Korean dramas of 2020: the good, the bad and the great

What a year it has been for the Hallyu world – here’s a roundup of the biggest hits and misses

2020, what a year it’s been – but thank god for K-dramas. This year saw plenty of Korean TV series that made waves globally – some were mediocre, a few outstanding and a handful that just didn’t live up to the hype. Then, there’s one that just blew everything else away. So here, we’ve done the painstaking job of ranking five titles according to their storylines, production, cast and overall impact. Though, before we jump in, we must admit that this list is not exhaustive. Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

The Good

Hospital Playlist (tvN)

Hospital Playlist
Credit: Netflix

The story revolves around five doctors who have been friends since medical school. When their busy careers start to take over their lives, the quintet decide to reunite and revive the old band they formed back in college. Through the power of music, the group of friends learn to open up and overcome their personal and professional struggles together.

Unlike the others on this list, Hospital Playlist is truly a feel-good series. While there are tear-jerking scenes every now and then, this uplifting show is filled with funny scenes, witty remarks and heart-fluttering storylines. Thanks to its musical premise, the drama also features a stellar soundtrack, some of which were sung by the main cast as their fictional band, Mido And Falasol. The actors even learned to play their respective instruments, too.

It’s what makes Hospital Playlist a refreshing K-drama concept: aside from following the adventures of likable characters, each episode also feels like you’re tuning in to a mini-concert. Double the treat. And the good news: a second season of Hospital Playlist is reportedly already in the works and it’s slated to air sometime next year.

It’s Okay Not to Be Okay (tvN)

It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
Credit: Netflix

Here’s a series that is a little more complex than others – and that’s a good thing. It’s Okay Not to Be Okay centres around Moon Gang-Tae (Kim Soo-Hyun) a caregiver at psychiatric hospitals who also takes care of his autistic brother, Sang-Tae (Oh Jung-Se). They soon cross paths with Ko Moon-Yeong (Seo Ye-Ji), a renowned children’s literature author whom Sang-Tae admires. She takes interest in the brothers, especially Gang-Tae, who doesn’t get intimidated by her antisocial personality.

What’s fascinating about this series is its unique, vivid depiction of mental illness. Using illustrations and 3D computer graphic work, the show gives viewers a chance to look into the minds of those who struggle with PTSD and other disabilities. Although the chemistry between Kim and Seo is undeniable, the series really goes beyond the central romance to focus on the delicate themes of self-acceptance and overcoming stigma.

The show’s mystery element is intriguing, too, adding a touch of thrill to the slow-burning storyline. Moon-Yeong’s oddly dark storybooks and chilling past give the show an edge over your run-of-the-mill romcoms. It’s Okay Not To Be Okay offers a healthy dose of mild horror to keep you on your toes before rewarding you with a heartwarming ending.

The World Of The Married (JTBC)

The World Of The Married
Credit: Netflix

Watch enough Korean dramas and you’ll know that adultery as a plot point is nothing new. But the trope is taken to another level in The World Of The Married, which is based on the BBC One series Doctor Foster. The Korean adaptation stars award-winning actress Kim Hee-Ae as Ji Sun-Woo, a successful doctor, good wife and mother with a seemingly perfect life. But when she finds out that her husband is having an affair, Sun-Woo spirals down a vicious path of revenge. Now, cue the dramatics.

The World Of The Married is – for a lack of a better word – unhinged, but worth the bumpy ride. Each time you think you’ve seen the worst, the show throws more jaw-dropping twists and turns that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. A dramatic and overblown story like this would’ve easily turned into a hot mess, if not for Kim’s incredible performance as a woman scorned.

Kim’s strong presence emanates throughout the series, and her convincing delivery of grief and anger compels you to root for her until the end. It also helps that Kim is no stranger to melodramas: the actress has handled themes of infidelity plenty of times before, in dramas such as How Long I’ve Kissed and My Husband’s Woman. But her portrayal of Sun-Woo is one of her most impressive performances thus far – it’s no surprise it earned her the Best Actress title at the 56th BaekSang Arts Awards.

