K-dramas have been around since the 1990s, slowly gaining popularity with the onset of the first “hallyu wave” in most Asian countries at the start of the 2000s.
But only in recent years have K-dramas gained traction in the West, predominantly in Europe, South and North America, due to social media and streaming apps like Netflix, Viki, Viu among others.
If you still haven’t watched a single K-drama, you’re simply missing out. K-dramas can get you hooked with their interesting twists and perplexing plots. Let’s not forget the gorgeous actors and actresses playing these characters. An added bonus is the soundtrack, especially if sung by a member of your fave group.
And the best part of a K-drama is the END. Whether it’s a happy ending, a tearjerker or a cliffhanger that’s begging for a second season, you know you’ll see that light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Stairway to Heaven’ is the K-drama that started it for me. A Cinderella story with poignant plot twists, it’s going to make your heart ache.
A typical K-drama consists of only 16 episodes at one hour each, and if the drama is highly rated, producers will extend it to 20 episodes with a bonus special episode. A special episode highlights the best scenes, commentaries from actors, behind the scenes, ad-libs and blooper reels, which are always fun to watch.
You’ll wish that you could binge-watch 24/7—yes it’s that addicting and amazing. With a variety of K-drama titles that are readily available, the only question that newbies should ask is Where to start?
I curated the best 20 K-dramas to start off your viewing pleasure. In no particular order:
1. Descendants of the Sun
A rom story that revolves around Yoo Shi Jin (Soong Joong-Ki) , a Korean Special Forces captain, and Kang Mo Yeon (Song Hye Kyo), an elite surgeon at Haseung Hospital. They fall in love amid the fictional war-torn country Uruk (shot in picturesque Greece).
2. The Heirs
This coming-of-age HS drama follows the lives of a group of priviledged high school students as they prepare to take over their families’ business empires. They overcome trials, fall in love and grow up together. The series features a popular ensemble cast with Lee Min Hoo as Kim Tan and Park Shin Hye as Cha Eun Sang, and in notable supporting roles are Kim Woo Bin, Kim Ji Won, Kang Min Hyuk, Kang Ha Neul, Park Hyung Sik and Krystal Jung.
3. Stairway to Heaven
This is the K-drama that started it for me. A tearjerker of a Cinderella story with poignant plot twists, it’s going to make your heart ache. Kwon Sang Woo and Choi Ji Woo lead a great cast with exceptional performances, which made their ratings soar to a close 40%, and is considered one of the classics.
4. Fight for my Way
A lighthearted, hilarious romcom about long time friends, Ka Dong Man (Park Seo Joon) and Choi Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won), who are underdogs with big dreams. Settled with mundane jobs, they struggle to survive and strive for success, as their friendship slowly bossoms into love.
5. My ID is Gangnam Beauty
A drama based on the popular webtoon of the same name, it revolves around the life of student Kang Mi Rae (Im Soo Hyang) who undergoes cosmetic surgery to avoid being bullied. Yet she faces ridicule for her artificial looks as she navigates college life and finding out what real beauty means.
6. Winter Sonata
The drama that started the hallyu wave, it centers on the theme “There’s no other love like your first love.” The protagonists are separated nearly a decade due to an accident, mistaken death and let’s not forget the inevitable amnesia. Joon Sang (Bae Yong Joon) and Yu Jin (Choi Ji Woo) will take you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. A classic K-drama legacy.
7. Empress Ki
Empress Ki (Ha Ji Won) is a historical drama that centers on Ki Seung Nyang, a Goryeo dynasty citizen, who rises to power despite great odds and the constraints of class system to become an empress of the Yuan dynasty.
8. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
This romcom is so hilarious and sweet. It tells the story of students in the college of sports as they follow their dreams to become Olympians while experiencing love along the way. Lee Sung Kyung stars as the heroine weightlifter Kim Bok Joo.
9. Cheese in the Trap
A rom thriller based on the eponymous webtoon, it focuses on the lives and relationships of university students. Hong Seol (Kim Go Eun) sees the true self of her perfect senior Yoo Jung (Park Hae Jin), who deceptively hides behind a kind smile but really is dangerous.
