If you’re not watching Korean dramas, better known as K-dramas, then you’re missing out on multiple levels. First, there’s the big-picture, cultural impact to consider: K-dramas have become a worldwide phenomenon, and if you’re going to be a pop culture connoisseur/productive denizen of the entertainment-loving internet—and you’re here, so you obviously are both of those things—then you need to be versed in all things K-drama. And then there’s the more important reason to watch K-dramas: They are addictive and amazing, and you’ll thank yourself for adding them to your pop culture diet.
Known for their interesting storylines and intense (but sometimes predictable) plot twists, Korean dramas can go from super sappy to incredibly heartbreaking to “WTF, what was that?” in a heartbeat. That variety is exactly what keeps viewers coming back for more. Here, we’ve listed the best new K-drama releases of 2020, as well as your handy guide to the lovable classics to watch when you’re done.
The King: Eternal Monarch
This Korean drama has it all: parallel universes, time travel, a handsome king, a strong female detective, tragedy, and romance. The show tells the story of Lee Gon (played by one of South Korea’s most popular actors: Lee Min-ho), a Korean emperor who rules The Kingdom of Corea (the North and South are still unified in this world) and discovers a portal opening in the bamboo forest that leads him to a parallel universe—the world that we know today. He meets, and falls in love, with detective Jung Tae Eul (played by Goblin‘s Kim Go-eun) in this world and they have to work together to close this time portal before their two worlds collide and freeze in time forever. Will they succeed in their journey and will their love be able to transcend time
Grey’s Anatomy and other medical drama stans will want to dive right into this drama that depicts the stories of people working at a hospital. The five doctors have been friends for 20 years (they all went to the same medical school) and now they’re colleagues navigating through a career centered around life and death. This show is currently one of the highest-rated Korean drama in cable television history and a second season is set to premiere in 2021!
Sky Castle‘s Kim Dong-hee stars in a lead role as Oh Ji Soo in this show. The drama centers around three high school students who commit crimes to earn money and along the way encounter dangerous enemies and obstacles. It will take an episode or two for you to fully grasp what is happening before you appreciate the intricate storytelling that is being told by director Kim Jin-min. Hang in there for the journey.
Mystic Pop-up Bar
This show checks off the boxes for drama, fantasy, and mystery. The storyline centers on Ssanggab Cart Bar, which is only open at night on the rooftop of a building. Wol-Ju (played by Hwang Jung-eum) runs the mysterious food cart and customers who visit her consist of the living and dead. While drinking and eating, they converse with Wol-Ju about themselves and their internal struggles.
Memories of the Alhambra
This fantasy drama is perfect for Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye fans (you may remember her from the popular show The Heirs). The two actors play each other’s romantic interest in Memories of the Alhambra, which is set between Spain and South Korea. (Fun fact: Park Shin-hye learned Spanish for the show, so her voice is not dubbed!) They encounter each other in Spain when Hyun Bin’s character, Yoo Jin-woo, arrives to the hostel owned by Park Shin-hye’s character, Jung Hee-joo, because he wants her to sign over the rights to develop her brother’s augmented reality game. (The brother, meanwhile, has vanished into thin air). Jin-woo starts playing the game and eventually realizes it is causing those around him to die. If he wants to save himself and Jung Hee-joo’s missing brother, he has to complete the dangerous quests.
Crash Landing on You
A South Korean heiress, Yoon Se-ri, gets caught in a storm while paragliding and finds herself blown off course into North Korea. Se-ri then runs into Ri Jeong-hyeok, Captain of the North Korean Special Forces and a member of the North Korean elite family. Captain Ri eventually hatches a plan to get Se-ri back to South Korea with the help of his squad, but not before they all tackle the obstacles that come their way—and then some. This drama mixes romance with comedy and ultimately tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers. It’s currently the highest rated tvN drama and the second-highest Korean drama in cable television history.
Cha Dal-Geon is a stunt man with a struggling career when he finds out his nephew dies in a plane crash that also killed 211 civilians. Dal-geon runs into someone who was on that doomed flight and becomes convinced that someone sabotaged his nephew’s flight. He embarks on a dangerous investigation, which puts him on a path with covert operative Go Hae-ri, who is trying to help the victims’ families. Together, the two uncover a tangled web of lies and a more sinister conspiracy than they expected.
Yoon Hee-jae is a handsome attorney who’s confident in crushing his opponents in court. He has a “chance” meeting at a laundromat with a mysterious woman and ends up falling for her only to later discover that the woman, Jung Geum-ja, is actually an attorney representing the opposite side. She had strategically won Hee-jae’s heart (and his case files) because she really needs a win to save her struggling business. Despite being wronged, Hee-jae is attracted to Geum-ja and the pair duke it out in court. If Yoon Hee-jae looks familiar to you it’s because the character is played by Ju Ji-hoon, who also plays the dazzling Crown Prince in Kingdom.
