Top 15 Greatest K-Dramas Of The Decade
The 2010s were some of the most crucial years for Korean entertainment as the Hallyu Wave crash landed on the farthest corners of the Earth. As we entered the 2020s, the international popularity of K-Pop, K-Dramas, Korean films and cultural products at large, far surpassed its projected growth, taking over the global entertainment industry.
Bong JoonHo’s 2019 film “Parasite” became the first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and later on, won 4 Oscars, including “Best Picture“, making history as the first ever non-English language film to win the award. In 2021, the Korean-American masterpiece “Minari” received 6 Oscar nominations and veteran actress Youn YuhJung took home the award for the “Best Supporting Actress”. Similarly, actor Oh YoungSoo won the “Best TV Supporting Actor” Award for “Squid Game” at the 79th Golden Globe Awards. This year, 3 short-form web dramas, “Monstrous“, “Work Later, Drink Now” and “Damn Good Company” were screened at the Cannes International Series Festival Season 5’s non-competition section, titled “South Korean Fiction”. Needless to say, this reverse globalisation from the East to the West is making the world bow before Korean art.
In light of this unparalleled success, we’re taking a look back at the 10 greatest K-Dramas of the last decade. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be considering K-Dramas airing between 2011 and 2021, including those that started airing in 2010/2021 but concluded in 2011/2022. Let’s get into it!
In the esteemed first place, we have none other than “Goblin”, starring Gong Yoo, Kim GoEun, Lee DongWook, Yoo InNa, and BTOB’s Yook SungJae, telling an impassioned story of fated love spanning several lifetimes and incarnations. With myths and legends in its fold, the narrative of “Goblin” strikes a delicate balance between fantasy and its metaphorical import in real life, bringing us a romance that defies time, space, and destiny to favour the lovers against all odds. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.
2. “My Mister”
A deeply sentimental sketch of the human condition, “My Mister” embodies the quiet elegance and melancholic constancy of its main characters, played wonderfully by Lee SunKyun and IU. Like a true work of art, “My Mister” comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable, stirring up the status quo and opening our eyes to the vulnerability of existence. The absurdity of certain situations depicted in the story further reinstates the fact that it is us who must imbue life with meaning rather than allowing our circumstances to define us. “My Mister” is truly director Kim WonSeok‘s chef-d’oeuvre and it deserves all the love and appreciation in the world.
3. “Hospital Playlist”
A K-Drama that does justice to the medical profession without the flashy exhibitionism of typical fiction, “Hospital Playlist” is as wholesome as it gets. The drama follows a group of doctors/best friends as they handle the complexities of their job while also sustaining interpersonal relationships, hopes, and dreams. With music at the forefront of their escape from reality, we see Jo JungSuk, Jeon MiDo, Jung KyungHo, Yoo YeonSeok, and Kim DaeMyung flaunt their musical talent alongside their acting prowess, giving us all the more reasons to swoon. It certainly doesn’t get any better than this.
4. “What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim?”
The K-Drama that still has the world in a chokehold years after its release, “What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim?” is the undefeated champion of Korean rom-com. As a matter of fact, its popularity is so unprecedented that it was even voted the #1 K-Drama Japanese fans want a remake of! Starring the dreamiest screen couple of all time, Park SeoJun and Park MinYoung, this drama epitomizes all the heart-fluttering elements we love in the genre: office romance, childhood sweethearts, love triangles, and more. Without a doubt, this is the kind of K-Drama that you keep going back to, even after you’ve rewatched it a hundred times.
5. “Kingdom” & “Squid Game” (Tied)
Tied at number 5, we have two gruesome social commentaries from Netflix, each with its own unique set of motifs and symbols: “Kingdom”, starring Ju JiHoon, Bae DooNa, and Ryu SeungRyong on the one hand, and “Squid Game”, starring Lee JungJae, Park HaeSoo, and Jung HoYeon on the other. While “Kingdom” gives monstrous form to human hunger through zombies, “Squid Game” takes the fatality of capitalism and gives it a game show spin. With their unmatched production value and extraordinary plot, besides, of course, the peerless cast, it’s no wonder that they received high praise from critics and viewers alike.
6. “Reply 1988” & “Mr. Queen” (Tied)
The final installment of the famed “Reply” series, “Reply 1988” (starring Girl’s Day’s HyeRi, Park BoGum, Ryu JunYeol, Go KyungPyo, and more) brings us the culmination of everything we adored about its previous counterparts and more. Despite being an inherently Korean portrayal of family values, friendship, and first love, “Reply 1988” resonates strongly with international audiences, regardless of whether they lived through the 90s or otherwise. This is slice-of-life at its best and we just can’t get enough. Tied with “Reply 1988”, we have “Mr. Queen” (starring Kim JungHyun, Shin HaeSun, and Na InWoo), a historical K-Drama about an infamous yet skilled chef at the Blue House being transported to ancient Joseon but only in spirit. When he wakes up in the body of the timid Kim SoYong, he barely has time to rationalize before (s)he is married off to the King. The shenanigans that follow turn the Palace upside down as we bear witness to the gender non-conforming romance of the century. This is exactly what we need more of from the K-Drama industry.
7. “Legend of the Blue Sea”
“Legend of the Blue Sea”, starring Lee MinHo and Jun JiHyun, is a cult classic that quite literally builds on the “fish out of water” trope to deliver a magical tale of mermaids, kings, and con-men. Jun JiHyun’s impeccable comedic timing is perfectly complemented by Lee MinHo’s irresistible charisma, making us fall head over heels for them both. In addition, the secondary characters are so incredibly endearing that it almost feels as if you’re a part of the family! Despite some overused plot devices like amnesia and separation, “Legend of the Blue Sea” maintains its otherworldly charm, leaving us longing for more.
