Two years on and the pandemic is still growing strong, but thankfully, the Korean entertainment industry has found a way around restrictions of varying levels to bring escapism right to our TV screens – or rather, in the age of streaming, smartphones and laptops. And what a year for K-dramas it was!
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From international blockbusters that kept us on our toes, to down-to-earth romances that warmed our hearts, to some of the most twisted shows that have graced streaming platforms, 2021 was a major milestone for K-dramas. Without further ado, here are our 10 favourite Korean TV series from the past 12 months.
Puah Ziwei, Commissioning Editor (K-pop)
Words by: Carmen Chin, Gladys Yeo, Lucy Ford, Mariel Abanes, Rhian Daly, Ruby C., Sofiana Ramli and Tanu I. Raj.
10. Doom At Your Service
Season: limited series
When a woman (Park Bo-young) discovers she’s been diagnosed with brain tumour and only has 100 days left to live, she makes one spur of the moment wish: destruction upon life on earth. On the surface, the premise of Seo In-guk’s long-awaited comeback drama seems witty and amusing, but it’s much more intriguing and heartfelt than you would’ve imagined. Because what happens when destruction itself takes on human form (sorta) and shows up at your doorstep to deliver that promise?
The winning combination of Seo’s stoic Myul-mang (Korean for ‘doom’) and Park’s chirpy Tak Dong-kyung makes for good bickering fun, but it’s the side characters – and their intertwining relationships with each other – who become the heart of the show. There’s plenty of memorable recurring cameos, too, but our favourite has to be Minari’s Han Ye-ri as the constantly befuddled hospital patient. SR
Biggest fan: Goblin die-hards who finally have a new fantasy drama to rave about.
9. Beyond Evil
Season: limited series
Twenty years after a gruesome abduction and murder in rural Man-yang, the sudden disappearance of a young woman plunges the close-knit town into suspicion and chaos in the search for her before it is too late. Dark secrets are unearthed at every turn in this binge-worthy crime thriller, leaving viewers questioning the friendly faces in the neighbourhood with each episode.
An eccentric local police officer is begrudgingly paired up with the newly-transferred uptight golden son of a prominent chief, and the two brilliant, yet opposing minds radiate an exhilarating chemistry as they hunt down the monster hiding in their midst. Beyond Evil is a prime example of how to do so much with a simple premise, with every string of yarn leading to a dozen more, but all without bogging down the series. GY
Biggest fan: For people who want to hear Yeo Jin-goo drop the F-bomb (but in Korean though, so it’s the S-bomb?), or just like seeing really messed up shit happen.
8. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
Season: limited series
Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha has been a weekly dose of good vibes for K-drama lovers, who devotedly anticipated its weekly releases which stars Kim Seon-ho and Shin Min-a. It follows the story of a dentist who finds herself opening up a clinic in an idyllic coastal town, far from the city life she’s known all her life. There, she meets a man who changes her view on life.
The show won viewers over with its upfront and straightforward approach in dealing with different dilemmas, without being overly preachy and tacky. Every episode is like a warm embrace from those once-strangers-turned-family, offering comfort and respite whether you’re experiencing the highs or lows of every day. MA
Biggest fan: The K-drama watcher who has been waiting for another woozy romantic drama since 2019’s Crash Landing On You, but without all the politics and shenanigans.
7. My Name
After only stepping up into lead roles last year, Han So-hee proved she was more than capable of carrying whole shows twice in 2021. My Name, her second series of the year, showed her versatility and range too, as she nailed her portrayal of the revenge-driven – and incredibly badass – Yoon Ji-woo playing the long game as she tried to get even with her father’s killer. Stylishly shot, gripping narrative and action, and with stellar performances from Ahn Bo-hyun as determined detective Jeon Pil-do and Park Hee-soon as drug lord Choi Mu-jin, My Name had all the ingredients of an addictive thriller that kept you on the edge of your seat. RD
Biggest fan: That one friend who can hold a grudge for a spectacular length of time and, though they seem sweet usually, you know you definitely wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
6. King’s Affection
Season: limited series
For a moment, it seemed as if The King’s Affection would be disadvantaged in a year full of historical K-dramas. After all, haven’t the public had enough of the gender-swap, hidden-identity tropes? Clearly not, since we lapped up this sweeping, gorgeous, pastel-hued tale of romance with a soup ladle.
Despite the melodramatic plot – a young woman finds herself posing as the late Crown Prince after realising she’s actually his long-lost twin sister, sent away by her mother years ago to have a shot at life – The King’s Affection is buoyed by light-hearted comedy and heart-wrenching moments of romance and vulnerability, especially as the protagonist, Dam-i (Park Eun-bin), deals with an identity crisis and her budding feelings for the royal tutor, Jung Ji-woon (SF9’s Rowoon). Sit with this one, it only gets better. TR
Biggest fan: Your K-drama pal who said they were over the gender-swap and secret identity trope but somehow knows all the dialogues and OST tracks from this one.
