My 6 “Marathon It Now!” Kdramas

I’ve gotten a number of people to start watching kdramas over the past couple years, and my favorite stage is always the beginning. You know, the point where you get to recommend all of your favorite stuff with few qualifications because they’ve stood the test of time. The best of the best. The ones that just speak to you on a visceral level.

So without further ado, here are the six kdramas that I recommend to everyone:

Arang and the Magistrate
(MBC | 20 episodes | August 15 to October 18, 2012)

From a strict world-building point-of-view, Arang and the Magistrate is the best fantasy kdrama I’ve ever watched. The world, based on a famous folktale, feels magical, and its fantastical elements are grounded by winning performances from its cast. While I think it could have been a little tighter if two episodes were shaved off, the drama generally maintains its fast pace and keeps a clear focus on the mystery of Arang’s murder and the search for Eun-oh’s mother. Watching the lead couple fall in love is a treat, and the high stakes in their search for truth only enhances their romance. Be prepared for comedy, drama, and tragedy in this exciting historical fantasy.


Healer
(KBS | 20 episodes | December 8, 2014 to February 15, 2015)

You can level several complaints at Healer: the early wire-work is worth a few raised eyebrows, a good chunk of the bad guys were barely better than low-level NPCs, coincidences abounded, the finale felt rushed, etc., but no other show came close to generating the same kind of excitement for me this year as Healer. From its adorable and believable OTP to its masterful use of flashbacks to a cheesy love song that won me over to a world populated by smart, determined, and different women, writer Song Ji-na proved that she is excellent at building characters and crafting a story the audience will care about.

What do I have to sacrifice to ensure you’ll be writing again in dramaland soon?


I Hear Your Voice
(SBS | 18 episodes | June 5 to August 1, 2013)

This was a mishmash of genres and tropes that honestly sounded like a disaster on paper: a mind-reader, a courtroom drama, a one-sided childhood love, a childhood rivalry/competition carrying over to adulthood, and a killer bent on revenge. Luckily, there was some magic holding all these pieces together. Even though awful things happened to our characters, I Hear Your Voice was astonishingly relentless in its optimism and sympathy for other people, even terrible ones. Character development arcs for the leads cemented our main pair as one of my very few kdrama OTPs. The drama suffered mildly from its two-episode extension, but I can’t even really hold it against the show when that allowed it to develop a touching character arc for a secondary character.


Queen In-hyun’s Man
(tvN | 16 episodes | April 18 to June 7, 2012)

I’m pretty sure the only one who sobbed more over this show than me is Yoo In-na. Queen In-hyun’s man boasts one of my favorite romances—in any genre—and my first kdrama OTP. This is one of the smartest time travel dramas I’ve seen and had one of the cleverest male leads I’ve ever seen in dramaland. But the heart of the show was Yoo In-na’s Choi Hee-jin, an actress who wore her heart on her sleeve and fell in love with a time-traveling Joseon scholar despite everything in their way, like bloody political conspiracies, several centuries, and a pain-in-the-ass ex-boyfriend.

Make sure you have plenty of tissues and a fainting couch on hand for this one.


Secret Love Affair
(JTBC | 16 episodes | March 17 to May 13, 2014)

Are you in the mood for an unforgettable drama about a woman who found herself trapped in a cage of her own making by sacrificing her morals and time and youth in order to acquire wealth and prestige? Are you in the mood to watch her rediscover her love of music, crave quiet moments of happiness, and find passion and desire with the help of a much younger man? Secret Love Affair boasted one of the smartest scripts in 2014, and its detailed camerawork and gorgeous soundtrack ensured that the audience paid attention to every detail. Kim Hee-ae and Yoo Ah-in’s performances as the two lovers were breathtaking. If you want smart, sophisticated, morally gray, and engaging storytelling, make sure you check this out.


