what a time to have been indoors. the majority of 2020 was spent on lockdown and I spent the early months of COVID-19 quarantine bingeing on old school K-dramas which you can read about here.
now that 2020 is about to wrap up, let’s rank the best K-dramas of 2020 in order.
You can’t fight me on this. When it comes to high stakes drama, this is it. There’s a reason why World of the Married has the highest cable ratings of all time (as of December 2020) outdoing another JTBC drama SKYCastle (2018). World of the Married is written by Kang Eun-kyung who wrote the hit series Baker King Kim Takgu which also achieved record breaking ratings 10 years ago and earned Yoon Shi-yoon a Best New Actor Award in 2010. similar to SKYCastle, World of the Married‘s pilot episode ends at such a high point of dramatic intensity that it’s impossible to watch without gasping. I gasped very loudly and walked around my room alone yelling, “oh my god” over and over again.
Netflix really outdid itself this year by picking up exclusive US rights to some top notch storytelling and high-end production value Korean TV series from tvN. Crashlanding on You brings together two very attractive veteran K-drama actors Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, and is set in both Seoul and Pyongyang. It began airing in December 2019 through the early months of 2020. Right as the series was winding down, COVID-19 cases began to rise. I’m sure pretty much anyone watching K-dramas binge-watched this series during quarantine.
#3: Itaewon Class
JTBC has been impressive this past year with some groundbreaking dramatic series that targets a younger audience. I saw a lot of reactions and responses to Itaewon Class on TikTok. It gained massive popularity for its refreshing storytelling, complex characters, and excellent music. I really dug this show, and I appreciated them giving a transgender character a happy romantic ending although I wish her role could’ve been played by an actual trans actress. It was a great big step but there’s always room for growth when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights in South Korea.
ANNOUNCEMENT: I am launching a new K-drama podcast called “K-Drama School“ on January 4, 2021. I’ll be putting my PhD in Cinema & Media Studies to good use by blending deep textual analysis, Korean cultural and historical contextualization, comedic riffs and amazing guests. A new episode will drop every Monday at 8AM PST.
You can start getting updates by following @kdramaschool on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Podcast episodes will become available wherever you subscribe to podcasts including but not limited to iTunes and Spotify. Video podcasts will also become available every week on YouTube.
I really appreciate your kind support.
happy holidays & i wish you a blessed 2021 in the year of the ox!
Since March 11th (the day I began lockdown), I’ve been revisiting all of my favorite Korean dramas. Not all of what I’m about to list here are available on Netflix, so be creative. Explore other streaming services like Viki and OnDemandKorea (doesn’t always have subtitles; this is better if you’re fluent in Korean). Another secret go-to for me is DramaCool (be sure to add an adblocker plugin). And follow my K-drama memes on TikTok. Below are my top K-dramas worth rewatching multiple times. I’ve also included a rating for how rough the tear-jerking is on each show.
- Beautiful Days (SBS, 2001)
This is a classic melodrama featuring some staple K-drama figures from the 1990s and early 2000s. You’ve got Choi Ji-woo just before her big launch into becoming a hallyu star with Winter Sonata in 2002. Her love interest is Lee Byung-hun (you’ve seen him in Mr. Sunshine), and his character is super toxic. Their attraction towards each other makes no sense at all. In fact, it’s extremely problematic. That doesn’t mean this show isn’t good. It’s actually amazing. Ryu Si-won plays Choi Ji-woo’s other love interest, and Lee Byung-hun’s brother/rival. Lee Jung-hyun plays Choi Ji-woo’s tough-as-nails little sister who is trying to become a K-pop singer, and Lee Byung-hun’s character is the director of a record company where Choi Ji-woo’s character is employed at. You dig? This show has all the typical tropes of K-drama that I love from the 1990s and early 2000s: love triangle, orphans, class warfare, a lot of crying, fatal illness, etc. It’s very well-written, well-directed and the actors are supreme in their commitment and delivery. The soundtrack is also very good. When I first saw this show as a teenager, I had a really hard time adjusting to Choi Ji-woo and Ryu Si-won sharing the small screen together again because just a year before this show, the two played lovers on a drama called Truth (MBC 2000). It really takes you out of the moment. Tear jerker level: 6/10.
