If you are looking for suggestions of Korean dramas to watch, you’ve come to the right place.
Below you’ll find a list of currently more than 40 reviews of the best romantic Korean dramas. What do I mean by romantic K-dramas? Basically, all shows that are clearly not melodramas, historicals, thrillers, fantasy and action shows. Romantic K-dramas often include aspects of these genres – in the end, though, they are mainly about the couple-to-be and have an at least somewhat happy ending.
Before diving into the reviews, you might want to take a look at the FAQ page – especially if you are new to K-drama. That’s where I talk about some practical issues (from streaming sites to the danger of Wikipedia reviews) and also delve into some general topics, for example what makes Korean dramas so different from American shows.
The reviews are listed chronologically. Instead of detailed ratings, I label the dramas simply as either “good” or “excellent.” Once in a while I also mention a good drama from another genre if it includes at least a little romance. However, those few are clearly marked with a “Genre alert!” warning. I also note a couple outstanding rom-coms from other Asian countries, just to give you more options. I dislike dramas that include scenes with extreme violence or horror elements so you will not find any of those shows here, even if they fit the rom-com genre otherwise.
What would a great romantic drama be without great romantic music? Even reading about romantic dramas is more fun with the right background music. So I’ve interspersed a few music videos among the reviews. While it’s great to listen to Korean ballads, sometimes I’m more in the mood for upbeat love songs whose lyrics I can actually understand. So the videos come in two flavors: ballads (in Korean) and pop songs (in English). The ballads are hits from the soundtracks of K-dramas; for the upbeat songs I’ve tried to uncover some gems from YouTube. If you’re visiting this site on a mobile device make sure you activate your background function.
BALLAD (IN KOREAN)
Baek Ji Young
POP SONG (IN ENGLISH)
Summer Days Are Back Again
Nathaniel Be West Band
I’m not a Robot
Aah. So much fun. You should definitely check out this cute and often hilarious rom-com about a lonely CEO (Yoo Seung Ho) who is suffering from an allergy to human touch and a quirky inventor (Chae Soo Bin) who pretends to be a robot. It’s a fresh approach to the popular arrogant rich guy / spunky poor girl trope that works really well. I can’t say enough good things about this show. An intelligent plot with comprehensible conflicts (and no major love triangle) that’s nicely paced and maintains its momentum. I’m not wild about the thriller plotline in the last third but it doesn’t change the light tone and is quite harmless.
And, as in all excellent K-dramas, the main characters are nicely fleshed out with all their idiosyncrasies, anxieties and traumas, pulling you in and make you root for them. The leads are great, they have amazing chemistry and there are some very cute kisses (and a rather adult one). But really, it is the whole ensemble that shines with so many finely chiselled wacky personalities – you just want to keep hanging out with them.
The magic of Korean television production at work and a reminder of why we love Korean rom-coms in the first place. The ending is perfect. Excellent.
MBC. Written by Kim Sun Mi and Lee Seok Joon. 2017-2018.
If you’re in the mood for an office romance and you already watched Boss & Me, give this one a try. Choi Daniel plays the traumatized director and Baek Jin Hee his dedicated secretary/assistant. She manages to humanize him and he supports her to become more assertive. The plot unfolds with the usual company politics and intrigues, a ragtag office team and two villains who are more ridiculous than scary.
Nobody re-invents the wheel here but also no missteps. The drama does everything right – and that is not an easy feat. The tone is light, no angst, nicely fluffed. No heart-wrenching emotional drama but a solid, grown-up and sweet romance that is never derailed by outside obstacles, artificial conflicts or noble idiocy. Just all around enjoyable. Excellent minus.
KBS. Written by Jo Yong Hae. 2017-2018.
Because this Life is our First
A meditation on the meaning of marriage in contemporary Korean society, packaged in a brainy drama. How to negotiate relationships with the heady mix of cultural traditions, social expectations, family pressure and lack of material success faced by the younger generation? One-night stands, romantic cohabitation, and contractual marriage are the three alternatives that our characters (three regular couples in their late 20s / early 30s) choose in the beginning. But when emotions come into play, things get messy.
This drama clearly wants to make you think. And there is lot of obvious subtext here – so if you are a teacher or student who wants to discuss K-dramas academically, this is a good drama to look at. But because it is more brainy and almost an ensemble piece, it doesn’t carry quite the emotional punch of your typical K-drama.
Inventive and rebellious, relevant and cutting edge. But also uneven and sometimes exasperating how it tries so obviously to mess with the viewer’s expectations. I almost gave up twice, but in the end I was very glad I didn’t. Excellent (minus).
(For a more detailed version of this review, go here.)
tvN. Written by Yoon Nan Joong, who also wrote Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Hogu’s Love.
The Best Hit
Finally! A great, straightforward rom-com – with an emphasis on comedy! Yoon Shi Yoon (Prime Minister and I) plays Yoo Hyun Jae, a hilarious, over-the-top 1990s teen idol who time travels to our present. He ends up sharing an apartment with other youngsters who are trying to find their way in the K-pop world. There’s a lot to enjoy about this drama: the fish-out-of-water antics, the satirical view of the Korean entertainment world, a great cast who were clearly having a good time, and a light tone, so difficult to achieve. And then, there’s the charm, charisma and simple playfulness of Yoon Shi Yoon. It’s just such a pleasure to watch him portray this character.
