The Best K-Dramas To Add to Your Watch List Right Now
The world of South Korean entertainment is as beautiful and varied as it is addicting. That’s true of pretty much every art form that falls under the massive shadow of the Hallyu—and K-Dramas are no exception.
Once you get used to the pacing and acting styles of South Korean television, you’ll find it impossible to stop watching—after all, there’s something for everyone.
Whether you want an epic fantasy story of magic and romance or a coming-of-age tale about friendships and hardships, then you can be sure that there’s a K-Drama revolving precisely around that—with stunning locations, rich cinematography, and the most beautiful actors you’ve ever seen in your life.
If you’re just starting out, though, the sheer number of choices available to you might feel a bit intimidating. Where exactly should you start? That’s where this guide comes into play: a list of the best K-Dramas, which I’ve ranked according to my personal preference, but are also among highest-rated titles in the history of South Korea. After all, there must have been a reason why they’ve kept thousands of viewers in their home country attached to their screens, right?
18. SKY Castle
Having aired between 2018 and 2019, Sky Castle actually sits in second place in the list of highest-rated cable K-Dramas of all time. The 20 episodes of this satirical series paint a brutally honest portrait of the Seoul upper class—and, in particular, a group of mothers who will stop at nothing and trample over pretty much everyone to make sure their husbands are the most successful and their children get accepted into the most elite schools. Sky Castle stars actresses Yum Jung-ah, Lee Tae-ran, Yoon Se-ah, Oh Na-ra, and Kim Seo-hyung, and it’s available to stream on both Netflix and Viki.
17. Hospital Playlist
Every country needs their own stable of beloved medical dramas, and Hospital Playlist definitely fills that need for South Korea. Hospital Playlist originally aired in the spring of 2020, and the core cast of the series is made up of five doctors who have been best friends since their medical school days and who all work in the same hospital—as well as being part of a band together. Hospital Playlist also has a second season, and both are available to stream on Netflix.
16. The World of the Married
Currently the highest-ranked cable K-Drama of all time, overtaking SKY Castle with its final episodes, The World of the Married is based on the BBC series Doctor Foster. The story focuses on a married couple that falls down a spiral of revenge, grief, and forgiveness once the husband’s infidelity comes to the surface. It aired in 2020, with each episode bringing in higher ratings than the previous ones, and both director Mo Wan-Il and lead actress Kim Hee-ae winning their respective awards at the Baeksang Arts Awards of that year.
15. Reply 1988
Just like the name suggests, Reply 1988 is set in 1988, and it focuses on five friends who live in the same neighborhood in outer Seoul. The series follows them through their teenage years and their daily struggles and victories, both at school and at home. Reply 1988 is actually an installment in channel tvN’s wider Reply series, which also includes Reply 1997 and Reply 1994. Reply 1988 is available for streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Viki, while Reply 1997 and Reply 1994 are just on Prime Video and Viki.
14. Itaewon Class
Sitting comfortably among the 15 highest-rated K-dramas in the history of South Korean cable television, Itaewon Class aired in the first half of 2020. The series follows a group of young people—played by an ensemble cast featuring beloved actors like Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung, and Kwon Nara—who live in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul and who are all deeply entangled with each other in both their joys and sorrows. It received high praise all around—including the award for Best Drama Series at the 25th Asian Television Awards—and it’s available to stream on Netflix.
13. Love to Hate You
A very recent addition to the K-Drama scene, Love to Hate You aired in the first part of 2023, and all its episodes are available on Netflix. It stars actress Kim Ok-bin and actor Teo Yoo as a no-nonsense lawyer and one of the country’s top-billed actors—who tempestuously come into each other’s lives and initially do their best to take the other down. But of course, there’s nothing like a hate-filled relationship to get the romance going, especially in K-Drama world.
12. Strong Girl Bong-soon
Strong Girl Bong-soon is another absolute hit that has reached iconic status both in South Korea and among fans overseas. Park Bo-young stars as the titular Do Bong-soon, who was born with a superhuman strength that has been passed down to the women in her family. This particular gift gets her a job as the bodyguard for the CEO of a gaming company—and it just so happens that Bong-soon’s lifelong dream has been to create a video game with herself as the main character. The drama aired in 2017 and you can stream it on Viki.
11. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
A relatively newer release, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha premiered in the second half of 2021. It focuses on a Seoul dentist who decides to uproot her life and move her practice from the capital to the fictional seaside village of Gongjin in the eastern part of the country. There, she meets the jack-of-all-trades, handyman, and overall charmer of the village, who helps her fit in with the tight-knit community. The drama, another massive domestic and international success, stars actors Shin Min-a and Kim Seon-ho as the leads and it’s distributed globally by Netflix.
