In 2009, I graduated into an economic recession with a BA in English literature. It took me almost 3 years until I was able to find a full-time job.
In 2021, I am graduating into another economic recession with a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies. In case I need to wait another 3 years to find a tenure-track job or a comedy writing gig, I am going to host my own podcast putting my media studies knowledge and comedic timing into productive use.
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You can visit the website here.
And you can listen to the first episode here! In episode one, I discuss the hit series SKY Castle!
I appreciate your support! Spread the word! Happy new year!
what a time to have been indoors. the majority of 2020 was spent on lockdown and I spent the early months of COVID-19 quarantine bingeing on old school K-dramas which you can read about here.
now that 2020 is about to wrap up, let’s rank the best K-dramas of 2020 in order.
You can’t fight me on this. When it comes to high stakes drama, this is it. There’s a reason why World of the Married has the highest cable ratings of all time (as of December 2020) outdoing another JTBC drama SKYCastle (2018). World of the Married is written by Kang Eun-kyung who wrote the hit series Baker King Kim Takgu which also achieved record breaking ratings 10 years ago and earned Yoon Shi-yoon a Best New Actor Award in 2010. similar to SKYCastle, World of the Married‘s pilot episode ends at such a high point of dramatic intensity that it’s impossible to watch without gasping. I gasped very loudly and walked around my room alone yelling, “oh my god” over and over again.
Netflix really outdid itself this year by picking up exclusive US rights to some top notch storytelling and high-end production value Korean TV series from tvN. Crashlanding on You brings together two very attractive veteran K-drama actors Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, and is set in both Seoul and Pyongyang. It began airing in December 2019 through the early months of 2020. Right as the series was winding down, COVID-19 cases began to rise. I’m sure pretty much anyone watching K-dramas binge-watched this series during quarantine.
#3: Itaewon Class
JTBC has been impressive this past year with some groundbreaking dramatic series that targets a younger audience. I saw a lot of reactions and responses to Itaewon Class on TikTok. It gained massive popularity for its refreshing storytelling, complex characters, and excellent music. I really dug this show, and I appreciated them giving a transgender character a happy romantic ending although I wish her role could’ve been played by an actual trans actress. It was a great big step but there’s always room for growth when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights in South Korea.
ANNOUNCEMENT: I am launching a new K-drama podcast called “K-Drama School“ on January 4, 2021. I’ll be putting my PhD in Cinema & Media Studies to good use by blending deep textual analysis, Korean cultural and historical contextualization, comedic riffs and amazing guests. A new episode will drop every Monday at 8AM PST.
You can start getting updates by following @kdramaschool on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Podcast episodes will become available wherever you subscribe to podcasts including but not limited to iTunes and Spotify. Video podcasts will also become available every week on YouTube.
I really appreciate your kind support.
happy holidays & i wish you a blessed 2021 in the year of the ox!
Since March 11th (the day I began lockdown), I’ve been revisiting all of my favorite Korean dramas. Not all of what I’m about to list here are available on Netflix, so be creative. Explore other streaming services like Viki and OnDemandKorea (doesn’t always have subtitles; this is better if you’re fluent in Korean). Another secret go-to for me is DramaCool (be sure to add an adblocker plugin). And follow my K-drama memes on TikTok. Below are my top K-dramas worth rewatching multiple times. I’ve also included a rating for how rough the tear-jerking is on each show.
- Beautiful Days (SBS, 2001)
This is a classic melodrama featuring some staple K-drama figures from the 1990s and early 2000s. You’ve got Choi Ji-woo just before her big launch into becoming a hallyu star with Winter Sonata in 2002. Her love interest is Lee Byung-hun (you’ve seen him in Mr. Sunshine), and his character is super toxic. Their attraction towards each other makes no sense at all. In fact, it’s extremely problematic. That doesn’t mean this show isn’t good. It’s actually amazing. Ryu Si-won plays Choi Ji-woo’s other love interest, and Lee Byung-hun’s brother/rival. Lee Jung-hyun plays Choi Ji-woo’s tough-as-nails little sister who is trying to become a K-pop singer, and Lee Byung-hun’s character is the director of a record company where Choi Ji-woo’s character is employed at. You dig? This show has all the typical tropes of K-drama that I love from the 1990s and early 2000s: love triangle, orphans, class warfare, a lot of crying, fatal illness, etc. It’s very well-written, well-directed and the actors are supreme in their commitment and delivery. The soundtrack is also very good. When I first saw this show as a teenager, I had a really hard time adjusting to Choi Ji-woo and Ryu Si-won sharing the small screen together again because just a year before this show, the two played lovers on a drama called Truth (MBC 2000). It really takes you out of the moment. Tear jerker level: 6/10.