Hi, Bye Mama
If you like a little supernatural pizazz with your drama, this show is for you. Cha Yoo-ri is a ghost who died five years ago, leaving behind her husband, Jo Kang-hwa, and their child. In a move to become a living human again, Cha Yoo-ri carries out a reincarnation project for 49 days. When she reappears to Jo Kang-hwa, however, she finds that her husband has changed a lot since she died.
This financial drama tells the story of the conflict between the head of the Financial Policy Bureau, who is seeking to dispose of the Jungin Bank, which is on the verge of going bankrupt, and the Chairman of Finance, who plans to hand over the bank to the Bahamas, a private equity fund on Wall Street.
If you’re a detective drama nut, then 2020’s slate of K-dramas is the gift that keeps on giving. In Nobody Knows, a detective named Cha Young Jin carries guilt and trauma over the death of her teenage friend, who was murdered by a serial killer 19 years ago. Unsurprisingly, the series follows Cha Young Jin as she hunts down the serial killer.
Tell Me What You Saw
This one is another crime drama. This time, the crime-solving team is a detective with a photographic memory and an eccentric, genius profiler. The pair have to take down a serial killer who was previously assumed dead.
Where to start with this one? This series tells the story of Park Sae-roy, who opens a restaurant in Itaewon after having spent a few years in prison for beating up Jang Geun-won, the son and heir to Jangga Group. The two have a rough history and now, with a fresh start, Park Sae-roy wants to not only franchise his restaurant DanBam, but have it overtake Jangga Group as a household name. (His ultimate goal is to get revenge for his father’s death, which was caused by the Jangga family.) The CEO of Jangga Group is a self-made man of success and he will not let Park Sae-roy defeat him or his son. The two engage in a power struggle throughout the entire series that’s filled with juicy plot twists and turns.
I’ll Go To You When the Weather Is Nice
This K-drama is a romance and tells the story of HaeWon, who teaches painting, and EunSeob, who runs a small bookstore in a rural village.
A Piece of Your Mind
This series is a romantic comedy about the love story between an artificial intelligence programmer and classical recording engineer.
Kingdom: Season 2
Season 2 of this hit fantasy K-drama picks up right where the first season left off—with a Joseon-era kingdom threatened by political upheaval and a zombie epidemic.
This upcoming sci-fi romance takes place at Hotel Alice, a place where time travelers stay right before they travel back in time.
This drama tells the story of a group of rich, privileged high school students who will one day take over their families businesses. The coming-of-age themes explored in the drama include identity, wealth, and relationships. One of the main characters is Kim Tan, a chaebol heir to Jeguk Group, who hasn’t had the easiest relationship with his older half-brother Kim Won because he thinks Tan is trying to steal their father’s company from him. To make Tan’s life even more difficult, he ends up falling in love with his housekeeper’s daughter, Cha Eun-sang, much to his father’s disapproval and he has to compete with classmate Choi Young Do’s sudden interest in Eun-sang too when she transfers into their elite school. Tan seeks to overcome all the obstacles to be with Eun-sang no matter what his family or friends at school say.
Legend of the Blue Sea
This fantasy romance show explores the relationship between a con artist and a mermaid who meet and fall in love. The mermaid, Shim Cheong, (played by the talented and beautiful Jun Ji-hyun) follows her lover Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) to land unbeknownst to him that she is a mer person. Juxtaposed against present day, the storyline also focuses on the two’s Joseon-era incarnations, town head Kim Dam-ryeong and the mermaid Se-hwa. That pair met a tragic fate, so what does this mean for their current counterparts? Will Shim Cheong and Joon-jae meet the same bad fate?
Autumn in My Heart
This 2000 South Korean drama’s legacy and popularity is the equivalent to that of Titanic. The show is considered a pioneer in Korean melodramatic series and helped launch the “Korean Wave.” The plot: Two girls are born in October and an accidental switch of their name tags at the hospital leads them down very different paths. Eun-suh has a happy life with her loving parents and brother, Jun-suh, while Shin-ae is raised by a single parent in poverty. One day Eun-suh gets into a car accident and a blood test reveals Eun-suh and Shin-ae were swapped at birth. The girls go back to their original parents. Years later, Eun-suh and her “brother” Jun-suh meet again, the start of a love story. Make sure to have some tissues on hand because this show is a major tearjerker.
