STREAM OR SKIP?: The K-Dramas that Divided Us
JTBC’S Nevertheless, starring Han So-hee and Song Kang, ended last weekend, scoring only an average rating of 1.7% for its finale. Although it had consistently low domestic ratings throughout its run, this college drama regularly made it to the list of most buzz-worthy shows, thanks to international fans who followed it on Netflix. As viewers continue to discuss and debate the divisive ending, it’s safe to say that Nevertheless now joins the ranks of k-dramas that will polarize fans for a long time.
(Warning: This article contains some spoilers.)
Whether it’s a bad case of a second lead syndrome, outrage over an upsetting ending, or just general frustration with the direction or certain characters or elements of the story, here are some other polarizing k-dramas that viewers still have strong opinions on years after they finished airing.
In this feature, we take a look at why one k-drama lover’s all-time favorite drama may be on another fan’s list of worst dramas ever.
Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
STREAMERS' TAKE: Every single time any k-drama-related social media account posts any content about Moon Lovers, you can bet that that post will be flooded with hundreds of comments from fans begging for closure and a second season while nostalgically swooning over how much it made them cry! Its legions of fans cannot get enough of its romantic storylines, cinematography, production design, OST, and of course, all those handsome princes! Though painfully tragic, this story of a modern-day woman (IU) who time-slips back to early Goryeo (940 AD) and finds herself among eight young princes, captured the hearts of millions of viewers around the world.
SKIPPERS' TAKE: While Moon Lovers was the most buzzworthy and expensive k-drama ever sold internationally at that time, it failed to win over Korean audiences who instead tuned in to see rival Mon-Tues night dramas Love in the Moonlight and Monster. Some viewers were not impressed by IU and Baekhyun’s acting, the director’s style of using close-ups, poor characterization of historical figures, and just the general progression of the story, among other criticisms. If you need your k-dramas to have happy, satisfying endings, this definitely isn’t for you.
Something in the Rain (2018)
STREAMERS' TAKE: This noona romance between coffee chain supervisor Yoon Jin-ah (Son Ye-jin) and her best friend’s younger brother Seo Joon-hee (Jung Hae-in) continues to have a lot of re-watchers even three years after it first aired. Fans of the series fell in love with its realism, OST, and most of all, the palpable chemistry between its leads. Their chemistry was so off-the-charts that at the time, it even sparked dating rumors (which the stars denied). If you love k-dramas that are slow-paced and realistic, this may be for you.
SKIPPERS' TAKE: Though everyone agrees that Son Ye-jin and Jung Hae-in looked adorable together and that the first half of this drama is just loaded with kilig, that isn’t enough to retain the whole audience for all 16 episodes. Many viewers just could not sit through the endless tantrums of Yoon Jin-ah’s shrill mother, who has since been branded as one of the most notorious k-drama mothers/villains ever. Even the lead characters themselves are flawed in ways that may just be too frustrating for some. So if you're low on patience, you should probably give this a pass (or just watch its first half!).
STREAMERS' TAKE: This rom-com enjoyed some success in Korea with moderate ratings, but thanks to streaming giant Netflix, it enjoyed a huge following with international fans. The plot follows young people trying to make it big in a Silicon Valley-like fictional environment, Sandbox. Bae Suzy’s character is a scrappy entrepreneur torn between the shy math genius Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) and the charming but tough-talking venture capitalist Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho).
The completely believable world of Sandbox was well crafted and researched and made for a fascinating setting where the show’s young protagonists could come of age while introducing the audience to key concepts in the start-up environment. It set a good pace and kept the stakes in both the business world and the characters' personal lives high and engaging, and it was an all-around feel-good watch with a high-energy OST.
SKIPPERS' TAKE: Start-Up opened by telling the very sympathetic backstory of the second lead and his fated relationship with the female lead. It then spent the second half of the series trying to (unsuccessfully) convince the audience why the female lead should prefer the male lead to the more successful, (arguably) more handsome, and more charming second lead. Perhaps the writer hadn’t counted on Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho) completely stealing the show. His scenes with Bae Suzy’s grandmother (played by Kim Hae-sook) were so masterfully executed by both that they overshadowed many of the other scenes in the series. It also didn't help that Han Ji-pyeong had the requisite hallmarks of a main lead: the tragic backstory, a childhood acquaintance with the female lead, and a nearly equal screen time with Nam Do-san (who many feel became quite problematic), leaving viewers confused as to who really was the true male lead.
Aside from the love triangle snafu, this k-drama also frustrated many people who happened to work in actual start-ups, have worked to develop a product, or are familiar with the procedures of venture capitalism. This show has some turns that really don't happen in real-life entrepreneurship and may be misleading to young entrepreneurs watching.
True Beauty (2020)
STREAMERS' TAKE: Based on a popular webtoon, True Beauty is another one of those k-dramas that generated a lot of online buzz despite its modest ratings. This youth-oriented show is well-loved by its fans for tackling the concerns of high school students (especially those affecting their mental health) and for featuring a non-toxic male character and healthy friendships. Seo-jun (Hwang In-yeop) protects the female lead Ju-kyung (Moon Ga-young) from her bullies and low self-esteem. Even in the absence of the male lead Su-ho (Cha Eun-woo), Seo-jun is careful not to overstep the boundaries of his friendship with Ju-kyung. This is not surprising as he takes good care of the women in his life: He takes a leave from school to care for his mom at the hospital. He also teaches his sister's annoying suitor a lesson on what "no" means.
