Updated: May 4, 2021
While the buzziest dramas of 2020—Crash Landing On You, Itaewon Class, Hospital Playlist, The World of the Married, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and Flower of Evil—dominated our social media feeds during the pandemic year, a number of well-made k-dramas flew under the radar. Here are five underrated titles you might have missed.
Hot Stove League
Despite winning Best Drama at the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards last year, Hot Stove League did not get the hype or viral treatment of its fellow contender Crash Landing On You or Best Director winner The World of the Married. This romance-free drama focuses on the wheeling and dealing that happens behind the scenes of Korea’s 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.
WATCH: If you liked Moneyball (2011) and can appreciate the intricate business and politics of sports. You don’t actually need to know baseball to enjoy this k-drama. You maybe just need to be able to suspend disbelief and pretend that Hawaii is California. As of January 2021, you can stream this on Viu PH.
SKIP: If you’re looking for romance.
My Unfamiliar Family
Every "normal" family is only one secret reveal away from being a dysfunctional one.
In My Unfamiliar Family, driver Kim Sang-sik (Jung Jin-young) lands in a hospital after a road accident, and upends the lives of his family. Middle child Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri), her all-too perfect older sister Eun-joo (Choo Ja-hyun) and younger brother Ji-woo (Shin Jae-ha) have always known their parents had a rocky relationship. What they didn’t know was why. Their father’s accident forces the family to confront uncomfortable memories and reveal parts of themselves they’d rather have kept hidden from people they profess to love the most.
While every conceivable k-drama trope—amnesia, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, love triangle, birth secret and then some—are here, the characterizations and the writing never make them feel too soapy. The characters are as real and flawed as they come. You may not like everyone in the Kim family, but you’re still rooting for them to stay together as a unit and for every family member’s journey to self-discovery and healing.
WATCH: If you like fleshed-out characters and difficult but meaningful conversations. Stream this on Viu PH.
SKIP: If you’re looking for chaebols or quick-fix solutions to complex issues.
Faced with a seeming dilemma, teenage dad Hong Dae-young (Lee Do-hyun) chooses his young, growing family over his dream of becoming a college basketball player. Nineteen years later, Dae-young (Yoon Sang-hyun), now a 37-year-old salaryman and family man, becomes unemployed and estranged from his family. In the midst of this crisis, he transforms into his 18-year-old body.
18 Again ties together several themes, such as regret, honesty and sacrifice. Could fluttering feelings ever turn into resentment? Yes, and the k-drama shows you how—slowly and steadily, one secret at a time. Does the "secret" have to be an extramarital affair? No, but it could be as harmless as a bad day at work, or as consequential as a personal sacrifice.
WATCH: If you can take on a heavy family drama and suspend disbelief for its fantastical elements, even if you've seen the similarly-premised k-drama Go Back Couple, where the stakes are different, or the American film 17 Again (2009), which focuses only on the nuclear family. Stream this on Viu PH.
SKIP: If you are still reeling from a break-up or divorce, because this show tackles divorce fiercely and unapologetically.
While the 50-episode family drama Once Again dominated its Sat-Sun nighttime slot throughout its six-month run, it didn’t get a lot of attention from international viewers, who may find the long format daunting. If you can overcome that barrier, you'll find yourself happily immersed in the life of the Song household, as all four adult children move back one-by-one after their marriages fall apart.
Penned by Yang Hee-seung, the writer of one of the k-dramaworld's most beloved rom-coms, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, and featuring a large ensemble led by KBS daesang or grand-prize-winning veteran Cheon Ho-jin as the family patriarch, this show deftly depicts the clash of traditional family values with the modern ease of divorce. Once Again offers plenty of laughs, tears and heart-fluttering moments.
WATCH: If you loved Weightlifting Fairy and other light, wholesome rom-coms. Stream this on Viki PH.
SKIP: If you have low tolerance for camp, and only like k-dramas with high production values.
SF8 is an eight-episode Korean sci-fi anthology, with each episode exploring a sci-fi plot that imagines what life—specifically Korean life—would look like in the future. Think Black Mirror, but very Asian. While not all the episodes are compelling, three do stand out. "The Prayer" (ep. 1) explores the future of ageing and asks what happens if robots replace human guardians who work with the elderly. "Joan's Galaxy" (ep. 3), probably the strongest of the series, predicts a future where your lifespan is dictated by your socio-economic status. Finally, "Empty Body" (ep. 8) imagines a future where one can preserve one's consciousness, and what happens when we refuse to let dead things die. All episodes though, are beautifully produced with lush visuals and CG work. They tackle other interesting areas as well, such as the future of police work, dating, gaming and AI-powered fortune-telling.
WATCH: If you like sci-fi or speculative fiction, and want to see how a k-drama deals with the genre. Stream this on Viu PH.
SKIP: If sci-fi or speculative fiction does not interest you.
Are you interested in watching any of these? Watch out for part 2 of this post!