10. Black Knight
Starring actor Kim Woo-bin and based on a popular webtoon—like many K-Dramas which have come out in recent years—Black Knight is set in a dystopian future version of South Korea where people live in the aftermath of a devastating comet strike. The biggest threat to humanity’s survival is air pollution, which makes everyone dependent on oxygen tanks and masks, delivered by a group of highly-trained drivers, one of whom is our main character.
9. Hotel del Luna
A very textbook magical realism K-Drama, Hotel del Luna stars one of South Korea’s most beloved singers and actresses—Lee Ji-eun, who performs under the stage name IU—as the owner of a very peculiar hotel that caters exclusively to ghosts and spirits so that they can fulfill their last wishes before moving on. Lighthearted and whimsical, Hotel del Luna is available for streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Viki.
8. The Legend of the Blue Sea
Mermaid romance! That should be enough to sell you on The Legend of the Blue Sea, one of the true classics of the K-Drama world as well as of the fantasy romance genre. The show stars actor Lee Min-ho and actress Jun Ji-hyun as a clever con artist and a mermaid, respectively. The story follows their romance through unrequited love and rebirth since the timeline moves between the present day and the Joseon era, where the previous incarnations of both our main characters lived and fell in love.
7. Extraordinary Attorney Woo
Released in the summer of 2022, Extraordinary Attorney Woo skyrocketed to the top of the most-watched and highest-rated K-dramas in the history of South Korean television, and was a darling among both domestic and international viewers. Actress Park Eun-bin stars as the titular character, Woo Young-woo, a lawyer on the autism spectrum. Its portrayal of an autistic character has garnered praise left and right, and some viewers on the spectrum have described it as a tasteful and honest depiction—while noting that it does fall into some overused clichés at times. The show is available to stream on Netflix.
6. Tale of the Nine-Tailed
Another one for the fantasy romance crowd, which I am very much a part of. Tale of the Nine-Tailed follows a gumiho—a fox spirit from Korean folklore—who has lived for millennia and currently hunts other supernatural entities for a living. He’s also forever mourning his long-dead love and is constantly looking for her reincarnation, which just so happens to be the curious and fearless TV producer Nam Ji-ah. The gumiho and Ji-ah are played respectively by Lee Dong-wook and Jo Bo-ah. The show’s two seasons are available for streaming on Prime Video.
5. Twenty-Five Twenty-One
A very recent addition to this list, Twenty-Five Twenty-One premiered at the beginning of 2022 and became one of the most successful K-Dramas of the year. Set between the years 1998 and 2021, the series follows a young fencer (played by Kim Tae-ri) as she pursues her athletic dreams and the heir of a disgraced chaebol family (played by Nam Joo-hyuk) as he struggles to rebuild his life after it completely collapsed. The series is available for streaming on Netflix.
4. Strangers From Hell
If you like a bit of psychological thriller, then you definitely have to check out Hell Is Other People, also known as Strangers From Hell. The show follows a young twenty-something who moves to Seoul to pursue an internship and books a room in a suspiciously cheap dormitory. He will soon discover all the strange and unsettling things his neighbors do, including the dentist who lives right next door. The show is available for streaming on Roku.
3. Mr. Sunshine
One of the greatest period K-Dramas of all time, Mr. Sunshine stars actress Kim Tae-ri once again. This time, she’s an aristocrat with a penchant for sharpshooting who lives in Hanseong, the city that would eventually become Seoul at the beginning of the 20th century—when Korea was still known as Joseon. She joins the cause of Korean independence as Japan’s colonialism starts becoming more oppressive, and in doing so she crosses paths with Eugene Choi—played by national treasure Lee Byung-hun—who was born in Joseon but raised in the United States. The series is available for streaming on Netflix.
2. Crash Landing on You
One of the most beloved K-Dramas of recent years, Crash Landing on You’s premise is simultaneously extravagant and rooted in reality. A chaebol heiress (played by Son Ye-jin) gets in a paragliding accident and crashes into North Korea, where she meets Ri Jeong-hyeok (played by Hyun Bin), a Captain of the North Korean army. Fun fact: The two actors actually started a relationship while on set. News of their wedding was announced in the spring of 2022 to a massive social media frenzy from dedicated fans and casual viewers alike. The drama is available for streaming on Netflix.
1. Guardian: The Lonely and Great God
I did say that this list was based on my personal preference, which is why Guardian: The Lonely and Great God—more commonly known as Goblin—was always going to occupy the number one spot. The first K-Drama I ever watched and pretty much filled to the brim with all of my favourite tropes, the story follows a dokkaebi, a figure from Korean folklore (played by actor Gong Yoo), as he moves through the ages in search of the only person who can free him of his curse. That person ends up being student Ji Eun-tak (played by Kim Go-eun), who has always possessed the ability to talk with ghosts. Heart-wrenching and heartwarming at the same time, Goblin is available for streaming on Viki.
Have you seen some of these K-Dramas already? What would you add to a watchlist of impossible-to-miss dramas for someone just starting their journey into South Korean television?
(featured image: tvN)
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