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The Korean dramas released in 2021 were an eclectic mix of melodramatic mysteries, dark fantasies, revenge tales and fluffy romance. My list of the best dramas includes a few hits and some dramas you may have missed. Dramas such as Squid Game and Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha ruled the charts and don’t need any introduction, but perhaps viewers have yet to discover some of the following.
1. True Beauty. Can make-up videos teach you to love your unadorned face? Ju-kyung, played by Moon Ga-young, is bullied at school and develops an inferiority complex about her looks. When she learns how to apply makeup and transfers to another school, she’s suddenly popular enough to attract two handsome students, played by Hwang In-yeop and Cha Eun-woo. But would they love her if they saw her unadorned face? Why see it: Moon’s comic-book-loving character—drawn straight from a web comic—is likable fun.
2. Beyond Evil. Star Shin Ha-kyun won a Best Actor award at the 2021 Baeksang Awards for his brilliant performance in this dark drama about a serial killer and his complicated ties to one small town. Yeo Jin-goo plays the detective who thinks Shin, a fellow detective, is complicit in the killings. The story explores the definition of evil by slowly unveiling the ways the residents are connected to the crimes. Why see it: Shin’s facial expressions are haunting.
3. Navillera. Is there an age limit to your dreams? Not for 70-year-old Shim Deok -chul, played by Park In-hwan. He wants to learn ballet, so he approaches Lee Chae-rok, played by Song Kang, a talented young ballerino who is becoming discouraged about his own career. Why see it: A scene in which Park dances in the snow might be one of the loveliest scenes ever filmed in dramas. It’s one of many touching scenes.
4. Vincenzo. It’s initially hard to know what to make of Vincenzo, a story about a Korean lawyer who works for the mafia, but that’s part of what makes it addictive. The drama gleefully switches genres a few times while playing cinematic homage to The Godfather, Carrie, The Birds and other films. Why see it? The drama contains many outrageous scenes as campy as they are dramatic. Song Joong-ki, Jeon Yeo-been and Ok Taecyeon embody their cartoonish characters and the eccentric supporting cast is quite funny.
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5. Sell Your Haunted House wins a mention because of the clever premise. There are people who exorcise ghosts and there are people who tidy up real estate for a quick sale, but the real estate agency run by Jang Nara finds out why ghosts are making a property unsaleable, then evicts them, and makes a sale. She hires a con man who claims to see ghosts, played by Jung Yong-hwa. Why see it? Jang Nara as a woman living with her mother’s ghost is very relatable—even if you don’t believe in ghosts.
6. Move To Heaven. The ex-con played by Lee Je-hoon thinks he’s headed for easy street once he inherits everything from his older brother, but what he inherits is his autistic nephew, played deftly by Tang Joon-sang, and their business, which clears out the remains of the sometimes anonymous dead. Why see it? There is something very moving about the respect with which Tang’s character helps resolve the stories of the departed.
7. Youth of May This drama is set against the background of the Gwangju uprising. In 1980 student protests broke out in Korea and were tragically met by violence. Kim Myeong-hee, played by Go Min-si, goes on a blind date as a substitute for her wealthy friend and meets Hwang Hee-tae, a medical student played by Lee Do-hyun. They are perfect for each other, but have little chance to be together before getting caught in the crossfire. Why see it: Youth of May puts a human face on the tragic consequences of the uprising, while telling a universal story.
8. Mine is a dark fairy tale and also a highly stylized mystery. Lee Bo-young plays a popular actress, who married into a chaebol family. She is as sunny as Snow White, but the other family members are alternately slothful, greedy, quarrelsome and downright evil. When someone is murdered there are so many likely villains. The chaebol family lives in a museum-size mansion, complete with piles of ruby red apples and poisoned relationships. The curse of wealth and power threatens the romance between the family’s prince and a Cinderella maid. Why see it? The designer clothes worn by Lee and Kim So-hyung are enviably stylish and expensive. It’s an entertaining mystery and also a tale of sisterhood and female empowerment.
9. My Roommate is a Gumiho. This sweet and fluffy drama might remind you of Beauty and The Beast or Twilight, Korean style. While the supernatural story explores the tried-and-true k-drama trope of very different people—or in this case a human and a gumiho—being forced to live together, it does so with a light touch and a great cast. Why see it? There is appealing chemistry between the leads Jang Ki-yong and Lee Hyeri. Supporting actors Kang Han-na, Bae In-hyuk and Kim Do-wan offer lots of laughs. It’s obvious everyone had fun filming it.
10. The Devil Judge takes place in a dystopian future, a time in which corruption is rampant and poor people are definitely feeling abused. Sound familiar? It’s meant to. The show is set in the future when a televised court delivers some unexpected verdicts against the rich and powerful, drawing massive public support. Ji Sung plays the so-called “devil judge” and GOT7’s Jinyoung is a fellow judge who begins to doubt his ethics. Why see it? Strong performances and the parody of some too-close-for-comfort political realities make it more than worthwhile. The drama offers a glimpse of a dystopian future filled with giant screens, one that eerily echoes the present.