And while the romance didn’t really pull on my heartstrings, I still liked the drama a lot. The outstanding music deserves a special mention – there’s a wonderful ballad by Yoon Mi Rae and a great upbeat pop song by Punch. Considering the response on social media, the show was a hit with international K-drama fans but didn’t draw a huge crowd in South Korea. In any case: Thumbs up! (or as we say here: Excellent (minus)).
KBS. Written by Lee Young Chul and Lee Mi Rim
The Bride of the Water God
A fantasy romance about an arrogant water god who travels to Earth and meets up with a troubled psychiatrist, the last descendant of the family who served him for centuries. He sees her as his servant, she’s thinks he’s deluded – delightful mayhem ensues.
The good: 1. Beauty. Both leads (Nam Joo Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung) are so dazzlingly beautiful that it’s a pleasure to simply see them on the screen. And the director created some gorgeous scenes that add to the aesthetic enjoyment of this show. 2. Romance. Generally nicely paced and emotionally satisfying (plus see 1.) 3. Good kissing. Yay!
The bad: The romance works but the rest doesn’t really. The non-romantic storylines don’t go anywhere and don’t seem to matter much a few episodes down the road. Side characters are mostly annoying. But if you like the leads, admire beautiful cinematography and are a romance fan, skip the boring subplots and just enjoy NJH and SSK interactions. Good.
tvN. Written by Jung Yoon Jung.
Father is Strange
A warm-hearted family drama about an actor who thinks he found his biological father and moves in with his family. The father runs a snack bar, so food and family meals play an important role but we also spend time at other locations, for example, an entertainment company and a lawyer’s office. We soon discover that the father is not the actor’s dad – but the actor and his four new-found “siblings” believe he is. We follow the turns and twists of their romantic entanglements and the obstacles they face – among them, unwanted pregnancy and social inequality with their chosen partner. The smartest daughter even questions the institution of marriage: “Was I born in Korea with some kind of historical duty to get married?” (Ep. 21)
Family dramas are extraordinarily long, this one has 52 episodes. This means there are lots of tangents – like all the stories involving the extended family – that I didn’t find very interesting. I wish they’d release a shorter “romance edition” but, as that is unlikely to happen, I skipped over the dry parts and made my own “director’s cut.”
A really nice show with a lot of likable characters, no evil machinations or unpleasant figures. A crowd pleaser (starring Lee Yoo Ri, Ryu Soo Young, Lee Joon and Jung So Min), hugely successful in Korea with some episodes reaching ratings over 35 percent and also popular internationally. Romance parts are excellent.
(For a more detailed version of this review, go here.)
KBS. Written by Park Kyung Soo.
The Legend of the Blue Sea
A big-budget fantasy drama about the romance between a mermaid and a human, stretching from the Joseon era to the present. Much hyped for good reasons: It teamed up hit-writer Park Ji Eun with superstar actress Jun Ji Hyun, who worked together before on My Love from the Star. And just like MLFTS, this one mixes fantasy with elements from the thriller, historical (be warned, there is some violence), and rom-com genres. They also secured one of Korea’s most popular and handsome actors, Lee Min Ho, to play the male lead – a con man with a heart of gold.
So, the drama has excellent actors, high production values, and it’s beautifully shot. What’s to criticize? There’s a lack of chemistry between the leads and the plot feels emotional jarring with the frequent restarts of the romance from square one. But there is a deeper issue that’s less tangible: The show feels forced and constructed. Almost like the creators of MLFTS sat down together and said: MLFTS was such a mega success, let’s try to repeat that. Let’s take elements of MLFTS, vary them a bit and reuse them as building blocks for a new drama.
These weaknesses shouldn’t detract from enjoying the show, though. It’s still hugely entertaining – just not as emotionally engaging as I had hoped. Good.
SBS. Written by Park Ji Eun who also wrote My Love from the Star. 2016-17.
Far Away Love
Do you particularly love the classics when it comes to K-rom-coms? Then I’ll bet you’ll like this drama. It’s a Chinese production, released in 2016, but has the feel of favorite shows like Secret Garden (2010) or Lie to Me (2011).
Right away, we have a similar set-up – a son of a wealthy family fighting with his mother about a woman not to her liking. In Far Away Love, it goes like this: Straight-laced and emotionally numb rich-guy Shen An, a CEO of a food conglomerate, keeps having run-ins (and later gets entangled) with Meng Chu Xia (played by Li Fei Er), a clumsy, soft-hearted but stubborn 28-year-old who’s raising her nephew by herself. Korean actor Park Hae Jin (My Love from the Star and Cheese in the Trap) plays the male lead, which enhances even more the Korean rom-com-feeling. But, most important, this drama has the same tone and similar structure as those archetypal K-rom-coms: Lots of funny, cute and screwball-ish parts in the first half of the series, while later episodes add emotional depth and drama. Plus an excellent ending.
On the downside, we have a truly cringeworthy song in Italian and a few slips into too-obvious soap opera territory – but that only marginally mars an otherwise excellent show. As I’ve noticed with other Chinese dramas, the beginning of each episode previews too much of the plot – to remedy, just skip the first minute and 40 seconds.
(For a more detailed version of this review, go here.)
Southeast and Guangdong TV (China). Written by Mi Tian Hui.
My Amazing Boyfriend
A hilarious rom-com action fantasy about an unlucky actress, Tian Jing Zhi (played by Wu Qian), who awakens a mysterious 400-year old man with superpowers. Bound to Jing Zhi by blood ties, he moves in with the initially unwilling, rather volatile and very expressive young woman, looking for his mortal enemy.
