If you need any more proof of how good a year 2021 was for k-dramas, just look at the length of this list of our picks of the best that aired from July to December. Each title here either broke new ground and pushed the envelope in some way, or impressed us with solid storytelling or amazing production values, demonstrating why South Korea is increasingly taking over the global entertainment scene.
In the second half of the second year of the pandemic, it's no surprise to see that suspense and mysteries dominate this list. But of course, no k-drama list is complete without the romances that made our hearts flutter. Slice-of-life shows are also having a moment, with some of the most surprisingly good titles this year coming under this genre.
Suspense, Mysteries, and Thrillers
There was no escaping Squid Game in 2021, and for a good reason: This nine-episode survival-game drama is so well-made and so emotionally resonant that it has now become a global pop culture iconoclast.
It is bloody and gory for sure, yet for all its sadistic children’s games, the show's true brutality—and genius—lies in how the stories cut through our cognitive defenses and go straight to our gut. It makes no complicated intellectual discourse about the disadvantages of capitalism; it just shows us what true evil is and how it transforms us into the beasts we are, given the right price and the right opportunity. Read our full review here.
One Ordinary Day
It is almost an understatement to call this drama suspenseful, as it keeps you on your toes from the first notes of its opening sequence all the way till the very last second of each of its eight episodes.
From Kim Soo-hyun's gripping performance as a man wrongfully accused of murder and rape, to the production values and even the musical scoring, One Ordinary Day is a perfectly-told harrowing tale that is both unwatchable and completely bingeable at the same time. Read our full review here.
Faithful to the counterculture ethos that runs through all the latest Korean shows wholly produced by Netflix, this short six-episode series takes a courageous stab at one of humanity’s most beloved institutions—religion—but insists on setting it in a world that is its own, told at a pace of its own.
Far from being heavy-handed or overly preachy, Hellbound is a creative examination of sin and its consequences, of doctrine and belief, and what happens when a singular group is allowed to have overarching and uncontested power over man's conscience. Read our full review here.
My Name offers itself as a fresh addition to Korea’s already vast trove of gangster shows with a simple twist: The lead character, whose thirst for revenge is strong enough to overpower dozens of other well-trained men and defy biological laws about how much torture the human body can take, is a woman.
There aren’t any complex gender commentaries in this show, which sees the versatile Han So-hee in her most challenging role to date as a gang member who infiltrates the police. This eight-episode series simply aims to show that a woman can lead a hard-core action series as effectively as a man. And on that front, My Name succeeds. Read our full review here.
The Silent Sea
While director Choi Hang-yong hardly reinvents any of the usual space horror tropes in this big-budget lunar odyssey, what he does extremely well is spread out the horror and shock across eight episodes in a way that does not overwhelm a sci-fi newbie.
He also flexes the incredible CGI capacities of the k-drama machine, as well as plays with a beautiful and bleak color palette to make The Silent Sea not just a thrilling watch, but an aesthetically-pleasing one as well. Although many viewers have suggested that the show could have wrapped up in fewer episodes or could have used a little more pep, one still can't help but fall under the mesmeric control of Gong Yoo, Bae Doona, and the crew as they carefully unravel the mystery of the Balhae station and the unspeakable secrets it hides.
As the first Korean-language show produced for Apple TV+, Dr. Brain spared no expense in the talent and cinematography departments to give us a pleasing sci-fi thriller.
Parasite lead Lee Sun-kyun stars as the brilliant brain scientist Sewon Koh who uses his risky scientific invention to solve the mystery of his wife's madness and his son's death, while the rest of the cast, including Lee Yoo-young and Park Hae-soon, help him deliver the cerebral thrills. With only six episodes, Dr. Brain also wraps its ambitious plot quite nicely and makes an interesting noirish weekend watch without the usual 16-episode time investment.
This 12-episode JTBC mystery thriller upends the traditional male cop and male criminal roles through a plot that demands casting strong and smart women as leads.
A reclusive ex-cop in her 40s, Koo Kyung-yi (Lee Young-ae) overreaches her investigation of an insurance claim that turns out to be a complicated murder case. After confirming her hunch, her curiosity leads her to the serial killer “K” (Kim Hye-jun), a college student who cleverly disguises her killings as accidents. Inspector Koo’s and K’s teams set off on a cat-and-mouse chase, shaking their trust with their teammates—and even their sense of justice.
