Cliff’s ultimate guide to Korean Drama TV (kdramas) It all started with watching ‘parasite’. We loved it. So much in fact, that I looked at what Korean TV dramas were available on Netflix. That got us hooked, and now I would say probably 75% of my TV viewing is Korean dramas on netflix. I’ve watched a LOT of them, and they are long….. and some are better than others. Here is my much delayed ultimate guide to how to get into korean dramas. NOT SQUID GAME I’ve never watched squid game. I don’t like dark, or violent or ‘harrowing’ TV. If you loved squid game and want more of the same, I cannot help you. The kind of drama I like is very very low-stakes. Think downton abbey with noodles. There are no exploding helicopters or torture scenes. Although some of the dinner-table arguments in some kdramas are a sort of mental torture I guess… THINGS TO WARN YOU ABOUT Do you have Misophonia? Its a fear/hatred of the sounds of people eating, specifically slurping. If so. Just stop reading here. Its culturally totally accepted for people to make loud slurping noises when eating and drinking in Korea. Its expected. I’ve sat through hours of people slurping noodles noisely. You have been warned. Does workplace bullying trigger you? If so, you may also want to quit now. There are constant themes of workplace bullying in Korean dramas. I dont mean passive-aggressive emails, I mean people physically assaulting subordinates in an office and yelling abuse in their faces. Super common. Its kinda shocking. There is no sex and almost no violence. Thats likely a positive but some people will find Korean dramas laughably tame. I’m sticking with my ‘downton abbey with noodles’ theme. The EMOTIONAL power of the best of the series is exceptional, but I am yet to see an exploding helicopter. COMMON THEMES KDramas do some weird things that western dramas just DO NOT DO. For example, if someone smiles in some of the lighter dramas, and its supposed to be cute, don’t be shocked to see some added emojis and cartoon graphics appear on screen. Its a thing. Also, don’t be surprised if, the first time we see a good looking young man, he is walking in slow motion with his own theme song. Yup, thats a thing too. Oh and there will be an enormous amount of bowing, of drinking soju, a lot of people printing documents and shredding and scanning documents, a lot of late night drinking in bars that are seemingly tents, and a staggering amount of discussion of school homework. KDRAMA #1: CRASH LANDING ON YOU. People who have only watched one KDrama apart from squid game have watched this one. I almost skipped it, because the premise was so stupid: Fashion designer and daughter of billionaire accidentally skydives into North Korea’. Seriously? Although apparently this is more common that you might think. Anyway… this is a really good one. Its a romance, but its the most ‘action’ of all the dramas listed here. There are actual chases! on a motorbike! someone fires a gun! CLOY (as its known) is a typically epic story about the repercussions of a wealthy families daughter ending up in North Korea. Its a very clever intertwined romance that involves a bunch of people, multiple families, a lot of history, a cover-up and conspiracy, corruption, and lots more. You might *think* at the start that its a lightweight comedy, but its actually got more depth than you think. Its also got a superb cast. CLOY plays heavily with the hilarity of a wealthy fashion celeb who finds herself stuck in a peasant village, where only 4 different state-sanctioned hairstyles are permitted, and everything she tells people about her life is dismissed as ‘southern propaganda’. The North Korean soldiers who find her are often hilarious. CLOY got some grief for not depicting North Korean life as harshly as it maybe should have, which is fair, but its a comedy and a romance, not a documentary. Its long, but worth the effort. I’ve watched the whole thing twice. KDRAMA #2 SKY CASTLE Do you think parents put too much pressure on their kids to do well at school? HAHAHAHA. You might think that, but unless you are an upper-middle class South Korean mother, you are absolutely kidding. This drama shows you what REAL pressure on kids is like, and this is a common theme in many kdramas. South Korean kids have a staggeringly high suicide rate, and when you watch this series you will understand why. Oh. My. God. Like all the best kdramas, the first few episodes of Sky castle make you think you know how its all going to go. ‘Ok, so its about all these elite families and the lengths they go to in order to get their kids to the top of the class right?’ But it goes way further, and into way more into depth than you expect. Characters that you think you know all about very definitely turn out to have more depth. It also has some really superb performances, and is very, very emotional. I don’t have kids, and I’m massively affected by watching this. Its maybe a bit long, and some of the more lightweight plots, to do with the day jobs (mostly as doctors) of the parents can seem a bit ‘meh’ compared to the fairly dark and serious stuff, but I massively recommend this. It probably has the most jaw-open OMG moments of any kdrama KDRAMA #3: EXTRAORDINARY ATTORNEY WOO Not for everyone. Its unusual. EAW is about Koreas first attorney who is diagnosed as autistic. I REALLY like it. It handles it very well, although the lead character is probably a bit of a media-cliche of someone with autism. On the surface, again like all kdramas, its a simple premise: Young attorney Woo starts her first ever job, and learns to navigate the work environment, and make new friends. However, over time, you realize there is a lot of backstory and bigger, more serious plot also playing out in the background. The thing that really makes this special for me is the way in which they portray an autistic character as being openly, proudly and specifically autistic. There is none of this ‘shes a bit different’ or ‘thats just how she is I guess’ coded bullshit. She even introduces herself as