My Top 20 Favorite Korean Dramas of 2021!

These end-of-year lists are very hard for me. On the other hand, I can’t help but want to shine a small spotlight on the things I personally enjoyed. On the other, I am so indecisive, I can never settle on basic criteria for my rankings. Let alone the actual order of things once I sit down and put it together.

Last year, thanks to COVID, I was able to catch up on dozens of Korean dramas I had missed in the last couple of years. As well as new dramas that premiered and aired during the year. By the end of 2020, I had watched so many series that I felt the urge to rank my favorites.

My K-drama binge watching continued into 2021. And while last year I watched more pre-2020 dramas than in-2020 dramas, this year it’s the opposite. I watched more 2021 dramas than 2020 dramas. So my list of 2021 dramas will be much longer.

And then there’s that. I can’t even decide on how many series to list. Five? 20? 100? I don’t know!

But anyway, going into making these lists and actually ranking them, I think it just has to do with raw emotion. How do I feel about these series? How did I feel about them immediately after finishing them?

I think it’s really a combination of inexplicable feelings, charm, charisma, likeability, technical excellence. And maybe the biggest part of all, the feeling of fulfillment and being satisfied after having watched the series. Maybe even how long those feelings last or how strong those feelings are months or weeks after you finish each series.

So without further ado, here are my favorite Korean dramas of 2021. And as usual with my indecisive self, it says Top 20 above, but I’ve got five more on this list and some Honorable Mentions too. lol

25. The Devil Judge

tvN’s The Devil Judge (악마판사) is a character-driven dystopian thriller that feels terrifyingly close to reality, especially in today’s world. That “hits close to home” feeling lingers throughout the 16-episode series and makes what’s being depicted on screen that much more visceral and affecting. Powered by an excellent cast, led by Ji Sung, that brings multi-layered characters to vivid life, The Devil Judge is an exciting and thought-provoking experience.
>>Good Ol’ Review

24. Yumi’s Cells

Yumi’s Cells (유미의 세포들) is a sweet, whimsical and grounded romantic slice of life. The television adaptation of a popular webtoon by Lee Dong Gun is able to bring to life a colorful, yet wholly relatable world in the most creative and refreshing way possible. Kim Go Eun and Ahn Bo Hyun are absolutely charming and compelling as two 30-somethings navigating life, love and career. And alongside a large cast of immediately loveable little friends, the series ends up being one of the most fun series of the year.
>>Good Ol’ Review

23. True Beauty

For some good-natured, lighthearted fun, look no further than tvN’s True Beauty (여신강림). Some legitimately hilarious comedy. Some irresistible romance. Some sincere emotion. Some timely discussions. True Beauty has just the right amount of everything you might be looking for in a series. The romantic comedy treads familiar ground, but its charming cast and well-placed warmth and sincerity make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
>>Good Ol’ Review

(And the following three are tied for #20 🤭)

20. Law School

JTBC’s Law School (로스쿨) is an intriguing take on the law and crime genre in Korean drama. An ensemble cast of characters, brought to life by an excellent cast, drive the narrative and offer an inside look at the diverse motivations and principles of people in the justice system. And even more unique is how the justice system and Korean law is a character in and of itself in the series. Law School is a pensive and contemplative character drama. Puzzle pieces and surprise twists are as strategically placed as the intricate justice system the characters must navigate and play around with to achieve the justice they seek. The Korean justice system is definitely a dynamic world. And Law School is able to bring that world to vivid life in 16 exciting and engaging episodes. (With room for more as well.)
>>Good Ol’ Review

20. Police University

KBS’ Police University (경찰수업) is a fun, poignant look at the lives of those in law enforcement and the youth who are hoping to follow in their footsteps. Everything from the varied definitions of justice to familiar coming of age dilemmas, Police University tackles very real world ideas in a lighthearted, but sincere way. And with its strong, charming cast, the series makes for an enjoyable and exciting watch.
>>Good Ol’ Review

20. Happiness

tvN’s Happiness (해피니스) is a roaring good time and wild ride. Strange to say about a series centered around a “mad person disease” infecting the populace. But Happiness blends together biting social commentary, touches of horror, thrilling action and a character-driven slice of life portrait of this moment in time that feels indeed timely and uncomfortably relatable. And that’s while drawing upon our collective experience with the very real COVID-19. You never quite know what to expect or what’s ahead. And the series is by no means perfect. But in the end, your investment in the series will result in a satisfying end to what is a tense, almost adventurous journey.
>>Good Ol’ Review

19. Squid Game

Some out there may question why the series is ranked this low on my list, I again point to my criteria up above. It’s just how I personally feel. Everyone has their own preferences. =D

That said! Squid Game (오징어 게임) is a flashy (and bloody) series that takes on familiar themes and sets them against the backdrop of a jarring and unsettling game of life and death. Though the series is not short on talent and style (and blood), the series misses an opportunity to go a bit deeper and truly allow it to be something more profoundly affecting. But again, that does not take away from the impact Squid Game has had this last year.
>>Good Ol’ Review

