Feeling left out of the Korean media renaissance? Curious about those chart-defying boy bands and seeing K-beauty take over Sephora shelves? With the Korean language film Parasite winning Best Picture at the Oscars this year and Korean pop groups like BTS and Blackpink breaking records left and right, it’s no surprise if you’re wondering what Korean pop culture is all about.
In fact, much of Korea’s soft power comes from its Korean dramas (or K-dramas, as fans refer to the TV shows that generally run 16 episodes in length). Korean dramas are a wonderland that will change your perspective, your lifestyle choices, and travel destinations. You’ll develop a hankering for spicy seafood noodles, sweet rice wine, and brooding Asian actors. But one look at the wealth of Korean dramas on Netflix, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. So where to start? What if you want to learn more about Korean culture, but are afraid slang terms and social mores will bypass you completely?
During this season of pandemic, where prime ministers are encouraging staycations and self-quarantines are the best way to care for others, think of TV watching as therapy. Cinema therapy is a thing, and like bibliotherapy (reading books to both heal and develop understanding and empathy), bonding with fictional characters onscreen can bring many personal and social insights. There’s actually a study done on the affective power of Korean dramas, especially on working women, who seem to regard them as both cathartic and therapeutic.
There’s actually a study done on the affective power of Korean dramas, especially on working women, who seem to regard them as both cathartic and therapeutic.
So consider watching Korean dramas an immersive learning experience that’s both fun and rewarding. You will both laugh and cry and wonder how you can relate so well to characters oceans and cultures away from you. I know. Because that’s me.
How I Got Into Korean Dramas
Within a little more than a decade after I watched my first Korean drama, I’ve lived and taught in South Korea, and count several Korean and Korean-Canadians among my best friends. Now I’ve added Korean to Chinese in my language learning endeavors, and regularly cook Korean cuisine at home. All because of that fateful moment when my friend introduced me to Korean dramas.
And I’ve turned my mom into a Korean drama addict too. Now she’s giving me drama recommendations. And I’ve turned various aunts and uncles into Korean cuisine fanatics. I have an uncle who specifically gets me to take him to Korean restaurants whenever he drives into my town.
My personal drama addiction started over noodle soup. “Let’s watch a Korean drama,” my Chinese friend said to me. She was an exchange student from China, and we were bonding over her home-cooked Chinese food and snacks. “A Korean drama?” I asked, nonplussed. I had expected her to introduce me to Chinese movies—I was studying Mandarin at university and was planning to visit China in the not-too-distant future. “Yes!” she replied, waving her chopsticks excitedly in the air. “This drama is so good! You will be addicted!”
She was right.
The “gateway” drama (there’s a reason Korean dramas are likened to drugs and should be listed somewhere under a compendium of non-chemical stimulants) was called Full House. No, not the one with a cute blonde girl and a wholesome family. This drama was fairly wholesome too, despite the plot revolving around the cohabitation of a novelist and a celebrity. It contained all the hallmarks of a “cheesy” romance: bickering interactions, dodgy friends, clingy would-be lovers, but it was also fun, heartfelt, and highly entertaining. I watched 16 episodes in two days and was back in front of my friend’s door, demanding more.
And I’m not the only one: Korean dramas are not only consumed by viewers in diverse Asian countries, from China to Kazakhstan, but are also immensely popular in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. With K-pop stars now traveling to the U.S. for concerts and breaking Guinness World Records, Korean media and culture is conquering the global imagination.
And no wonder. Unlike the traditional U.S. television format, Korean dramas tend to be self-contained stories. Usually running at 16 episodes, Korean dramas boast a diverse range of genres, with thrillers, romance, character sketches, family comedies, and historical sageuks regularly airing across primetime and cable channels. And now with Netflix cashing in on the K-drama craze, you too can experience the highs and lows of K-drama addiction.
A note on the lows: It comprises a certain persisting sadness when a favorite drama ends and you realize that you will have to say goodbye to all the colorful characters you’ve grown to love. Which is almost as heartbreaking as saying goodbye to real friends.
So if you’re ready to join millions around the world in their Korean drama addiction, I’ve compiled a handy list of gateway dramas from Netflix’s vast lineup. Check it out—there may be a drama to pique your interest!
When You’re Looking For: Stirring Romance
Try: Crash Landing on You
At first glance, the premise may not seem promising: South Korean heiress literally parachuting into the arms of a dashing North Korean captain??! And yet, this wacky plot works, thanks in part to the memorable acting by the cast, and the solid writing that portrays North Korean life in a gentler light than we’d expect. The fine details of North Korean life permeate the drama and flesh it out, while Se Ri and Jeong Hyuk struggle to maintain their love across a fractured peninsula and historical boundaries.
When You’re in the Mood For: An Intellectual Thriller
Stranger is that perfect blend of murder mystery, social commentary, and character exploration. Following prosecutor Hwang Shi-Mok, who has been shorn of his empathy through complications with surgery, the drama explores the seamy side of law enforcement.
Actress Bae Doona (who also stars in Kingdom, see below) appears as his police counterpart, and the two slowly uncover a festering web of crime and corruption. Due for a second season, Stranger combines a fast-paced plot, stellar writing, and unexpected emotional breakthroughs, and is the drama I instantly recommend to K-drama newbies who dislike romance.