The story focuses on Kim Je-ha, a former mercenary soldier for Blackstone, who becomes a bodyguard for Choi Yoo-jin, wife of presidential candidate Jang Se-joon. Throughout the series, the couple has a power struggle with another presidential candidate, Park Kwan-soo, who, unbeknownst to him, has a shared history with Je-ha. As part of his bodyguard duties, Je-ha is also assigned to protect Se-joon’s illegitimate daughter Go An-na, who Yoo-jin is trying to kill. Je-ha and Anna fall in love with each other while Je-ha tries to exact revenge against Park Kwan-soo and protect Anna from her own family. Will he succeed?
Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God)
This series, written by Kim Eun-sook, is the fourth highest-rated Korean drama of all time. The fantasy romance is about a modern day goblin, Gong Yoo, who needs a human bride (Kim Go Eun) to end his cursed immortal life. His life then becomes intertwined with a grim reaper, Lee Dong-wook, who is unable to remember his past. The story evolves as all these strangers lives intertwine.
This series follows the journeys of four women and their families as they try to maintain the status quo among the upper crust of South Korean society. The drama revolves around one mother’s obsession with getting her daughter into an elite university by any means necessary…sound familiar? This one is a nice mix of romance, soapy drama, and comedy, so if you enjoy human-interest stories, Sky Castle is definitely the K-drama for you.
The Last Empress
Do you enjoy stress? Have you ever found yourself shouting at your TV/computer screen at characters who can’t hear you? Do you have a lot of free time on your hands, or time that you should spend being productive that you will instead devote to doing something else in the name of self-care?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you need to watch The Last Empress right now. With 52 episodes, this drama is not for the weak of heart; people who prefer a neat plot should probably steer clear because the storyline is very…involved, to say the least.
In an alternate universe, South Korea is still under the rule of a constitutional monarchy, and the royal family has its fair share of dangerous secrets that could be exposed by its new empress, a bright musical theater actress with a one-sided crush on her husband. Throw in a bodyguard harboring a huge chip on his shoulder and a fake identity, and you’ve got yourself a really wild ride. 10/10 would recommend if you, like me, live for drama.
Romance is a Bonus Book
Girl needs job. Girl lies about her education and background to get a job. Girl meets handsome and super talented boy who also happens to be her boss. Girl and boy butt heads. Girl and boy fall in love. Chaos and cuteness ensue.
As someone who has dated a co-worker in the past, I can personally testify that office romances are typically a terrible, terrible idea; I once got into a heated screaming match with my ex on the second floor of the office’s parking garage during our lunch break, and our boss just happened to be walking by. I repeat, terrible idea. However, Korean dramas make workplace dating seem fun and even plausible! Romance is a Bonus Book in particular is so good that it almost makes me reconsider my staunch stance against dating at work.
Touch Your Heart
I’m somewhat biased because I am an unabashed Lee Dong-wook stan, but Touch Your Heart is really, really fun to watch. Things take place in a high-powered law firm, where a washed-up actress works as a secretary for a cranky attorney. The two leads have great chemistry—they’ve played star-crossed lovers in another drama, Goblin—and they’re both extremely good-looking. Plus, it’s another workplace love story! Is the universe trying to send me a sign?
The Fiery Priest
What do you get when you put a wayward priest, a detective who should have lost his job awhile ago, and a sheisty prosecutor in one room? The Fiery Priest! This 40-episode drama is far from over, but the shenanigans that have unfolded so far have been nothing short of amazing. If you’re into action-packed crime shows that are also really funny, this is right up your alley.
Nam Goong Min! Nam Goong Min! Nam Goong Min! Everyone’s favorite weirdo actor is back on the K-drama scene following his last role in the cutesy romantic comedy The Undateables, but in Doctor Prisoner, he’s more darksided than delightful. In this medical/crime drama, Nam Goong Min plays a disgraced doctor forced to take his talents in medicine to a local hospital after the revelation of medical malpractice ejects him from his cushy hospital position. Also starring Choi Won Young and Kim Byung Chul (both from the previously mentioned Sky Castle!), the cast of Doctor Prisoner no doubt has the range to amp up the drama and excitement.
My Absolute Boyfriend
I think we can all agree that dating can be a nightmare. But what if you could streamline the process by ordering the perfect boyfriend online and having all 6 foot 3 inches (*sigh*) of him appear at your front door via next day delivery? That’s pretty much the case in My Absolute Boyfriend.
In this remake of the 2011 Japanese rom-com drama Zettai Kareshi (which was adapted from original manga Absolute Boyfriend), the humdrum life of a newly-single special effects artist gets turned upside down when a particularly good-looking robot shows up on her front step claiming to be her boyfriend. As if things aren’t complicated enough, her ex-boyfriend just can’t seem to get over her. Fans of the Japanese drama should definitely check this out.