18. Voice 4

The first three seasons of OCN’s Voice delivered top-notch action and stunning performances. Between the relatively familiar crime solving mystery of season one to the darker psychological thriller of seasons two and three, Voice 4 (보이스4: 심판의 시간) finds the perfect balance between those two contrasts. Continuing the story of Lee Ha Na’s captivating Kang Kwon Joo, Voice 4 introduces us to new characters and new dangers while expanding its world in the most unexpected, yet exciting ways.
>>Good Ol’ Review

17. Hellbound

Netflix’s Hellbound (지옥/Hell) is a pensive thriller that blends fantasy, supernatural and horror with thought-provoking discussion and even a touch of biblical epic. Yeon Sang Ho, the mind behind the excellent Train to Busan, directs this series based on his own webtoon of the same name. And Hellbound shares many of the same qualities that made the blockbuster film so successful, including the ability to examine real world ills while engaging in action-packed spectacle. A captivating performance from Yoo Ah In is a highlight.
>>Good Ol’ Review

16. Vincenzo

Song Joong Ki leads a stellar ensemble cast in the title role as the hilarious, dramatic and sometimes pulpy series grabs you right from the start and never lets go. With a healthy mix of drama, comedy and action, Vincenzo (빈센조) is a thoroughly enjoyable and wild roller coaster of a ride. Twists and turns have you on the edge of your seat. Lighthearted and charming moments keep a smile on your face. And the dramatic action will have you cycling through the five stages of grief. But bringing it all together, Vincenzo is one of the most simply fun television experiences in a long time.
>>Good Ol’ Review

15. The Uncanny Counter

OCN’s The Uncanny Counter (경이로운 소문/Amazing Rumor) is an exciting and heartfelt series. A stellar cast is the perfect match for a story that is an effortless blend of character-based drama, comedy, action and fantasy. That helps to make the series a thoroughly fun ride. But it is the characters and the actors that bring them to life who drive home the fulfilling experience.
>>Good Ol’ Review

14. Run On

JTBC’s Run On (런 온) is a warm-hearted slice of life series. Equal parts drama and comedy, the character-driven Run On follows the stories of people at various points in their lives all trying to figure out just how to navigate every day trials and move forward. Im Siwan and Shin Se Kyung lead an excellent cast. Combined with wonderful direction and fast-paced writing, Run On is a real winner.
>>Good Ol’ Review

13. Penthouse

Penthouse(펜트하우스)?! Yes! The unexpected blockbuster SBS series had no trouble riling the audience up. Simply put, it was a lot of fun. And that’s actually something you don’t always experience with many series. Penthouse was a typical soap opera; great, mindless fun. This wasn’t your typical healing drama. Or family drama. Or romcom. Or fantasy series. It was pure soapy goodness and you just needed to hop along for the ride. A crazy ride that kept you coming back for more. (The ratings prove that!) A strong, charismatic and charming cast complemented the high production values and the irresistible twists and turns of a soap opera.

This last year with Penthouse has been one helluva ride. Best drama ever? Goodness no. Was it exhausting, crazy, enjoyable, exciting, upsetting and fun? Absolutely. And I don’t regret getting sucked in one bit.
>>Good Ol’ Review (Season 1)
>>Check-in Review (Season 2)
>>Series Review (Season 3)

12. Cheat on Me if You Can

Few dramas will keep you guessing, keep you on the edge of your seat and make you laugh as much as the KBS drama Cheat on Me If You Can (바람피면 죽는다/If You Cheat, You Die). A darkly comic murder mystery with twists and turns galore, the series deftly balances its diverse tones and intricate story. Cho Yeo Jeong is absolutely enthralling as she uses her experience in both heavy dramas and romantic comedies to deliver a performance that is both subtle and expressive.
>>Good Ol’ Review

11. Beyond Evil

Baeksang Best Drama Winner Beyond Evil (괴물/Monster) is a fascinating television experience. The JTBC drama series is a unique blend of psychological thriller, crime procedural and slice of life character study. Unique indeed. But it is that combination, along with an excellent ensemble cast led by Shin Ha Kyun and Yeo Jin Goo and meticulous direction that prove just how much Beyond Evil deserves the accolades.
>>Good Ol’ Review

10. One the Woman

SBS’ One the Woman (원 더 우먼) is an absolute fun ride. Honey Lee is charming and irresistible as she leads a strong cast in bringing to life a hilarious, exciting, dramatic and feel-good story. Korean audiences apparently thought the same as it had no problem continuing the network’s winning streak in the timeslot. A perfect balance of kick-ass action, well-placed comedy and soapy drama makes for a winning combination and one of the year’s most refreshing and enjoyable watches.
>>Good Ol’ Review