8. “Strong Girl Do BongSoon”, “Fight For My Way”, “Weightlifting Fairy Kim BokJoo” (Tied)
The K-Dramas that gave new life to the Korean wave during its golden years, “Strong Girl Do BongSoon” (ZE:A’s Park HyungSik, Park BoYoung), “Fight For My Way” (Park SeoJun, Kim JiWon), and “Weightlifting Fairy Kim BokJoo” (Nam JooHyuk, Lee SungKyoung), will always be some of the most iconic productions to come out of the Korean television industry. Light-hearted, empowering, and whimsical, these dramas exemplify all the best qualities of K-Dramas that make them so charming. As such, it is natural that these are also the shows that newer fans gravitate to the most. After all, nothing hooks a viewer more quickly than something that makes them unconditionally happy.
9. “Crash Landing On You”
One of the most remarkable romances of our generation, “Crash Landing On You”, holds a special place in the hearts of K-Drama fans for giving us the power couple that is Hyun Bin and Son YeJin. Whether it be romance, action, suspense, or comedy, “Crash Landing On You” ticks every box you could possibly have. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was a commercial hit both in and out of South Korea. After all, the idea of love that transcends borders strikes a chord with a universal audience, making us root for the characters with genuine fervour. Two years and a wedding later, we still want a Season 2!
10. “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay”
The Emmy nominated masterpiece, “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay”, starring Kim SooHyun, Seo YeaJi, Oh Jung-se, and Park GyuYoung, will go down in the history of television (both Korean and otherwise) as the most brilliantly nuanced portrayal of mental illness, albeit through the lens of a healing romance. The murder-mystery subplot is as intriguing and entertaining as it is crucial to understanding our characters and their fateful reunion. Actor Oh JungSe, in particular, deserves unending accolades for his sublime representation of autism through the character of Moon SangTae, which has brought hope, light, love, and laughter to viewers all over the world. Finally, in an excellently meta creative choice, the dark fairy-tale influences amplify the immersion of the story manifold, drawing our attention to the cathartic nature of art and how it affects both the consumers and the artist. “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” is not just a K-Drama, it is artistic expression at its finest.
11. “Itaewon Class” & “Vincenzo” (Tied)
Both “Itaewon Class” and “Vincenzo” are premised on revenge but with entirely different approaches to the same. Park SaeRoYi, played by Park SeoJun in “Itaewon Class” holds up his late father’s ideals of justice to defeat his arch-nemesis through perseverance and hard-earned success. In contrast, Vincenzo, played by Song JoongKi is a dark hero with no regard for the means that will allow him to achieve his ends. SaeRoYi is calculative, honest, and sincere but Vincenzo is impulsive, manipulative, and violent. However, at the end of the day, SaeRoYi and Vincenzo are two sides of the same coin. While “Itaewon Class” is truly inspirational, “Vincenzo” is deeply satisfying and both are incomparably entertaining, to say the least.
12. “The World of the Married” & “Mouse” (Tied)
“The World of the Married” is the type of K-Drama that you don’t expect to fall for yet end up obsessing over within a few episodes. Starring the venerable Kim HeeAe alongside one of the finest actors in the industry, Park HaeJoon, this drama will take you on a reckless rollercoaster ride of emotions as our central couple navigates marriage, divorce, and vengeance. On the same end of the evocative spectrum, we have the psychological thriller “Mouse”, starring Lee SeungGi and Lee HeeJoon. Besides the excellent acting, “Mouse” boasts of a riveting storyline that leaves a bittersweet aftertaste you just can’t get enough of. Based on the idea of detecting psychopaths at birth, this drama is inarguably one of the most well-written K-Dramas of the decade.
13. “The Heirs” & “Secret Garden” (Tied)
One simply cannot have a “Best of the Best” ranking without two of the most timeless romance K-Dramas ever: “The Heirs” and “Secret Garden”. Blockbuster hits at the time of their release, these dramas continue to be just as popular now as they were then, especially with Netflix bringing both titles onboard. While Hyun Bin and Ha JiWon‘s “Secret Garden” ushered in a new era of fantasy romance, Lee MinHo and Park ShinHye‘s “The Heirs” became the K-Drama awakening of millions across the world. Needless to say, such staying power speaks volumes of their novelty.
14. “Signal” & “Prison Playbook” (Tied)
Two of the highest-rated mini-series on Korean national television, “Signal” and “Prison Playbook” are perfect representations of the versatility that makes K-Dramas universally appealing. Led by Lee JeHoon, Kim HyeSoo and Cho JinWoong, “Signal” is a time-travel crime thriller that shines the spotlight on the complexity of cold cases whereas “Prison Playbook”, starring Park HaeSoo, Jung KyungHo, Park HoSan, Lee KyuHyung, Jung HaeIn, Choi MooSung and more, is a slice-of-life drama with the most fantastic ensemble of characters that gently guide us towards shifting our prejudiced perspective of criminal offenders. What both of these K-Dramas have in common is the excellence of storytelling that draws you in and etches a permanent place in your heart.
15. “True Beauty” & “Yumi’s Cells” (Tied)
Finally, rounding up this list, we have two of the most memorable romantic comedies of 2021: “True Beauty” (starring Cha EunWoo, Mun KaYoung and Hwang InYoup) and “Yumi’s Cells” (starring Kim GoEun, Ahn BoHyun and GOT7’s JinYoung). With both dramas being based on immensely popular webtoons, expectations were sky-high for their adaptations. When it comes to “True Beauty”, the extraordinary cast of actors made the beloved characters come to life in vivid colour. At the same time, “Yumi’s Cells” revolutionized the genre by seamlessly combining live-action and animation, setting the standard for webtoon adaptations to come.
Tell us your Top 15 K-Dramas in the comments section down below!