As Squid Game and a variety of series took the world by storm, it’s undeniable that 2021 is the year where K-dramas took center stage. And it’s worth congratulating the actors, production staff, creatives, and subtitle editors.
This year, K-dramas featured a glorious mix of heartwarming romances, dark fantasies, revenge tales, passionate melodramas, spine-tingling thrillers, and more. Social media and global streaming platforms also paved the way for Korean series to be known among a wide range of audiences.
A lot of binge-worthy series were released which makes it hard to narrow down the best. With that tough task said and done, here are our 12 K-drama picks of the year in no particular order. Perhaps, you have yet to discover some of these gems.
1. On the Verge of Insanity
The corporate world is frustrating, draining, and exhausting—and On the Verge of Insanity dives deeper into the suffocating world of workplace culture. Through the eyes of middle-aged adults, no less.
Starring veteran actors Jung Jaeyoung and Moon Sori, this unexpected delight explores the hardships of middle-aged office workers. The series tells the story of employees who are struggling to make ends meet in their respective careers, with a dose of office politics and drama in between. This relatable K-drama will either make you laugh at the absurdity of workplace culture or shake your head in denial.
2. Squid Game
In the past, it’s hard to imagine that K-dramas would dominate the world. Yet Squid Game—in its brutal and gut-wrenching glory—made it happen.
The series centers around 456 bankrupt individuals who unwittingly sign up for a series of life-threatening updates on Korean childhood games. Seong Gihun (Lee Jungjae) finds himself in a fight to the death with childhood friend Cho Sangwoo (Park Haesoo), North Korean refugee Kang Saebyeok, and other players to win a handsome cash prize. Featuring heartbreaking moments, thrilling scenes, meme-able sequences, and eye-catching visuals, this series is worthy of its world-conquering status.
3. My Name
Han Sohee drove K-drama fans crazy when she played the hopelessly lovesick art student in Nevertheless. This time, she’s out for revenge in the action-packed My Name that showed off her range as an actress.
The series centers around revenge-driven Yoon Jiwoo, a woman who’s hungry to seek justice for her father who died at the hands of an unknown assailant. She takes the name Oh Jiwoo to infiltrate the police forces as she finds herself in an inner struggle between ruthless gangsters and jaded cops.
4. Youth of May
Stories involving star-crossed lovers are one thing, but this tragic love story revolves around Hwang Heetae (Lee Dohyun) and Kim Myunghee (Go Minsi) who are children of two families with opposing political views.
Set during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, the historical series tells the story of medical student Heetae and Myunghee who fall in love amid South Korea’s democratic movement. The uprising started after student activists from Chonnam University protesting against former dictator Chun Doohwan were raped, tortured, and killed.
5. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
What happens when you combine dimpled beauties Shin Minah and Kim Seonho in one K-drama? A heart-fluttering combination in a fluffy rom-com that made the weekend into an all-out kilig fest.
Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha revolves around idyllic dentist Yoon Hyejin (Shin Minah) who moves into the coastal town of Gongjin to start afresh. She crosses paths with local jack-of-all-trades Hong Dusik (Kim Seonho) where playful arguments evolved into heartwarming romance. The series doesn’t just focus on the OTP’s love story, it also tells stories of the townsfolk and how they’re living their lives.
2021 was definitely Song Joongki’s year after starring in the sci-fi action flick Space Sweepers and charming K-drama fans as the suave Italian-Korean lawyer Vincenzo Cassano.
High society takes center stage in Vincenzo as the handsome lawyer returns to South Korea to take on the sketchy Babel Group and its CEO Jang Junwoo (Ok Taecyeon). Vincenzo soon joins forces with sassy lawyer Hong Chayoung (Jeon Yeobeen) and the larger-than-life inhabitants of a dilapidated commercial building. Occasional clunky moments aside, this series is an entertaining watch.
TV series focusing on women’s solidarity is hard to find, yet Mine struck a chord with K-drama fans in 2021.
The high society series, fronted by headstrong females, takes a peek into the dark side of upper-class families as they’re blinded by their love for power and control. It’s not easy to create a series with many characters since their desires, relationships, and secrets make up most of the story, but Mine makes it work. This series is proof that you don’t need ass-kicking and sassy females to display girl power.
8. Mr. Queen
There’s something so kilig about K-dramas that follow body-swap tropes, and period rom-com Mr. Queen solidified our love for this genre.
Modern-day male chef Kim Soyong finds himself in the body of Queen Cheorin (Shin Hyesun) in South Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. The noblewoman navigates her way through the historical period as she conquers patriarchy and gender inequality to gain the respect of her peers. The heartwarming series also features funny pop culture references and parodies of modern-day current events. Who can forget the moment when the so-called “first fast food meal” was introduced in court?
Song Kang might’ve angered several K-drama fans with his suave, playboy act in Nevertheless, but he showed off the depth of his acting chops in Navillera.
The heartwarming drama tells the story of 70-year-old Shim Deokchul (Park Inhwan) who decides to pursue his lifelong dream of learning ballet. He soon meets 23-year-old ballet dancer Lee Chaerok who’s thinking of giving up dance for good. As Deokchul struggles with his old age, his hunger to fight for his passion inspired Chaerok to survive life’s hardships.
10. Hospital Playlist 2
With a K-drama as popular as Hospital Playlist, many fans thought that there’s no way that season two will exceed expectations. Yet Hospital Playlist 2 proved it can.
The series picks up where the first season left off with the “Lacking Five” Lee Ikjun (Jo Jungsuk), Ahn Jeongwon (Yoo Yeonseok), Kim Junwan (Jung Hyungho), Yang Seokhyeong (Kim Daemyung), and Chae Songhwa (Jeon Mido) embark on their respective journeys as health workers involving medicine, music, and relationships. Who can forget the heart-fluttering OTPs that emerged from this K-drama? Realistic and kilig.
11. She Would Never Know
Noona romances (older woman and younger man) can sometimes be tricky to pull off, especially when it comes to addressing stereotypes between genders. However, office romance She Would Never Know checks all the boxes.
KLAR cosmetics intern Chae Hyunseung (SF9’s Rowoon) falls in love with senior marketing officer Yoon Songah (Won Jinah) at first sight on their first encounter. Even if Hyunseung discovers her relationship with one of the company’s prominent employees, he treated his female sunbae with respect. Quite refreshing from other male leads who fail to decipher the meaning of respect when it comes to pursuing a love interest.
12. Our Beloved Summer
Hear us out: Our Beloved Summer is still ongoing as of this writing, yet there’s something about this rom-com that makes us want to re-evaluate our past romances to find out what went wrong.
The coming-of-age romantic comedy centers around ex-lovers Choi Ung (Choi Wooshik) and Kook Yeonsoo (Kim Dami) who are forced to face the cameras together when their first documentary went viral. The series focuses on second chances at love, forcing viewers to take a step back and double-check their flaws on why their previous romances didn’t work out in the past. Whether it’s about reuniting with a former flame or not though, is entirely up to you.
Honorable mentions: Melancholia, Law School, Happiness, Yumi’s Cells, Hellbound, D.P., Beyond Evil, Mouse, One Ordinary Day, True Beauty, Move to Heaven, Sell Your Haunted House, and One the Woman