Favourite Korean Dramas – as voted by you!

Your Favourite Korean Dramas of all time

It’s an interesting question – are the best dramas also your favourite dramas? Are they different for some reason? Do you love something only when you think it’s objectively good? Do you love something you don’t think is objectively good? Or do you think that loving it is what makes it great?

Last year I ran a large multi-stage survey to gauge the Korean dramas that you thought were the Best of the Best. But for a bit of interest I also asked you what your favourite dramas were. And, well, the list you generated is quite interesting, not just for how it mirrors the Best list but for how it differs.

New dramas appeared, some dropped off, some got reshuffled. And some stayed exactly where they were. Showing that, for many of you, best and favourite really are the same thing.

So, here they are! Your favourite Korean dramas ever.

What do you think? Did your favourite drama make this list? Did democracy work again?

Number 10: Age of Youth (Hello, My Twenties!)

The four University students from Age of Youth laughing during moving night on the couch

When did it air: 2016/17

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: No

What is it about: A slice of life story about five girls living in student housing while at University, Age of Youth charts their ups and downs in love, life, study and the workforce over several years. There are two seasons of the show and they work as a set.

What makes it so good: Age of Youth didn’t make it to the Best Drama list but it knocked I’m Not a Robot off the Number 10 spot for your favourites. As we saw with the Best list, respondents to this survey liked slice of life and Age of Youth is as slice of life as it gets. A low key, female-led coming-of-age drama, Age of Youth is sweet but also sometimes powerfully honest about the lived experiences of a lot of young women. The people who love it relate to it deeply, especially its portrayal of strong female friendships, share house living and the struggles of life and love as you’re first starting out. It’s not surprising that it popped up once we started asking about favourites.

Number 9: Because This Life is Our First (Because This is My First Life)

When did it air: 2017

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: Number 7

Promotional poster for BTLIOF with the two leads shaking hands to seal the contract. the male lead is holding his cat

What is it about: Introverted IT developer, Nam See-hee needs help to keep his house. Struggling writer, Yoon Ji-ho needs a home. Armed only with logic, quirky blunt honesty and a mutual benefit to the arrangement, the two decide to enter into a contract marriage for two years. Yes, Because This Life is Our First is a contract marriage romcom but even more than that it is a thoughtful and brave examination of the institution of marriage in modern Korea.

What makes it so good: The one thing that separates a good romantic comedy from a great romantic comedy is the strength of the core couple, not just as a couple but as individuals. Right from the beginning, Because This Life is Our First, presents us with two people we like and want to see happy. Unlike other contract marriage romances that imply that cohabitation is the only prerequisite to love, Because This Life is Our First instead demonstrates why these two people are perfect for each other but just happen to fall into marriage first. Can their unconventional relationship survive a conventional world?

Number 8: Reply 1997

The cast of the nostalgic 1997 drama in their school uniforms.

When did it air: 2012

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: No

What is it about: The Reply series (sometimes known as Answer Me) is a trilogy of nostalgic slice-of-life dramas recapturing the vibe and the energy of recent periods in Korean history. While 1988 made it to your Best Dramas list, it was 1997 that was voted the favourite. It follows a group of friends as they meet for a highschool reunion in 2012 as they reflect back on their youth in Busan in 1997.

What makes it so good: Slice of life works by finding a point at which people relate to it. And the Reply series works by drawing artfully on nostalgia. So 1997 will work for you as a drama if you can relate to it and feel nostalgic about the age it represents – the late adolescence of highschool, first love and finding your place in the world. Those who love 1997 identify profoundly with the fangirling female lead, Sung Shi-won (played by a perfectly cast Jung Eun-ji), and her best friend/possible love interest, Yoon Yoon-jae (played by the extraordinary Seo In-guk). As the first of the Reply series, it’s probably not surprising it retains a special place in many people’s hearts.

Number 7: Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo is a romance drama as much as a sports drama and this image is of the two leads. She's one his back smiling at the camera.

When did it air: 2016/17

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: No

What is it about: Based very loosely (very very loosely) on the life of Korean weightlifter, Jang Mi-ran, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo is a coming of age sports drama about balancing life with athletic aspirations.

What makes it so good: Fans of Because This Life is Our First may be disappointed that WFKBJ knocked the show down to ninth place, but will no doubt understand why. WFKBJ is possibly the quintessential drama that is a favourite rather than an objective best. It’s cute, fun and full of great friendships and an excellent romance. It’s another coming of age drama but with something serious to say about the cost of dreams and the appeal of normality but also about adolescent body image issues. And while some of us have qualms about a weightlifter being portrayed by an elfin model, well *shrugs* that’s television for you.