- I’m Sorry, I Love You (KBS, 2004)
This drama came out in the winter of 2004. Like Beautiful Days, it’s a gut-wrenching “melo” and has a really weepy (but nice) soundtrack. It’ll have you bawling your fucking eyes out, so watch it if you need to clear your sinuses. This is also the K-drama that made So Ji-sub the babe he is today. The poor thing did a bunch of dramas before this one but was never considered the hot protagonist. This one made him the firey stud that made all the girls cry after he got married to that who-gives-a-shit-announcer-half-his-age recently 💔. Actress Im Soo-jung gives a really wonderful performance on this show. If you can’t stand this summer’s heat and want to cool off with some wintry romance story, this is an oldie but a very goodie. Tear jerker level: 10/10
- Successful Story of a Bright Girl (SBS, 2002)
If you think Jang Nara and Jang Hyuk’s chemistry in Fated to Love You (MBC, 2014) is a given, you don’t know K-dramas like I do. The Jangs had their first encounter as opposites on TV 12 years prior to that on Successful Story of a Bright Girl. It has the classic trope of a poor orphan girl versus rich arrogant asshole who annoy each other but eventually fall in love. This show solidified Jang Nara’s popularity, and the year 2002 was a busy year for her; she not only released a hit song “Sweet Dream” but filmed another drama that same year–My Love Patzzi opposite Kim Rae-won (but this show sucks; don’t waste your time on it). She mentions in her interview on Happy Together that she suffered panic attacks and mental breakdowns during this period in her career due to being overworked. Jang Nara’s hardwork really paid off. She’s a very accomplished actress, but you can tell from her work in Successful Story… that she’s a natural talent and performer. This is a feel-good drama with a very strong protagonist full of moxie. I love this show. Tear jerker level: 5/10 (this is a feel-good show but Jang Nara’s crying is so genuine; it’s hard not to get emotional while watching her. if you’ve seen Fated to Love You, you would know this already).
- The Greatest Love (MBC, 2011)
I’m a huge fan of Gong Hyo-jin. I think she’s an amazing actress, and she impresses me every time. I loved her in this drama but I mostly loved Cha Seung-won’s character. He plays an arrogant, stuck-up and immature actor; in fact, if you’ve seen the other show (also written by the Hong sisters) My Master’s Sun with Gong Hyo-jin and So Ji-sub, you’ll notice that So Ji-sub copied a lot of Cha Seung-won’s character acting mannerisms (manner of speech and action). I laughed a lot during this show because of Cha’s performance. If you want something light, funny and uplifting, The Greatest Love is a good one. Tear jerker level: 1/10 (when Gong Hyo-jin cries, it always makes me weepy; even though this show is a feel-good, she cries intermittently, and that always makes me tear up).
- It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
While we’re on Gong Hyo-jin, let me recommend another show I love. It’s Okay, That’s Love used to be on Netflix a few years ago but they took it down. This show, for some reason, isn’t very popular among non-Korean K-drama viewers but I love this show. It tackles topics that a lot of other shows ignore (mental illness, disability, and disorder), an extremely complicated mother-daughter relationship, and displays a really strong chemistry between Gong Hyo-jin and Jo In-sung. The supporting character actors Lee Kwang-soo and Sung Dong-il are also amazing on this show. The OST for this show is also really great featuring Davichi’s music. Yeah, it’s tear-jerker but the color palette on this show is really lovely. The writer of this show Noh Hee-kyung wrote some amazing shows including Worlds Within (2008), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013), Dear My Friends (2016) and Live (2018). Luckily for you, both most of the shows I just mentioned here are currently on Netflix although I don’t know for how long. Tear jerker level: 10/10 (this show appropriately maxes out its tear jerker status; I cry every time I watch this show, and I think I saw this one like 4 or 5 times).
- Dear My Friends (tvN, 2016)
While we’re talking about Noh Hee-kyung let me mention Dear My Friends. This drama just recently got added to Netflix (it’s not a Netflix “original” though–FYI). I love this show. For long-time K-drama viewers you’d recognize all of the people on this poster. They’re titans–veteran actors whose careers date back to the 1960s. All of them were the leads back in their day but due to their age, they’ve been cast aside to play supporting roles over the last few decades but this show puts them smack right back in the center of the story, and you’ll be floored by their delivery. I will warn you though, this is a SUPER tearjerker. I’m talking like resuscitation level. You’ll need an oxygen tank. I cried SO much watching this show when it first came out 4 years ago, and bawled again when I was re-watching it this past week. You’ll need a towel to get through this show, but I promise you, it is worth it. It touches on so many important social aspects including aging, parenting, adoption, domestic abuse, elderly abuse, gender dynamics, dementia, and others. Tear jerker level: 40/10 (seriously… it’s a lot.)