Wait a moment … an actress and a mysterious being with superpowers? Doesn’t this sound familiar? Yes, this is the Chinese drama “inspired” by My Love from the Star and the looks of the male lead, Korean model Kim Tae Hwan, won’t let you easily forget it. But no worries: Even though there are some similarities, this is clearly not a remake. In fact, it is fun to see how the writer comes up with a different story, given the similar premise. The drama is also different in tone – more crazy over-the-top comedy chunks (balanced by some serious action/thriller aspects) and less heart-wrenching melo parts.
What I really want to say is this: This drama can completely hold its own and the sooner you abandon any comparisons to MLFTS, the more fun you have watching it. Two drawbacks, though: The intentional over-acting comes with a price – we are more amused but we are also less emotionally engaged. Plus, there is a change of tone and focus two-thirds of the way in from a mix of rom-com and thriller with a touch of melo vibe to mostly thriller. Some people might like that. Me – not so much. And watch out: The episodes’ intro section (about a minute and a half long) gives away too much, so I highly recommend skipping it.
Very good (first 2/3), good (last 1/3).
(For a more detailed version of this review, go here.)
MGTV (China). Written by Shui Qian Mo.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
This is a low-key, unexpectedly charming drama. I have to admit I was reluctant to give it a try — I mean, a show about weightlifting? How exciting can that be? But by episode 3, I was hooked. It’s a pearl of a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl with the unusual ambition to join the Olympic weightlifting team. It shows our heroine tackling obvious issues you’d expect to arise for a sturdy Korean female athlete — distress about her weight and looks — but we also see her experience the more typical romantic firsts, like first crush, first kiss, first boyfriend.
Model and actress Lee Sung Kyung’s first lead role is a departure from the characters she played before, e.g. in Cheese in the Trap and Doctors. She does a really good job with this challenging portrayal. And handsome male lead Nam Joo Hyuk is always a joy to watch – to me he looks like the younger brother of Park Bo Gum (Moonlight Drawn by Clouds).
This show leaves you with a good feeling. Kim Bok Joo, swag! Excellent.
MBC. Written by Yang Hee Seung.
Genre alert! It’s a thriller, yes. But there’s also a strong romance aspect and even a little bit of humor in this story about a mysterious errand boy (Ji Chang Wook) called “Healer” who operates in the shady underworld of Seoul. He gets too involved in one of his cases and connects with a news reporter, played by Park Min Young (Sungkyunkwan Scandal).
Well done and entertaining. If you don’t mind the customary fighting and killing, give it a shot (Ha!).
KBS. Written by Song Ji Na. 2014-2015
This one is a little different. There is clearly an educational and emancipatory intent here, packaged in an entertaining and engaging drama. It covers topics that are rarely openly discussed in Korean dramas, like homosexuality, pregnancy, and single mothers – but also, of course, the more typical themes like dating and romantic love. All is done in a sensitive and tasteful manner so it’s hard to imagine anybody would feel offended. Our hero is a sweet, dreamy guy (perfect role for Choi Woo Shik) on a quest to win over the ambitious, tough but also vulnerable heroine (Uee), a world class swimmer.
The drama just feels fresh and very contemporary. I wish, though, there would be fewer flashbacks and repeated scenes because they interrupt the emotional arcs. Some scenes in the first episodes are plainly annoying (or very silly, depending on your taste) but hang in there, it keeps getting better. Very good.
tvN. Written by Yoon Nan Joong who also wrote Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Because this Life is our First.
I love it when dramas address current social or political issues. Like in this one. Park Shin Hye (You’re Beautiful) and Lee Jong Suk play two apprentice reporters for a big news show. We learn a lot about how news is produced and manipulated and how political pressure is applied. Of course, this story is fictional but I wouldn’t be surprised if the world it creates bears a strong resemblance to reality. Not that anybody should think that this is a dry educational documentary – not at all: It’s entertaining with an interesting story and a romance that works well. Park Shin Hye’s Pinocchio syndrome (she can’t lie without hiccups) adds a cute touch. Don’t be too shocked by the melodramatic first episode. It’s pretty harsh – but no worries, the rest is rom-com fine. My favorite Park Shin Hye drama. Excellent.
SBS. Written by Park Hye Ryun. 2014-15
Boss & Me
What would happen if a relationship between the young CEO of a big corporation and a lowly office worker would be allowed to develop – without the drama-typical interference from the rich family’s side? Life turns immediately into a bed of roses? Not quite, as financial assistant Xue Shan Shan (Zhao Li Ying) finds out when one of the biggest prizes on the marriage mart – smart, handsome and rich CEO Feng Teng (Zhang Han) – becomes interested in her. We witness in more than 30 episodes how adorable, innocent 23-year old Shan Shan deals with “Big Boss’” attention and faces office gossip, romantic competition and social pressure – all this, without losing her upbeat attitude.
What a fun journey it is. It works so well because the drama brings the Prince Charming fairy tale at least a notch down to earth. The couple faces regular everyday problems and behaves more normally than the leads in a typical Korean rom-com – for example, in this drama, there’s quite a bit of cuddling, hugging and light kissing. And then there’s the great performance by Zhao Li Ying, who beautifully inhabits the character of the delightful heroine. For sure, there’s a reason that she is currently the best paid actress in China. A very nice OST, too – the title song is performed by none other than male lead Zhang Han himself. Oh – and just ignore the weird fast-forwarding effect in the first episode, it’s just a fluke. The rest of the show runs at normal speed.
