It’s not exactly a history lesson, but Kingdom does open a window into the middle of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, a centuries-long era that ran to nearly the 20th century. During which time there wasn’t an actual zombie plague…so liberties have been taken. As the series opens, rumors are swirling that the king has died, and his son, Crown Prince Lee Chang, is trying to find out the truth. Turns out that the King did, in fact, die—of smallpox—but the Queen Consort and her father, a powerful courtier, have a plan: they’ve given the King a little-known plant that revives him (you can see where this is headed) in the hope of keeping him alive long enough for the Queen to bear a son. Since Lee Chang is merely the son of a concubine, he’d lose his claim to the throne in such an event.
The show very deftly combines horror and medieval-esque political intrigue, making it something wholly unique to either genre. Based on a webcomic series authored by show creator Kim Eun-hee, it’s Netflix’s first original South Korean series. So far there are two seasons and a feature-length special episode, with a third season on the way.
Discussions around mental health in general remain fraught anywhere in the world, and South Korea is no exception. Though opportunities for treatment are better than in many other parts of the world, social stigma remains a problem. Which is all part of the reason Jo Yong and Park Shin-woo’s miniseries was such a sensation when it was released last year: writer Jo based the show on her own personal experiences, plus a good bit of research. The series chronicles the slow-burn romance between Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun), a health care worker living with his autistic brother, and a famous children’s book author (Seo Yea-ji) with antisocial personality disorder. It’s lovely, and was popular enough to inspire a series of children’s books based on the work of the show’s fictional writer.
It almost sounds like an episode of Black Mirror, if not nearly so dystopian. There’s an impressive new augmented reality game with a neat, but very specific spinoff: it involves medieval battles in and around the Alhambra fortress in Granada, Spain (where much of the series was filmed). A tech CEO interested in investing travels to Spain to meet the creator, only to find out that he’s gone missing. Fortunately, the creator’s ultra-cool sister owns a local hostel, and, with romance in the air, the two set out on hunt for her brother as the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurry. Another Korean hit, the show’s got some nice location work and solid special effects.
We’re only a couple of episodes in, but this very pretty, very juicy saeguk stars Park Eun-bin as a royal daughter who disguises herself as her own dead brother in order to keep the crown out of the wrong hands. The ruse becomes even more complicated, and the show becomes a sweeping historical romance, when she develops feelings for her tutor. Episodes of the first season are airing twice weekly through December.
That title isn’t a metaphor (or, rather, it isn’t just one): the series involves a literal crash landing into the North side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) is an heiress and independent business owner whose complicated relationships with her family caused her to step away from them. On a paragliding trip, a tornado sends her north, and she’s rescued from disater by a captain in the North Korean Special Police Force. The romance between two strong characters, as well as the sensitive and humane portrayal of life in the north, made this a mega-hit on South Korean TV.
Queer themes are relatively new in Korean pop culture, but there’s a fair bit of stuff in the pipeline (Where Your Eyes Linger, which also did very well across much of Asia last year, isn’t currently available on Netflix US). This series, about the attraction between a singer-songwriter and a keyboardist, brought some in some big-name talent in K-pop star Kang In-soo and popular actor Lee Sang-yoon. Netflix presents the short, eight-episode series as a single movie.
Plenty of the stars of these shows are only just becoming familiar to audiences outside of South Korea; not so here: Bae Donna starred in international hits like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and The Host, as well as English-language films and shows like Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8 (she also stars in The Kingdom, found earlier on this list). In this popular and twisty-turny crime drama, she plays a police lieutenant teamed up with an unsympathetic prosecutor to investigate a murder that turns into a larger conspiracy between the police and a major conglomerate.
Ambitious former police detective Jang Tae-Jun (Lee Jung-Jae) serves as the chief aide to a powerful senior lawmaker in the National Assembly. Kang Seon-Yeong (Shin Min-A) is a recently elected rival politician—amidst all the traditional power games, the two are also secretly dating. It’s very much got that House of Cards/juicy political thriller vibe.
Another great example of the willingness of South Korean producers to tackle increasingly challenging social issues alongside the action and drama, Itaewon Class stars Park Seo-joon as Park Sae-ro-yi, a high school kid whose life is shattered by Geun-won, the son of the powerful owner of a food conglomerate. First, he’s suspended for fighting back against the bully, and then his father is killed in a reckless driving incident involving Geun-won. Instead of consequences for the rich kid, it’s Sae-ro-yi who winds up going to prison for nearly beating his father’s killer to death. On release, he opens up a local bar for outsiders while plotting to bring down the all-powerful conglomerate that ruined his life. The staff at his bar includes a transgender woman, a Guinean-Korean, and another ex-con, all of whom struggle with acceptance but find a home among the other underdogs at the bar.
Another sweeping historical drama (a genre that South Korea excels at, and coincidentally one that I can’t get enough of): Mr. Sunshine takes place at the very end of the Joseon Dynasty, with activists fighting for Korean independence. Naturally, the heart of the epic is a cross-class love story between a vassal returning to Korea after time spent as an American Marine and the granddaughter of a powerful Korean aristocrat. Several significant local and world events serve as turning points over the course of the series’ 24 episodes—meaning that aside from being an impressive feat of period drama, this one is also a window into critical moments in world history from a Korean perspective.
