie lawyer under the wing of exalted Choi Kang-Seok (Jang Dong-gun) in this smooth remake of the hit US show of the same name. Expect to see fast-moving cases, masterly wit, and the rest of the quick-witted legal team: Ko Sung-hee as Rachel Zane’s equivalent Kim Ji-na, Chae Jung-an as Donna Paulsen’s Hong Da-ham, and Jin Hee-kyung as Kang Ha-yeon, co-founder of “Kang&Ham” and Jessica Pearson’s match. Tempted (2018) is a dark and sensual retelling of 18th century French novel Les Liasons dangereuses. Set against a college backdrop, the show follows chaebol heir Kwon Si-hyeon (Woo Do-hwan), seductress Choi Su-ji (Moon Ga-young), the rich playboy Lee Se-ju (Kim Min-jae), and the innocent Eun Tae-hee (Red Velvet’s Joy), as they are embroiled in a dangerous game of love and manipulation. The K-drama remake of BBC’s Docter Foster, The World of the Married (2020), is a terse melodrama filled with thrilling scenes – after the marriage between respected doctor Ji Sun-woo (Kim Hee-ae) and director Lee Tae-oh (Park Hae-joon) disintegrates due to the discovery of Tae-oh’s affair, the coupleis led down a road of destruction, further betrayal, and revenge. The World of the Married received wide critical acclaim for its stellar performances and writing, its season finale surpassing that of Sky Castle. Fans of melodrama and tightly paced shows can expect to enjoy a wild ride of these offerings from beginning to end.
The cast of Tempted – loosely based on Les Liasons dangereuses and a contender to Cruel Intentions
More recommended viewing: Boys Over Flowers (2009), That Winter, The Wind Blows (2013), To the Beautiful You (2012), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), A Korean Odyssey (2017), Come Back Mister (2016), My Absolute Boyfriend (2019), The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (2018), Love Affairs in the Afternoon (2019), Master of Study (2010), Mother (2018), The Good Wife (2016), Entourage (2016), Criminal Minds (2017), Life on Mars (2018), Mistress (2018), Less Than Evil (2018-19), Designated Survivor: 60 Days (2019)
The K-Idol Role or Cameo
With more K-pop idols transitioning into the acting industry over the years (BTS’s Jin, we see you and are waiting for you!), expect to see more idol cameos and appearances in your typical dramas, with plenty even capturing main roles. Standout dramas to spot your favourite idols include Dream High (2011) – a super meta exploration of high school students aspiring to become K-pop stars, starring the likes of miss A’s Bae Suzy, 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon and Jang Woo-young, T-ara’s Ham Eun-jung, and IU. Sageuk drama Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth also boasts an impressive cohort of idols – with ZE:A member Park Hyung-sik playing the 2nd lead role of Kim Ji-dwi – and BTS’s Kim Tae-hyung (otherwise known as V) and Shinee’s Choi Min-ho starring in supporting roles. For more stars in sageuk roles, you can catch IU, EXO’s Baekhyun and Girls’ Generation’s Seohyun in Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. She Was Pretty also offers a generous offering of K-idol appearances – former Sugar member Hwang Jung-Eum plays the lead role of Kim Hye-jin, Super Junior’s Choi Si-won plays 2nd lead Kim Shin-hyuk, and we’re treated to the following lineup of singer cameos: Im Kang-sung, Lee Joon-gi, Seo In-guk, former After School member Uee, Park Hyung-sik, and Richard Poon.
The boys of Hwarang. Can you spot your faves?
More recommended viewing: Start-Up (2020), Hotel del Luna (2019-20), True Beauty (2020-21), Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019), Strong Woman Bong Soon (2017), Angel’s Last Mission: Love (2019), Bring it On, Ghost (2016), Tempted 2020), Save Me (2017), Rich Man (2018), My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018), My First Love (2019), While You Were Sleeping (2017), Vagabond (2019), Medical Top Team (2013), Suits (2018), Reply 1994 (2013), 100 Days My Prince (2018), The Producers (2015)
The Eternal Friendship Group
With the majority of TV tropes covered, we’re missing all but arguably the most wholesome aspect of the mighty K-drama – that is, the deep bond of friendship, and the hilarity, tears, and adventures that come with our ultimate squad goals.
Welcome to Waikiki (2018) introduces us to an eccentric group of misfits, who run a guest house named “Waikiki” in order to raise money for producing their first film. It stars the talents of Kim Jung-hyun as Kang Dong-gu, a hopeless romantic trying to get over his ex, Min Soo-ah (Lee Joo-woo); Lee Yi-kyung as the hilariously unlucky aspiring actor Lee Joon-ki; Son Seung-won as freelance writer Bong Doo-sik; Ko Won-hee as Dong-gu’s sister Kang Seo-jin nicknamed “Chewbacca”; and Jung In-sun as Han Yoon-ah, a clumsy single-mother of baby Sol who winds up staying at Waikiki in exchange for housework. Though they seem like a lost cause, their hysterical antics and mishaps make for hilarious entertainment, and is the perfect drama for true laugh-out-loud moments. Reply 1988 (2015), as part of the hallowed Reply series, also serves just as many memorable instances of unbreakable friendship. Sung Duk-seon (Lee Hye-ri), Choi Taek (Park Bo-gum), Seong Sun-woo (Go Kyung-pyo), Kim Jung-hwan (Ryu Jun-yeol), and Ryu Dong-ryong (Lee Dong-hwi) are Ssangmun-dong neighbourhood friends that constantly crash each other’s houses to watch movies together. As they grow, the show follows their deep friendship over the years in the most realistic sense; they pursue dreams and careers, experience family hardships, heartbreak, and love, but remain tethered to each other through thick and thin. Reply 1988 is a wonderful testament to the beauty and simplicity of true friendship, and makes for the ultimate feel-good K-drama for your next watch.
The loveable Reply 1988 Ssangmun-dong gang
More recommended viewing: Fight for My Way (2017), Itaewon Class (2020), Reply 1997 (2012), Reply 1994 (2013), Hospital Playlist (2020), Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016), Flower Band (2012), Because This Is My First Life (2017), Cheer Up! (2015-16), Prison Playbook (2017), Chicago Typewriter (2017), Dear My Friends (2016), Hello, My Twenties! (2016-17), Drinking Solo (2016), Avengers Social Club (2017), Beautiful Gong Shim (2016), Dr Romantic (2016)