Number 6: Signal

When did it air: 2016

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: Number 4

What is it about: Based on the American film, Frequency, about a cop who communicates with his father across time using a ham radio, Signal is about a cold case profiler from 2015 who communicates with a cop back in 1989 using a walkie talkie. A time-bending crime thriller with a supernatural bent, Signal is about the endless and ongoing fight against corruption and the powerful impact a good superior officer can have on a young police officer finding their feet.

What makes it so good: Genuinely gripping from the first scene, Signal combines the crime and supernatural thriller genres perfectly and uses its strong characterisation and excellent cast to full advantage. Lee Je-hoon (criminal profiler Park Hae-young) and Kim Hye-soo (Detective Cha Soo-Hyun) ooze chemistry and the show creates powerful parallels between the past and the present at every turn. Based on real cases (some of whom inspired other dramas as well), the show is a no-holds barred twisty-turny ride as the teams try to stop the mistakes from the past repeating. Plotting a show like this takes skill and it’s no surprise it was penned by a veteran crime writer who took the supernatural element in stride as well. Fans are still waiting for the promised second season and hopefully it’ll eventuate in 2021.

Number 5: Be Melodramatic (Melo Is My Nature)

When did it air: 2019

Where can I watch it: Viki

Top Ten Best Dramas: No

What is it about: A quirky and ironic tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the Korean film and television industry, Be Melodramatic is known as much for its heart as for its deadpan humour.

What makes it so good: They can’t all be low-rated, critically-acclaimed little gems but Be Melodramatic fits that category more than any other drama since I’m Not a Robot. Barely averaging over 1% when it aired, it was nonetheless voted the Favourite drama of 2019 in our end of year poll, losing Best Drama to Sky Castle. It seems fitting then that it’s replaced Sky Castle on the favourites list. The answer to why it’s so good is down to its quick fire wit, self-awareness and the fact it never lets it idiosyncratic quirkiness detract from the genuine emotions of its protagonists. Show will hit you in the feels when you least expect it despite its dispassionately-ironic tone. A female-led ensemble drama with a strong sense of found family, Be Melodramatic may not have broken any rating records, but it’s loved by those who did watch it. Not surprising then that’s it’s a high-rated favourite.

Number 4: Prison Playbook (Wise Prison Life)

When did it air: 2019

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: No

What is it about: A superstar baseball pitcher ends up behind bars after he’s convicted of assault. Prison Playbook explores the lives of the prisoners, their families and the guards in the prison.

What makes it so good*: For a show about prison life, Prison Playbook was a character-driven drama that lingered on moments rather than action. Known for its sympathetic portrayal of incarcerated people, the show was an ensemble piece of clever dialogue, a balance of drama and comedy, and a whole lot of bromance. Those who love it cite its loving attention to character development and the camaraderie of those stuck in the trenches together. Prison Playbook is a much-loved character study of people from all walks of life coming together to survive adversity.

*I’d like to think blog reader, Lotus, for helping me write this section on Prison Playbook. I’m afraid that I haven’t seen it yet and am grateful to her for sharing why she loves it so much.

Number 3: Forest of Secrets/ Stranger

When did it air: 2017

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: Number 2

What is it about: This brilliant study of corruption was (astonishingly) written by a rookie who, despite their lack of experience, penned one of the deftest crime dramas ever written. Following brain damage as a child, Hwang Shi-mok cannot feel emotion but it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a dedicated prosecutor. Following the murder of a man with corrupt connections to many in the prosecution and the corporate world, Shi-mok connects with police officer, Han Yeo-jin on a journey to find the secrets in the dense forest of the Korean justice system.

What makes it so good: Brilliantly and intricately plotted, wonderfully acted, with an amazing soundtrack and artful direction, Forest of Secrets (Stranger) is the whole package. The core of the show is an amazing buddy-cop drama with the seemingly-emotionless Shi-mok fitting perfectly with the warm and quirky Yeo-jin in a perfect partnership. But where the show really shined was in its complex and nuanced portrayal of the humanness of corruption and the fact that the fight against it is eternal. Forest of Secrets gave rise to a 2020 sequel that was possibly even better.

Number 2: Healer

When did it air: 2014/15

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: Number 5

What is it about: Healer is about a “night courier” (codenamed Healer) and his romance with a Lois Lane-esque celebrity reporter, Chae Young-shin. But what connects the two is a decades-old conspiracy around the illegal pro-democracy broadcasting station their parents were a part of during the Fifth Republic in South Korea in the early 90s. With the help of a famous establishment journalist, they uncover the truth and challenge the shadowy forces that are trying to control modern-day Korea.

