So in 2021, I watched less Korean dramas that aired before this year. But I was still able to watch several. And these 12 were excellent and deserving of the spotlight.
Here are my 12 favorite pre-2021 Korean dramas I watched this year:
12. Voice 1 (OCN, 2017)
Seasons 2 and 3 of OCN’s Voice was on my favorites list last year. I had started with those seasons because they starred Lee Jin Wook, one of my favorite Korean actors. And I was definitely looking forward to going back and watching the first season. What better time than ahead of the season 4 debut earlier this year.
Watching season one of Voice (보이스), one might not have expected it to be a continuing series and eventual franchise. But looking back now with all the qualities for an engaging and captivating series, from excellent story to exciting action to top-caliber cast, perhaps it’s much easier to see. The first season functions as like an origin story for our hero Kang Center (played by the excellent Lee Ha Na). But it also stands on its own, especially as it carries the franchise’s strongest aspects: the balance between character-driven story and the procedural cases of the week.
11. Everything and Nothing (SBS, 2019)
Everything and Nothing (17세의 조건 /17 Year Old’s Condition) is an incredibly fascinating experience. It may seem like a typical angsty teen coming of age story. But coming into what is essentially a four-part, two-hour TV movie, be forewarned that it’s best to expect the unexpected. And even then, you might not see what’s coming as you watch this award-winning 2019 SBS production.
10. Hospital Ship (MBC, 2017)
MBC’s 2017 medical drama Hospital Ship (병원선) is a surprisingly character-driven slice of life procedural. Being able to balance a steady stream of patients and emergencies of the week with deep dives into the lives and backstories of the main characters, Hospital Ship manages to be both exciting and emotionally engaging.
9. Men Are Men (KBS, 2020)
Men Are Men (그놈이 그놈이다 /To All The Guys Who Loved Me) is a deceptively simple romantic comedy. On the surface, it may come across as an overly familiar set-up. A fantastical twist helps to add a bit of spice to the story. But the series’ strength is in its characters and the actors who bring them to life. Legitimately interesting relationships between all the characters are enough to keep you watching until the end. But coupled with the familiarity of good ol’ rom-com antics and the touch of fantasy, Men Are Men is an ultimately enjoyable and fun series.
8. Girls’ Generation 1979 (KBS, 2017)
For a nostalgic, well-written and engaging coming of age slice of life story, look no further than Girls’ Generation 1979 (란제리 소녀시대/Lingerie Girls’ Generation). Based on a novel by Kim Yong Hee, the eight-episode 2017 KBS series chronicles the moment between adolescence and adulthood of a group of high school teens living in 1979 Daegu. With Korea’s growing tense political situation as its backdrop, Girls’ Generation 1979 is able to balance sincere heart with innocent romance as well as heavy dramatic themes.
7. Cheer Up/Sassy Go Go (KBS, 2015)
KBS’ 2015 series Cheer Up! (발칙하게 고고/Sassy Go Go!) is as timely today as it was back when it first aired. The high school-set drama tackles issues that, unfortunately, continue to be pervasive in today’s society. But as the title suggests, the series depicts a story that aims to be hopeful and positive in the midst of the difficult pressures of everyday life. Don’t miss standout performances from Chae Soo Bin and Ji Soo.
6. When the Weather is Fine (JTBC, 2020)
JTBC’s When the Weather is Fine (날씨가 좋으면 찾아가겠어요) is a healing drama in the truest sense of the word. The stunningly filmed, dreamlike slice of life portrays the very real hardships people face in the everyday. And it does so in a relatable, yet thoroughly engaging way. When the Weather is Fine may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But unlike other dramas that may be considered a “slowburn,” this series carries with it a great warmth and hopefulness that has you invested and engaged in the characters’ relatable journeys through life.
5. The Secret Life of My Secretary (SBS, 2019)
The 2019 SBS romantic comedy The Secret Life of My Secretary (초면에 사랑합니다/I Loved You From the Beginning) is one of the most charming, wholesome and feel-good series I’ve ever watched and enjoyed. The series is an irresistible blend of sweet fluff, engaging characters, hilarious comedy, emotional drama and even some thought-provoking situations to top it all off. The minimal stress, all-fun series has plenty of laughs and just as much heart. And it is one to watch for anyone who is willing to have a smile on their face from the first to the last second.
4. Perfume (KBS, 2019)
The 2019 KBS drama Perfume (퍼퓸) is as hilarious as it is heartfelt. A fun and emotional journey of finding oneself and learning how to embrace who you are. An excellent performance from Ha Jae Suk leads a solid cast and brings to life a meaningful story with plenty of warmth and humor.
3. Flower of Evil (tvN, 2020)
Flower of Evil (악의 꽃) is not a series that you will soon forget after watching it. The 2020 tvN series is a fast-paced psychological thriller that is powered by an exceptional character-driven story. In finding the delicate balance between crime, mystery, family, friendship and romance, Flower of Evil crafts a thoroughly engaging roller coaster of a ride. And its great cast, led by an outstanding performance from Lee Joon Gi, solidifies it as one of 2020’s best. (And definitely another series that would’ve made my Top 10 Korean Dramas of 2020 list.)
2. Zombie Detective (KBS, 2020)
Zombie Detective (좀비탐정) may just be the happiest, most heartfelt zombie television series ever! At least, that’s my immediate reaction after watching this 2020 KBS series. Choi Jin Hyuk effortlessly leads a stellar ensemble cast as the titular Zombie Detective. Mixing drama, comedy, fantasy and mystery, it all comes together into what is unexpectedly a hilarious and emotional adventure.
1. Solomon’s Perjury (JTBC, 2017)
If I had to choose my favorite Korean courtroom drama, I honestly might choose the 2017 JTBC series Solomon’s Perjury (솔로몬의 위증). I had been meaning to watch this series for a while. But finally getting a chance to watch, my only thought is “What took me so long?” Solomon’s Perjury is a fascinating, enthralling and meaningful series that takes a look at some of the most oft-talked about ills of today’s society. But does so in a unique and refreshing way.
There’s really not many words to do this series justice. It’s one of those rare series that need to be experienced firsthand. It is by no means perfect. But it does the most important things right. Emotionally affecting, edge of your seat exciting. And some stellar performances from Kim Hyun Soo, Jung Dong Yoon, Seo Ji Hoon and especially Seo Young Joo bring it all together.
As both an unflinching look at the harsh realities of today’s youth and a legitimately engrossing mystery, Solomon’s Perjury is undoubtedly a must-watch.