In short: irresistible mix of fluffy and cute with just a sprinkle of realism. Perfect anti-stress prescription. Excellent.
JSTV (China). Written by Good Story Workshop. (Based on the novel Shan Shan Lai Chi by Gu Man)
My Love from the Star
If you want to experience the best in Korean dramas, there are only two you have to watch – Secret Garden and this one. It’s as close to perfection as you can get – from the high production values, the mixing of genres (sf, thriller, comedy, a touch of melodrama but underlying all is, of course, romance), the excellent writing and surprising plot changes, the wide array of supporting characters with well-chosen actors and a satisfying ending. But it is of course the fantastic performances of Korean superstar Jun Ji Hyun and hero Kim Soo Hyun that make this drama about an alien lost on Earth truly outstanding. Immensely entertaining but also moving. Simply an amazing achievement. Excellent.
SBS. Written by Park Ji Eun who also wrote The Legend of the Blue Sea. 2013-2014
You’re all Surrounded
Genre alert! Basically a good police show with a bit of romance. The suspenseful crime scenarios mixed with some funny scenes give this drama an unusually varied tone. Great actors, too. Hero Lee Seung Gi is a rookie detective, secretly trying to find the murderer of his mother; Go Ara plays his colleague and love interest. If the crime stuff doesn’t bother you, give it a try.
SBS. Written by Lee Jung Sun.
All About My Romance
Don’t be misled by the blah title. This is a fun rom-com about two members of parliament from different parties who fall for each other. Scandal! Lee Min Jung plays the passionate MP from the progressive party who knocks out conservative party member Kim Soo Young (Shin Ha Kyun) with a fire extinguisher and lands them both in the briars. The couple is screwballish cute together, and as it behooves a romantic comedy, the political world portrayed here is not full of evil and dangerous people but rather is populated by ridiculous and often pathetic schemers.
Some of the background music would fit better to slapstick comedies from the roaring twenties and got on my nerves but luckily it disappeared in later episodes. A bigger problem is the sometimes slooow pace: Occasionally, there’s lots of talking but not a lot of action moving the plot forward.
Still, it’s a nice rom-com to relax with after watching an edgy thriller or teary melodrama or simply after living through a stressful day – no angst anywhere that could add to your worries. Good.
SBS. Written by Kwon Ki Young.
Nine: Nine Time Travels
Genre alert! A complex and suspenseful time travel thriller. Lee Jin Wook plays an anchorman at a TV station who has nine chances to travel back in time to solve a murder mystery that happened 20 years before. But he learns quickly that undoing events in the past keeps creating new problems in the present. While the set-up is intriguing, it gets rather complicated towards the end. Good.
tvN. Written by Song Jae Jung and Kim Yoon Joo. Song Jae Jung also wrote Queen In-Hyun’s Man.
The Prime Minister and I
A strong start but a weak finish. By accident, a tabloid journalist (Im Yoona) gets very much involved with Korea’s prime minister, a 42-year old widower. A fun idea with a promising execution in the beginning – but then it peters out in the last third with boring scenes, lack of creative ideas and too much singing. And a lame ending. Still: Nothing upsetting and enjoyable for most of it – just keep forwarding through the boring parts. And the drama redeemed Im Yoona in the rom-com world after the disastrous Cinderella Man. Excellent (first two thirds) / Boring (last third) = Good.
KBS. Written by Kim Eun Hee and Yoon Eun Kyung who both also wrote My Fair Lady. 2013-2014
Queen In Hyun’s Man
A time-traveling scholar (Ji Hyun Woo) from the 17th century meets an actress (Yoo In Na) in contemporary Seoul. Another genre-mix of historical and modern drama similar to Rooftop Prince or My Love from the Star. One big difference is that our hero keeps moving back and forth between his time and the present, so the historical segments occupy almost as much time as the modern romance.
A pleasure to watch all around. The story moves along nicely, the tone is pitch perfect, the switch between the different times adds another layer of complexity and Yoo In Na gets finally a well-deserved leading role. The kind, humorous and smart hero is a refreshing change from the numerous arrogant leads who drag the heroine wrist-gripped behind them. Considering the anti-intellectualism of Western TV, it’s always nice to see that in the Korean drama world, the heroes are frequently scholarly types. Beautiful music, too, especially the ballad I’m Going to Meet You by Deok Hwan.
And if you’re wondering why the romance (and the frequent kissing – don’t miss a very cute one in episode 11) between the two leads seemed particularly convincing you should look at Ji Hyun Woo’s confession at the press conference and Yoo In Na’s response a week later. Excellent.
tvN. Written by Song Jae Jung who also co-wrote Nine: Nine Time Travels.
The other fun time travel drama from 2012. A Joseon prince (Park Yoo Chun from Sungkyunkwan Scandal) and his three retainers are magically transported to contemporary Seoul on their quest to solve the murder of the princess. But the real story is about the prince and his missed chance for true love that – so we hope – might be realized through time travel. The romance is well developed while the crime investigation and the corporate politics move the plot forward with inventive twists and turns. And it’s great fun to watch the time travellers’ hilarious attempts to deal with modern life. Great acting all around. I could have done with more comedy and romance and less murder mystery. One caveat, though: the ending. It was a letdown. And a letdown so famous that by now it has become a well-known fear that haunts K-drama fans whenever a drama might turn into that direction: “Oh please, no, not another Rooftop Prince ending.” Good.
