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A Hard Day's Night: K-drama Careers

One striking feature of k-dramas is their commitment to research and keeping things real. Writers often spend months immersing themselves in a particular industry or craft to get the details and nuances of the characters and their jobs right. Some of the jobs are often overlooked or stereotyped, but many of them are represented really well including their unique triumphs and challenges. We look at the k-dramas that flesh out unusual or overlooked careers. In this edition, we’ll leave out medical, legal, and police dramas, which could fill up entire lists of their own.

The Boss of Me

Everyone wants to be the boss and get all the perks along with the job. But what most people don't seem to get is that the greater one's authority, the greater one's responsibility. Here are a few dramas that focus on the highs and lows of management.

Hot Stove League (2019-20)

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 (The Veil) plays Baek Seung-soo, 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 all at the same time? No character here is one-dimensional; even the most loathsome of side characters are given space to be human. You’d think that Namgoong Min would carry this drama alone, but when all the characters come together, the show shines and proves deserving of its Baeksang Best Drama award. Just like in baseball, it’s not the star players but the team that wins the game.

Hot Stove League also received Baeksang nominations for Best Director (Jeong Dong-yoon), Best Screenplay (Lee Shin-hwa), and Best Actor (Namgoong Min).

16 Episodes, Available on Netflix and Viu

Good Manager (2017)

Our protagonist, Kim Sung-ryong (Namgoong Min, Hot Stove League), is a brazen and charming public accountant who lives off of fixing accounting statements and skimming money from his shady clients. His life is perfect… until it isn’t.

Faced with the very real—and very relatable—possibility of unemployment, Kim Sung-ryong applies for a middle management position at the prestigious (and, of course, rotten) TQ Group of Companies, and successfully gets hired. Frustratingly, his team seems to hate him and defer more to his assistant manager, Yoon Ha-kyung (Nam Sang-mi, Gunman in Joseon). Kim Sung-ryong knowingly prepares to be a puppet manager until a series of ironic and unforeseen circumstances brand him as a paragon of human rights. So obviously, he has no other choice but to go against the orders of Finance Director Seo Yul (Lee Jun-ho, The Red Sleeve) and start the messy process of taking down the corrupt corporation he works for.

20 episodes, Available on Netflix

Search: WWW (2019)

South Korea may have one of the lowest ratios of female executives among industrialized countries, but not in the world of Search: WWW. Our three heroines in this k-drama are rich and successful directors who control the country's two biggest web portals—the websites people access daily—to search for all types of information. But their power extends beyond the companies they work in. In their roles, Bae Ta-mi (Lim Soo-jung, Chicago Typewriter), Cha Hyun (Lee Da-hee, The Beauty Inside), and Song Ka-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin, Stranger 2) are in a unique position to influence the national conversation.

Over 16 episodes, we watch the three women brainstorm and execute innovative business tactics to outwit each other and increase their market shares, with the sort of corporate maneuvering often just seen among men. Along the way, they also struggle with the unusual power they hold to shape narratives while balancing dating, cheating boyfriends, and a controlling mother-in-law. Yes, our heroines do have relationships, too. But in the world of Search: WWW, men are just supporting characters designed to aid our three strong leads as they find their place and their voice in corporate Korea.

16 Episodes, Available on Netflix and Viu

Miss Lee (2019)

Cheongil Electronics is about to go bankrupt, its owner has disappeared, and no one else wants to take over the leadership position. Amidst this chaos, clerk Lee Sun-sim (Lee Hye-ri, Reply 1988), nicknamed “Miss Lee” by her colleagues, is thrust into the highest position. With her mismatched credentials and inadequate skill level, she is tossed around among her subordinates, suppliers, and other business partners. Although Production Manager Yoo Jin-wook (Kim Sang-kyung, Racket Boys) seems to be the most qualified and experienced to take over the CEO (or plant manager) position, he does not want the job. But in the end, Miss Lee’s optimism and laser focus on her goals win Jin-wook over, becoming her reluctant but helpful mentor.

K-drama fans working in the manufacturing sector may find many scenes relatable—production shutdown, worker strikes, conflicts between office and production, operator and team leader, supplier and purchasing, etc.—so real, in fact, that they may induce PTSD. However, with the dearth of k-dramas in a factory setting, it may actually be refreshing for others.

16 Episodes, Available on Viu in selected regions

The Road Less Travelled

There are jobs everybody knows about, and we may have all considered at some point in our lives. And then there are things people do for a living that we never realized existed—at least until k-drama showed us.

