Who else can track their year according to the K-dramas that they binged on?
What got me through 2020 was the wave of South Korean shows that had me in tears, writhing in bed because of kilig, writing mini essays on social media and religiously checking the Instagram accounts of their cast members. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose K-drama consumption increased over the past few months given that experts have weighed in on the rising local interest in Hallyu (not that it wasn’t already significant before).
For this year-end roundup, we’re ranking our favorite K-drama releases of 2020.
At the 10th spot on our list is this year’s dark horse, teen crime drama “Extracurricular.” What sets it apart from the other entries isn’t just its diversion from the typical rom-com narrative. Apart from tackling sex-trafficking, it has a streak of moral ambiguity that we would expect from South Korean films—but typically not in their shows.
Relative newcomer Kim Dong-hee (who has so far chosen interesting projects such as “Itaewon Class” and “Sky Castle”) plays model student Oh Ji-soo who feels driven by desperation to lead a double life of crime. It’s not the kind of show that will have you rooting for its main ensemble as they take a nosedive into violent territory. As I’ve said in a previous review, it’s a show that needs to be streamed with care and scrutiny. Still, it’s an interesting eye-opener with gripping performances.
9. “The King: Eternal Monarch”
I didn’t expect a series starring Lee Min-ho and Kim Go-eun to be so low on the list but “The King: Eternal Monarch,” while thought-provoking, had us hoping for more. Written by Kim Eun-suk (“Guardian: The Lonely and Great God,” “Descendants of the Sun”), the show got caught up in creating the fictional Kingdown of Corea and we didn’t get to see the relationship between King Lee Gon and police inspector Jung Tae-eul grow naturally. But, I guess, it’s hard not to fall in love with a tall and handsome guy who brings you back and forth between two worlds and through time.
Its first half was slow-moving while the latter half was difficult to follow. It’s hard to get fully invested in the king’s mission to stop power-hungry Lee Lim when we’re still in the middle of figuring out the science behind the portal. Despite this, I still recommend checking it out to get a glimpse of Busan as the capital of a unified Korea. Watching scenes with dashing royal bodyguard Jo Young and goofy public service worker Jo Eun-sup (both played by Woo Do-hwan) together is also a treat. Can you imagine becoming BFFs with you from an alternate dimension?
8. “Hi Bye, Mama!”
Family drama “Hi Bye, Mama!” is a tearjerker filled with equally heartbreaking side stories. It marks the comeback of Kim Tae-hee (“Stairway to Heaven”) after giving birth to her second daughter with singer-songwriter Rain. She plays Cha Yu-ri, a ghost who has been roaming the earth five years after her death. She gets a second chance to get her life back with her family for a price.
Without the typical K-drama kontrabida, the show is like a slice of life with a few supernatural elements. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but parents will surely relate to and ponder on Yu-ri’s decision. An interesting fact about the show is how it trended in South Korea when fans found out that child actor Seo Woo-jin, who plays Yuri’s daughter, is a little boy. Gender is a construct and the kid seems to get it.
7. “Record of Youth”
I still have mixed feelings about “Record of Youth” but I won’t deny that Park Bo-gum made me cry my eyes out more than once. He stars as model Sa Hye-jun (yes, we get to see him on the runway) who is struggling to make it big despite a successful debut. Park So‑dam is An Jeong-ha, a makeup artist who’s a long-time fan of his. While I initially thought that the romance would be the show’s selling point (dating your idol is the stuff of fanfiction), it’s watching Hye-jun and Jeong-ha deal with their personal problems with inspiring maturity that kept me hooked.
Whether it’s about financial constraints or a rocky family relationship, it tackles themes for young and weary professionals. However, it does have its flaws. Chief of these is its rushed ending and an ill-advised subplot that started out promising—a take on predators and exploitation in the industry—but ended up with uncomfortably homophobic undertones. But despite these, Hye-jun’s story still managed to be undeniably touching, and the show is an interesting farewell project for Bo-gum before his enlistment.
6. “Mystic Pop-up Bar”
Fantasy dramedy “Mystic Pop-up Bar” was a refreshing surprise this year. It follows a trio running a pojangmacha (outdoor drinking establishment) to attract customers with problems that they help resolve by entering their dreams. Fiery Weol-ju and afterlife detective Chief Gwi rope in Han Kang-bae with the promise that they’ll remove a curse that makes people divulge their secrets when they make physical contact with him.
It doesn’t hurt that Hwang Jung-eum, Choi Won-young and former BTOB member Yook Sung-jae are really funny, too. There are some dated jokes but the story itself (including an actually surprising plot twist about the the trio) makes up for it.