SBS. Written by Lee Hee Myung.
BALLAD (IN KOREAN)
Starting Now, I Love You
Lee Seung Gi
POP SONG (IN ENGLISH)
Gotta Get Back to You
Boku to Star no 99 Nichi / 99 Days with the Superstar
This is a Japanese drama with a Korean lead actress. Pure fun. A full-blown romantic comedy that is preciously light without being superficial. No melodramatic angst anywhere. Kim Tae Hee (My Princess, Yong Pal) is great as usual, playing a Korean filmstar making a movie in Japan. The real surprise is the wonderful Hidetoshi Nishijima as her bumbly, romantically clueless but insightful bodyguard. Excellent.
Fuji tv. Written by Takeda Yuki. Japanese Drama.
Flower Boy Ramen Shop
The drama of the most almost-kisses and a heroine with serious digestive issues. Silly and lots of fun with the classic plot of a spoiled heir (Jung Il Woo as a high school kid) falling for the quirky heroine, a student teacher played by Lee Chung Ah. It’s not a high school drama, though – most of the show centers around a ramen restaurant. A pleasant palate cleanser of very light entertainment especially welcomed after watching several emotionally exhausting and heartrending dramas in a row. Nothing special but nice enough to watch. Good.
tvN. Written by Yoon Nan Joong who also wrote Hogu’s Love and Because this Life is our First.
Genre alert! If you’d like to try out a melodrama, this one is a good choice. It has all the existential depth you expect from a melo but it also deals with some interesting spiritual questions, all wrapped in a fantasy story: A woman tries to commit suicide but by accident she causes the death of Shin Ji Hyun instead. As Ji Hyun’s time wasn’t up yet, a very handsome angel of death (Jung Il Woo from My Fair Lady and Flower Boy Ramen Shop) offers her a second chance if she can find three people outside of her family who really loved her.
You might need a box of Kleenex nearby. The title refers to the idea in Korean shamanism that after death the soul wanders the Earth for 49 days before moving on. Good or bad ending? Well, for sure, it’s a highly debated one.
SBS. Written by So Hyun Kyung who also wrote Brilliant Legacy.
If you’ve just been through one of those heart-wrenching dramas, this one will help you recover your emotional balance. Nothing too upsetting, perfectly pleasant, sometimes a bit boring (esp. the slow episodes 5 and 6 with too much singing and too many flashbacks) but still all and all a good drama to watch.
Park Shin Hye and Jung Yong Hwa play two students at a performing arts school. He is the hottest guy at school and a guitarist in a rock band, she’s the wallflower studying traditional Korean music and both get involved with staging a musical.
A nice band-aid for the fans of You’re Beautiful who were disappointed that Jung Yong Hwa didn’t get the girl. So here’s their chance to see him paired with Park Shin Hye. Good.
MBC. Written by Lee Myung Sook.
Lie to Me
The drama with Yoon Eun Hye’s favorite screen kiss (just be on the lookout for a coke bottle). Especially in the beginning it reminds me of an American screwball comedy. The actress plays an administrator working for the government’s tourist board. A bizarre misunderstanding leads to the rumor that she is engaged to a well-known super-rich CEO of a hotel group (Kang Ji Hwan). Great chemistry between two leads. The writer milks that crazy set-up for all the fun it’s worth so the first half of the drama is hugely enjoyable. Later on, it drags a bit. The lead-up to the ending is one of those typical Korean drama tropes but the ending itself is perfectly fine. Nice OST with an outstanding song by M to M (This is Really Good-bye). Excellent (the first half) / Good (the second half).
SBS. Written by Kim Ye Ri.
The Greatest Love
In many dramas one of the leads works in the film or music industry, providing us with some insights into the world of actors and musicians. As a non-Korean viewer I’ve been always intrigued and baffled by some aspects of this business in Korea – like regular fan meetings, the existence of antifans or the ever-looming threat of scandals. In this drama the entertainment world is not just the background, it takes center stage. The main conflict focuses on the hierarchy of popularity and the obsession with the right image: We have the bottom dwellers like the female lead, Ae Jung (Gong Hyo Jin), who used to be a singer in a girls group. Her image has been tainted by a scandal and she’s trying desperately to use her former fame to survive. And then there are the top stars, like Dokko Jin (Cha Seung Won), one of the nation’s most popular actors. Could anything happen between them in a world ruled by PR and business interests?
While often amusing, the drama didn’t quite grab me. Maybe it was the leads or maybe the script didn’t quite sparkle as others by the Hong sisters. Still perfectly agreeable. Good.
MBC. Written by Hong Mi Ran and Hong Jung Eun. The Hong sisters also wrote: My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, You’re beautiful, Couple or Trouble, My Girl.
Becoming a Billionaire
A hotel employee (Ji Hyun Woo) believes himself to be a member of a chaebol family and is desperately looking for his rich father. The series is perfectly pleasant but loses steam after the first third. Cutting the series from 20 to 16 episodes would have helped a lot. Still – nothing upsetting or completely boring, generally entertaining, with a pleasant (here is this word again) hero and heroine. That sounds like rather faint praise but considering the many bad dramas out there it still makes it on this list. Good.
