Starting with the 1980s “Korean Wave,” South Korean popular culture has long had a captive audience in the West, with K-dramas in particular developing a cult following in recent years – and there’s never been a better time to start watching. Famed for their intriguing plotlines and abrupt plot twists, K-dramas have typically focused on friendship, family values, and love, but a new generation of directors are also incorporating modern social issues into their stories. Ranging from the dark to the sentimental, these are the most captivating series to stream now.
Protagonist and con-woman extraordinaire Cha Joo-Eun (Seohyun) is determined to achieve the criminal career that her father couldn’t, but her ambition leads to her downfall and lands her in jail. Back in society, she happens to meet Lee Jeong-Hwan (Ko Gyung-Pyo), and a whirlwind romance ensues. But when Jeong-Hwan leaves her standing at the altar, Joo-Eun’s suspicions are raised and she sets out to discover the truth, uncovering the dark secrets of a huge conglomerate in the process.
The hit 16-episode series follows protagonist Park Sae-Ro-Yi (Park Seo-joon) as he opens his restaurant in Itaewon, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood in Seoul, after serving two years in prison. Sae-Ro-Yi had served time for attempting to murder Jang Dae-Hee (Yoo Jae-Myung), the heir to the Korea’s largest food corporation, who killed Sae-Ro-Yi’s father in a hit and run. A gripping tale of Sae-Ro-Yi’s efforts to build a successful business and get revenge on Dae-Hee and his corrupt, evil father, Iteawon Class also features some of K-dramas’ best modern streetwear looks.
This romantic series was the highest rated drama on its Korean channel, tvN, and proved to be a big success when it landed on Netflix last year. Son Ye-jin stars as Yoon Se-ri, heiress and prominent businesswoman, who is blown off course while paragliding and crashes into the North Korean side of the DMZ. North Korean captain and member of the country’s own elite Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin) discovers her and promises to help her get home, but as he helps her hide, things start to get a little complicated as the two begin to fall in love.
The 2016 series was such a success that it’s been translated into 30 languages since its debut, and led to the show’s stars, Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo, being referred to as the “Song-Song Couple.” Joong-ki plays Yoo Si-jin, a captain of a South Korean Special Forces unit who falls for trauma surgeon Dr. Kang Mo-yeon (Hye-kyo). The two start dating, but as Mo-yeon tries to advance in her career and Si-jin is called off on more missions, the two are forced to confront their philosophical differences.
Another romantic K-drama that premiered at the end of 2020, Run On shares the story of Ki Seon-Gyeom (Im Si-wan), a popular sprinter working to become a sports agent, and Oh Mi-Joo (Shin Se-kyung), who writes subtitle translations for movies. Mi-Joo believes the two are destined for one another and sets out to convince Seon-Gyeom to follow his heart.
For a dark twist on the typical high school drama, try this gripping tale of crimes gone awry. Abandoned by his parents, seemingly perfect student Oh Ji-soo (Dong-Hee Kim) decides to run an illegal business in order to support himself. But as he includes a few new school friends in his crimes, he begins to face more and more obstacles as his once smooth criminal system begins to crumble. While the story is a bit tricky to follow at the beginning, it is well worth sticking it out as the plot thickens and the intricate journey unfolds.
The K-drama version of House of Cards, minus the off-camera drama, Chief of Staff follows a group of National Assembly politicians as they attempt to climb the greasy pole — no matter what it takes. On top of the typical scheming and manipulation, there’s scandalous affairs and even some serious criminal activity, as well as a lot of lying to the public. Slick and addictive, it’s lucky that there are two seasons of the show available to binge.
From prolific South Korean television director Ahn Pan-seok comes this moving story that tackles one couple’s love story and Korean relationship taboos. Son Ye-jin (who also stars in Crash Landing on You) plays Jin-ah, a coffee shop supervisor in her thirties, while Jung Hae-in plays Joon-hee, a video game animator in his twenties and Jin-ah’s best friend’s brother. The series intimately follows the subtle evolution of their relationship, and there’s a powerful secondary plot unpacking the harassment of female workers at Jin-ah’s company.
The modern-day South Korean equivalent of Friends or Insecure, Fight for My Way follows a group of four young friends trying to succeed in their respective careers. Each pursuing own dreams, the four underdogs must navigate dismissive bosses, acquiring necessary qualifications and shifting friendship dynamics. Of course, there are romantic plots too, mainly focused on the childhood friends Ko Dong-man (Park Seo-joon) and Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) who are too immature to figure out their relationship. The award-winning series is a perfect balm for those looking for a realistic friendship-based show with a sprinkling of drama.
This tear-jerker K-drama takes place in a psychiatric ward where caretaker Moon Gang Tae crosses paths with Ko Moon Young, an antisocial children’s book writer he has long admired. Gang Tae had previously lived life on the run while taking care of his autistic older brother, Sang Tae, who often has nightmares of the day their mother was murdered. As the three character’s lives become intertwined and their shocking pasts are revealed, a romance between Gang Tae and Moon Young blossoms, giving a perfect combination of love, drama and surprise twists.