Shut Up: Flower Boy Band
(tvN | 16 episodes | January 30 to March 20, 2012)

Easily the best installment of the Flower Boy franchise to date, SUFBB was everything I wanted out of a high school drama: a coming-of-age story where friends learn that growing up can be just as much a threat to their worlds as any other poverty, bullying, and the drive to succeed. The Eye Candy boys formed one of my favorite “found families” in dramaland, and their struggles against each other and against the world were both heart-rending and heart-warming. There are few neatly tied bows in this show—SUFBB knows just how messy life can be, and it isn’t afraid to stop things with an “and they kept living” ending. Watch this for great music, great performances, and great reasons to cry.


(If you want to see my ratings for all of the full-length the dramas I’ve finished, you can go here. If you want my recs by genre, go here.)

What would make it on to your “marathon it now” list? What dramas to you always recommend to people who are just starting to watch? Let me know!

My 4 Favorite Melodramas

Sometimes you want a big, soapy kdrama that you can flail at and/or throw pillows at, depending on the day. Here are my four favorite melodramas, which made me cry, made me throw things, and/or gave me all the feels:

Secret Love Affair (JTBC | 16 episodes | March 17 to May 13, 2014)

Are you in the mood for an unforgettable drama about a woman who found herself trapped in a cage of her own making by sacrificing her morals and time and youth in order to acquire wealth and prestige? Are you in the mood to watch her rediscover her love of music, crave quiet moments of happiness, and find passion and desire with the help of a much younger man? Secret Love Affair boasted one of the smartest scripts in 2014, and its detailed camerawork and gorgeous soundtrack ensured that the audience paid attention to every detail.

Kim Hee-ae and Yoo Ah-in’s performances as the two lovers were breathtaking. If you want smart, sophisticated, morally gray, and engaging storytelling, make sure you check this out.

 

Scent of a Woman (SBS | 16 episodes | July 23 to September 11, 2011)

It’s a terminal illness melodrama that sometimes verges on inspiration porn and occasional makes me want to tear my hair out and in a few memorable instances made me cry. Watching the heroine reclaim her life  and do the things she had put off for a future she no longer had was a delight, whether that was give herself a makeover or go on vacation or quit a job she hated or take tango classes. When the hero wasn’t being ridiculous, the romance was great, though the second leads could be less than pleasant from time to time.

The ending is contentious: I was in the camp of mostly liking it, but it didn’t make everyone happy.

 

Punch (SBS | 19 episodes | December 15, 2014 to February 17, 2015)

If modern-day political thrillers featuring a cast of mostly morally bankrupt characters sounds exciting to you, then this is a show you’ll want to watch ASAP. Even though I spent a good chunk of the time wishing violent, humiliating failures on 90% of the cast, Punch was a compelling, fast-paced drama fueled by intense performances, constant backstabbing, and a time bomb in the form of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Despite some serious missteps in the final episode, Punch delivered (and raised my blood pressure) every week. A not insignificant portion of my love for this show is due to the powerful ladies who fell on different spots in the character alignment chart.

Nice Guy/The Innocent Man (KBS | 20 episodes | September 12 to November 15, 2012)

Honestly, this is the closest kdrama has ever gotten to making me ship horrifically toxic relationships, on both sides of the love triangle. Self-loathing Ma-ru went to prison for his girlfriend, Jae-hee, only for her to betray him and marry a wealthy, older businessman. Upon his release, he tries to seek revenge on her by using Jae-hee’s adult stepdaughter, Eun-gi, who is fighting not to be ousted as successor to her father’s company by Jae-hee (and Jae-hee’s son, her half brother). A twisted love triangle ensues, which cannot be stopped by car crashes, brain damage, amnesia, or creepily obsessed secretaries.  The ending is a mess, but it is a delightful, if occasionally frustrating, ride.

My 3 Favorite Fusion Sageuks

I love fusion sageuks, that wonderful mixture of historical background and whatever-the-hell-else-you-want-to-add-in. Whether it’s supernatural elements, fictional people and events, re-tellings, etc., these non-historical elements can be a lot of fun.

