It is a great time to be a Korean drama fan, Soompiers! There are more dramas, TV stations, producers, directors, and actors than ever before to deliver the content we love. Streaming sites like Viki bring Korean dramas to our personal devices and into our homes for some quality entertainment. Years ago the international audience didn’t have it as good as we do now, but boy have there been a slew of amazing dramas to keep our eyes, hearts, and minds fed. This summer, let’s pay homage to the last 10 years that brought dramas to where they are today.
This is the year of Viki’s inception, which makes it a perfect place to start! Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun Hye‘s staple drama “Coffee Prince” was born this year. It is one of the great gender benders in all of dramaland, referenced in many-a-drama thereafter and championed by none. You’ll also find workplace drama “Dal Ja’s Spring,” cohabitation drama “9 Ends 2 Outs,” traditional drama “Jumong,” and melodrama “Que Sera Sera.” Actors like Lee Min Ki, Soo Ae, and Eric Mun either established or further established their careers after starring in these dramas. At this point, there were only a few stations regularly showing dramas compared to the vast number today, but there was still some gorgeous entertainment being produced. Dramas in their newest incarnation that began in the early 90s had been charming audiences for almost 17 years!
Watch “Coffee Prince”:
What a special year 2008 was. It was the year when the 129-episode “Temptation of Wife” began, a smash hit led by the incredible Jang Seo Hee. Captivating audiences all over Asia, this drama, despite it’s heavy subject matter (or perhaps because of it), has been quoted extensively throughout the years. Kang Ji Hwan captured hearts in fusion traditional drama “Hong Gil Dong,” which made huge strides in the fusion genre and in the re-telling of the classic tale. Lee Joon Gi‘s “Iljimae” set the actor firmly in the role of an action hero. Family drama “Kimcheed Radish” has a full cast of names that are now ridiculously famous. I have to thank it for helping to solidify the career of megastar Park Shin Hye.
Click below to watch “Temptation of Wife”:
2009 was the birth year of “You’re Beautiful,” my gateway drama and introduction not only to the world of drama, but to K-pop (and Soompi!). A gender bender drama like “Coffee Prince,” “You’re Beautiful” influenced pop culture trends among the youth of South Korea and plays on the huge K-pop industry.
But this isn’t the only major drama of the year. Oh no. Another popular gateway drama for international fans aired: “Boys Over Flowers.” It was a career-launcher for Lee Min Ho and an early start to the remake trend. “Boys Over Flowers” influenced so many subsequent dramas despite its flaws. Traditional dramas “The Great Queen Seon Deok,” a powerful female-led drama, and “The Return of Iljimae,” a stunning exploration of a man who cares for his people, made strides in gorgeous cinematography and developing historical drama writing. “High Kick Through The Roof” aired as part of a successful series with big names like Choi Daniel, Hwang Jung Eum, Yoon Shi Yoon, and Shin Se Kyung, who found a firm footing in the industry.
Click below to watch “You’re Beautiful”:
2010 was a very important year for international K-drama fans. Streaming became widely available and non-entertainment foreign news outlets began to cover the sensation that is Korean drama. Fusion traditional drama and gender bender “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” in particular hit the international waves and rocked the worlds of drama fans. Who could forget the Jalgeum Quartet led by precocious Park Min Young?
“Secret Garden,” the mother of all wonderful memes, drama jokes, and OST quotings, aired with Hyun Bin. Through the drama, the actor started a most ridiculous sparkly tracksuit faux fashion trend, and his famous coffee foam kiss with the powerful Ha Ji Won made everyone swoon. “Slave Hunters” (also known as “Chuno”) clocked in as a high-budget and highly rated epic drama, “Daemul” featured an impactful performance by Go Hyun Jung, and “Playful Kiss” (yet another popular gateway drama) also hit the air. “Baker King, Kim Tak Goo” astoundingly swept ratings, and “Prosecutor Princess” added a bit of levity in this pivotal year of 2010.
One last thing: the webtoon adaptions really started in earnest with dramas like “Marry Me, Mary!” It led the way for webcasts and manhwa adaptations as well.
