A Beginner's Guide to Netflix K-Dramas
A handy starter pack if you're recently into Korean dramas.
Americans are consuming Korean-made media now more than ever. With K-pop stars BTS making waves on American music charts—have you listened to "Butter" yet??—along with Selena Gomez collaborators Blackpink, and director Bong Joon Ho bringing us the Oscar-winning hit Parasite (among other excellent films), we can’t help but take notice of the K-wave, or hallyu. We can’t give the Bangtan boys, "Ice Cream" gals, and director Bong all of the credit; Netflix is playing a major role in the phenomenon, too. Over the past few years, the streaming service inked a deal with Korean production companies to create more original shows and movies after the 2019 zombie hit series Kingdom; entered into a licensing agreement with the cable network JTBC; and, in 2021 alone, has committed to spending $500 million on Korean-language offerings. This effort isn't just for the American fans of Korean titles, of course: Netflix had 3.8 million subscribers in South Korea at the end of 2020 and, like everywhere else, that number continues to grow.
But what's great about Korean dramas beyond any other streaming service or networks' latest juicy fare like, say, Mare of Easttown or Cruel Summer? In these addictive shows with single episode runtimes that look more like movies, it's drama plus a thick side of more drama, often with a love story at the center. Because Netflix has put a decent amount of coin behind some of its newer titles, viewers are getting fantastic acting, dazzling wardrobe design, good writing, and sleek production. A TV show could never tell the story of an entire group of people, and although K-dramas do a great job of transporting you to a place that may look totally different, this genre still holds true to common themes that we all grapple with as humans. If you take one global pandemic that forces the majority of the world to stay at home and combine that with high-quality drama, you’ll get a whole bunch of new K-drama viewers. To ease you into the waters, we’ve compiled a list of the best K-dramas on Netflix for genre newbies.
Because This Is My First Life (2017)
Here, we follow fiscally responsible and socially awkward Nam Se-hee, who is on the search for a new roommate. Fortunately for Se-hee, he finds a tenant in Yoon Ji-ho, a newly homeless writer. Unfortunately, societal and familial opinions about an unmarried man and woman living together forces Se-hee and Ji-ho to lie about their landlord/tenant relationship, which leads the couple to fake an engagement. The secondary characters equally struggle, from calling off a long-term relationship to dealing with sexual harassment and bro culture at work. If you’re single and in your mid-to-late 20s or early 30s, themes of societal deadlines within marriage and career throughout this drama hit way too hard. However, these moments are peppered with some comedy and good romance to sweeten the deal.
Crash Landing on You (2019)
It's not uncommon for two lovey-dovey leads on a series to end up together, but no couple is as adorably charming as K-drama superstars Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin (they even have their own portmanteau, BinJin), who start out as natural enemies in this series and eventually fall in love. Son plays the self-absorbed heiress and lifestyle brand CEO Yoon Se-ri, who, while testing out one of her latest products via paragliding just north of Seoul, gets swept up in a storm, is blown past the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea—which are still technically at war with each other—and literally crash lands in North Korean territory. Se-ri is found by Captain Ri (Hyun), and after a few directionally challenged mishaps in her escape attempt, winds up living in Ri and his underlings' small village nearby. The culture exchange between Se-ri and everyone else is absolutely fascinating to watch as she struggles to adjust to life without easy access to Nice Things and act comradely to her fellow villagers. According to defectors, the show does a fairly accurate job of depicting the daily life of average North Koreans, something that Westerners hardly ever see, with documentarians and tourists given tightly controlled puppet shows run by its totalitarian dictatorship. For that reason alone, this rom-com is worth the plunge, but the flirtatious chemistry between Se-ri and Captain Ri will suck you in for good.
Itaewon Class (2020)
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and that’s exactly what Itaewon Class's main character Park Sae-royi (K-drama super star Park Seo-joon) is doling out. After his father is mowed over by a car, Sae-royi is jailed for assaulting the man who killed his father. Heartbreaking? Yes, but oh, it gets deeper. His father's murderer is a former classmate and the heir to a wealthy, powerful, and corrupt food company called Jangga Group. But Sae-royi has a long-term plan: Take down Jangga Group with his own food conglomerate, starting with a single pocha. That’s where Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi), a young influencer and marketing genius, enters the game. She and an old flame from Sae-royi’s past duke it out in a love triangle that would have anyone placing their bets. Itaewon Class is named for the popular and pricy neighborhood in South Korea, Itaewon-dong, best known for its hip-hop dance clubs, gay pubs, and diversity, also attracting a lot of tourists and foreigners. Based on the webtoon of the same name, this Netflix series is super versatile, deftly exploring issues like racism and transphobia in South Korea.