- What Happened in Bali (SBS, 2004)
This show is what I would call a low-grade show; it has a lot of montage sequences and flashbacks to fill time. It’s a love square–two guys and two gals are involved; two of the guys love one girl, and one of the girls love two guys. It’s a hot mess. But I love this show because Jo In-sung’s acting is so over the top (also his teeth are still imperfect giving him a stupid kind of likeable charm), and So Ji-sub is in it and he’s always a babe. Ha Ji-won–who I find insufferably boring in everything she does including that shitty Netflix show Chocolate (2019)–is the lead, but she’s kind of funny at times. The show is a heavy melo, and the ending is quite shocking. If you don’t like unhappy endings (why the hell are you watching K-dramas in the first place?) this isn’t for you. But the show has an interesting over-the-top/excessive flavor that even gives it a bit of a queer tone to it. It has all the makjang stuff I love about most K-dramas including violent ajummas who beat the shit out of girls they disapprove who come after their sons, and problematically-toxically masculine guys who push girls around to do their bidding whenever they want. This show was written by a husband and wife duo–Kim Ki-ho and Lee Sun-mi. These two have an appetite for absurdly cruel endings. If you’ve seen that terrible show (but entertainingly so) show Fashion King (SBS, 2012) starring Yoo Ah-in and Shin Se-kyung, you’d know what I’m talking about (but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it; it’s awful. No one talks about it. But I loved this show, too because Yoo Ah-in acts like the most sadistic psycho on this show; also, parts of it were filmed in my hometown–New York). Tear jerker level: 5/10
- When a Man Loves (MBC, 2013)
This drama is FUCKED UP. If you like FUCKED UP K-dramas, go watch this. Nothing makes sense on this show. Everybody’s crazy. People’s motives for doing anything are ridiculous. The characters cross into territories they never ever should and it keeps happening over and over again. I found myself yelling, “NOOOOOOOOO,” at my screen so many times while watching this. It’s hilariously over the top. I felt bad for both Song Seung-hun and Shin Se-kyung. For such pretty actors, I felt like this show did them wrong so many times by making them say and do such ridiculous things. But that’s part of what makes this show so fun. It’s crazy. Enjoy some good ol’ makjang for teens. Tear jerker level: 0/10 (it’s too fucking funny to be sad).
- Stairway to Heaven (SBS, 2003)
If you’re a fan of Park Shin-hye from Heirs (a fandom I don’t particularly understand), you should know this drama because it’s the one that made all the guys my age fall in love with her. Park Shin-hye plays the child version of Choi Ji-woo, and Kim Tae-hee plays a super evil girl on this show. She’s really entertaining to watch playing a bitch role (I think this was the only time she played somebody this evil; I don’t know why though because she plays it so well). This isn’t my favorite drama but I think it’s worth mentioning just because it has all the elements of what pushes a story forward (conflict!) but there’s just too much of it. The way masculinity is portrayed on this show is especially interesting; from that angle, this show is worth seeing. It’s also a nice throwback K-drama that, again, has all the typical tropes: cancer, love triangle, class warfare, evil step mother, a son of a major conglomerate, amnesia, etc. Yeah, you might like this one. Kwon Sang-woo plays the “stud” on this show which I find so hilarious. Is he hot? I don’t find him attractive at all. I never understood his appeal. Yeah, he’s buff but he also has an annoying lisp. He can’t deliver his lines well because of it. Whatever. Maybe I’m being too judgmental. Anyway, check this out. The characters on this show are insane and super fun to watch. Tear jerker level: 7/10
- Goblin (tvN, 2016-2017).
It’s probably not even worth mentioning this show only because pretty much all K-drama fans today have seen it but I’ll mention it just to pay it some recognition but also to mention how much the shows that came after this one failed so terribly to ever live up to itv. Kim Eun-sook wrote this show, and she’s also credited for Mr. Sunshine and The King: Eternal Monarch which you’ve probably seen on Netflix by now. Both of her efforts after Goblin are quite lousy compared to how good Goblin was. The King is a terrible mess and not even the kind of mess I want to keep watching; it just sucked ass and I found myself disliking Kim Go-eun again; and sorry-not-sorry I never liked Lee Min-ho (again, I don’t get it? What’s his appeal? He’s quite boring to me). But Goblin had a really handsome ensemble cast, beautiful clothes and accessories, and an awesome OST that I still listen to. I think Kim Eun-sook should take a break for a while and just not write. Or just avoid sci-fi stuff because she sucks at it. Goblin is more of a fantasy that doesn’t try to be scientifically heady whereas The King kept trying to force mathematical logic onto a fantasy genre. Like, why? Also, who cares? Literally nobody I spoke to gave a shit about the time travel/parallel universe logics; all we cared about was the awesome idea of a monarch that continues to remain in Korea; the ideas of a nation as a fantasy, or an imagined nation in an ideal situation is what kept me engaged in The King just enough to finish it (I literally did not give a shit after it ended; I’m usually quite sad to see a show end but this one, I literally got up and did other shit right after because I just did not care). Anyway, if you want to see some good fantasy K-drama, Goblin is the way to go. A bunch of people tried to recreate it or imitate it (Bride of Habaek  and Black ) but they are disasters in comparison; both of the imitation dramas suck ass. They’re not worth your time. Goblin is good. It’s a modern classic. Stick to that one. Tear jerker level: 6/10
in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).
(Please visit K-Drama School podcast for all my hot-takes on K-dramas.)
All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.
The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.
But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.
The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).
Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.
Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?
Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.
But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.
Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods.
And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”
Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.
In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.
Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.”