Angel’s Last Mission: Love
In this KBS drama, a tough as nails former ballerina tries to regain her prima donna status with the help of her mischievous guardian angel. Blinded in a tragic accident, Lee Yeon Seo is desperate to get back to the stage, but the scheming and conniving of the people around her prevents her from making her return. Dan, a guardian angel just one mission away from completing his duties on earth, gets suckered into yet another assignment and falls in love on the job.
(True k-pop stans will immediately recognize the lead character in Angel’s Last Mission: Love—it’s L from the iconic group Infinite! Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be getting much singing in this drama…but you can stream “The Chaser” on all platforms.)
My Fellow Citizens
K-pop fans who are also obsessed with k-dramas are eating good this year! In his second project since his 2017 discharge from a mandatory two year military service, Super Junior member Choi Si Won returns to the TV scene as a master grifter down on his luck when finds himself the victim of a major con. His character, nowhere near qualified to do much besides scamming, is suddenly strong-armed into running for a seat in the Korean National Assembly. On top of all that, he falls in love with a police officer known to go after criminals who specialize in fraud.
Even if you’re not really into plots about politics, the opportunity to swoon over the beauty that Choi Si Won each episode is 100 percent worth your viewing. Put this on your list right now—thank me later.
Fans of Shin Sung Rok (The King’s Face, The Last Empress), rejoice—your second lead syndrome is over! The actor finally snagged a leading role in the KBS romantic comedy Perfume as Seo Yi Do, an eccentric fashion designer plagued with endless phobias. He’s known for often playing the villain (he’s really good at being bad), but in this drama, you can actually root for him to get the girl!
The premise is simple, at least for a Korean drama: A depressed housewife on the brink of a breakdown receives a magic perfume that makes her into an entirely new person. With her new face and identity, she decides to pursue a modeling career, and ultimately clashes with the prickly self-proclaimed god of fashion.
While many of the most popular Korean dramas are romantic comedies, some of the best series within the K-drama universe often lean in a different direction. And Arthdal Chronicles, a Netflix epic about a mythical ancient land and the power struggles that happen within its borders, could very well fall in that category.
Story-wise, Arthdal Chronicles is somewhat different from what you’re used to, but if you’re a fan of fantasy worlds and magic à la Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potte, this is right up your alley. Plus, the drama is packed with star power, featuring Jang Dong Gun (who starred in the Korean remake of Suits!) Song Joong Ki (Descendants of the Sun), and Kim Ji Won (The Heirs).
Chief of Staff
Remember House of Cards? The Netflix original series followed the complex and super sheisty lives of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C. The show was nothing short of a hit, but it came to an unfortunate end once its star became embroiled in a very serious, very disturbing controversy.
Chief of Staff is a lot like House of Cards, but rest assured, the drama is maintained within the show. There’s scheming, manipulation, illicit affairs, serious criminal activity, and a whole lot of lying to the general public by the voters by the very people they put in office—sounds appropriate for the day and age we’re living in, no?
All is right in the world because everyone’s fave Ji Sung is baaaaack! The Hallyu heartthrob returns to your TV and computer screens in the medical drama Doctor John as an anesthesiologist fresh out of the big house for illegally performing euthanasia on a patient. He falls in love with a resident at the new hospital (and their chemistry is AMAZING), but there’s trouble in paradise for Dr. John; the prosecutor who put him in prison in the first place still has a pretty huge chip on his shoulder.
Hotel del Luna
The plot of Hotel del Luna is a little hard to explain, but all you really need to know is that the cast is excellent (IU and Yeo Jin Goo lead the pack), and it’s about a ghost hotel! To be more specific, a hotel that’s completely run by ghosts—who are stuck between life and the afterlife—that also only caters only to ghosts. Fans of all things spooky will love this one from finish to end.
Stranger From Hell
Speaking of spooky szn, Stranger From Hell is seriously dark and kinda freaky, but in the best possible way. A broke young man is forced to move into a shoddy apartment building, and his fellow residents are utterly terrifying. If you thought your neighbors were bad, think again.
The Great Show
After a national politician goes from honorable to most hated overnight, he finds a way to makeover his shattered public image: adopting the teenage daughter he never knew existed as well as her three rowdy siblings. If you didn’t have a major crush on Song Seung Heon before, you’re definitely going to develop one now. We love a daddy!
My First First Love
In the mood for a warm and light coming-of-age story about falling in love for the first time? Check out My First First Love, now streaming on Netflix! The ensemble drama follows the lives of five friends in their early twenties living under one roof, so you know it’s about to be messy.
It doesn’t make my top picks, but Haechi is super interesting. This drama tells the story of a prince trying to reclaim the throne during the Joseon Dynasty. Historical period dramas, called sageuks, tend to require a lot of focus because they’re fictionalized historical accounts. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to get lost in the details. Save this one for a rainy day.