One the Woman
With its fun plot, fast pace, and flawlessly hilarious performance by Honey Lee (Lee Ha-nee) in dual roles—two strangers who look exactly alike whose lives are intertwined due to an accident—it’s easy to see why this was one of the most highly rated miniseries of 2021.
After an accident that leaves her with amnesia, prosecutor Cho Yeon-ju inadvertently ends up taking chaebol heir Kang Mi-na's identity. As she struggles to navigate life as her submissive look-a-like, she finds herself going up against the powerful Hanju Group and uncovering the truth behind the crimes that changed her life 14 years ago. This might not be a nail-biting thriller, but there are enough mysteries to keep you on tenterhooks over the course of 16 episodes. Read our full review here.
It's impossible to count all the ways we love Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. There's the great chemistry not just between the two leads but among the entire cast, and there's witty script that makes us laugh out loud and that lives up to the “com” part of the rom-com.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a normal, healthy romantic relationship represented in a k-drama. Hong Du-sik (Kim Seon-ho), for all his flaws and “dark” past, is a good man. He genuinely cares about others and finds ways to help. Yoon Hye-jin (Shin Min-ah), starts off as a little prickly and snobbish but shows a wonderful and believable character growth in the course of the 16-episode series. Read our take on why these two make for K-drama Couple Goals.
The Red Sleeve
“The king loved the court lady, but did the court lady love the king?”
Based on the true story of King Jeongjo of Joseon and court lady Sung Deok-im, and the eponymous novel by Kang Mi-kang, The Red Sleeve explores the answer to this question over the course of 17 cinematic episodes. In doing so, this drama, written and directed by women, tackles the harsh realities of 18th century palace life as seen from the perspective of its women—from court ladies whose stories we almost never hear, to members of the royal family. Palpable chemistry between its leads (Lee Se-young and 2PM's Lee Jun-ho), a solid cast of veteran actors, top-tier production values, seamless storytelling, and incredible attention to details make The Red Sleeve arguably the best sageuk (historical series) of the year.
“Exaggeratedly realistic,” “traumatic flashbacks,” and “hard relate”—these are some of the common viewer reactions to the plot of Yumi's Cells, which focuses on the ordinary and specific aspects of dating and relationships.
Based on a wildly popular webtoon, the 14-episode slice-of-life romantic drama/comedy breaks new ground in combining live-action and 3D animation to portray the cute “cells” in Yumi's brain that discuss and argue their way to making her decisions. Read our full review here.
Slice of Real Life
Hospital Playlist 2
Devoid of real villainy and makjang, the second season of Hospital Playlist reminds its viewers that the everyday experiences of common folk—the highs and lows of the workplace, the ups and downs of romances, and the solid, well-worn relationships of family and friends—are more than enough drama to entertain and enlighten.
At the heart of the series are the highly enviable and surprisingly relatable love and friendship of the ‘99ers, a moniker for the five surgeons at Yulje Hospital who all happen to be medical school friends and bandmates. Jo Jung-suk, Yoo Yeon-seok, Jung Kyung-ho, Kim Dae-myung, and Jeon Mi-do and their equally lovable co-stars have wonderful and palpable onscreen chemistry that will surely make this (and its first season) a fan favorite for years to come. Check out our blog post on why we love these characters so much.
In many k-dramas, military life—and men—are usually adored and glorified. But this excellent six-episode k-drama begs to differ.
With a level of courage and unflinching commitment to a sensitive topic never before tackled by k-media, Netflix once again brings another difficult and socially conscious drama to the fore. In D.P., we get a glimpse of the horrific levels of abuse suffered by Korean men during their military service and why they need to run away. Read our full review here.
Work Later, Drink Now
Based on the webcomic Drinking City Women, Work Later, this show was such a surprise hit that it increased the number of TVING's paying subscribers by nearly 3,000%!
The show didn’t need an elaborate plot, expensive production values, or any big Hallyu name to break audience records. It turns out, all TVING needed for a breakout hit were three Seoulite women in their 30s hilariously navigating the minefield of their families, careers, and men with a little help from each other... and a LOT of alcohol. Read our full review here.
