If you were to ask a friend which Korean drama series they’d recommend, chances are last year’s Squid Game would be high on their list.
Not only did the show pull off a record-breaking 1.65 billion hours of viewing in its first 28 days on Netflix, it also won multiple prestigious awards—including two Emmys, one for outstanding lead actor and one for outstanding guest actress in a drama series. But most importantly, it showcased on a global scale the South Korean entertainment industry’s creativity and ability to innovate on the small screen.
This year was another stellar year for K-drama and general Korean content at Netflix, following a 500 million-dollar investment in South Korean production stages and content in the past two years. The streaming platform reported that over 60% of their users watched Korean content in 2022. In the past year, Korean content has made it on Netflix’s Weekly Top 10 chart in more than 90 countries—and three of its top 10 most popular non-English shows ever are from South Korea (Squid Game, All of Us Are Dead, and Extraordinary Attorney Woo).
Whether you’re a complete newcomer looking to dip your toe in Netflix’s pool of Korean dramas or a seasoned fan looking to expand your list of shows to watch, here are the 10 best shows that dropped this year. All titles are available to watch on Netflix USA and are listed in no particular order.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo
Legal dramas are nothing new, but Extraordinary Attorney Woo brings a fresh spin to the genre by featuring an autistic rookie lawyer as the titular character. Park Eun-bin sensitively portrays Woo Young-woo, who uses her savant-like attributes (including a photographic memory) to represent her clients and help solve legal cases. Many viewers have praised the show for its nuanced depiction of issues surrounding workplace accessibility and the various prejudices people with disabilities face in society. The 16-episode drama series became Netflix’s sixth most popular non-English show of all time, spending 20 weeks on the Global Non-English Top 10 list—the only show to do so since Squid Game.
All Of Us Are Dead
Fans of the zombie genre will enjoy this series about a group of Korean teenagers who find themselves trapped in a school amid a mysterious virus outbreak that turns victims into angry flesh-eating monsters. Based on a webtoon, Now at Our School by Joo Dong-geun, All Of Us Are Dead is a blood-soaked emotional roller coaster featuring convincing performances from rookie actors. The plot is driven mainly by the usual adolescent angst and apprehension about the future, but what separates this teenage hormone-fueled series from other shows is the drama fueled by just how far a person—especially one who’s been bullied—will go for vengeance.
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Veteran actor Kim Hye-soo returns to the small screen for Juvenile Justice, a procedural legal drama. Kim plays Sim Eun-seok, a newly appointed judge at a juvenile court who has made it abundantly clear she dislikes young offenders and believes the law must severely punish them. Balancing her temperament is associate judge Cha Tae-joo (played by Kim Moo-yeol) who believes in giving second chances. The series tackles issues like murder and sexual abuse, and viewers are encouraged to ask themselves whether the punishment that Eun-seok metes out fits the crime. The series is particularly captivating in developing the arc of Eun-seok as it slowly unveils the reasons behind her disdain for juvenile offenders and her years-long pursuit of justice.
Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the late ‘90s, when the IMF crisis crashes South Korea’s economy. The plot centers on Na Hee-do (played by Kim Tae-ri of Mr. Sunshine fame), a high school student who dreams of becoming an Olympian fencer one day, and her blossoming romance with Baek Yi-jin (played by Nam Joo-hyuk), a student forced to drop out of college when his family loses their fortune because of the financial crisis. Their relationship is told through the eyes of Hee-do’s 15-year-old daughter Kim Min-chae (played by Choi Myung-bin) who chances upon her mother’s diary in present-day South Korea. The 16-episode series is peppered with wistful moments that speak to the relatable experience of growing up in a society that is undergoing massive changes.
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Webtoon-turned-drama-series Business Proposal is a light-hearted rom-com that checks all the boxes for a casual weekend binge-fest. Shin Ha-ri (played by K-pop singer Kim Se-jeong) is a young food researcher who, at her best friend’s behest, takes her place on a blind date for an arranged marriage, with the intent to chase the potential suitor away. It turns out, however, that the man who shows up is none other than Kang Tae-moo (played by Ahn Hyeo-sop), the CEO of the company Ha-ri works for. But instead of being scared away, he ends up proposing a business deal—a fake engagement to get his grandfather off his back in exchange for monetary payments to Ha-ri who needs to support her parents. The misadventures that ensue are often cute and hilarious, even if they border on the outlandish.