If You’d Like to See: Count of Monte Cristo-Like Justice
Try: Itaewon Class
Itaewon Class was a breakout drama of 2020, featuring a team of underdogs, a restaurant, and your resident evil megacorporation. Featuring a diversity of personalities, ranging from a sociopath to a transgender chef saving up for sex reassignment surgery, the drama is a heartwarming tale of outsiders becoming family and standing up for social justice. Given our current political and social climate, Itaewon Class may give you a well-needed dose of optimism to keep standing up against human rights abuses.
When You’re Craving: A Smart Zombie Thriller
Kingdom combines history and horror in this cleverly-executed show on zombies. Even if you’re queasy about dead bodies, I recommend Kingdom—it’s the sort of drama that keeps you teetering on the edge of your seat. Lee Chang, Crown Prince of Korea’s Joseon Kingdom (1392-1897), is trying to find the answers to his father’s mysterious disease. Barred from seeing the king, he encounters Seo-bi, a physician who is investigating a plague that turns its victims into the walking dead. Seo-bi and Lee Chang team up as they race to find a cure for the plague (sound familiar?) and save the kingdom and its people, while fending off monsters both in and out of the court.
Kingdom was such a hit, there are two seasons of the drama, with a third planned for 2021.
When You’re Longing For: A Heartwarming Family Show
Try: Reply 1988
Reply 1988 (or any of the Reply series, which includes Reply 1994 and Reply 1997) deftly combines nostalgia with scenes of family bonding. Following five families and their children during South Korea’s hectic late ’80s, this drama depicts how the macro events of history filter down to the micro events of family. We follow a group of five high school neighborhood friends, including the only female Duk-seon, as we try to figure out which guy she eventually chooses. During its run, Reply 1988 spawned infamous “shipping wars,” where viewers literally flew at each other’s throats as they hotly contested the merits of one pairing over another.
If You Love: Food
Try: Let’s Eat
Let’s Eat is a drama that revolves around a woman and her wholehearted love of food. As a single woman with an office job, Lee Soo-kyung’s hobby is finding amazing restaurants and visualizing eating as a fine art. The only problem is … it’s difficult and awkward to eat alone. When her last blind date storms off in a huff after finding out that she only agreed to the date because she wanted to make a reservation for two at an exclusive seafood restaurant that doesn’t allow single diners, she reluctantly agrees to start dining with her eccentric neighbors.
Along the way, through shared stews and buffets and instant noodles, they form a connection that survives reversals of fortune, one-sided crushes, and even stalkerish criminals. Warning: Do not watch this drama on an empty stomach. I discovered so many amazing Korean dishes through the episodes, and teared up when I had to bid the cast goodbye at the end. The reflections on food and social bonds make this a healing drama that will tempt your palate and soothe away the stresses of the day.
When You’re Into: Entertaining Dark Social Commentaries
Try: Sky Castle
Sky Castle was one of the highest-rated Korean cable dramas in history, a runaway dark horse that swept the awards shows and became a cultural icon. So even though this drama is only available on Netflix Asia, I had to include it in this list. (You can watch it on another Korean drama site Viki.) Its topic? Education. Yes, as someone who’s been a teacher in Korea, I can testify that education does indeed seem like a matter of life and death in this country, a theme the drama plays with very cleverly. You will find yourself shrieking at every character at some point and then wondering why you’re so excited over some fictitious protagonist’s entrance exams.
Bonus: Korean Drama Glossary
If you start watching Korean dramas, you’ll notice certain terms and phrases cropping up. To learn the argot of K-dramaland, I’ve compiled a short glossary on frequent words that often carry significant social meaning. This glossary also includes certain tropes that highlight a deepening plot point, e.g., the drunken confession.
Oppa: a term used by females that literally means “older brother,” but can also be used for older male friends or even significant others
Soju: Korean alcohol. Soju is popular and fairly cheap at pojangmachas or pochas, outdoor tents that serve snacks alongside alcohol. Drama characters usually drown their sorrows in soju and scenes of heavy drinking are fairly common as social bonding between friends and company workers.
Chaebol: a family with immense wealth and companies. Currently most of Korea’s GDP is produced by chaebol families like Samsung and Hyundai. Chaebol male leads abound in Korean dramas and are usually super rich and super arrogant, until they meet the female lead.
Banmal: the “casual” form of Korean, to be used with those younger than you and close friends or family. Jondaemal is the form of Korean used with superiors in age and position and when you want to show respect and/or distance.
Love triangles: If there’s romance, there’s almost always a love triangle. Because dependent relationships ignite drama-worthy conflict.
Skinship: physical touch
The Drunken Piggy-back: Usually a form of “skinship” enacted fairly early in the drama to get two characters who purportedly hate each other together. Usually it’s the guy carrying/caring for the girl.
Mukbang: an eating webcast where viewers watch someone eat. Food plays an important role in Korean culture and is often used to move the plot forward in subtle ways. For example, a character crying over her bowl of noodles demonstrates great despair.
Chimaek: fried chicken and beer, a big food trend in Korea
Now you’re ready to grab some fried chicken and beer, slap on a sheet mask, and dive into the wonderland that is Korean dramas! Get ready to get addicted!