KBS. Written by Choi Min Ki.
My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
Shin Min Ah and Lee Seung Gi make a cute couple in this comedic take on the Korean myth of the Gumiho, a usually scary nine-tailed fox who likes nothing better than to eat liver … human liver that is. Here the Gumiho takes on the form of Shin Min Ah (good choice) and is more interested in becoming human and eating cow (not necessarily in that order). The heartbreaking innocence and naivity of the Gumiho is beautifully portrayed by Shin Min Ah, mirroring nicely the depravity of the scheming humans around her. Lee Seung Gi plays to type, an immature jerk who in the end rises to the challenge of becoming a romantic hero. There’s an evil girl who gets off too lightly but also some much appreciated comic relief (Sung Dong-il and Yoon Yoo-sun). Excellent.
SBS. Written by Hong Mi Ran and Hong Jung Eun. The Hong sisters also wrote: The Greatest Love, You’re beautiful, Couple or Trouble, My Girl.
Oh! My Lady
Another addictive rom-com taking place in the entertainment world. A poor, divorced mother in her 30s (Chae Rim) gets mixed up with a younger and very handsome star (played by real-life pop star Siwon from the group Super Junior).
The leads have great chemistry and the screen sparkles in their scenes together. Two little girls add to the all-round cuteness. It’s too bad that Chae Rim hasn’t been in a drama since, she is just such a charismatic actress. A thoroughly enjoyable experience – I just wish, though, that we could have spent less time with the second lead couple and their relationship issues. Still, what a great show. Excellent.
SBS. Written by Goo Sun Young.
If you want to try out a high school drama, Playful Kiss is a good choice. Usually, I avoid this genre because I find all the bullying too unpleasant to watch – but in this one the mobbing is negligible. It’s the classic tale of an ugly duckling falling for the cutest guy in school. And it’s so refreshing to see that this drama avoids the cliche of the poor girl attracted to the rich guy (Hello, Boys Over Flowers!). Instead the hero’s outstanding quality is his intelligence. That he is also arrogant and lacking in emotional maturity and is therefore in need of a warm person like Oh Ha Ni (Jung So Min) is perfectly obvious to her (and to us).
An upbeat drama with lots of charm and endearing characters all around. However, repetitive plot elements (the heroine keeps getting into scrapes, and love-interest Baek Seung Jo (Kim Hyun Joong) keeps saving the day – or not) and the absence of character development for a large part of the show mar the fun. Still, the trials and tribulations and the sheer tenacity of cute and amusing Oh Ha Ni will pull on your heartstrings. Good.
MBC. Written by Go Eun Nim.
Who would have thought that sit-ups could be sooo romantic? Okay, I’ll be up front about it: This is my all-time favorite drama. It has the classic K-drama plot, perfectly and creatively executed: An arrogant and socially inept son of a super rich chaebol family (Hyun Bin as a department store CEO) falls for a poor but spunky heroine (Ha Ji Won as a stunt woman). It’s exquisitely written: The characters are well drawn, the actors inhabit their parts enthusiastically, the lead characters’ attraction is convincing, and even the secondary couple’s story is interesting and provides a diverting backdrop. But what really shines is the beautifully structured plot, which includes a few real surprises. A very engaging drama that draws the viewer in and switches between funny and dramatic and moving. Add to this a superb soundtrack featuring the song That Woman (sung by Baek Ji Young), certainly one of the best Korean ballads ever recorded.
The drama became so popular that it’s a pop-culture touchstone, and is frequently referenced in other dramas. For example, a dream sequence in Flower Boy Ramen Shop shows the hero wearing the same ridiculous sparkly blue tracksuit Hyun Bin’s character wears so proudly in Secret Garden. A more subtle allusion occurs in The King 2 Hearts when Ha Ji Won’s responds enthusiastically to a poster of Hyun Bin. Excellent.
SBS. Written by Kim Eun Sook. 2010-2011.
If you’ve already got a taste of the Joseon drama world in the cross-over romances My Love from the Star, Queen In Hyun’s Man or Rooftop Prince and want to explore the historicals a little bit more, try this one.
Park Min Young has never been cuter than in this historical gender-bender romance with Rooftop Prince Park Yoo Chun. She is trying to survive at an elite university disguised as a boy during the early Joseon era (I’m guessing 16th or 17th century?) If she were to be found out, her life would be at risk. Luckily, her three handsome friends are ready to protect and defend her. Though marked as a comedy, there’s quite a bit of suspense and some tension. Excellent.
KBS. Written by Kim Tae Hee.
BALLAD (IN KOREAN)
I’m Going to Meet You
POP SONG (IN ENGLISH)
Sixpence None the Richer
Boys over Flowers
Four rich kids control the social life at an elite Korean high-school. A feisty girl from the lower classes enters the fray. Add an evil manipulative mother and the drama is complete.
Boys over Flowers started out as a Japanese manga in the early 1990s and turned into one of the most popular manga in Japan with more than 50 million copies sold. This Korean TV version was also immensely successful, probably mostly due to the story line and the exquisitely clothed and very handsome quartet. This is a drama that is clearly targeted to teenage girls. If that’s you, go for it. I bet you’ll love it. For the rest of us, mmh, watching at least parts of it will be … educational. Kat from the Dramabeans forum puts it like this: “Yes, it was ridiculous and yes, it was bad but I could not stop watching.” Recommended (because it’s a classic) with reservations (because it’s a mess). Good.
