Updated: Apr 30
The small-town crime thriller Beyond Evil took home the Best Drama award, as well as trophies for Best Screenplay (Kim Su-jin) and Best Actor (Shin Ha-kyun) at last year's 57th Baeksang Arts Awards. It joined the ranks of these exceptional dramas which won over Baeksang juries with their excellence in storytelling. In this feature we take a look at the best of the best dramas from 2016 to 2020.
It would be fair to say that most k-drama fans were introduced to the unique Korean way of television storytelling by way of popular melodramas and romantic comedies. These gateway k-dramas, which star popular celebrities and often employ a number of tropes, may be a fun way to start, but for fans who want other interesting stories from different genres, there are a number of gems that stand far above the rest.
The Baeksang Arts Awards is the most prestigious and credible award-giving body for Korean television programming, so going through its history of Best Drama winners (as well as nominees) is a good place to find these gems. Built on solid scripts (all of which either won or were nominated for Best Screenplay), these masterpieces are brilliant explorations of the human condition, populated with characters who stay with you long after you finish the last episode.
2016 (52nd Baeksang Arts Awards)
“South Korean police fantasy procedural” is not really a phrase we see in show blurbs every day, but for the 2016 ratings overlord Signal, that’s not even the full description. They forgot to add “parallel dimension melodrama with a dash of space-time romance” to it, just to even come close to what this show is all about.
Using real cases such as the serial killing incident in Hwaseong (Gyeonggi Province) from 1986 to 1991, Signal takes much of its emotional fuel from the fantasy of being able to reach out to someone of that time and help him solve the murders before they become cold cases at the present. Much like the 1999 film Frequency and the current Park Shin-hye starrer The Call, Signal is about the unforeseen consequences of changing the past and the present.
In 2015, criminal profiler Park Hae-young (Lee Je-hoon) stumbles upon a walkie-talkie that somehow allows him to speak from a detective in the year 2000. Hae-young quickly realizes that if he helps detective Lee Jae-han (who lives in the past) solve the killings with the knowledge that DNA testing and forensic science gives him now, these cases would finally see justice. However, things are never without consequence, and in solving past crimes, many current people and issues would also never exist as well. So do we trade the lives of people living now to save the people in an unknown past? Or do we let things happen as they were supposed to, and live with the knowledge that we allowed a preventable tragedy from happening?
Strangely enough, it is not the concept of undoing the past that stands out in this drama. In fact, the magical walkie-talkie is almost forgotten as viewers get caught up in the regret, the powerlessness, and the pain of injustice that the show tackles. For its clever combination of sci-fi smarts and human drama, Signal won the Baeksang for Best Drama, Best Screenplay, and gave a Best Actress nod to Kim Hye-soo. Jo Jin-woong, as the idealistic detective from the past, is particularly electrifying to watch, and his performance won him the coveted Daesang (Grand Prize for Television) as well at the tvN10 Awards and the 1st Asia Artist Awards. The rest of the cast, including a younger Lee Je-hoon, further gild the lily of this justice melodrama with equally absorbing performances that will have you glued to your screen for hours on end.
2017 (53rd Baeksang Arts Awards)
Dear My Friends
In a year where high-concept fantasy dramas like Goblin and W: Two Worlds captured audiences' attention even beyond Korea, a quiet drama about friendship and growing old took home the prize for Best Drama. Penned by Noh Hee-kyung (It’s Okay, That’s Love, 2014; Live, 2018), one of the masters of the slice-of-life genre, Dear My Friends features a powerhouse ensemble composed of some of the most awarded and beloved senior actors in Korea.
Dear My Friends is told from the point of view of Park Wan (Go Hyun-jung), a 30-something translator who reluctantly gets roped into the drama of her headstrong mother Jang Nan-hee (Go Doo-shim) and her friends: Jo Hee-ja (Kim Hye-ja) who insists on living independently despite the onset of dementia, Moon Jeong-ah (Na Moon-hee) who has had enough of her 40+ year marriage, Oh Chung-nam (Yoon Yuh-jung), a wealthy single woman who supports her poor siblings and artist friends, and Lee Young-won (Park Won-sook), who hides deep scars behind her glamorous actress façade.
