With the extra time spent at home, the lockdown is the perfect time for many of us to catch up on television dramas. Besides being a great way to pass the time without leaving the home, dramas can provide us all with a little escapism, giving a much-needed break from the often overwhelming news cycle. With the help of browser extensions such as Netflix Party, bingeing a new series doesn’t have to be a solitary activity even in lockdown, and the recent expansion of Korean content available on Netflix in the UK means that simply choosing what to watch next can be a timely activity in itself!
Everyone’s been talking about season two of the Netflix original Kingdom, featuring Bae Doona, Ju Ji-hoon and hundreds of extras covered with synthetic gore, but for those who aren’t into zombies here are some recommendations to get you started:
Crash Landing on You (사랑의 불시착)
Romance/comedy, 2019, 16 episodes x 70-110 minutes.
Crash Landing on You is a recent hit from tvN, following the escapades of a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin) who accidentally paraglides across the border into North Korea, and the dashing soldier (Hyun Bin) who finds and protects her. The episodes are long, but rarely boring, and the rather silly premise quickly develops into a compelling story of friendship and love. Besides its star-studded cast (including two of the stars of Oscar-winning film Parasite), this drama has drawn particular attention for its representation of life in a North Korean village, with many details provided by writer Kwak Moon-wan, himself a North Korean defector. Crash Landing on You boasts a little bit of everything: the central romantic plot is complemented by storylines about family ties and status (in both North and South Korea), as well as plenty of comic moments, often poking fun at the cultural differences between the two halves of the peninsula. The show’s unique charm and North Korean setting have made it the second highest-rated drama in Korean cable television history. The sympathetic characters and intricate plot draw the viewer in, making it a great choice to binge-watch during lockdown!
Action/thriller, 2009, 20 episodes x 60 minutes.
This is a long-time favourite of mine, so I was thrilled when it returned to UK Netflix a while ago. IRIS follows two elite soldiers and lifelong friends as they are recruited into the secretive National Security Service and become embroiled in an international conspiracy. The plot is exciting, with plenty of twists and turns throughout the twenty episodes to keep viewers on their toes, accompanied by a brilliantly atmospheric OST. The action and drama is carried by a stellar cast, including Lee Byung-hun, Jung Joon-ho and Kim Tae-hee. It’s difficult to explain exactly why I enjoy IRIS so much without giving away the plot, but despite having seen it countless times, a recent rewatch still had me on the edge of my seat, shouting and squealing at the television screen. This would be a great choice to watch in sync with friends, followed by a debrief via video call after each episode to make sense of the latest dramatic developments.
Master’s Sun (주군의 태양)
Romance/fantasy/mystery, 2013, 17 episodes x 60 minutes.
Netflix started suggesting Master’s Sun to me after I watched Oh My Venus, presumably based on the reasonable assumption that I would want to work my way through So Ji-sub’s entire filmography. However, it was not until a friend recommended it that I began watching, as I had written it off as ‘just another naff romance’. In many ways, it is just another naff romance, but in this case the fun twist is that the main female protagonist Tae Gong-shil (portrayed excellently by Gong Hyo-jin) can see ghosts, but the ghosts disappear when she has physical contact with self-centred businessman Joo Joong-won, whom she meets by chance. Incorporating elements of horror, each episode of Master’s Sun introduces a new supernatural mystery for Gong-shil to investigate, while her relationship with Joo Joong-won provides the arc of the series. Naturally, he too has some unresolved business with a ghost from his past… This series is a romance drama with a twist, and it’s great fun from beginning to end.
My First First Love (첫사랑은 처음이라서)
Romance/coming of age, 2019, 16 episodes x 40-60 minutes.
My First First Love focuses on the friendships and first loves of five friends in their early twenties, as they move into the house of protagonist Yoon Tae-o together. This drama is a breath of fresh air, dealing with first love in a sympathetic and optimistic way. The first season is particularly charming, and while the main plot arc of season two was a bit disappointing, it’s still worth a watch for some of the side plots and character development. My First First Love has a cheery tone, capturing tender moments of friendship and fun between the main characters. The young cast bring lots of energy to their roles, making this drama an entertaining and uplifting escape.