Nam Se-hee (Lee Min-ki) is an awkward IT guy drowning in mortgage bills, while writer Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) needs a place to live. For purely financial reasons, the two become roommates, then enter into a marriage entirely of convenience, and with a strict two-year contract. Of course, it’s not at all that simple, and there is a love story buried here—but it’s not the easy nor obvious one. This sometimes bittersweet comedy-drama uses the central couple’s situation to explore and break down traditional roles and ideas of marriage, especially as external pressure and the realities of day-to-day life come to bear on the reluctant couple.
Just another drama about a seemingly dull teenage overachiever running a sex ring by night. OK, so this one’s pretty unique, blending dark comedy and action with hints of relationship drama. Needing some extra money, Oh Ji-soo runs a prostitution ring when he’s not in school, but is otherwise a typical teenage doofus. His friend Gyu-ri comes from a wealthy family, but still wants in when she learns about Ji-soo’s sideline. Before long, both competitors and the police begin to circle, and life for the teens gets considerably more dangerous.
Based on the title, I’d guess Sweet Home is a charming family comedy about three generations of a single family living under one roof. OK, no, it’s actually about the residents of an apartment building who’ve holed themselves up inside against the zombie-esque plague ravaging the world (here, the infection turns people into a variety of monsters, but otherwise the plot works along traditional zombie lines). High school student Cha Hyun-soo lost his entire family to a car accident, and moves into the building just in time. The added twist? Hyun-soo eventually gains control over his own infection and develops something like superpowers. This merely popular series is based on a very, very popular webtoon.
I think we can all agree there’s one big thing lacking in the US romantic comedy genre: serial killers. Oh Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) is a single mom who moves to a small town and opens a bar before kicking off a relationship with a local police officer. It seems at times as though he’s the only one happy to have her around: the older, more traditional women of the town don’t love that Dong-baek is a single mom, and they’re equally scandalized by her booze-related business. The show takes light aim at some of those outmoded views, but also complicates matters with the introduction of a serial killer whose next victim might well be Dong-baek.
Don’t be fooled when I say that this one ran for “one season.” While technically true, that season is 40 episodes and four specials long, though pairs of episodes are edited together for Netflix, so it’s more like 20…but still. Bad news if you’re looking for something quick, great news if you get sucked in. I’ve only sampled this one, but I’m thinking that’s not gonna be tough.
Well-off author and editor Cha Eun-ho has no idea his childhood friend Kang Dan-i, once a successful advertising copywriter, has fallen on hard times: She’s unemployed and a single mom without many prospects. When he asks her to help find him a housekeeper, she secretly takes on the job herself. Her ruse doesn’t last forever, and eventually she gets back into the workforce, dealing with the discrimination that comes with being both a woman and someone who’s been out of the business world for so long. It’s a rom-com with a healthy side of real-world challenges.
In an alternate universe (parallel universes being ubiquitous lately), Lee Gon (played by South Korean superstar Lee Min-ho) is the ruler of a unified kingdom composed of our world’s North and South Koreas. On the hunt for the uncle that killed his father, Lee Gon uses a magical flute (what else?) to travel to the alternate (to him) Republic of Korea, where he meets a police officer who helps him in his quest—before the romantic sparks fly, anyway. This show got mixed reviews back in Korea, but it’s still worth trying for its clever premise and talented, A-list cast.
Having been adopted into an Italian organized crime family as a baby, Park Joo-hyung took on the name Vincenzo Cassano, eventually becoming a mafia consigliere. Following the death of his adoptive father Don Fabio, Fabio’s biological son comes gunning for his brother, who he now sees only as competition. He flees to Seoul on the hunt for a secret stash of money, but in the process discovers a love interest and a new adversary in a giant business conglomerate that quite deserves to be taken down. Another incredibly popular series, this one definitely puts a unique spin on the tropes of the mob drama.
As you might have gathered from Squid Game, or perhaps from the similarly internationally popular Parasite, South Korean commercial entertainment has no trouble taking on the wealthy and the powerful—something we could probably learn a thing or two from in the US. Though this show provides a glittery look at the lives of the ultra-wealthy, it never gets so caught up in the glamour that it forgets to hit its targets. Which doesn’t make it any less juicy as a soap opera. Lee Bo-young and Kim Seo-hyung play a pair of daughters-in-law in a powerful family-run conglomerate, trying to carve out their own paths in a very patriarchal system. Try it in-between episodes of the third season of HBO’s Succession.
From their noodle-shop front, a group of demon hunters enlist So Mun, a disabled and nerdy high school student with a string sense of justice, to aid them in their cause. A high schooler by day, he helps The Counters battle paranormal threats by night—specifically, the evil spirits that possess humans on the cusp of violence or murder and push them over the edge. This one is a ton of fun, with a clever mythology that will appeal to anyone who ever binged a season of Buffy in a weekend.