The Perfect K-Dramas for a Summer Marathon
Summer: it’s the season for rest, relaxation, and marathoning dramas! Something about the long, warm, summer nights just inspires me to barrel through as many dramas as I can. In that spirit, here are some great dramas to marathon, broken up by genre. At some point in my life, I decided that each of these dramas was more important than sleep! Let us know in the comments below if these are dramas you have marathoned (or would like to marathon!), and please leave your own suggestions as well!
“Jewel in the Palace” was wildly popular when it aired in 2003-4, and it’s not hard to see why. The story itself is fairly simple—Seo Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae) strives to achieve recognition in the Royal Palace, first as a cook, then as a doctor, in the hopes of restoring her mother’s honor. What makes “Jewel in the Palace” so special and addictive is its lived-in quality. Watching Jang Geum and her fellow kitchen ladies prepare meals for the royal family really feels like being transported into the past. This focus on the everyday rituals that maintain life—cooking a meal, healing an illness—makes “Jewel in the Palace” feel truly of the era it portrays, and that’s both fascinating and enjoyable to watch.
“Jewel in the Palace” is also the most subtly feminist k-drama I’ve ever seen. Despite being set in the patriarchal Joseon society, this story revolves almost entirely around women. The women of the royal kitchen and the royal apothecary are wonderfully complex, filling up every shade of the moral spectrum. They are also true masters of their crafts—scheming Court Lady Choi (Kyun Mi Ri) and her niece Geum Young (Hong Ri Na) may be villains, but there’s no denying the quality of their cooking. The richness of these characters makes it easy to get drawn into their world, and to get caught up in their battles to live and work according to their values.
If you want a drama this summer that will truly transport you from the modern day, then “Jewel in the Palace” is what you’re looking for. You’ll spend 54 episodes in 16th-century Joseon, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you could go back for more.
The Great Queen Seondeok
“The Great Queen Seondeok” is 62 episodes long, and I finished in a week and a half. That’s how addictive and binge-able this drama is. It’s not perfect, but it’s nearly impossible to put down. There are two main ingredients that combine to make the magic of “Queen Seondeok.” The first is the sheer scope of the story. The narrative spans decades, encompassing prophecies, romance, war, epic journeys, and brutal power struggles. The sheer scale of the drama is undeniably engrossing. The second ingredient is protagonist Deokman (Lee Yo Won), who goes on to become Queen Seondeok. Ko Hyun Jung may have received all the accolades for her passionate performance as the endlessly ambitious Lady Mishil, but Deokman is the true hero of the story, the center around whom all other characters revolve. What I found so remarkable about Deokman is that even though she’s more virtuous than Mishil, she is no less ambitious than her rival, no less ruthless in the pursuit of her goals. Deokman starts her story as an outcast from the royal family, and it’s truly marvelous to watch her claw her way into power, creating a space for herself in Silla’s government where none had previously existed. Ultimately, “Queen Seondeok” the drama is epic because Deokman herself is an epic character, all heart and soul and iron will.
There are a lot of reasons to watch “The Great Queen Seondeok” (including, of course, Ko Hyun Jung, who is clearly having the time of her life as Mishil), but for my money, the title character is the biggest reason. If you’re in the mood for a true hero narrative, then this is the drama for you.
A great early noona romance, “What’s Up Fox?” explores the relationship between 33-year-old Ko Byung Hee (Ko Hyun Jung) and 24-year-old Park Chul Soo (Chun Jung Myung). “What’s Up Fox?” is a genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud drama, but it also explores the pitfalls of dating a younger guy really honestly. Byung Hee has known Chul Soo since he was born, and the introduction of romance and sex into their relationship is understandably difficult for her (not to mention her mother!) to handle. It’s not every drama that manages to be realistic, hilarious, and romantic all at the same time, but “What’s Up Fox?” somehow manages.
If you’re looking for a romcom with both of its feet planted firmly on the ground, this is the drama for you.
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Yes, everyone and their mother has seen “Coffee Prince.” But when I think of good dramas to watch during the summer, “Coffee Prince” is the first show that comes into my mind. The thing is, “Coffee Prince” isn’t just one of the most deliriously romantic dramas ever made. It’s also a deeply summery drama. All of its action takes place during summer, and the viewer feels that—the heat, humidity, and stickiness of summer exist in every scene. Honestly, I think that’s a huge part of why the drama is so powerful. The relationship between Eun Chan (Yoon Eun Hye) and Han Kyul (Gong Yoo) feels acutely real because it’s so thoroughly rooted in when and where it develops. If the drama took place during a different season, it would be fundamentally different (for example, Eun Chan and Han Kyul’s many late-night strolls would become quite uncomfortable in winter!).
