Considering that even NPR, specifically through Planet Money, is now doing stories including mentions of Korean dramas, I thought it was time for a Guide for the Perplexed on Korean dramas. We have written previously about how Korean dramas have wide reaching interest beyond their country of origin. And as far back as January 2010 specifically about why you should watch Princess Hours (Goong) on Dramafever.
So what makes Korean dramas interesting? There are shows that range from action oriented, to romance, to time travel, to sad or over-the-top melodramas, to odd mashups (Vampire Idol, Vampire Prosecutor), to new trendy types — such as body switching (Big, Secret Garden) and time-travel/fish-out-water (Rooftop Prince, Queen In-Hyun’s Man, Time Slip Dr. Jin).
Korean culture is very family-based and therefore the shows reflect this. Many characters, including quite wealthy ones, live with their parents at least until marriage — and often beyond. The need to balance personal desires versus what will keep family balance is a frequent theme of Kdramas of all genres, but especially romantic comedies and romantic dramas. The reason why couples can’t be together in Kdramas is more dramatic (and Jane Austen-ish) than U.S. shows — either grandma (who must be followed as an elder) objects or a family member of one has been killed by a family member of the other.
Most shows have episodes that are about an hour long — without commercials. And because episodes tend to be aired in pairs, such as Monday and Tuesday, it means that if an episode is missed, whatever happened will be discussed in the following episode. Due to the need for the audience to know what is presently happening in these plot-heavy shows, there is a lot of dialogue, discussing events and character motivation.
Unlike most American television shows, they tend to have the entire “book” of the show — plots and character development planned out ahead of time, more similar the the U.K. television process. While very popular shows do sometimes get extended for a couple of episodes, most shows are either short-term (about 16-20 episodes), though some family-based dramas — similar to soap operas or telenovelas — can be between 50 to 200 episodes. Because the showrunners know what will happen, it helps to keep the shows on task.
An overall warning about Korean dramas — anyone can die, including the main characters. (Think: MI-5/Spooks) Also, if there are two guys in the love triangle — one very nice and super attractive and the other is a jerk, she’ll choose the jerk (unless Mr. Hottie oppa is in the main publicity photos). A fun aspect of Korean dramas is that actors do not stay within a genre — so an actor can be in a romantic comedy followed by an action drama followed by a family soap — and viewers can recognize the genre-crossing skills of their favorite actors.
One hint I have found for picking shows I will like is counterintuitive — skip the first episode (or read the first episode recap) and start with the second one. This doesn’t work for every show, but it does work for many, because many shows have way too much plot development city in the first episode.
A great place to read about shows, including complete recaps for many shows is Dramabeans. If you don’t speak Korean, there are options to watch Korean dramas with subtitles in English. There are several legal sources for watching dramas, but my favorite is Dramafever, including a partnership with Hulu, so you can watch shows from that site. Other sites/apps are Viki (has lots of language options other than English) and Crunchyroll.
Below are shows in a wide variety of genres to start you on the road to becoming a Kdrama fan! I dislike melodrama (known as makjang) — so there are none listed. All shows are linked directly to their Dramafever page — but are available from other sources as well.
The Learned Fangirl’s Starting Korean Dramas for the Newbie
This show is my recommendation for best starting show for someone who has never before seen a Kdrama, due to its plotting and high production values. And the story is awesome — “Batman” raises “Bruce Wayne/Batman” to avenge the death of his father and others by corrupt politicians. As Dramabeans puts it: “Because you know what? Revenge thrillers are boss, yo. I’m ALL ABOUT them.” Skip the first episode — you’ll find out everything in later episodes.
Girl pretends to be boy to work at coffee shop. Coffee shop owner falls for her as a boy.
Straightforward police procedural.
A very well-written and plotted drama about the lives of high schoolers that want to join the entertainment industry. Like Fame, but within the unique world of the Korean entertainment industry. All of the young actors are members of musical groups, so in an odd way they are acting in a fictionalized version of their own lives. Appropriate down to tweens. Sequel Dream High II not recommended.
Beautiful, but slow-moving show about an alternative universe where Korea has a young King and a commoner girl has been selected to be his wife. Especially swoony teenage girls will totes love this show.
Really fun show about the Korean Robin Hood and his very different band of merry followers. Great for fans of Xena, Hercules, Jack of All Trades, the Sharpe series, or other not entirely accurate historical show. While fun and exciting, the ending of the show isn’t.
Straightforward well-written romantic comedy, without body switching or lost relatives.
This family-based show was so popular, it has had two sequel shows. Great if you like Modern Family or other family humor based show. Warning: laugh track.
Workplace drama taken to a whole different level. Murder, backstabbing, intrigue, romance, but most of all humor. Includes dueling patent applications.
Basically the Korean Sex and the City, but with Samantha and Charlotte combined into one character. Women in their 30s looking for love and balancing careers. I was fine with the ending, but it was very divisive among the fanbase. There is now a second season airing — but until it finishes airing and we watch it, TLF cannot yet recommend this season.
Jewel in the Palace (AKA Dae Jang Geum)
Based on the true story of a woman who became a king’s personal physician, this show has it all — romance, betrayal, costumes, and food, beautiful, beautiful shots of food. This is the show that got the Korean drama wave really started in the U.S. and after watching this show you’ll understand. Mmmm, Korean food.
Except for the first episode, this is a slow moving and very touching slice-of-life story about the power of redemption and family. And food — each episode is based around a specific dish served at the traditional Korean restaurant on the show.
Once Upon a Time in Saengchori
Imagine if the entire squad from The Office was moved to a small, weird town to try to get all of them to quit. Add in a murder mystery and a boss who due to a lightning strike has lost his smarts — and the usual inter-office romance and you have this show. Pair with History of a Salaryman.
Legally Blonde with actual plot and character development. While the main character of this show starts vapid, she learns how to do her job and falls in love. The character development in this show is a testament to the acting skills of the main actress — and the show never becomes either too light-hearted or too serious.
The premise is ridiculous — a female stunt double and a reckless playboy switch bodies and therefore fall in love. Don’t take this show seriously, but it is loads of fun, thanks to the excellent acting skills of the two leads.
Sign & Secret Investigation Record (AKA Joseon X-Files)
Sign *is* the Korean CSI, so if you miss original flavor CSI, watch this. And Secret Investigation Record is the Korean X-Files — and was named accordingly when aired, though it is set in the Joseon era (specifically in the 17th century).
Vampire Prosecutor & Vampire Idol
Do you like vampires? Would you like to watch them having jobs? Now you have that chance! Vampire Prosecutor is mostly a straightforward police procedural, but with some supernatural aspects. Kinda like if Psych was an actual psychic and the show was more realistic. Vampire Idol is a campy show about vampires becoming idol singers.
I love how timely this article was; I was watching Coffee Prince right before I visited this site just now. XD
Prosecutor Princess is the best! And oh not to mention, Dream High, City Hunter and Coffee Prince. I love them all!