A lot of things have been going wrong with Netflix of late, but it’s doing everything right to acquire the best K-dramas. Most streaming platforms have caught on to the trendiness of South Korean entertainment (including MX Player, which has Hindi-dubbed versions of many K-dramas). Apple TV+ produced shows like Pachinko, which is historical fiction based on a bestselling novel by the same name, and the science fiction Dr. Brain this year. Disney+ commissioned original shows in Korean as well as acquiring K-dramas. Amazon also started adding K-dramas to Prime Video since last year.
However, Netflix still has the pick of K-dramas and its recent selections include the best shows aired so far on South Korean TV. (That said, there are many good K-dramas — like two seasons of Yumi’s Cells, The Red Sleeve and Bloody Heart — that haven’t found homes on international streaming platforms. We live in hope that these shows find their way, with subtitles, to our screens soon.) Here are our top five K-dramas from January to June this year.
My Liberation Notes
Three siblings live outside Seoul, in a crowded home with their parents. Every day seems to follow a dreary pattern until the arrival of a mysterious stranger. Writer Park Hae Young — she wrote the heartbreaking My Mister — has created a slice-of-life drama that is simultaneously tender, melancholic, funny and steeped in soju. It will make you sigh longingly at one moment, reach for the tissues a minute later, and then leaving you laughing through the tears. Kim Ji Won (Fight for My Way, Lovestruck in the City) gets some of the most memorable dialogues ever (if you don’t get goosebumps when she says “Worship me” to Son Suk Ku, please book an appointment with a good therapist). Lee Min Ki (Because This is My First Life) and Lee El (Matrimonial Chaos) are particularly brilliant as a squabbling brother-sister duo, but also shine in their individual scenes, in which we seem them trying to change the things they’re dissatisfied with in their lives.
Who’d have thunk fencing could become a metaphor for friendship, love and life in general? Set in the late 1990s, when South Korea weathered a terrible financial crisis, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a coming-of-age story featuring two talented fencers, Na Hee Do (played by the incredible Kim Tae Ri) and Ko Yu Rim (Bona). Sure, it may seem like Hee Do’s crush on the rookie journalist Baek Yi Jin (Nam Joo Hyuk) is the point of Twenty-Five Twenty-One, but the real focus is actually on the two fencers who go from being rivals to soulmates. Writer Kwon Do Eun has a gift for writing friendships (particularly between women, as we saw in her previous drama Search WWW) and Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a beautiful ode to camaraderie. Unfortunately, the drama loses its way in the last episode, but Kim Tae Ri’s performance is brilliant enough to make you forget the show’s flaws.
This anthology of stories, set in the picturesque Jeju Island, has its awkward and clumsy moments — like its frustratingly sentimental and conservative take on teenage pregnancy — but the good outweighs the problematic in Our Blues. This K-drama follows a set of characters who make up a close-knit community on the island. Among the most memorable are the female divers, known as haenyeo. On the face of it, the stories in Our Blues may feel simplistic at times, but they tackle difficult and complex topics, like depression, the toll that caregiving takes on a person, and the difficulty of coming to terms with longstanding grief. The show deserves a round of applause for finding an actor with Down Syndrome (Jung Eun Hye) to play the part of an aspiring artist who is afflicted by the same condition and has a troubled relationship with her sister. The final story, between an estranged mother and son, is close to perfection, thanks to Noh Hee Kyung’s writing and brilliant performances by Lee Byung Hun and Kim Hye Ja.
Our Beloved Summer
Romances are a dime a dozen in the world of K-drama and this year’s seen some truly fluffy, candy-floss love stories in shows like Business Proposal (which has been among the most-watched shows on Netflix India for months now) and Soundtrack #1 (on Disney+). Of these, Our Beloved Summer was among the better-written stories. The story of a couple who get a second chance after a failed high school romance is full of familiar tropes, but the characters and relationships feel real. The lead pair, played by Choi Woo Shik (Fight For My Way) and Kim Da Mi (Itaewon Class), are reunited after 10 years when a documentary they made as high school students goes viral. As much as it is a standard love story, Our Beloved Summer is also about loneliness, unreliable narrators and the way people choose to hide their insecurities. Keep an eye out for the cinematography. This is one of the most beautifully-shot shows in K-dramaland.
All of Us Are Dead
South Koreans seem to have a thing for zombies and they’ve done rather magnificent things with zombie outbreaks in the past (Kingdom anyone?). In All of Us Are Dead, the zombie outbreak takes place in a high school after a science teacher experiments on a hamster that goes on to bite a student. Soon enough a group of kids are trapped in a zombie-infested school. Outside, the government ends up imposing martial law for the first time in 41 years and cut off all communications, ostensibly to prevent the spread of fake news. All of Us Are Dead is a reminder of how cleverly the horror genre can explore our social dynamics. Plus, there’s a twist in episode five that is guaranteed to make your head spin. Blood, gore and a whole of thought-provoking moments that explore social inequalities and contemporary teenage angst — what more could you ask for?
My Liberation Notes, Twenty-Five Twenty-One, Our Blues, Our Beloved Summer, All of Us Are Dead are all available on Netflix.