Reply 1997 (응답하라 1997)
Coming of age/comedy, 2012, 16 episodes x 30-60 minutes.
This 2012 drama is full of retro fandom fun as it follows the lives of six friends reminiscing about their high school days in the 1990s when they gather for a reunion. Although the plot is, for the most part, quite predictable, the charm of this series lies in its portrayal of the fan culture surrounding first generation K-pop idols. K-pop fans of all generations will relate to protagonist Shi-won, portrayed delightfully by Jung Eun-ji of Apink in her acting debut, and her enthusiasm for her beloved H.O.T. The episodes are packed with pop culture references and accompanied by a soundtrack of 90s hits, creating a strong sense of nostalgia. The casting of Sechs Kies’ Eun Ji-won and a handful of cameos by other first-generation idols add to Reply 1997’s appeal. However, for those who watch dramas to help with Korean language studies, Reply 1997 may not be the best choice, as it is set in Busan and the cast speak with strong regional accents, which may be hard to understand for those more accustomed to the Seoul accent. If you like Reply 1997, there’s some good news: its two spin-off series, Reply 1994 and Reply 1988 are also available on UK Netflix!
Romance is a Bonus Book (로맨스는 별책부록)
Romance/comedy, 2019, 16 episodes x 60 minutes.
For those feeling anxious during the lockdown (and who isn’t?), Romance is a Bonus Book is a wonderful antidote to the stress of engaging with recent news. With its pastel colour palette and beautiful cinematography, this drama follows a romance developing between childhood friends Cha Eun-ho (Lee Jong-suk), an author and editor, and Kang Dan-i (Lee Na-young), a divorced single mother, when she begins working at Cha Eun-ho’s publishing company. Romance is a Bonus Book subtly explores the hardships faced by Kang Dan-i as she returns to work following a career break, as well as the challenges of feelings developing between friends. The supporting cast are excellent, and viewers will quickly become invested in the fates of the secondary characters as well as the main couple. It’s more slowly paced than most dramas, with more time devoted to character development, and it will leave you feeling calm and uplifted — and isn’t that what we all need these days?
Sky Castle (SKY 캐슬)
Satire/black comedy, 2018, 20 episodes x 60-80 minutes.
Sky Castle is the highest-rated series in Korean cable television history, and with good reason. For the uninitiated, this satirical drama follows the lives of wealthy housewives in an exclusive Seoul neighbourhood, who will stop at nothing to guarantee the success of their own husbands and children. The plot, which largely focuses on the competitive college admissions process, is full of intense drama, with plenty of twists and betrayals to keep viewers entertained. The ensemble cast (including Yeom Jung-ah) features a number of reliable veteran actors as well as some impressive newcomers in the younger roles. Thanks to its dark comedy and well-written characters, Sky Castle is great fun to watch from beginning to end. Each episode packs a punch, so this is a good one to watch over a few weeks, rather than bingeing in a couple of sittings. If you find yourself becoming fascinated by the phenomenon that is Sky Castle, Netflix also has a special episode, originally aired after the finale, in which some of the cast discuss the show.
Something in the Rain (밥 잘 사주는 예쁜 누나)
Romance, 2018, 16 episodes x 60-90 minutes.
This warmhearted 2018 romance drama offers a slow-paced plot with a calming (if rather repetitive) soundtrack. Over sixteen episodes, the series explores the romantic relationship developing between Yoon Jina (Son Ye-jin), a supervisor at a cafe franchise, and Seo Jun-hui (Jung Hae-in), the younger brother of her best friend. The chemistry between the lead actors makes it easy for the viewer to root for them from the beginning, as the new couple deal with various societal expectations and judgments regarding their relationship, family status and educational backgrounds. The secondary storyline explores the culture of sexual harassment faced by the female employees at Yoon Jina’s company. Something in the Rain seamlessly combines this social commentary with the delightful central romantic plot, resulting in a drama that is hugely enjoyable to watch while also giving the viewer plenty of food for thought.