11. Lost, starring Ryu Jun-yeol and Jeon Do-yeon, did not get the ratings it deserved because the plot was melancholy for so long that many viewers gave up hope. That’s ironic because it’s a story about people who have given up hope and how a random personal encounter eventually makes their lives worth living. Why see it: The moody romantic drama contains some exquisite cinematic scenes and memorable lines, as well as great performances from the stars.
12. One The Woman. This sassy story about a tough-talking, raised-by-gangsters prosecutor starts with a pretty unbelievable premise. After a car accident Honey Lee’s character wakes up and thinks she is the rich woman she always dreamed of being. Complicating reality is the fact that her new chaebol family thinks so too. Lee’s delicious comedy skills make even the wildest scenario believable and she generates great chemistry with her co-star Lee Sang-yoon. Why see it: Honey Lee trounces a gang without breaking a fingernail. Lee’s side eye is memorable.
14. D.P. explores hazing in the South Korean military, a problem that has received renewed attention since 2011. Jung Hae-in plays a soldier who signs on to pursue deserters, partly in an effort to avoid being bullied. In his military role he must chase some soldiers who are fleeing bullying themselves. Why see it: The drama painfully documents what might prompt some military personnel to desert. Jung Hae-in gives a thoughtful performance as a man determined to carry out his duty, despite his own doubts.
15. Melancholia is the story of a math prodigy, traumatized by his past. Math is the most exciting thing imaginable for him, but he’s afraid to be good at the very subject he’s gifted in. A kind math teacher, played by Lim Soo-jung, turns his life around at the expense of her own reputation. She’s being a good teacher but when the two commune over math, it’s hard not to see sparks fly. Why see it: Lee Do-hyun delivers a subtle performance as the principled math prodigy and viewers will love to hate the drama’s many rich, outlandishly entitled characters.
16. Reflection of You. At the beginning of Reflection of You, a painter, played by Ko Hyun-jung, throws a body into the river. The moodily beautiful mystery sets you up to wonder which character’s body it is—and keeps you guessing. Is it Shin Hyun-bi, who plays the painter’s former friend and current enemy. Or is it Choi Won-young, who plays her deceptively kind husband. It might also be Kim Jae-young, her impulsive ex-lover. Why see it? Great acting all around, including Choi, who was so good as a dangerous husband in My Dangerous Wife. Also, Wuthering Heights fans might find it darkly delicious.
17. Red Sleeve. There were several fun historical dramas this year—historical dramas with zombies, demons, royal inspectors and cross-dressing princesses—but Red Sleeve reinterpreted the story of some actual royals. Red Sleeve tells the story of King Jeongjo and his concubine Uibin Sung, who came to the palace as a court lady. The King’s father Prince Sado was condemned to starve in a rice chest, accused of murdering members of the court. As well as dealing with the trauma of his father’s death and the behavior of his erratic grandfather, future King Jeongjo, played by Lee Jun-ho of 2PM, is hated by a secret society of court ladies. His one true friend is a very smart court lady, played by Lee Se-young. Why see it: Both actors create likable and relatable characters. Lee Se-young’s character transcends women’s limited choices during the 18th century.
18. Police University offers an upbeat story about second chances. B1A4’s Jinyoung plays a young hacker who enters the police academy because of his crush on a fellow student, played by Krystal Jung. He was forgiven for his misdeeds by an irascible police officer, played to comic effect by Cha Tae-hyun. Cha’s character winds up being his professor and is determined to be hard on him. Why see it? Although this drama regrettably spends too much of one episode on product placement, it still offers a lot of good old-fashioned get-the-bad-guys-and-redeem-yourself fun.
19. Hello Me. The comedy asks you to consider what you might say to your 17-year-old self? And wonder what that 17-year-old self might think of the older version of you. Would the 17-year-old be pleased with where you ended up or totally disappointed? Choi Kang-hee plays a woman whose life is a mess until a weird fluke finds her babysitting her younger self. That younger self, played by Lee Re, is not impressed, but ultimately helps her older version get her life back on track. Why see it? Besides the delightfully silly premise, there’s a hilarious performance by Eum Moon-suk as a jaded celebrity.
20. Here’s My Plan. At only four episodes, this MBC drama may have been easy to miss, but it had a lot to say. The series stars Kim Hwan-hee as a high school dropout and petty criminal. Ryu Soo-young plays the owner of a chicken restaurant, who decides to help the troubled teen, but she’s convinced he’s her dad and his life needs to be destroyed. Helping her may be harder than he imagined. If this sounds like an upbeat Disney comedy, it’s not. Making a U-turn in life is hard. Why see it? The screenplay won the award for outstanding work at the 2020 MBC Drama Screenplay Contest. It features fresh camera work, a fun soundtrack and a great performance by Kim.
21. Dr. Brain. This highly stylized sci-fi mystery is the first original Korean content produced by Apple TV+. Lee Sun-kyun plays a scientist who tries to tap into the memories of the departed. While this might be useful, it’s also dangerous, as the experiments transfer more than memories. Lee’s character becomes convinced that his son, who supposedly died in an accident, is still alive. The only way to find him is through a brain sync. Why see it: The cinematographer’s underwater color palette is gorgeous and the plot is a quirky comic book mash-up. Be warned. For a k-drama. Dr. Brain features an uncharacteristic amount of gunplay.
This list only includes dramas that were well underway by the middle of December 2021.