In a bid to provide for his kids, noraebang (karaoke) owner Kang In-gu (played by Ha Jung-woo) joins his friend’s business importing skate fish from Suriname to South Korea. After opening up a factory in Suriname, In-gu is introduced to Pastor Jeon Yo-han (played by Hwang Jung-min), a Korean church leader who has built a reputation as a Good Samaritan, helping protect local businesses from gangs and corrupt authorities. However, In-gu realizes that it’s all a front when he’s falsely accused of committing a crime: the skate fish he’s importing are found stuffed with cocaine, which is later traced to Pastor Jeon. In-gu is approached by Choi Chang-ho (played by Park Hae-soo) an agent with the National Intelligence Service (Korea’s CIA) looking for someone who can infiltrate Pastor Jeon’s inner circle. With no other options available, In-gu teams up with Chang-ho to bring down the pastor’s drug empire. The show, which is loosely based on real events, was not spared from controversy: the portrayal of Suriname as a narco-state prompted its government to explore legal action against the show’s producers.
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Grab your tissues: Son Ye-jin (Crash Landing On You) returns to the small screen in a tearjerker about the lifelong friendship between three women on the cusp of turning 40. The trio—made up of Cha Mi-jo (played by Son), Jeon Chan-young (Jeon Mi-do) and Jang Joo-hee (Kim Ji-hyun)—find their friendship put to the test when one of them is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The lows these women face are offset by the highs that come with finding small moments of joy as they support each other through the pain of inevitable loss. The show is a balm for the soul and viewers couldn’t get enough: Thirty-Nine was on Netflix’s Global Weekly Top 10 for five weeks this spring.
The Sound of Magic
This six-episode musical drama is based on Annarasumanara, a webtoon by Ha Il-kwon. Yoon Ah-yi (played by Choi Eung-sun) is a high school student who’s fallen on desperate times and is struggling to make ends meet for her sister and herself. One day, she crosses paths with Ri-eul (Ji Chang-wook), a man who lives in an old deserted amusement park and claims to be a magician. Ah-yi is initially wary of Ri-eul, but soon finds herself wondering if magic is real. As they spend more time together, Ah-yi discovers that there might be something darker to Ri-eul’s magic than she is willing to admit. Could he even be capable of murder? The Sound of Magic is a bit of an unpredictable ride: it grapples with sensitive issues like abandonment and sexual abuse—but somehow successfully balances the darkness with soft acoustic duets and carefully choreographed numbers.
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Once Upon A Small Town
Han Ji-yul, a Seoul-based veterinarian (played by Chu Young-woo) is duped by his grandfather into temporarily moving to the quaint Huidong Village in the countryside, and running the elder’s animal clinic while his grandparents enjoy a belated honeymoon. At first, Han, who is itching to return to Seoul, is a fish out of water, and acts coldly toward the local residents. But he eventually softens, especially towards An Ja-young, the nosy local policewoman (played by Joy of K-pop group Red Velvet). The underrated rom-com is made up of 12 episodes and each episode only runs around 30 minutes, making this a light-hearted weekend binge, no serious viewing commitments required.
Featuring A-list actors including Lee Byung-hun (Red 2, Squid Game), Shin Min-a (Hometown Cha-cha-cha), Cha Seung-won (One Ordinary Day), Uhm Jung-hwa (Dancing Queen), Han Ji-min (One Spring Night) and Kim Woo-bin (The Heirs), this slice-of-life drama weaves together multiple separate narratives of residents living in South Korea’s paradisiacal Jeju Island. Each episode focuses on a different relationship dynamic and introduces themes from friendship—in the story of two former high school sweethearts reuniting—to forgiveness—in the story of a mother and her estranged son. The show succeeds in giving time for each of the characters’ stories to breathe, and interconnecting them in a way that makes the island community come to life on the screen. Our Blues spent nine weeks in the Global Non-English Top 10 most-watched list, reaching the second top-most spot worldwide.
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