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.
(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.
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!