Move to Heaven (2021)

What happens to people’s apartments and houses when somebody dies in them? Move to Heaven attempts to answer the question in a poignant drama. Han Geu-ru (Tang Joon-sang, Crash Landing on You) is the lead trauma cleaner—a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who has to run the family trauma cleaning business, Move to Heaven, after his father (Ji Jin-hee, Undercover) passes away.

Helping (and annoying) him is Cho Sang-gu (Lee Je-hoon, Signal), an uncle he didn’t know until after his father's death. An ex-convict and street fighter, Sang-gu has to learn to become a proper guardian to Geu-ru and an employee of Move to Heaven within three months. Keeping a close eye on him is Yoon Na-mu (Hong Seung-hee, Navillera), Geu-ru's neighbor and best friend. Read the full review here.

10 Episodes, Available on Netflix

Run on (2020-21)

Oh Mi-joo (Shin Se-kyung, Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung) is an English translator and interpreter on the side in Run on. But her real job is putting English subtitles in Korean films. Mi-joo deftly explains that it’s more than just translating sentences word for word—it’s really about getting the feel of the scene and bridging two languages and cultures. K-drama audiences can surely resonate with her character's appreciation for the often taken-for-granted art of subtitling. After all, we’re all happy to traverse the “one-inch barrier of subtitles.”

Run on was marketed as a romance between an athlete trying to look for meaning beyond his sport and a translator/subtitler who just wants more people to appreciate good films. Run on’s charm, however, is not just in the mature, realistic, and slow-burn romance between the two protagonists Ki Seon-gyeon (Im Si-wan, Misaeng: Incomplete Life) and Mi-joo but in the great chemistry of its four leads. Yes, FOUR! It’s one of the few k-drama romances that focus on two couples that (surprise, surprise) are NOT in a weird love-triangle-square whatever. The drama gives as much importance to the developing romance as the growing friendships among the four leads and the people around them. It’s a leisurely and lovely watch for those who want more than just meet-cutes and grand gestures.

16 Episodes, Available on Netflix

Where Stars Land (alt. Fox Bride Star, 2018)

Airports are transitory places for everyone else, but what happens to people who work at Incheon International Airport? Lee Je-hoon (Taxi Driver) and Chae Soo-bin (I'm Not a Robot) are fairly new workers in the passenger services section. Their misadventures give us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world’s busiest airports.

While the romantic drama has a hint of fantasy in its plot, the situations involving security, immigration, sales, and office politics are all too real. It’s an entertaining insider’s look at the lives of people whose stressful job is to make everyone else’s flying experience as uneventful as possible.

32 30-minute Episodes, Available on Viu and Viki

The Extra Mile

There are people whose jobs are so much a part of our lives that we often take them for granted. From the moment we wake up till the moment we sleep, our lives are made better by people who get things done, even if they rarely get thanked for it.

Strongest Deliveryman (2017)

Choi Kang-soo (Go Kyung-pyo, Reply 1988) in Strongest Delivery Man is the good-natured, motorcycle-riding, friendly neighborhood delivery man who finds joy in bringing people their longed-for orders. Because of his passion for his job and concern for his fellow delivery men, he unwittingly becomes the head of his own cohort of delivery men who take on a big-name company. The rest of the cast includes Chae Soo-bin (I'm Not a Robot) and Kim Seon-ho (Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha).

The drama allows us to glimpse the difficult hours and backbreaking work that often gets overlooked. It’s especially interesting since same-day delivery demands in South Korea have caused delivery drivers to go on strike because of their work conditions, especially during the pandemic.

16 Episodes, Available on Netflix

Would You Like a Cup of Coffee? (2021)

Set in the quaint but beloved neighborhood coffee shop Café 2Dae (2nd Generation), the passionate apprentice Kang Go-bi (Oh Seung-woo, More than Friends) learns about coffee—and even life—from his wise teacher, the owner Park Se-ok (Park Ho-san, Penthouse 2 and 3). Se-ok patiently shows him the ropes: how to brew coffee via experiments, collaborate with other cafés on a menu, deal with customers, etc. The community helps him heal from failing school, encouraging him to work towards his new dream of becoming a barista.

The KakaoTV slice-of-life healing drama addresses in 12 episodes the uncomfortable feelings about uncertainty and change—school, work, love, or the pandemic. Watching it is as comforting as a warm cup of freshly brewed coffee on a cold and rainy day. Read the full review