10. Hospital Playlist
Medical drama stans will simply enjoy this second installment of The Wise Life series, following Prison Playbook, the story about five doctor friends who meet in med school and continue their friendship as they work at Yulje Medical Center. They navigate through different medical cases, personal relationships as well as life and death situations. A second season is set to premier in 2021. Bonus for the awesome OST.
11. Crash Landing on You
A romcom of star-crossed lovers. South Korean heiress Yoon Se Ri (Son Ye Jin) crash lands in North Korea due to a cyclone while paragliding, and is discovered by North Korean Special Forces Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin) while on patrol. Thus begins their misadventures and an array of endless obstacles as Jeong Hyeok helps Se Ri return to South Korea.
An action packed horror/thriller drama set in the Joseon era. There is a zombie epidemic and political upheavel instigated by a greedy minister as the Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji Hoon) struggles to bring peace to his beseiged kingdom. A must-see for zombie and historical drama enthusiasts.
The best part of a K-drama is the END. Whether it’s a happy ending, a tearjerker or a cliffhanger that’s begging for a second season, you know you’ll see that light at the end of the tunnel.
13. Love Alarm
A love triangle between hardworking student Kim Jo Jo (Kim So Hyun) and bestfriends Hwang Sun Oh (Song Kang) and Lee Hye Yeong (Jung Ga Ram). They live in a world where a disruptive app called Love Alarm lets a person know if someone loves them within a 10-meter radius. Their feelings become transparent whether they want to or not.
14 The King: Eternal Monarch
A fantasy rom drama that switches between two worlds. The Kingdom of Corea, where a tragic King Lee Gon (Lee Min Ho) reigns and accidentally opens a portal to another word: The Republic of Korea. There he meets and falls in love with police detective Jung Tae Eul (Kim Go Eun). Scene stealer: Woo Do Hwan who plays both serious Jo Yeong, the King’s chief royal guard and goofy Jo Eun Seob, a friend of Tae Eul.
15. Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God)
The fourth highest-rated fantasy K-drama of all time is about a goblin (Gong Yoo) that’s searching for his human bride (Kim Go Eun) for close to a century to bring an end to his curse and immortality. The goblin lives side by side with the grim reaper (Lee Dong Wook), who’s struggling to remember his past life and atone for his sins.
16. Sky Castle
This drama centers on four mothers’ obsession with getting their children to SKY by any means, (SKY refers to Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei Hjiversity, the top three most prestigious universities in the nation) so they coud maintain their status in the upper echelon of South Korean society.
17. Chief of Staff
If you loved House of Cards, this political drama is for you. The endless corruption, schemes, manipulations, affairs, criminal activities, petty lies that politcians and their aides do to climb the political ladder to the Blue House. This also marks acclaimed actor Lee Jung Jae’s return to the small screen.
18. Reply 1988
The finale and the best of the Reply Series, this nostalgic family drama will make you laugh and cry, while taking you back to your own childhood memories. It revolves around Duk Seon (Girls Day’s Lee Hyeri) and her four male childhood friends, one of whom will eventually become her husband. The five friends and their families live in Seoul’s suburb Ssangmun-dong, Dobong, and take on everyday mundane problems.
If you still haven’t watched a single K-drama, you’re simply missing out. They will hook you with their interesting twists and perplexing plots.
19. My Love from the Star
This fantasy romcom has just the right dose of fantasy, drama and comedy to make it a complete package. An alien, Do Mi Joon (Kim Soo Hyun), lands on earth during the Joseon era and gets stuck for 400 years, and learns about the strengths and folies of humans. While preparing to finally leave the planet, he gets embroiled in the unpredictble life of popular actress Chun Song Yi (Jun Ji Hyun), who looks exactly like the young woman he fell in love with 400 years ago.
This fantasy police procedural will enthrall viewers new and old. Present-day young profiler (Le Je Hoon) is talking to a police officer (Cho Jin Woong) who lives in the past through a walkie-talkie that only works at certain times. They begin solving fictionalized versions of South Korea’s most famous cold cases and also prevent them from happening.