autistic to the jury. Its really nicely done. I warn you that its one of those ‘wacky’ kdramas that is not afraid of cartoon sound effects and other silliness. Whenever Woo ‘cracks a case’ she gets visions of dolphins and her hair is blown back the wind. Yes really. Woo also has some really great performances. Specifically, her immediate boss does a brilliant job of navigating from arrogant and work-obsessed lawyer who hates the idea of woo in the office, to understanding, to friendship, and eventually to becoming a really likable character. Unlike the other shows listed here, Woo is very episodic. Each episode in a case, and the over-arching drama/romance is secondary. KDRAMA #4 MY MISTER This one is SO HARD to describe without it sounding boring, or unfocused. It is however, excellent, and probably has the best acting out of all these ones listed here, plus some great writing. The main star was also in Parasite, as the rich man, if that helps at all. Its really hard to explain the plot… but basically its about a family of 3 brothers, and how they are coping at a certain point in their life. One had a business fail, and is now unemployed and living back with the mother. Another is a once super-cool, but now failed movie director, also stuck at home with the mother. The third, and the ‘star’ is working as a structural engineer for a massive company, and it seems like the plot is basically going to be about an attempt to force him out of his job… My mister is LONG, and pretty dark, but its well worth the effort. It genuinely makes you feel for the characters, and you get to know so much about them. It has a unique mood, thats very carefully crafted, and really draws you in. Some of the characters are better than others, and the villains evil sidekick is *probably* funny on some level in Korea, but he just comes across as an over-the-top buffoon. Where My Mister really shines is the chemistry between the two stars. You *think* that this is going to be some sort of office romance between them… then you think ‘hell no, its a corruption/blackmail/stalking thing?’ and then your perspective on it changes again and again. My Mister has a big cast, and it doesn’t exactly race by. There is a LOT of drunken banter, a lot of slow moody scenes of people walking home in the dark, a lot of scenes of people loading and unloading paper into photocopiers… but its all awesome. What My Mister does really well is the philosophizing of the main characters. These are not people just slinging out snappy one-liners. There is a lot of deep introspection about life, what matters, whats important, emotions, and relationships. Its probably the best written kdrama in this list. Its also big on office politics. Which leads us to… #KDRAMA #5: MISAENG Dont ask me about the titles. Who knows how this happens… Anyway, this is an office drama. Like all Korean dramas, the focus of every single employee in these massive conglomerates is 100% on how they can screw over people in another department. Its amazing that ANYTHING gets made in Korea. All of the staff are constantly fighting with other departments. Its almost comical. Misaeng is basically about an intern at some big company. He is unusual in that he has very few qualifications, and has thus got he job through ‘connections’ (a common angry theme in kdramas). He is a one time professional baduk (Korean ‘go’, basically) player, who couldn’t make it full time, so suddenly has to refocus and get an office job. Sounds pretty tame? Misaeng was one of the first series we watched, so I was a bit shocked by how long it is, how AWFUL the workplace environment is for interns in a korean office, and all the other culture shock stuff, like the extreme, extreme deference to superiors at work (not at all unusual for everyone to stand and bow if the manager walks into the room). I also found myself constantly thinking ‘What the hell does this company even DO?’, but all of that is secondary to the relationships between the people in the tiny department it focuses on. I guess ultimately misaeng is about friendships at work, and how people rely on one another, and get to know one another. Its amazing watching it a second time, because you see your first impressions of almost everyone are so wrong. You end up REALLY rooting for the manager of this small team, and really caring about them when things dont go their way. Be warned: if watching a billion hours of people answering the phone and writing reports and fetching coffee is going to kill you, then probably don’t get started with this one :D. KDRAMA #6: LEGAL HIGH This one is DEFINITELY an acquired taste. Its super weird, but for some reason I found it absolutely hilarious. It REALLY piles on the wacky sound effects and crazy camera tricks, but it does it with such style… Its basically the story of a lawyer who has a reputation for never, ever, ever losing a case, and who is famously obsessed with money (or is he?). Due to a hilarious translation, his nickname is ‘monster pervert’, but you have to just mentally ignore that, because its clearly gone a bit wrong there… Anyway, I LOVE the main character, he was obviously born to play this role. He excels at pulling the most amazingly smug expressions every time he inexplicably wins a case and things go his way. His assistant, a man obviously styled on Batman’s ‘Alfred’ is also good value. Some of the other characters can be over-the-top and annoying, but its worth it for those scenes where Ko Tae Rim goes into one of his rapid fire nonsensical monologues that win over the jury. OTHER KDRAMAS Trust me, these are the best 6. I’ve watched a load more, including Startup, Strongest Deliveryman, Our Blues, Revolutionary Love, Crash Course in Romance and likely more I cant remember. If you want something closest to a western drama in style, its probably Crash landing. If you want excellent writing, its My Mister. For light hearted fun, Legal High or Attorney Woo. Sky Castle is tough to watch but worth it. Misaeng will make you glad you arent an office worker in Korea.