A frustrated novelist, Park Wan eventually gives in to their requests to document their life stories and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Incredibly poignant, surprisingly funny, and featuring the beautiful sights of Slovenia and Croatia, Dear My Friends is a healing, life-affirming celebration of friends who become family and the beauty of growing old with them by your side.
2018 (54th Baeksang Arts Awards)
When does a woman become a mother? Is it simply the moment she gives birth? Or is it when she learns to sacrifice for and love a child more than she loves herself, even if that child is not her own?
The suspense drama Mother examines this question as it follows the story of a substitute teacher (Lee Bo-young) who impulsively runs away with her student when she realizes she is a victim of child abuse. Adapted from a Japanese drama and written by Jung Seo-Kyoung, a frequent collaborator of legendary filmmaker Park Chan-wook, Mother is every bit as suspenseful as it is dramatic. It takes viewers on a roller coaster of emotions, as the mother-daughter pair are pursued by law enforcers and the child’s abusers.
While Mother drives home the heartbreaking reality that the vicious cycle of abuse may leave children scarred for life, it also portrays the selflessness of people who would sacrifice everything to help an innocent child. As the old adage goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and this drama has a tapestry of mother figures — single dads included — who help our heroines along the way.
Rich symbolism and clever literary references, a hauntingly stirring OST, cinematic photography, and excellent performances, all came together to make one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, yet also uplifting television dramas ever made. Mother also won Best New Actress for phenomenal child actress Heo Yool, who was chosen out of a field of 400 children, and received nominations for Best Director (Kim Cheol-kyu), Best Screenplay (Jang Seo-kyung) and Best Actress (Lee Bo-young).
2019 (55th Baeksang Arts Awards)
The epic historical drama Mr. Sunshine and social satire SKY Castle may have been ratings juggernauts and strong contenders for Best Drama, but ultimately, the award went to My Mister, a workplace slice-of-life drama that quietly explores the everyday melancholy of being human.
My Mister draws out career defining-performances from Lee Sun-kyun as Park Dong-hoon, a middle-aged engineer who just can’t seem to catch a break despite being a nice, upright guy, and Lee Ji-eun (IU) as Lee Ji-an, a cold and cynical girl who carries the weight of a “30,000-year-old soul” in her diminutive frame. A temporary office worker at Dong-hoon’s firm, life’s unjust cruelty towards her keeps forcing her hand, driving her to cunningly manipulate people and situations in order to survive, regardless of who gets hurt.
The very definition of a “healing” drama, My Mister’s message is simple, clear, and beautiful: that kindness has the transformative power to heal even the most wounded among us, that relationships are precious and amazing, that love in any form—even in ways that are hard to label or define—can help us get through the struggles of life. Life may be tough, but knocking down bottles of soju with your Hugye neighborhood pals at Jong-hee's bar makes it a little more bearable.
Every aspect of this wonderful story came together beautifully to deliver that message: the thoughtful direction, the lighting which is a character on its own, the delicate OST, the insightful script, and the understated performances of its entire ensemble cast.
Aside from winning Best Drama and Best Screenplay (Park Hae-young), My Mister was nominated for five awards: Best Director (Kim Won-seok), Best Actor (Lee Sun-kyun), Best Actress (Lee Ji-eun), Best Supporting Actress (Oh Na-ra), and Best New Actress (Kwon Na-ra).
2020 (56th Baeksang Arts Awards)
Hot Stove League (Best Drama)
Hot Stove League is a romance-free drama focused on the wheeling and dealing that happens behind the scenes of Korea’s second favorite sport: baseball. Namgoong Min plays a general manager hired to tank a loss-making baseball team, but proceeds to fight for its survival instead.
What other drama can turn contract negotiations into something heartbreaking, comedic and heist-like at the same time? No character here is one-dimensional; even the most loathsome of side characters is given space to be human.
You’d think that Namgoong Min would carry this drama alone, but it’s when all the characters come together that the show shines and proves deserving of its award. Just like in baseball, it’s not the star players but the team that wins the game.
Hot Stove League also received nominations for Best Director (Jeong Dong-yoon), Best Screenplay (Lee Shin-hwa), and Best Actor (Namgoong Min).