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