Watch “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”:
I’m going to take a moment to wax poetic about 2011. Although “You’re Beautiful” was my gateway drama, it was “City Hunter” that I first watched as it aired. The excitement of waiting week to week to see what happened to Lee Min Ho and Park Min Young was a safe high that you never wanted to let go. I’m sure each international drama fan had such a moment. It was “City Hunter” and the year of 2011 that allowed me to explore the treasure trove of drama and become the proudly obsessed fan I am today!
Personal love of drama aside, jTBC was born in 2011 and joined the stations in making some great dramas like “Padam Padam” with Jung Woo Sung, Kim Bum, and Han Ji Min. Two of the most epic historical dramas also aired in 2011: “A Tree with Deep Roots” and “Warrior Baek Dong Soo.” These two have become dramas to which reviewers, directors, and writers constantly refer to.
The first of the “Flower Boys” series titled “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop” also aired this year, stealing viewers’ hearts with its humor, whimsy, and ability to tap into deep emotions. Lesser-known productions (at the time) like “White Christmas” and “What’s Up” explored beautiful cinematography and psychological issues. Then “The Greatest Love,” another drama from the Hong Sisters, rocked our world. This year was really when the number of excellent dramas began to increase.
Click below to watch “City Hunter”:
By this point in time, I could really just list the incredible dramas, but there are quite a few that stand out. “Reply 1997” started the “Reply” series, which is known for its intimate feels and way of making anyone in the world relate to its family, friend, and romantic situations. Its telltale bleating noises and ability to find relatively unknown actors and shoot them to stardom are trademarks of the now three-part series.
Other dramas such as “Shut Up! Flower Boy Band” explored the nastier side of school and the music industry while still making us swoon over Sung Joon. And “My Daughter Seo Young” took over the family drama world. Then an epic onscreen and real life bromance was publicly born in “School 2013,” starring Kim Woo Bin and Lee Jong Suk.
One early contribution to the time travel drama trend that was so prolific is “Queen In Hyun’s Man,” while “The King 2 Hearts” explored North/South relations that are ever still relevant. “Bridal Mask” is an early 20th century depiction of Japanese occupation and an immensely emotional ride. It really set a great example for what a “moving” drama really is. There are so many more excellent dramas that aired in 2012 that I will limit myself to mentioning only one more: “Vampire Prosecutor.” Talk about taking crime drama to the next level. It was so beautifully shot, and the mystery was so finely tuned on an episodic level and over the course of the whole drama.
Watch “Shut Up! Flower Boy Band”:
Time travel, aliens, and abilities made their way onto the bustling scene of Korean drama in 2013. “Marry Him If You Dare,” “Nine: 9 Times Time Travel,” “I Hear Your Voice,” and “My Love From the Star” made a definite impression on the drama world. “My Love From the Star” saw huge success in Asia, especially China, and brought Kim Soo Hyun to even more epic fame. “Gu Family Book” was immensely popular in North America with Lee Seung Gi and Choi Jin Hyuk stealing the show. Cameos that came after Choi Jin Hyuk’s were never the same again. “Master’s Sun” continued to boost the Hong Sisters’ name in drama stardom, while “Pinocchio” solidified Lee Jong Suk as a must-have lead actor.
“Heirs” also aired this year, and is worth noting for its star-studded cast and incredible promotions, and “Heartless City” took the already popular Jung Kyung Ho and settled him firmly in the pool of “it” actors.
Watch “Gu Family Book”:
“Healer”! Ji Chang Wook and Park Min Young, plus the adorable father, techy ajumma, and the entire gang; all the characters were amazing in this drama. dramaland is always exciting, but it doesn’t always see tight writing like this. Another great, underrated 2014 drama was “Punch,” a medical/political drama that made its villain and hero both many shades of grey. “Bad Guys” also falls into this category, a story devoid of romance yet still endlessly compelling. These men may be “bad guys,” but you want to get to know them and hope for the best.
One of the underdog dramas that became a sensation was “Incomplete Life,” a workplace drama that tapped into the human psyche and emotion in a way that was not seen before. It completely reworked the expectations for workplace dramas and showed the world that Im Siwan is not an idol actor. He is an actor. “It’s Okay, That’s Love” took a look at mental illness in a way not often explored in dramas and made the K-drama world a little safer for the dramatic exploration of mental illness.