5. Yumi’s Cells
Based on a popular South Korean webtoon of the same name, Yumi’s Cells follows the life of unlucky-in-love Kim Yumi (played by Kim Go-Eun) through the eyes of the cells in her head. The live-action series is interspersed with painfully cute animated characters representing emotions like love, anxiety, hunger and lust who interpret the action we’re seeing on screen (think Disney’s Inside Out if the protagonist was navigating millennial struggles like office romances and spreadsheets).
Fans of romantic K-dramas will recognise classic tropes like extended looks of longing, hand-holding that lasts maybe beat too long and declarations of love that go unsaid, but Yumi’s Cells shows us the emotions at play during those moments, adding an extra layer of whimsy. With an all-star cast that also includes Ahn Bo-hyun, SHINee’s Minho and GOT7’s Park Jin-young, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the colourful charm of this quirky little drama. LF
Biggest fan: Someone who would rather throw away the whole thing than mess up the aesthetic perfection of their bullet journal.
Season: limited series
Vincenzo, vincero. This dark comedy centred on an ethnically Korean, Italian mafia consigliere was a K-drama that 2021 didn’t know it needed – and we’re all the better for it. Amidst character love-hate relationships, engaging twists, brilliant easter eggs and fun cameos, what also truly made Vincenzo a heartening watch was bearing witness to the trust and camaraderie that gradually grew between the Geumga Plaza tenants and their beloved ‘corn salad’. By the end of the 20-episode series, one can’t help but be proud of how far the Cassano Family had come. Special mention goes to the drama’s scene stealer: Inzaghi the pigeon. RC
Biggest fan: The linguaphile who gets weak in the knees when a Korean actor or actress speaks in a foreign language – yes, Song Joong-ki flexes his Italian-speaking chops here.
3. Move To Heaven
Move To Heaven, based on an essay by a former trauma cleaner, was notable for its fresh look at the drama around death. Instead of focusing on the moment of extinction itself, this big-hearted series from director Kim Sung-ho (2018’s Notebook From My Mother looked at the messy aftermaths through the eyes of father and son (and trauma cleaning duo) Jeong-woo (Ji Jin-hee) and Geu-ru (Tang Joon-sang). Endlessly affecting, the series gave a nuanced exploration of the human condition that made you rethink your own outlook, while it treated the Asperger’s syndrome of Geu-ru – one of 2021’s most lovable and memorable characters – with respect and care. RD
Biggest fan: The sentimental softie who’s always on hand to help you with your problems or give you a shoulder to cry on.
2. Squid Game
It’s no wonder Squid Game emerged as one of (if not) the biggest shows of 2021 – knife-sharp societal critiques are presented through the not-so-inherent innocence of childhood in director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s nail-biting thriller series. Taking place in contemporary Seoul, 456 poverty-stricken strangers are presented with the possibility of walking away with a hefty sum of ₩45.6billion, but here’s the catch: you have to win a series of traditional South Korean children’s games, but with fatal twists.
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We experience the trials and tribulations of the games through the eyes of Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced man riddled with immense debt. Squid Game is a potent allegory for the evils of late-stage capitalism, and despite stumbling to a hasty and predictable conclusion, this Korean series is nevertheless insightful, highly intentional and binge worthy, keeping us on our toes for the much-awaited season number two. CC
Biggest fan: That friend who previously refused to watch K-dramas, but gave in to the massive hype of Squid Game and now won’t stop dissecting it scene-by-scene.
Season: limited series
Does it say something about us as a society that some of our best shows this year dealt with the breakdown of some of our primal, inherent belief systems? The horror of Hellbound may not have been as orchestrated and straightforward as that in Squid Game but that did not make it any less disturbing.
- READ MORE: ‘Hellbound’ review: demons rise as religious hysteria descends in this chilling South Korean series
As a society, we put a lot of faith in forgiveness and second chances – no matter what the sin, repentance surely leads to redemption. What if, however, those chances are taken from us? What if being doomed becomes a lottery – and not of the good kind – and your plight becomes pleasure for millions who project their fears and insecurities onto you, as if trapped in a cruel game that condemning you would somehow exempt them?
In its limited (for now) run, Hellbound displays a cruelty that somehow feels intentional, inspiring a helplessness and often disgust at how things play out – perhaps more disturbing than the show is the realisation that the actions of the characters are, after all, a reflection of human nature. Maybe, had we been in their positions, we would have done the same things. TR
Biggest fan: People who want their shows with a good dose of existential crisis and a side of moral dilemma. For appetisers, we’ll have a rousing discussion on the fragility of belief systems.