Arang and the Magistrate#1 – Arang and the Magistrate

From a strict world-building point-of-view, Arang and the Magistrate is the best fantasy kdrama I’ve ever watched. The world, based on a famous folktale, feels magical, and its fantastical elements are grounded by winning performances from its cast. While I think it could have been a little tighter if two episodes were shaved off, the drama generally maintains its fast pace and keeps a clear focus on the mystery of Arang’s murder and the search for Eun-oh’s mother. Watching the lead couple fall in love is a treat, and the high stakes in their search for truth only enhances their romance. Be prepared for comedy, drama, and tragedy in this exciting historical fantasy.

sungkyungwan-scandal#2 – Sungkyunkwan Scandal

A young Joseon woman cross-dresses in order to provide for her family, gets tangled up with three pretty boy scholars, and is forced to attend the best school in the nation—seems like the perfect storm of clichés, right? But Sungkyunkwan Scandal is far more than the sum of its parts, and its earnestness mixed with cutting commentary on classism and feminist issues is enough to delight just about any drama fan. Our main quartet (and their developing friendships and romances) are the strongest part of the drama. The four of them uniting together to solve a mystery and get justice for old wrongs is a satisfying, though not perfect, final arc. Give it a try if you’re in the mood for something that will make you smile.

the-three-musketeers#3 – The Three Musketeers

Kdrama adaptations don’t always work well, but this fantastic adaptation of the famous Dumas novel was clearly made by people who had great fondness for the original. It had a great mix of humor, action, and high-stakes politics, all centered on a doomed crown prince. Jung Yong-hwa put in a great performance as Dal-hyang, and Lee Jin-wook was perfect as Crown Prince Sohyeon. While the leading ladies didn’t get as much screen time as the eponymous musketeers and their tagalong, they were solid characters with some wonderful moments. I’m still weeping over what could have been in seasons two and three and the eventual death of the crown prince.

 


So what are your favorite fusion sageuks? I want to know!

My 4 Favorite School-Themed Kdramas

It has been over eight years since I was last in a classroom, but part of me is still nostalgic for the rhythm of school. I loved getting new notebooks and pens and pencils, and–especially in college–there was the thrill of trying to get into the classes you wanted/needed despite the hundreds of other students trying to beat you into the few coveted spots. It was fun to see my friends every day without having to worry about to much “adult” stuff.

But I definitely don’t miss the homework, ruthless competition, backstabbing schoolmates, and death that plague these school-themed kdramas. Don’t let that scare you off, though, because all of these dramas share one important quality: hope for the future.

IB_S_BASIC_COPYRIGHT =#1 – Shut Up: Flower Boy Band

Easily the best installment of the Flower Boy franchise to date, SUFBB was everything I wanted out of a high school drama: a coming-of-age story where friends learn that growing up can be just as much a threat to their worlds as any other poverty, bullying, and the drive to succeed. The Eye Candy boys formed one of my favorite “found families” in dramaland, and their struggles against each other and against the world were both heart-rending and heart-warming. There are few neatly tied bows in this show—SUFBB knows just how messy life can be, and it isn’t afraid to stop things with an “and they kept living” ending. Watch this for great music, great performances, and great reasons to cry.

school-2013#2 – School 2013

Though most people remember this drama for the breakout performances of its two high school leads (which was a delightfully damaged bromance), School 2013 actually has a wonderful ensemble cast. The two teachers were perfect foils for one another, and some of the best scenes in the show are when they come together to handle the administration or try to help their wayward second-year students. This drama can be unflinching in its critique of academic pressure, bullying, competition, and abusive families, but it never loses sight of the students and their futures. While I wish there had been more screen time devoted to the girls, this drama is nonetheless one of my favorites.

whats-up#3 – What’s Up?

One of the rare college-centric dramas that actually focuses on school, What’s Up? features a ragtag group of incoming musical theater freshman and some of their professors and upperclassmen. Our main trio consists of a good-for-nothing scammer who decides to make something of his life after a deadly accident, an orphaned and innocent country girl unprepared to catch the attention of a talent agency, and a masked idol and illegitimate child who hides his identity in order to protect his ambitious mother. In between the hazing and musical numbers, the characters get to shine with their (occasionally doomed) romantic relationships, family drama, talent rivalries, terminal illnesses, and fights over dorm room cleanliness. It’s funny, heartfelt, and earnest in the best ways.