KBS. Written by Yoon Ji Ryun.
This very popular drama features Lee Seung Gi’s breakout performance, playing an arrogant heir whose inheritance is suddenly at risk. It’s very good in a lot of ways so it was originally one of my faves. But when I started watching it a second time, the evil stepmother really got on my nerves – she ruined it for me. If you think you can handle her, definitely give it a shot. Hugely popular in Korea and, with 28 episodes, extraordinarily long. Good.
SBS. Written by So Hyun Kyung who also wrote 49 Days.
He Who Can’t Get Married
What makes a person a social outcast? Well, that depends on what kind of society you live in. A case in point is the hero in this remake of the Japanese show Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (2006). The character of Jo Jae Hee (Ji Jin Hee), a 40-year-old, unmarried architect in Seoul, is clearly inspired by the main character of the American hit comedy As Good As It Gets – Jack Nicholson gets even name-checked in one of the earlier episodes. Both are supposed to be social outcasts but because of their particular cultural contexts, they are quite different. Nicholson plays a character that is drawn in a much harsher light to make him stand out in the highly individualistic American culture. His debilitating case of OCD (he can’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, brings his own silverware to a restaurant, etc.) suggests that his constant and outrageous rudeness might even be part of his mental illness. Jo Jae Hee, on the other hand, is portrayed as an outsider mainly because he likes to be by himself outside of work: He avoids spending time with other people, even with his family, and much prefers to stay home by himself, eat a good meal and listen to classical music. While in an American context, he might be seen simply as a slightly eccentric individual focused very much on his work, his unsocial behavior makes him stand out in Korea. And, of course, he doesn’t want to get married because he enjoys his solitude. That is … until a 40-year-old, unmarried female doctor enters his life.
It’s certainly funny to watch how Jo Jae Hee keeps clashing with social expectations around him and see the social pressure to get married at work. But aside from the hero’s curious personality, there’s really not much new or interesting here. A pleasant rom-com, no hidden angst anywhere. Good.
KBS. Written by Yeo Ji Na.
My Fair Lady
I really like Yoon Eun Hye’s work up to 2011 and this drama is no exception. Especially considering that YEH’s co-stars are Yoon Sang Hyun (Oska from Secret Garden) and super-handsome Jung Il Woo (49 Days, Flower Boy Ramen Shop). Yes, it’s love-triangle time again but this one actually works quite well (even though usually I really don’t like them).
Basically, this is a reversal of the classic Korean rom-com set-up: Here the girl is rich and belongs to the upper class and the guy is just scraping by. Yoon Eun Hye plays a spoiled and spunky heiress who gets entangled with debt-ridden Yoon Sang Hyun but is also wooed by Robin-Hood lawyer Jung Il Woo. Lots of slapstick comedy and a bubbly YEH. Excellent. (For more thoughts on this drama, go here.)
KBS. Written by Kim Eun Hee and Yoon Eun Kyung who both also wrote The Prime Minister and I.
That Fool / The Accidental Marriage
A drama with a very different kind of hero. Naive, insecure but super-nice postal worker Gu Dong Baek (played by Hwang Jung Min) gets by accident (literally) entangled with a popular movie star, rich and beautiful Han Ji Soo (Kim Ah Joong). That the postal worker is bowled over by the actress is easy to understand but is it really possible that Han Ji Soo could fall for this simple character?
It might take a few episodes but Gu Dong Baek will slowly grow on you. His unselfishness and amiability mark him as a fool (hence the title – which might also give a nod to Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot) in a corrupt world where everybody follows their egoistic interest and everything can be bought. But luckily the story takes place in rom-com territory so in the end loyalty and kindness win the day. It’s a modern retelling of the classic tale of a (social) pauper who wins the princess through the purity of his heart.
It’s difficult to find any fault with this rom-com. The plot is generally well-thought out and moves steadily ahead – no annoying repeats going over the same ground – and with only a few minor stumbles. Most importantly, every twist and turn makes sense emotionally. The office scenes are often hilarious (due to two of my favorite supporting actors, Kim Kwang Kyu and Yoon Joo Sang), making fun of its hierarchical system and exposing social hypocrisy. Amusing side characters like Han Ji Soo’s temperamental brother or Gu Dong Baek’s highly dramatic sister add to the fun. And the leads are a pleasure to watch.
Two bonus points: one for the OST’s Korean version of Hirahara Ayaka’s beautiful ballad Kansha and the other one for the ending – simply perfect, especially considering how rom-com K-dramas sometimes undermine the whole story by having the most abstruse endings imaginable. Excellent.
KBS. Written by Jung Jin Young and Kim Eui Chan.
A girl pretends to be a boy and becomes a member of a boy group. This drama is just right for the teenage audience (or the teenager in you): Three hot guys, an adorable Park Shin Hye and lots of shenanigans and complications make for a fun viewing experience. As girlfriday from Dramabeans writes: “I never knew I wanted to be a cross-dressing girl/boy in an idol band…until this drama.” Tip: Watch for the fireworks scene. Pretty cute. Good.
SBS. Written by Hong Mi Ran and Hong Jung Eun. The Hong sisters also wrote: The Greatest Love, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, Couple or Trouble, My Girl.
Who are You?