Delicious series “Let’s Eat” began, and “Liar Game” continued remake trends. Webcasts like “Love Cells” also started to really storm into the scene. Re-imagined content became huge around this time and paved the way for American remakes that hit screens closer to present. It’s really incredible what looking back on drama history can show you about its evolution and how amazing the industry really is!
Watch “Incomplete Life”:
Rather than making any particular dent in history, 2015 was a year that really redefined dramas. When “Reply 1988” aired in 2015, its magic pervaded dramaland, drama audiences, and the world. News outlets began to share Korean culture through the exploration of the dramas. Soon, the world was caught up not only in the tightly knit families of Duk Seon’s neighborhood, but also in how the drama closely portrayed the real lives of South Koreans and people all over the world who have lived through similar situations. The other two installments also did this, but not to the same extent.
“Oh My Venus” tackled obesity, which is brave in such an image conscious society. It was by no means perfect, but it paved the way for more pieces like this to be made without body shaming. “Producer” took an “Office Space” feel at the start and delivered an unusual romance with a strong cast, while “Imaginary Cat” with Yoo Seung Ho and “Orange Marmalade” with Yeo Jin Goo contributed to the growing library of webtoon adaptations, making them a little more than just vehicles for idols and actors to try and get a foot in the acting door.
“Six Flying Dragons” flew through the year as an impactful historical drama, while “Oh My Ghostess” continued the supernatural trend with scene-stealer Jo Jung Suk and film star Park Bo Young, who has since taken over the small screen as well.
Competition for top stars, top time slots, and top advertisements drove 2015 and culminated in something amazing in 2016.
2016: The year that K-dramas exploded outside its audience and prescribed realm of influence. This is completely due to “Descendants of the Sun.” While arguably not the “best” drama in dramaland, “Descendants” is definitely one of the most influential, both within South Korea and throughout the world. Much like BTS’s recent win at the BBMAs, it earned an incredible amount of attention from North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia! Song Joong Ki, Song Hye Kyo, Jin Goo, and Kim Ji Won became so famous that the industry boomed with their appearances in commercials (CFs), fan meets, and other dramas. They were especially popular in China and throughout Asia, and that influence still continues today.
But that wasn’t the only wonderful thing that happened in 2016. “Goblin” also happened, a fantastical love story starring the ever-winning Gong Yoo and Kim Go Eun. It is the father of memes and the mother of many a one-sided crush on Gong Yoo. Meanwhile, “Scarlet Heart: Goryeo” won international audiences in a similar way despite a few editing blips. It’s the Lee Joon Gi Effect. “Another Oh Hae Young” brought Eric Mun back and paired him with Seo Hyun Jin for an incredible story about adult love that is tangible and real, taking a step away from the more formulaic love stories that tend to rule dramaland. “Weighlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo” tackled female body image, while “Don’t Dare to Dream (Jealousy Incarnate)” delivered a thoughtful comedy about love, work, and the ideology of masculinity.
Watch “Descendants of the Sun”:
Now 10 years after “Coffee Prince” aired, 2017 is teeming with new dramas that build on what we know and love while also trying to break boundaries. Yoon Kyun Sang stepped forward as one of the most winning Hong Gil Dong’s ever to hit the screen in “Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People.” Actors we have long followed are stretching their acting chops and are taking on new roles. Park Hyung Sik became a leading man in “Strong Woman Do Bong Soon.” Kim Young Kwang is taking on a seriously complex character in “Lookout.” “Our Gap Soon” killed the weekends with Song Jae Rim at the helm. “Radiant Office” combined the drudgery of office life with the weight of illness and societal pressure. The year of 2017 also is bringing a new format explored by MBC and SBS, where hour-long episodes are divided into two 30-minute episodes to allow for commercial breaks, which in drama speak means funding.
Watch “Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People”:
Of course, there is still the second half of the year. But until those dramas air, we have a trove of dramas to dig into! Obviously, this list is by no means inclusive. Korean dramas have so much to give to South Korea and its international fans.
Soompiers, what have been your favorite dramas over the years? Do you have a list of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!
Raine0211 is a lover of all things Korean, especially K-pop, K-drama, and Korean food. When she’s not writing for Soompi, she’s playing the cello and singing. She happily indulges in all kinds of K-pop, but her biases are SHINee, Infinite, and VIXX. She lives with her sister, her roommate Elsa, and her two cats, Timmy and Momo, all of whom also love K-pop and K-drama.