 

dream-high#4 – Dream High

Say whatever you like about Dream High’s idol cast, the show makes up for many shortcomings with its earnest take on the cutthroat entertainment industry. Parts of it are clumsy, yes, and it is rarely subtle, but it is always satisfying watching young people chase after, struggle for, and (sometimes) achieve their dreams. In between musical numbers and confusing teenage love triangles, Dream High takes the time to tackle subjects like sexual assault, bullying, the pressure to conform to beauty standards, and going too far to get what you want. One of the most satisfying plots of the show is the broken friendship between our two lead ladies and how they both change because of it. Simple, endearing, and worth your time.


What are your favorite school-themed kdramas? Let me know in the comments!

5 Favorite Kdrama Thrillers

It’s October, and that means it’s time to pull out the scary characters or the disturbing ideas or the things that get your heart racing! I’m not one for gross-out horror when it comes to Halloween–I prefer to be made paranoid and/or terrified rather than disgusted. So here’s a list of my favorite kdrama thrillers, of both the psychological and the physical variety. Maybe I’ll pull one of these out now that the nights are getting longer…

white-christmas#1 – White Christmas

One of my all-time favorites, so much so that I nearly broke my own classification rules and put it on the full-length list. While the majority of the cast is (sometimes painfully) green, this is an intriguing psychological thriller that turns into the best/worst kind of can-and-mouse game. The cinematography and soundtrack are some of my favorite things about the show, as is the relentless focus on the show’s central question: are monsters born, or are they made? While a few final act plot holes prevent White Christmas from achieving perfection, this cult classic deserves eight hours of your time. (And yes, I will organize another re-watch this year.) Continue reading “5 Favorite Kdrama Thrillers”

My 5 Favorite Kdramas with Secret Identities

There are many tropes I adore that frequently pop up in kdrama: arranged marriages, found families, cycles of betrayal and revenge, etc. One that shows up with surprising amount of frequency (compared to my standard U.S. television fare) is characters with secret identities, whether that’s a heroic alter-ego, an undercover cop, or even cross-dressing.

Sometimes the secret identity is a long-term game born out of necessity; other times convenience is what initially sparked the eventual deception. Regardless, one of the best things about secret identities is how it makes a character question their relationship between themselves and their love interest the rest of the world.

Oh, and the angst. Don’t forget the glorious, glorious (frequently romantic) angst. Continue reading “My 5 Favorite Kdramas with Secret Identities”

My Top 3 Ensemble Kdramas

While I haven’t had the chance to check out the recently finished Age of Youth, I’ve heard some great things about its memorable female characters and ensemble format. It’s definitely going on my watch list, but in the meantime, it has made me think about the ensemble kdramas I’ve watched.

Ensembles often run the risk of having their many characters and sprawling plot threads not resonate with an audience. Under-performing characters/plots often get shunted to the side and neglected, weakening the overall strength of the show. I’ll admit that I can drop ensembles really quickly if I don’t like a majority of the characters/plots, but these three shows did a great job of giving their characters enough space to grow without losing focus or forcing us to endure lackluster plots.

#1 – Heard It Through the Grapevine
(Rich boy and poor girl become teen parents; their families heads’ explode.)

heard-it-through-the-grapevine

This was from the team who gave us Secret Love Affair, so I knew I had to give it a shot even though the length and the dark comedy/satire description made me a bit nervous. There was no reason to be worried: straight out of the gate, I wound up with teenage parents who desperately loved each other and their baby and wanted to figure out how to carve out a life together despite the class warfare perpetrated by the boy’s high-strung rich parents. The upstairs/downstairs divide and absurd comedy frequently were some of my favorite parts as was the development of minor characters. The final arc slowed down a bit too much for my taste (and kept the young couple from achieving OTP status), but this drama ultimately reinforced my love for this creative team. What’re you going to bring us next?

Continue reading “My Top 3 Ensemble Kdramas”

My Top 5 SFF Kdramas

W: Two Worlds is taking up so much of my brain space right now, but we’ve still got half the show–four whole weeks!–left to go. To ease my misery somewhat, I’m compiling a list of my top five favorite kdramas with science-fiction or fantasy elements.


#1 – Queen In-hyun’s Man
(Time travel with a hefty dose of romance.)