A supernatural melodramatic rom-com with a promising set-up: A clumsy delivery man with loan sharks on his trail dies in a traffic accident and leaves a teenage daughter behind. He returns as a ghost and possesses a stranger for a few hours every day to help his daughter deal with his accident. But was it even an accident? Or was it murder?
This is certainly a drama of emotional extremes (and lots of tears). It bounces back and forth from slapstick comedy to melodrama, with a murder mystery right smack in the middle. But that’s just the surface. In the end it’s a story about romance and parental love. Kang Nam Gil is great in his role as the wacky father/ghost, Yoon Kye Sang can shine as the apparently schizophrenic businessman, switching between a cold-hearted character with OCD behaviorisms and over-the-top craziness when possessed by the delivery man. Even Yoon Joo Sang is funny as the permanently grumpy angel of death. And Go Ara as the teenage daughter is simply stunning. So we have a great cast, an inventive premise and quite a few funny scenes. But the show feels bumpy and jarring in the beginning, gets better toward the middle but then falls into the common trap of K-dramas to draw out and replay the main conflicts for too long while the plot hardly advances. Then, in the last few episodes it suddenly runs smoothly again with a very nice ending. What it really needs is some good editing. An excellent drama is hiding in there and often it shines through.
There are several Korean shows with this title, so make sure you’re watching the 2008 version. Good (with flashes of excellence).
MBC. Written by Bae Yoo Mi.
There is a rawness to this show that almost gives it an indie feel. The plot was revolutionary at the time: A girl (Yoon Eun Hye) disguises herself as a boy to get a job at a cafe with all-male personnel. Her heterosexual boss (Gong Yoo) falls in love with her. He thinks she’s a man and he’s freaking out because he worries that he’s turning gay. The show’s huge success started a short-lived fashion of crossdressing girls in K-dramas (like You’re Beautiful (2009) and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)). Lots of wacky side-characters add to the fun. Excellent.
MBC. Written by Lee Jung Ah and Jang Hyun Joo.
Couple or Trouble
A hilarious screwball comedy about a spoiled and bossy heiress who suffers from amnesia and is housed by a plumber. As payback for her misdeeds, he plans to make her work as a housemaid and nanny for a few months. Of course, this ludicrous revenge plot badly backfires and they both stumble from one scrape to another.
Han Ye Seul owns this drama with her portrayal of a heroine who’s full of pluck, opinionated and arrogant but still likable. Cute kids, an even cuter dog and bizarre side characters like Kang Ja (played by Jung Soo Young) round off this over the top rom-com. Excellent.
MBC. Written by Hong Mi Ran and Hong Jung Eun. The Hong sisters also wrote: The Greatest Love, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, You’re beautiful, My Girl.
Genre alert! A more melodramatic than rom-com-ish show about a commoner who agrees to an arranged marriage to the Korean crown prince. (The series unfolds in an alternate modern Korea that has retained its monarchy.) This is Yoon Eun Hye’s breakout role. There are a couple of funny scenes and Yoon Eun-Hye is cute but the tortured emotional entanglements weigh heavily. Good.
MBC. Written by In Eun A.
Starting out with a refreshing comedic lightness without being superficial, it becomes heavier later on. Another over-the-top comedy written by the Hong sisters. The center of this drama is Lee Da Hae as a con artist, hired to play the long-missing granddaughter of a hotelier’s grandfather. Good.
SBS. Written by Hong Mi Ran and Hong Jung Eun. The Hong sisters also wrote: The Greatest Love, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, You’re beautiful, Couple or Trouble. 2005-2006.
My Name is Kim Sam Soon
The Korean version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Our heroine (Kim Sun Ah) is an outspoken, overweight talented pastry chef, facing the third decade of her life – without being married. So the clock is ticking and the pressure is on. Enter our other protagonist, French restaurant owner Hyun Jin Heon, who decides to hire her. He is played by super-dreamy Hyun Bin (Secret Garden) and clearly way out of reach for our chubby pastry chef. Lots of fun to watch how they do end up together. A classic and a huge success in Korea – the last episode had 50 percent of all TV viewers tuned in. Excellent.
MBC. Written by Kim Do Woo.
One Percent of Anything
It’s old, it’s long (26 eps) – and it has charm. A mellow rom-com, sometimes slightly amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Compared to most recent K-dramas, our lead couple is decidedly normal, aside from the hero’s bad temper. Yes, he is a chaebol’s heir but he’s not super-rich himself and works for a salary. The heroine is a middle school teacher and generous to a fault. So no spunky heroine but a real goody two-shoes with a clear sense of right and wrong who whips the hero into shape with nagging kindness.
The show feels a little bit like a historical document and, yes, the clothes look funny and the cell phones are museum pieces. What’s really fascinating, though, is how different cultural values were then: The teacher’s middle class family is by no means excited about her association with a millionaire’s heir and the hero feels decidedly uncomfortable when he’s trying out romantic gestures – as if this somehow reduces his manliness. And it sure makes you realize how much the status of women has improved in the last 15 years.
In other aspects, the age of the drama works in its favor. Some current drama tropes are missing or at least played down: The in-laws might be concerned and conservative but they are not evil, for once we can actually observe a functional and loving family life, and we spend a lot of time with the lead couple even after the coupling succeeded.
So if you need a break from the current drama cliches and look for some quiet romance, overlook the annoying wrist-grabs and try it out. Slow but sweet. Good.
(A shorter remake was released in 2016 but lacks the antique charm of the original.)
MBC. Written by Hyun Go Woon.