The rest of the cast were also equally riveting. Park Hae-Joon proved once again that playing the antagonist is his forte, while newcomer Han So-Hee nailed her role as the “other woman”. The World Of The Married is evidence that capable actors can turn absurd storylines into addictive ones.

Honourable mentions: Itaewon Class (JTBC), Start-Up (tvN), 18 Again (JTBC)

The Bad

The King: Eternal Monarch (SBS)

The King: Eternal Monarch
Credit: Netflix

In his first television role in three years, Lee Min-Ho plays Lee Gon, the emperor of the Kingdom Of Corea, an alternate version of the Republic Of Korea that exists in a parallel universe. Meanwhile, Kim Go-Eun portrays Jeong Tae-Eul, a police officer from the real world. Like in most K-dramas, our protagonists have a special connection to one another and their complicated relationship unfolds throughout this time-travelling, multiverse saga that kicks off when Gon’s uncle, Lee Lim, sets in motion a plot to gain power. Together, our star-crossed lovers are forced to face the challenges that get in the way of their happy ending.

Given the drama’s incredible star power – Lee and Kim were supported by other on-screen favourites like Woo Do-Hwan and Kim Kyung-Na, plus veterans Kim Young-Ok and Jeon Mu-Song – The King was hyped even before it aired. It was also written by Kim Eun-Suk, who had previously worked with Lee and Kim on separate massive projects: Lee starred in the 2013 high school drama The Heirs, while Kim played the heroine in 2016’s fantasy epic Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely And The Great God).

Although the show features a spectacular cast lineup, production and visual effects, the screenplay is lacking and fails to sustain interest. The main romance feels forced and rushed – one moment, Tae-Eul is sceptical of Gon, and the next, she’s ready to die for him – and the multiverse plot becomes convoluted and confusing with each episode.

The worst part, however, is the excessive product placement (PPL). While Korean dramas are notorious for their off-putting PPL, it’s especially blatant in The King where it mostly feels out of place. This fantasy thriller feels more like a 16-episode-long advertisement for bubble tea, kimchi, lip balm, bread and bottled coffee. Oh, and don’t get us started on that expensive Iron Man-looking high-tech face mask (you know what we’re talking about).

Others that also missed the mark: Record Of Youth (tvN), Backstreet Rookie (SBS), Tale Of The Nine Tailed (tvN)

The Great

Crash Landing On You (tvN)

Crash Landing On You
Credit: Netflix

Technically this series started airing in December 2019, but since it ended in February 2020, it deserves a spot on this list. The story follows Yoon Se-Ri (Son Ye-Jin), a CEO and conglomerate heiress who ends up on the other side of the Korean border after a paragliding accident. She encounters the stoic North Korean army captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok (Hyun Bin), who, after much contemplation, decides to secretly take her in until they can devise a plan to transport her safely back to the city of Seoul. But, of course, romance ensues and their mission gets more complicated than intended.

While there have been plenty of K-dramas that feature North Korea as its backdrop, such as Spy Myung Wol and The King 2 Hearts, Crash Landing On You actually sussed out experts and recruited a North Korean defector as part of its writing team to ensure the show had a realistic portrayal of the North without glorifying it. The details and research that went into its costume design, landscapes and the language used by North Koreans even earned praise from escapees for its near-accurate depiction of the authoritarian state.

But, of course, the show was not free from criticism either, garnering flak from viewers who felt that the story glamourised North Korean soldiers. Regardless, for a show with such a tricky premise, Crash Landing On You does a good job at painting both sides of Korea without falling too much into cultural stereotypes.

That said, what truly makes this show outstanding isn’t just its wonderful cinematography and intriguing storyline, but its stellar cast of characters. Sure, Hyun and Son’s palpable on-screen chemistry carried the show, but its supporting characters shouldn’t be discredited either. There are the other cross-border couple (Seung-Joon and Seo Dan), Captain Ri’s loyal and oddball troop, and the fierce “North-venger” ladies – just to name a few. The sprinkle of unexpected celebrity cameos also makes the show a real treat.