If you’re looking for a light, fun high-school k-drama, then this one's for you.
SKIPPERS’ TAKE: Like Start-Up, True Beauty also gave viewers a serious case of the Second Lead Syndrome and sparked a shipping war between fans of Su-ho and Seo-jun. So if you’re the type who needs your ship to sail, you might not be too happy with this! And while the series portrays show characters with different mental health concerns, it failed to address the attempted suicide of one of its characters properly.
STREAMERS' TAKE: The k-drama phenomenon that ushered in a whole new age for the genre, Goblin has everything an epic series about the afterlife would have: a romance that defies time, a fate that spans centuries, and one of the greatest soundtracks in k-dramaland. Hallyu heavyweight Gong Yoo plays Kim Shin, a decorated Goryeo general wrongfully cursed with immortality. Like many beings who have grown tired of living, he looks forward to meeting his Bride (Kim Go-eun), not for the romance, but for her sole capacity to end his suffering. But as soon as he meets her, sparks fly, making it terribly inconvenient for one who is bent on ending it all. Adding to the inconvenience is the presence of a Grim Reaper (played by another Hallyu megastar, Lee Dong-wok) as his supernatural housemate, and the bromance that ensues can sometimes be more interesting than the main romance itself.
SKIPPERS’ TAKE: There is no contest when it comes to the epic scale of this fantasy romance. Some viewers, however, felt uneasy that the Goblin meets his future bride when she is still a high school student. The 920-year-age gap was a little too much to get past for viewers who believe that age is just a number until it isn’t. Kim Go-eun’s child-like and playful portrayal of Ji Eun-tak didn’t help either. And even if one argues that she was an age-appropriate actress in real life, one can't overlook the fact that she was cast as a high school girl who pursues a much older man. Optics matter, and in this case, a young girl blatantly fawning over a much older man was difficult to root for, especially in the current climate of heightened awareness regarding grooming and #MeToo.
Reply 1988 (2015)
STREAMER'S TAKE: Heavy nostalgia, lots of hilarity, and a ton of heart make Reply 1988 a perpetual favorite among k-drama fans. This slice-of-life drama about five tightly-knit households in the fictional Ssangmung-dong neighborhood has a cross-cultural appeal, making it well-loved by domestic and international audiences who yearn for simpler days. Even the OST—made of old school hits and ballads—is enough to trigger all our nostalgic fantasies even if we never grew up in Korea or the ‘80s.
SKIPPERS’ TAKE: As well-loved as it is, you’d be surprised how many k-drama fans couldn’t finish this drama or even make it past a few episodes! Reply 1988 gets off to a notoriously slow start, and some of its 20 episodes clock in at a painful two hours, so it does require a lot of patience and a long attention span. The large cast can get pretty loud (admittedly too much for some), and it also doesn't help that it also features one of the most (in)famous love triangles that fans still love to debate to this day! If you’re only looking for bright and shiny oppas, this one is also a bit rougher (after all, it was 1988) and might not be as bokeh-filled or as glass-skinned a watch as other glossy ensemble dramas.
The King: Eternal Monarch (2020)
STREAMER'S TAKE: Penned by hit-maker Kim Eun-sook (Descendants of the Sun, Goblin), The King: Eternal Monarch was one of the most highly-anticipated dramas when it first aired in 2020. Fans tuned in for the military comeback project of the always-dashing Lee Min-ho, as he played a king in a Korean monarchy in a parallel universe. The star-studded cast includes the lovely Kim Go-eun who plays a detective in the universe where the current Korea exists. The fantasy romance features an interesting story and good chemistry between its leads. Although the later episodes saw a decrease in viewership in its native Korea, Netflix helped make it an international hit in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore.
SKIPPER'S TAKE: There’s world-building and then there’s The King: Eternal Monarch. You know that the backstory is a little too complicated when fans start making infographics to help the audience understand the premise of a drama. While the drama was aesthetically pleasing in every way, it got a little hard to follow. After a while, not even the believable love story nor the amusing game of spot the over-the-top product placement were enough to make some audiences stay for its completion.
STREAMER'S TAKE: This recently concluded k-drama stars Han So-hee as Yoo Na-bi, a graduating art major who, while still recovering from a breakup, meets Park Jae-eon (Song Kang, Navillera), a known commitment-phobic playboy whose charms she finds hard to resist. Racier than the average youth k-drama, Nevertheless was constantly discussed online for its realistic portrayal of contemporary college life. It even found a following among ahjummas who found themselves reminiscing about the mistakes they made in their twenties. It also won over the LGBTQ audience for an unexpectedly sweet love line between two friends of the same gender, making it yet another win for representation.
SKIPPER'S TAKE: With more red flags than a communist parade, Nevertheless is definitely one of the most frustrating youth dramas out there. While the gorgeous faces of its lead and supporting cast may have been fun to gaze at initially, they weren't enough to retain viewers hoping to see more character growth and development.