What makes it so good: Quite a few fans of Healer will tell you they love the show despite it not being the greatest drama ever made. This is reflected in its relative position in both lists: from number 5 to second place. On the surface, Healer is about a superhero in the shadows and his romance with an intrepid reporter: a high energy Parkour-filled romp full of secret identities, espionage and even quite a lot of punching. But while the show’s delightfully deliberate Superman references are a joy and the romance is believable and full of sparks, what sets Healer apart is its exploration of the role of frank and fearless journalism in a functioning democracy. Healer embodies the adage ‘Knowledge is Power’. Ignorance may appear to be bliss but that comfortable complacency is a room you need to escape from. Healer is so popular because it’s fun and cracky but also because it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Number 1: My Ajusshi

When did it air: 2018

Where can I watch it: Netflix

Top Ten Best Dramas: Number 1

What is it about: A study of mediocrity, failure and the dead-end cul-de-ac of middle age, My Ajusshi is a show about a man on the cusp of a midlife crisis and a young woman who never had a youth at all. Park Dong-hoon (played by the star of Oscar-winning film, Parasite, Lee Sun-kyun) is an unhappy structural engineer with two unhappy brothers who are experiencing the existential pangs of midlife failure. He connects with temp Lee Ji-an (IU in her extraordinary – even breathtaking – breakout performance), a woman who has discovered the disappointment of life too soon. My Ajusshi is absolutely not a romance but is instead a story of mutual healing between two people who realise they’re the same despite everything about them that is different.

What makes it so good: Voted both Best and Favourite, My Ajusshi is officially the peak of Korean storytelling. A transcendentally beautiful piece of television, it really needs to be felt rather than explained. The performances of the entire cast are extraordinary but it’s the sparse script, off-kilter cinematography and haunting pensive OST that give the show a sensibility that’s hypnotic, almost mesmerising. It’s melancholic and a little weird, grim and there’s very little joy in it but the tone and lack of joy is presented in a way that makes it analogous to the disappointments and mindless drudgery of middle-age. But beyond the themes of failure and the cold darkness of winter as a metaphor for dissatisfaction, this is a show about the triumph of kindness. It’s no surprise it was voted both the best and the favourite Korean drama of all time.


7 thoughts on “Favourite Korean Dramas – as voted by you!

  1. I watched 6/10!
    I’ve been delaying the Reply series and My Ajusshi for years now. Sigh. When will I ever start these fan favorite dramas? Anyway, I’m glad Prison Playbook made /this/ list (there was absolutely no need for a mention, btw ;;) Black comedy is an acquired taste, but I hope more people give this one a try. It’s an absolutely delightful show! It cemented my love for Jung Kyung-ho <3

    It's my first time reading about "Be Melodramatic". I'll definitely check out the first episode!

    Thank you for the article, LT!

    1. I thought you might be happy with Prison Playbook making the list! Thanks for your help in writing the blurb, it was definitely worth the mention.

  2. I’m actually delighted Be Melodramatic made it here! It was a very cleverly-written and executed drama, with tons of laughs every episode. But its dialogue and quirkiness is also its failing – not too many people stayed with the show long enough to enjoy it. There’s not too many other shows that I can think of where even fourth leads have growth arcs through the show. And I won’t ever forget that an entire episode was devoted to incontinence. The only equivalent to this I can think of is an episode of M*A*S*H where Alan Alda spends an entire episode talking to and about his thumb.

    PS: I can’t believe Signal made it to this list *eyeroll

    1. There’s a part of Be Melo’s tone that seems disconnected because of its irony. It does take a little bit of getting used to. But some of its arcs are heartbreaking and its themes of found family make it a very warm drama.

      What is it you don’t like about Signal?

  3. Be Melodramatic finally made the list.

    It’s literally my 2nd favourite show off all time,
    And seeing the limited response and knowledge of this show was Honestly heartbreaking.

    Comedy is not generally understood equally by everyone, and Be Melo’s mixed style of balancing dry humour with hard hitting emotions was probably not recieved well by the general audience.

    But it would still remain as a show which hugely focused on each of its characters, and wrote a story without any cliffhangers or drama.

    A story which makes you wanna click “Next episode” not because of the Hook in the story. But because you want to see what’s up with the characters.

    I just love this show.
    And honestly. If I wasn’t so biased with ‘My Ajusshi’, this one would’ve been on my “Rank 1, all time favourite show” list.

    Thanks for finally giving this beautiful show Justice.


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