Queen In Hyuns Man

I’m pretty sure the only one who sobbed more over this show than me is Yoo In-na. Queen In-hyun’s man boasts one of my favorite romances—in any genre—and my first kdrama OTP. This is one of the smartest time travel dramas I’ve seen and had one of the cleverest male leads I’ve ever seen in dramaland. But the heart of the show was Yoo In-na’s Choi Hee-jin, an actress who wore her heart on her sleeve and fell in love with a time-traveling Joseon scholar despite everything in their way, like bloody political conspiracies, several centuries, and a pain-in-the-ass ex-boyfriend. Make sure you have plenty of tissues and a fainting couch on hand for this one.

#2 – I Hear Your Voice
(Mindreading teenager versus killer set on revenge.)

I Hear Your Voice

This was a mishmash of genres and tropes that honestly sounded like a disaster on paper: a mind-reader, a courtroom drama, a one-sided childhood love, a childhood rivalry/competition carrying over to adulthood, and a killer bent on revenge. Luckily, there was some magic holding all these pieces together. Even though awful things happened to our characters, I Hear Your Voice was astonishingly relentless in its optimism and sympathy for other people, even terrible ones. Character development arcs for the leads cemented our main pair as one of my very few kdrama OTPs. The drama suffered mildly from its two-episode extension, but I can’t even really hold it against the show when that allowed it to develop a touching character arc for a secondary character.

#3 – Arang and the Magistrate
(Ghosts, reapers, monsters, and murderers.)

Arang and the Magistrate

From a strict world-building point-of-view, Arang and the Magistrate is the best fantasy kdrama I’ve ever watched. The world, based on a famous folktale, feels magical, and its fantastical elements are grounded by winning performances from its cast. While I think it could have been a little tighter if two episodes were shaved off, the drama generally maintains its fast pace and keeps a clear focus on the mystery of Arang’s murder and the search for Eun-oh’s mother. Watching the lead couple fall in love is a treat, and the high stakes in their search for truth only enhances their romance. Be prepared for comedy, drama, and tragedy in this exciting historical fantasy.

#4 – Nine: Nine Times Time Travel
(Time travel, but with murder mysteries and multiple timelines/realities.)

Nine

Easily one of the smartest SFF kdramas, Nine is the thrilling journey of a man determined to right some of the wrongs of the past, including his father’s murder, before he dies of brain cancer. If that wasn’t difficult enough, the past and present are synced, and as his younger self goes further and further off script, changes ripple out in increasingly difficult to predict ways. A lackluster romance, poorly acted villain, and a couple side-eye worthy plot points keep Nine from achieving greatness. The divisive ending will leave you reeling (and/or angry). This was ultimately a drama that engaged my brain—if not the entirety of my heart.

#5 – My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
(Monster girl wants to become human.)

My Girlfriend is a Gumiho

This is easily my favorite of the Hong Sisters’ comedies, largely thanks to a delightfully outspoken heroine who isn’t shy about going after whatever—or whoever—she desires. The hero’s journey from jerk to 100% willing to die for the heroine is one of the few drastic changes of heart that I wholly believe. While the show features a funny, charming cast, a dose of eleventh hour noble idiocy and a deus ex machina happy drag it down a little. Nonetheless, there are some real gems in this drama, and it holds a special place in my heart. If only the rest of the Hong Sisters’ body of work were this enjoyable.


So what do you think of my picks? What dramas would you add to my list?

My Kdrama Recommendations

One of the first questions I ask when someone wants me to rec them a kdrama is what genre they’re in the mood for. So here are my 3-5 favorites by genre, plus my top 10 overall favorites. This list will be updated when the mood strikes me or when a show comes along and deserves a place on this list. Additional categories may be forthcoming.

(Updated 30 August 2015)


Top Ten

  1. Queen In-hyun’s Man
  2. Healer
  3. White Christmas*
  4. I Hear Your Voice
  5. Secret Love Affair
  6. City Hunter
  7. Heard It Through the Grapevine
  8. Arang and the Magistrate
  9. Shut Up: Flower Boy Band
  10. Two Weeks

Continue reading “My Kdrama Recommendations”