I began watching Korean dramas earlier this year, around the time India went into a strict lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic. I had been curious for a while—it was hard not to be, when colleagues kept exchanging recommendations and discussing plot points around you in office. In March, as the anxiety and uncertainty ratcheted up, I decided to try one episode of Crash Landing On You. Five months later, I am an active part of the Kdrama recommendation ritual.
These dramas, for me, were a portal into a new world and culture, but one that was also similar to India in many ways. If you search online, especially on Netflix, you can go down a rabbit hole that will help you escape reality for a long, long time.
But is it just discovering a new world that kept me hooked? Not entirely. These shows, be it dramas, rom-coms or just comedies, are all filled with characters who are flawed and layered, but (mostly) good at heart. Some of my favourite lead characters have oodles of empathy and kindness and are always ready to lend a helping hand. At a time when it felt like the world was burning, these shows became the balm for my anxious soul.
Fair warning — most Korean dramas come with their share of problems. Some of them are self-aware, but others can be quite problematic. And yet, the women characters are often able to find their ground, fighting off ahjummas (Korean word for ‘older women’) trying to convince them to get married.
While we enter the bazillionth month of limbo over the pandemic, here are five Korean dramas that will leave you feeling warm and distract you from the hopelessness of the real world.
1. Reply 1988
If you’re a ’90s kid, this is a show that you NEED to watch. It will make you wish that Korean dramas had actually come to your life when you’re a teenager. If you watched mostly American TV shows while growing up but felt alienated by the culture, Reply 1988 will come as a breath of fresh air. Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this show follows a group of friends in a small neighbourhood in Seoul. We meet the older version of the female lead in present times and know she’s married to one of her old friends, but his identity is a mystery till the end. But this is much more than just a who’s-the-husband drama. You’ll relate to the characters’ parents who are funny, nosy, moist and always worried about their children. In the middle of this chaos, the five friends gather at one of their rooms and watch movies on video cassettes (including some American films). Like Indian kids, they study, bicker, fall in love, hide it from their parents, smuggle landlines into their rooms, fight with siblings and make up. It’s the strong bonds of friendship, even among the families, that hold them together. While the younger characters are fun and funny, it’s the three older women (the kids’ mothers) who may stay with you once the show is over. All of them aren’t well-off but they help each other without a second thought and discuss even embarrassing secrets with each other. We see each character go through heartbreak, success and failure, only to come back and be with each other after all the years passed. The episodes are really long, but will leave you nostalgic for your own childhood.
Watch on Netflix or Viki
2. Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
This is my favourite Sageuk. It follows a woman born in a noble family in the Joseon dynasty who becomes one of the first female historians. For context — historians in the Joseon dynasty documented every step the royal family took and every word they said. The entry of women historians were a huge scandal, and they were harassed and shamed, like women always are when they step into male-dominated spaces. But our heroine isn’t one to take things lying down. Goo Hae-ryung speaks her mind, which often lands her in trouble as well. The drama also follows how books are banned by the king who doesn’t like things that don’t go his way, finding resonance with our present climate. It also has a few episodes on an epidemic, which prove that rulers in Joseon aren’t very different from the current crop of politicians. It’s not all serious—there are generous doses of comedy. Hae-ryung meets the prince while she does her job at the palace and predictably falls in love with him. But don’t be fooled by the romantic plot. Our heroine is not one to settle.
Watch it on Netflix
3. I’ll Go to You When the Weather is Nice
If you’re looking to comfort your frayed nerves and anxious mind, this is a good one to watch. A slow-paced, slice-of-life drama, this is set in a quaint village in the Korean countryside. Mok Hae-won returns to her village after she loses her toxic job as a cello teacher. She moves in with her eccentric aunt, who is perennially grumpy. Hae-won finds a friend in her former classmate Im Eun-seob, a bookshop owner who has been secretly in love with her for a while. The show revolves a lot around his bookstore and scenes of dreamy book-club meets in winter evenings that are extremely comforting. Like in most Korean dramas, the good samaritan attitude of every character will warm your heart. Hae-won’s mother is in prison on charges of killing her father, and she untangles a lot of childhood trauma during her sabbatical. But all of these serious issues are handled with utmost care and without making the show a sob-story. If nothing else, watch it for the beautiful shots of the Korean countryside when you can barely step out of your home.
Watch it on Viki
4. Fight For My Way
This is a story of four friends struggling to make a good living in Seoul. The two women in the group — an announcer in a shopping centre and a call centre employee — share a tiny apartment. Their neighbour, a former Taekwondo champion, is also their childhood friend. The fourth friend, who is dating the call centre employees, is an ambitious young professional. Despite their busy lives, come rain or sunshine, they get together on the terrace of their apartment to share their joys and sorrows. They keep coming back to each other as they navigate through the tough life in Seoul in terms of finances and heartbreaks. This is yet another drama where the women characters are indomitable and refuse to give up. Even when they hit rock bottom, they find their way up while still remaining focused on their goals. They are kind to each other and to those around them even at the worst of times. This show does have some glaring problems of sexism, but that doesn’t discount the journeys that its main characters go through.
Watch it on Netflix
5. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
Kim Bok-Joo is one of the strongest (physically and otherwise) women characters I’ve seen on a Korean drama. She is a pretty awesome weightlifter who falls in love with swimmer Jung Joon-hyung as they both try to build their careers in national-level athletics. But there’s a twist—Bok-joo first falls in love with Joon-hyung’s elder brother and goes through extreme lengths to make him like her—these scenes are so natural they’ll probably remind you of your embarrassing teenage years. However, Joon-hyung keeps at it and manages to get her attention. While Korean dramas, especially romantic ones, have a problem of emotionally unavailable male characters, Joon-hyung is refreshingly sensitive and caring toward Bok-Joo and her needs. Watch it for the chemistry between Lee Sung-kyung and Nam Joo-hyuk that will melt your heart. But it’s not just the romantic plotline. The show has several other well-formed characters who are lovely to watch.
Watch it on Netflix