9. Dali and Cocky Prince

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a brighter, more loveable and fun pair than Kim Min Jae and Park Gyu Young on KBS’ Dali and Cocky Prince (달리와 감자탕 /Dal Ri and Gamjatang). Sweet and hilarious, the series is the very definition of romantic-comedy. But it also has a lot of heart and is, maybe surprisingly so, grounded in reality while still being infused with a charming fairy tale aura. Simply put, it is one of the year’s most enjoyable and satisfying series.
>>Good Ol’ Review

8. At a Distance, Spring is Green

At a Distance, Spring is Green (멀리서 보면 푸른 봄) is a wonderful coming of age series. The 12-episode KBS drama about young university students just trying to keep up with everything life throws at them is a charming and captivating slice of life. A stellar cast, led by Park Jihoon and Bae In Hyuk, bring to life the joys and pains of youth in between adolescence and adulthood. With fascinating hints at something that could have been truly groundbreaking, the series is nonetheless one of the year’s most emotionally satisfying series.
>>Good Ol’ Review

7. D.P.

Mental health and the lack of support or resources for anyone who needs help as well as the scourge of bullying and school violence continues to plague South Korea. And that has offered plenty of opportunity for such topics to be portrayed in many a television drama; whether in a coming of age high school drama or a psychological crime thriller. But dealing with those themes with the backdrop of Korea’s compulsory military service is rare, especially on TV. That’s one of the many reasons (in addition to excellent performances from Jung Hae In and Koo Kyo Hwan) that make Netflix’s original series D.P. (디피) so striking and intriguing.
>>Good Ol’ Review

6. Navillera

tvN’s Navillera (나빌레라) is simply excellent. A stunningly beautiful drama series about the dreams, obstacles, family and friends that all play a part in our lives. Park In Hwan and Song Kang lead a strong ensemble cast through thoughtful, sincere and profound stories that are just as poignant as they are fun and entertaining. Navillera is a pure television gem. The series develops into a bit of a profound and thought-provoking experience. Offering heartfelt life lessons and captivating character-driven stories, Navillera will leave a lasting impression long after the final credits roll.
>>Good Ol’ Review

5. Racket Boys

Simply put, SBS’ Racket Boys (라켓소년단) is one of the best of the year. A thoroughly feel-good and heartwarming series that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and dark themes. With the help of one of the best ensemble casts assembled in a drama in a long while, an eclectic and diverse group of characters of all ages come to life to depict life with all its joys and hardships, ups and downs. Fiercely relatable, proudly down to earth, emotionally affecting, absolute fun; Racket Boys is an unexpected, but outstanding treat.
>>Good Ol’ Review

4. Sell Your Haunted House

It is Jang Nara’s truly amazing performance coupled with everything else that makes Sell Your Haunted House (대박부동산 /Daebak Real Estate one of the most unexpected and one of the best series of 2021. There’s really more than meets the eye when it comes to this series. A fun and fascinating mix of genres, from action to horror to drama and even comedy and romance; the series is able to present an exciting and affecting character-driven story that will leave you on the edge of your seat while also grabbing a tissue for your tears from both laughing and feeling emotional. A complete package and thoroughly satisfying, Sell Your Haunted House is definitely one of the best of the year.
>>Good Ol’ Review

3. Youth of May

Youth of May (오월의 청춘) is essential viewing. It’s difficult to put into words how profound an experience it is to watch Youth of May. This stunning KBS drama series is a profoundly character-driven look at one of the darkest periods in Korea’s history. Set in the days leading up to and during the deadly Gwangju Uprising fight for democracy in May 1980, Youth of May tells the story of people whose lives are forever changed by this turbulent time.

At its core, it is a character-driven romantic and family drama set against the backdrop of one of one of the most consequential periods in Korea’s history. An emotionally affecting and stark reminder of this history, but also a relatable and humble portrait of the lives rocked by that moment.

It is also a stark reminder (or introduction to some) of this moment in history, but also a moving and poignant story of love, family and friendship that you won’t soon forget. Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si are beyond captivating as they effortlessly deliver in every scene.
>>Good Ol’ Review

2. Move to Heaven

Move to Heaven (무브 투 헤븐: 나는 유품정리사입니다) is a unique and unforgettable television experience. It’s hard to not come away from the series with a hopeful smile on your face. Powered by a sincere and emotionally resonant story, intelligent wit, irresistible charm and a pair of absolutely captivating performances from Tang Joon Sang and Lee Je Hoon, Move to Heaven is an unforgettable must-watch.
>>Good Ol’ Review

1. Taxi Driver

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more fun, exciting television experience than when watching SBS’ blockbuster series Taxi Driver (모범택시/Deluxe Taxi). The adrenaline-fueled thriller captures the perfect balance of emotionally affecting-drama, roaring action sequences, lighthearted moments and vicarious satisfaction as it follows a team of on-call revenge specialists. A magnetic Lee Je Hoon leading an exceptional cast is just icing on the cake of what I believe is the year’s absolute best.
>>Good Ol’ Review

Honorable Mentions: One Ordinary Day, My Name, The Veil/Moebius: The Veil

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