5. “Dr. Romantic 2”
Fads come and go but medical dramas are forever. I didn’t expect to get so invested in “Dr. Romantic 2” but I quickly became protective of Doldam Hospital and its staff. The high adrenaline show features tense scenes from the ER and OR while dipping into industry politics. Dr. Kim, played by Han Suk‑kyu, shows tenacity and his strong grasp of what’s wrong and right is admirable. The romance between leads Ahn Hyo-seop’s Dr. Seo Woo-jin and Lee Sung-kyung’s Dr. Cha Eun-jae is just the cherry on top.
The Doldam Hospital crew is on a mission to keep their trauma center from being turned into a glorified mall. However, the newly appointed president of their hospital Dr. Park Min-gook (one of Kim Joo-hun’s many great performances this year) is in their way. His character development was well executed. It’s nice to see a man with great ambition listen to his conscience instead of getting completely consumed by greed. If you’re a fan of redemption arcs, this show is not to be missed.
4. “Crash Landing on You”
“Crash Landing on You” is one of the biggest K-drama hits this year, with local advertisements from its stars as proof of its impact. Who could forget the story of star-crossed lovers Captain Ri Jung Hyuk (Hyun Bin) and Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin)? In the middle of the North Korean Special Police Force captain helping the chaebol (conglomerate) heiress get back home, sparks fly and they fall in love. Second leads Seo Dan (Seo Ji-hye) and Gu Seung-jun (Kim Jung-hyun) add a level of heartache with their own ill-fated romance.
With action scenes that will get your heart pounding and a bittersweet ending that will have you clenching your fists in disbelief, it’s a roller coaster ride of emotions. I’m sure THAT one particular scene graced your timelines too. It’s an instant classic that a lot of people won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
“Start-Up” sparked the biggest K-drama rivalry of the year, dividing fans between Team Do-san and Team Jip-yeong. Who knew that a show about start-up tech companies could be this juicy? While I knew that Seo Dal‑mi (Bae Suzy) and Nam Do‑san (Nam Joo‑hyuk) were endgame, I couldn’t help but root for “good boy” Han Ji‑pyeong (Kim Seon‑ho). Not only is Seon‑ho’s dimpled smile infectious, his natural charm and funny antics make his character so lovable despite being so mean spirited.
It’s a great underdog story that teaches a thing or two about the tech business. The members of Samsan Tech have such great chemistry and it’s really fun to see them overcome hurdles. Even though the ending wasn’t favored by a number of fans who felt it wasn’t fair to one of the characters, watching it is a blast. Not to mention, it has a great OST which includes Red Velvet’s “Future.”
2. “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay”
At first, I wasn’t sure that “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” was a show for me. Children’s book author Ko Moon‑young (Seo Yea‑ji) isn’t the poster child of being agreeable because of her antisocial personality disorder. She’s a bit hard to love at first. She has a ton of baggage. (Un)luckily, so does psychiatric hospital caretaker Moon Gang‑tae (Kim Soo‑hyun). They have a history and they’re not so sure that they’re the best for each other. While the show has us wondering whether or not they’ll end up being together, the romance is not all that it has to offer. It’s about found family, with big brother Moon Sang‑tae (Oh Jung‑se) who is on the autism spectrum trying to overcome his phobia so they can live happily together.
It’s a show that deals with a lot of topics like trauma and death. It’s a bit hard to gauge whether these were handled well because the characters are so unorthodox. However, this ranks high on the list because the dynamic among the trio is truly special. They’ve carved a space for themselves in my heart and there’s nothing else I want than to see them happy. They’re a bit difficult, and they don’t pretend to be otherwise, but they genuinely love each other.
1. “Itaewon Class”
Topping this list is “Itaewon Class.” The show follows the life of ex-con Park Sae-ro-yi who starts DanBam Pub in the hope that it will one day best restaurant business Jagga, the company where his late father once worked and is owned by the father of the man who ran his dad over. It’s not the typical goofy role for Park Seo-joon and his performance in the show sent chills down my spine. He wants justice and his team will do anything to help him reach his dream.
There’s rivalry between the arrogant future CFO to Sae-ro-yi’s company Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi) and his too pragmatic first love Oh Soo-ah (Kwon Nara). It’s a bit funny to see them competing for Sae-ro-yi love when the man is too focused on his plans to properly acknowledge it. With ultra high stakes, rooting for Sae-ro-yi to finally find happiness almost feels like a gamble in itself. Along the way, we get to learn the stories of the DanBam crew too. The show’s trans character Ma Hyeon-yi (Lee Joo-young), although played by a cis woman, is a step towards the right direction in South Korean mainstream entertainment. I look forward to seeing better LGBTQIA+ representation in K-dramas next year.
“Itaewon Class” plays like an epic where our hero ultimately triumphs over evil. It won our hearts because its classic underdog narrative reminds us that it’s possible to fight for justice while surrounding yourself with love. Yes, K-drama romances added much needed sweetness to this bleak year. However, Sae-ro-yi’s tale of beating all odds is the one that resonated with me the most.