On the Verge of Insanity
In a story that unravels at breakneck speed, On the Verge of Insanity features the lives of employees of Hammyeong Electronics and how they all struggle to survive in a company that always seems to prioritize profit over people. Can you relate?
A smart, funny, and heartwarming underdog story, this show sheds light on the cutthroat Korean corporate culture of a chaebol-owned electronics company and does so in thoroughly entertaining 16 episodes that keep you guessing until the very end. Read our full review here.
A surprisingly engaging series on small-town teenage badminton players with big dreams, this 16-episode sports drama touches on puberty, family dynamics, young love, and personal challenges.
Light and easy-to-watch, the show manages to make badminton interesting with its cast of quirky characters and lots of feel-good moments, and a plot that doesn’t need a diagram to understand. Read our full review here.
The King’s Affection
A temporary swap of clothing (think The Prince and the Pauper) turns into a permanent full-time “acting” job for Joseon court maid Dam-yi (Choi Myung-bin / Park Eun-bin), who is forced to live not only as a man but also as a prince.
Guarding her deadly, treasonous secret and improving her skills to keep up with her disguise, she cannot afford to be a damsel in distress. Instead, she uses her wisdom and power, while keeping her integrity, to take down the corrupt and powerful. In this KBS2 sageuk (historical drama) rom-com, the gender-bender is more believable, the romantic interactions are fun without being toxic, and affection in its various forms could either heal or kill.
The COVID-19 pandemic is over and people are just getting used to the new normal, when a new, more deadly disease emerges. This time, the infection targets the brain, creating a rabies-like condition among patients that triggers cravings for human blood.
But this is not your usual zombie thriller. Yes, this show has its requisite share of neck biting, bloody fight scenes, and edge-of-your-seat moments. But instead of a thrilling roller-coaster ride, the show takes its time, exploring how people can turn—not into literal monsters—but into the worst versions of themselves when stuck in a confined space, resources are slowly taken away, and uncertainty is gradually increased.
Mad for Each Other
He goes to therapy for anger management issues; she, for trauma. They’re not supposed to be dating other people, much less each other. And yet, here they both are.
Mad for Each Other is an unexpectedly sensitive and sympathetic exploration of how wounded individuals are healed not just by therapy but by their community. Solid performances from Jung Woo and Oh Yeon-seo make this unusual romance/healing drama with only 13 35-minute episodes a worthwhile watch.
Ashin: Kingdom of the North
If you are looking for an epic tale of revenge led by a woman who successfully triumphs over the patriarchy, the ruling class, the Joseon kingdom—and don’t forget the zombies—this prequel to the popular Kingdom zombie series is for you.
The 92-minute show features Jun Ji-hyun in her comeback role as Ashin, a Seongjeoyain Jurchen who uses her knowledge of the resurrection plant to avenge the people who wronged her. Shunned by society, she eventually realizes that she holds dominion over nothing—except over a zombie horde. And that would change everything. Read our full review here.
Idol: The Coup
Most idol-centric dramas focus on teenagers working hard to achieve their dreams of fortune, fame, and fandom, but Idol: the Coup takes another route entirely. It asks: What happens when your idol group fails and your dreams don't work out? How do you live as "has-beens"...or worse, "never-were's"?
For all its screamy and drama-filled episodes, Idol: the Coup does succeed in showing the realities of the failed fictional girl group Cotton Candy and other fallen idol wannabes. What hard lives await 80% of idol groups that don't make it to the charts or fail to sell records? Apparently, lots of menial jobs, embarrassing market gigs, familial disappointment, and even sex work. If you ever wondered what life would be like if your idol dreams don't work out, Idol: the Coup would pretty much paint the bleak picture out for you. (If you need another reason to watch, the original songs here are pretty amazing.)
Would You Like a Cup of Coffee?
Would You Like a Cup of Coffee? is one of the very few k-dramas that mention COVID-19, but before your dismiss it, know that it's a healing drama. Set in the quaint but beloved neighborhood coffee shop Café 2Dae (2nd Generation), the passionate apprentice Kang Go-bi (Oh Seung-woo) learns about coffee—and even life—from his wise teacher, the owner Park Se-ok (Park Ho-san). The community helps him heal from failing school and work towards his new dream of becoming a barista.
The KakaoTV slice-of-life 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.