In celebration of the season we’re just beginning, take some time and relive the wonderful, summery glory that is “Coffee Prince”!
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At the beginning of “Queen of Reversals,” Hwang Tae Hee (Kim Nam Joo) has everything: a good job and salary, power, and a bright future. The drama begins when she throws all of that away for love, and quickly discovers that living on love alone isn’t as easy as one might hope. Hwang Tae Hee is a truly winning heroine, in both her strengths and her flaws. She endures many hardships, but her indomitable will and sense of humor guarantee that the viewer always has fun, even when Tae Hee isn’t. Watching her struggles and growth and eventual realization that happiness might just be possible is a real joy. And though a lot of the drama revolves around Tae Hee’s home life, her work family becomes just as crucial, as her co-workers, with all their faults and foibles, develop into really wonderful characters in their own right.
If you’re in the mood for a heart-warming, inspirational drama, consider “Queen of Reversals.”
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If you want a drama that will make you cry, look no further than “Good Doctor.” As you might expect from a drama about pediatric surgeons, it is shamelessly manipulative, never hesitating to use sick children to wring tears from its viewers. Not that I’m complaining—watching “Good Doctor” is a wonderfully cathartic experience, and the drama’s deep, obvious empathy for all its characters is genuinely enjoyable. Add to that wonderful lead performances (Joo Won got a lot of deserved attention for his role as an autistic doctor, but Moon Chae Won is equally great), and the result is a satisfying, emotional drama.
If you want a drama that warms your heart and exercises your tear ducts, then “Good Doctor” is a great pick.
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“Moon River” (also known as “The Return of Iljimae”) is a drama that starts out slow, but quickly becomes impossible to put down. What’s remarkable about “Moon River” is that even though its story (a folk hero steals from the rich and gives to the poor, set against the background of the Second Manchu Invasion of Korea) is larger-than-life, it’s an intimate character study at heart. This drama is less interested in the mere fact that Iljimae (Jung Il Woo) is a hero than in what kind of a hero he is, and the effects his choices have on him and the people around him. It’s also refreshingly, brutally honest about Iljimae’s flaws, and all of the pain that his lover, Wol Hee (Yoon Jin Seo), goes through because of him. It’s precisely those flaws, however, that make Iljimae’s story so great. He’s a hero, but he’s also a wounded, damaged person, and watching him attempt to reconcile those two aspects of his existence is genuinely fascinating.
If you’re in the mood for an action-packed, smart, soulful drama, then I couldn’t recommend “Moon River” more highly.
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“Arang and the Magistrate” is, visually, one of the most beautiful dramas I’ve ever seen. Its use of color makes every scene stand out—even the fog-enshrouded night scenes pop. This visual palette doesn’t just serve an aesthetic purpose, however. The storybook feel of its tableaux enhances the whimsical, fantastical qualities of “Arang and the Magistrate,” making the story of ghosts, gods, and demons feel perfectly natural. But if “Arang” is a storybook, or a fairytale, it’s still a very thoughtful one; the titular characters (played, respectively, by Shin Min Ah and Lee Jun Ki) are damaged people desperately searching for a way to right the wrongs of their pasts. The way that these quests (and characters) meet and intertwine is smart, touching, and romantic.
If you want a fairytale with a deeply human heart, you can’t do better than “Arang and the Magistrate.”
There’s no denying that the first few episodes of “Dream High” move slowly. But once the premise—a group of outcasts, played by Suzy, Kim Soo Hyun, Taecyeon, and IU, set out to prove that they belong in the elite Kirin Arts School—is established, “Dream High” becomes as addictive as any drama I’ve ever watched. Its central themes of following your dreams and persevering in the face of opposition are naturally resonant and it’s frequently bust-a-gut funny, but where “Dream High” succeeds most impressively to me is in its depiction of performance. Whether the kids are singing in a recital or having an impromptu dance-off in the streets, the sheer exhilaration and joy that they derive from being in front of an audience and displaying their gifts is palpable. It can be difficult to capture that passion and convey it to an audience, but “Dream High” makes it look easy.
If you want a drama that will lift your spirit and put a song in your heart, then “Dream High” is the drama for you.
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As you might guess from its premise (an 18-year-old high schooler goes to work in an office, pretending to be his 28-year-old brother), “King of High School” is unrepentantly silly, but that’s what makes it so fun. It doesn’t want to teach you anything, or even to make you think deeply. All it wants is for its audience to laugh, and it succeeds perfectly at that. The central performance by Seo In Guk is pure comedy gold, and he’s supported by a great cast, in which even the minor characters are reliably amusing.
If you just want to sit back, relax, and laugh, then check out “King of High School.”
What about you, Soompiers? How do you feel about the dramas I’ve mentioned—and what are your own favorite dramas to marathon? Let us know in the comments below!