- I’m Sorry, I Love You (KBS, 2004)
This drama came out in the winter of 2004. Like Beautiful Days, it’s a gut-wrenching “melo” and has a really weepy (but nice) soundtrack. It’ll have you bawling your fucking eyes out, so watch it if you need to clear your sinuses. This is also the K-drama that made So Ji-sub the babe he is today. The poor thing did a bunch of dramas before this one but was never considered the hot protagonist. This one made him the firey stud that made all the girls cry after he got married to that who-gives-a-shit-announcer-half-his-age recently 💔. Actress Im Soo-jung gives a really wonderful performance on this show. If you can’t stand this summer’s heat and want to cool off with some wintry romance story, this is an oldie but a very goodie. Tear jerker level: 10/10
- Successful Story of a Bright Girl (SBS, 2002)
If you think Jang Nara and Jang Hyuk’s chemistry in Fated to Love You (MBC, 2014) is a given, you don’t know K-dramas like I do. The Jangs had their first encounter as opposites on TV 12 years prior to that on Successful Story of a Bright Girl. It has the classic trope of a poor orphan girl versus rich arrogant asshole who annoy each other but eventually fall in love. This show solidified Jang Nara’s popularity, and the year 2002 was a busy year for her; she not only released a hit song “Sweet Dream” but filmed another drama that same year–My Love Patzzi opposite Kim Rae-won (but this show sucks; don’t waste your time on it). She mentions in her interview on Happy Together that she suffered panic attacks and mental breakdowns during this period in her career due to being overworked. Jang Nara’s hardwork really paid off. She’s a very accomplished actress, but you can tell from her work in Successful Story… that she’s a natural talent and performer. This is a feel-good drama with a very strong protagonist full of moxie. I love this show. Tear jerker level: 5/10 (this is a feel-good show but Jang Nara’s crying is so genuine; it’s hard not to get emotional while watching her. if you’ve seen Fated to Love You, you would know this already).
- The Greatest Love (MBC, 2011)
I’m a huge fan of Gong Hyo-jin. I think she’s an amazing actress, and she impresses me every time. I loved her in this drama but I mostly loved Cha Seung-won’s character. He plays an arrogant, stuck-up and immature actor; in fact, if you’ve seen the other show (also written by the Hong sisters) My Master’s Sun with Gong Hyo-jin and So Ji-sub, you’ll notice that So Ji-sub copied a lot of Cha Seung-won’s character acting mannerisms (manner of speech and action). I laughed a lot during this show because of Cha’s performance. If you want something light, funny and uplifting, The Greatest Love is a good one. Tear jerker level: 1/10 (when Gong Hyo-jin cries, it always makes me weepy; even though this show is a feel-good, she cries intermittently, and that always makes me tear up).
- It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
While we’re on Gong Hyo-jin, let me recommend another show I love. It’s Okay, That’s Love used to be on Netflix a few years ago but they took it down. This show, for some reason, isn’t very popular among non-Korean K-drama viewers but I love this show. It tackles topics that a lot of other shows ignore (mental illness, disability, and disorder), an extremely complicated mother-daughter relationship, and displays a really strong chemistry between Gong Hyo-jin and Jo In-sung. The supporting character actors Lee Kwang-soo and Sung Dong-il are also amazing on this show. The OST for this show is also really great featuring Davichi’s music. Yeah, it’s tear-jerker but the color palette on this show is really lovely. The writer of this show Noh Hee-kyung wrote some amazing shows including Worlds Within (2008), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013), Dear My Friends (2016) and Live (2018). Luckily for you, both most of the shows I just mentioned here are currently on Netflix although I don’t know for how long. Tear jerker level: 10/10 (this show appropriately maxes out its tear jerker status; I cry every time I watch this show, and I think I saw this one like 4 or 5 times).
- Dear My Friends (tvN, 2016)
While we’re talking about Noh Hee-kyung let me mention Dear My Friends. This drama just recently got added to Netflix (it’s not a Netflix “original” though–FYI). I love this show. For long-time K-drama viewers you’d recognize all of the people on this poster. They’re titans–veteran actors whose careers date back to the 1960s. All of them were the leads back in their day but due to their age, they’ve been cast aside to play supporting roles over the last few decades but this show puts them smack right back in the center of the story, and you’ll be floored by their delivery. I will warn you though, this is a SUPER tearjerker. I’m talking like resuscitation level. You’ll need an oxygen tank. I cried SO much watching this show when it first came out 4 years ago, and bawled again when I was re-watching it this past week. You’ll need a towel to get through this show, but I promise you, it is worth it. It touches on so many important social aspects including aging, parenting, adoption, domestic abuse, elderly abuse, gender dynamics, dementia, and others. Tear jerker level: 40/10 (seriously… it’s a lot.)