It's OK Not To Be OK (2020)
It’s OK Not to Be OK will take you on a ride. The series follows Moon Gang-tae, who is a caregiver in both his personal and professional life—first, for his autistic brother Sang-tae and, second, as a nurse at a psychiatric ward. Gang-tae has spent most of his life jumping from city to city with his brother trying to avoid the haunting and mysterious memories surrounding his mothers’ death. His life is flipped upside down when he reconnects with Ko Moon-young, a famous children’s book writer with an antisocial personality disorder. Gang-tae ends up back in his hometown, where Moon-young follows him in order to pursue a relationship and satiate her romantic obsession with the caregiver. While trying to get her mans, Moon-young struggles with being haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding her mother's disappearance. Once you start watching, you’ll be drawn to Moon-young’s killer and over-the-top wardrobe, but stay for the lovable Sang-tae. The show’s mysterious plot is a little bit of a slow burn, but it still keeps you invested.
Love Alarm (2019)
This series should go down in the love triangle hall of fame. Love Alarm—based on a webtoon of the same name—follows Kim Jo-jo (Kim So-hyun), a young and bright student who is still dealing with the grief and trauma of her parents’ death from her childhood. To make things a little more complicated, add two young men to the mix—one rich, one poor—who are smitten with Jo-jo, and are willing to let their lifelong friendship go up in smoke to win her affection. If that wasn’t enough, sprinkle on the invention of a cutting-edge dating app that rings if someone within a 10-mile radius has romantic feelings for you. Oh, and we’ll garnish the entire dish with a cult-like mass suicide and a mysterious app creator.
Oh My Ghost (2015)
Na Bong-sun, played by award-winning actress Park Bo-young, is a timid young woman who landed her dream job working as a kitchen assistant for a chef she totally admires and is low-key head over heels for. So far, so basic, right? Wrong. There's the fact that the aspiring chef regularly has frightening encounters with spirits thanks to her shaman family legacy, and gets used as a vessel by a lustful virgin ghost named Shin Soon-ae who believes the only way to move on into the afterlife is to lose her virginity. Viewers follow Bong-sun as she juggles bro-culture at work and an arrogant and sometimes hotheaded boss, played by drama OG Jo Jung-suk. The story of Soon-ae unravels as she tries to lose her virginity to pass on to the afterlife and solve her own sudden and mysterious murder. This show is incredibly easy to watch and at times feels like a comedy, but somehow you’ll still end up crying at the end.
Romance Is a Bonus Book (2019)
Romance Is a Bonus Book follows bachelor Cha Eun-ho, who is a successful writer and editor at a publishing company, and Kang Dan-i, a formerly successful advertising copywriter who set aside her pen for a husband, house, and baby. Cha Eun-ho and Kang Dan-i—played by award-winning K-drama OGs Lee Jong-suk and Lee Na-young—become close childhood friends after an accident that almost cost Eun-ho his life. As the two mature, Eun-ho silently stands by as Dan-i dates self-involved pricks, until she finally marries the chief among them. Fast forward nearly a decade and Dan-i is homeless, jobless, has a huge gap on her resume, and divorced. As Dan-i struggles to get her life back on track, Eun-ho does everything he can to support her. As the show progresses, their lives become more intertwined, which allows their love to deepen and romance to bloom. If you’re in the market for a stress-free, romantic show, this is for you.
Something in the Rain (2018)
There are things in life and dating that some people consider taboo, such as dating your best friend’s brother or dating someone a decade younger than you. Something in the Rain explores these themes and does it well. The story follows Jin-ah—played by K-drama star Son Ye-jin—a 30-something business woman as she falls head over heels for her best friend’s brother Joon-hee (Jung Hae-In), who is a 20-something animator. Jin-ah’s family practically took in Joon-hee and his sister as children because of their absent father and constantly working single mother. So in embarking on their relationship, Jin-ah and Joon-hee constantly have to worry about how things will look to the outside world because of both their age gap and their family’s disapproval. If pissing off her family and best friend wasn’t enough, the show also follows Jin-ah as she and some of her female colleagues grapple with outing men at their office for sexual harassment. Something in the Rain leaves viewers with a bunch of “what if’s?” that can be applied to your life no matter your country of origin or language.