- What Happened in Bali (SBS, 2004)
This show is what I would call a low-grade show; it has a lot of montage sequences and flashbacks to fill time. It’s a love square–two guys and two gals are involved; two of the guys love one girl, and one of the girls love two guys. It’s a hot mess. But I love this show because Jo In-sung’s acting is so over the top (also his teeth are still imperfect giving him a stupid kind of likeable charm), and So Ji-sub is in it and he’s always a babe. Ha Ji-won–who I find insufferably boring in everything she does including that shitty Netflix show Chocolate (2019)–is the lead, but she’s kind of funny at times. The show is a heavy melo, and the ending is quite shocking. If you don’t like unhappy endings (why the hell are you watching K-dramas in the first place?) this isn’t for you. But the show has an interesting over-the-top/excessive flavor that even gives it a bit of a queer tone to it. It has all the makjang stuff I love about most K-dramas including violent ajummas who beat the shit out of girls they disapprove who come after their sons, and problematically-toxically masculine guys who push girls around to do their bidding whenever they want. This show was written by a husband and wife duo–Kim Ki-ho and Lee Sun-mi. These two have an appetite for absurdly cruel endings. If you’ve seen that terrible show (but entertainingly so) show Fashion King (SBS, 2012) starring Yoo Ah-in and Shin Se-kyung, you’d know what I’m talking about (but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it; it’s awful. No one talks about it. But I loved this show, too because Yoo Ah-in acts like the most sadistic psycho on this show; also, parts of it were filmed in my hometown–New York). Tear jerker level: 5/10
- When a Man Loves (MBC, 2013)
This drama is FUCKED UP. If you like FUCKED UP K-dramas, go watch this. Nothing makes sense on this show. Everybody’s crazy. People’s motives for doing anything are ridiculous. The characters cross into territories they never ever should and it keeps happening over and over again. I found myself yelling, “NOOOOOOOOO,” at my screen so many times while watching this. It’s hilariously over the top. I felt bad for both Song Seung-hun and Shin Se-kyung. For such pretty actors, I felt like this show did them wrong so many times by making them say and do such ridiculous things. But that’s part of what makes this show so fun. It’s crazy. Enjoy some good ol’ makjang for teens. Tear jerker level: 0/10 (it’s too fucking funny to be sad).
- Stairway to Heaven (SBS, 2003)
If you’re a fan of Park Shin-hye from Heirs (a fandom I don’t particularly understand), you should know this drama because it’s the one that made all the guys my age fall in love with her. Park Shin-hye plays the child version of Choi Ji-woo, and Kim Tae-hee plays a super evil girl on this show. She’s really entertaining to watch playing a bitch role (I think this was the only time she played somebody this evil; I don’t know why though because she plays it so well). This isn’t my favorite drama but I think it’s worth mentioning just because it has all the elements of what pushes a story forward (conflict!) but there’s just too much of it. The way masculinity is portrayed on this show is especially interesting; from that angle, this show is worth seeing. It’s also a nice throwback K-drama that, again, has all the typical tropes: cancer, love triangle, class warfare, evil step mother, a son of a major conglomerate, amnesia, etc. Yeah, you might like this one. Kwon Sang-woo plays the “stud” on this show which I find so hilarious. Is he hot? I don’t find him attractive at all. I never understood his appeal. Yeah, he’s buff but he also has an annoying lisp. He can’t deliver his lines well because of it. Whatever. Maybe I’m being too judgmental. Anyway, check this out. The characters on this show are insane and super fun to watch. Tear jerker level: 7/10
- Goblin (tvN, 2016-2017).
It’s probably not even worth mentioning this show only because pretty much all K-drama fans today have seen it but I’ll mention it just to pay it some recognition but also to mention how much the shows that came after this one failed so terribly to ever live up to itv. Kim Eun-sook wrote this show, and she’s also credited for Mr. Sunshine and The King: Eternal Monarch which you’ve probably seen on Netflix by now. Both of her efforts after Goblin are quite lousy compared to how good Goblin was. The King is a terrible mess and not even the kind of mess I want to keep watching; it just sucked ass and I found myself disliking Kim Go-eun again; and sorry-not-sorry I never liked Lee Min-ho (again, I don’t get it? What’s his appeal? He’s quite boring to me). But Goblin had a really handsome ensemble cast, beautiful clothes and accessories, and an awesome OST that I still listen to. I think Kim Eun-sook should take a break for a while and just not write. Or just avoid sci-fi stuff because she sucks at it. Goblin is more of a fantasy that doesn’t try to be scientifically heady whereas The King kept trying to force mathematical logic onto a fantasy genre. Like, why? Also, who cares? Literally nobody I spoke to gave a shit about the time travel/parallel universe logics; all we cared about was the awesome idea of a monarch that continues to remain in Korea; the ideas of a nation as a fantasy, or an imagined nation in an ideal situation is what kept me engaged in The King just enough to finish it (I literally did not give a shit after it ended; I’m usually quite sad to see a show end but this one, I literally got up and did other shit right after because I just did not care). Anyway, if you want to see some good fantasy K-drama, Goblin is the way to go. A bunch of people tried to recreate it or imitate it (Bride of Habaek  and Black ) but they are disasters in comparison; both of the imitation dramas suck ass. They’re not worth your time. Goblin is good. It’s a modern classic. Stick to that one. Tear jerker level: 6/10
Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.
The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.
Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.
Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.
The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.
The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well. If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.
Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)
What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…
What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site, calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.
Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.
The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.
Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.
Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)