I’ve been watching a ton of Korean dramas this spring — so many of the classics have been on German Netflix for a while, and they’re now also adding shows produced in 2020 and 2021, so I have a looong list still to go. Here’s my ranking of what I’ve watched so far.
Her Private Life
Out of all the Kdrama I watched last month, Her Private Life is definitely my favourite. From the setup to the characters, pacing and twists, it hit all the beats perfectly. Ryan Gold, retired artist and outrageously handsome man, is such a sweetheart, Deok-mi, museum curator and secret super fangirl of a K-pop star, is a delight, and the supporting characters all get their time to shine without feeling like an afterthought. Her Private Life also holds queer-supporting moments — from Ryan’s misunderstanding that Deok-mi and her best friend are dating but must keep their relationship a secret and him being willing to do all he can to protect them, to a subplot featuring two gay artists and their relationship spanning 30 years that is told with unexpected tenderness and care. The main couple are a rare example of maturity and willingness to communicate instead of dashing off into the rain; the chemistry between the leads palpable and believable. Fake dating is always up my alley, as well, and the slow burn + mutual pining is 👌 delicious. Tragic backstories are mandatory, of course!
Content warning for a side character’s overbearing, manipulative mother.
Something in the Rain
This drama was one of the ones that disappointed me most — the beginning was so cute and sweet, with Jin-ah and Joon-hee’s relationship thriving against the odds. He is her best friend’s younger brother who returns to Korea after three years in the States. She is the “pretty noona who buys me food,” and even though their age difference is barely there — she’s in her late 30s, he’s in his early 30s — it’s considered taboo for a woman to be dating a younger man. A woman treating a guy to meals is also considered a brother-sister relationship, but after Joon-hee’s long-ish absence, they start to see each other differently. The biggest taboo is that Joon-hee and his sister are orphans: their mother died when they were young and their father abandoned them; Jin-ah’s family took them in. When they make their relationship public, their families are shocked but eventually come around — except for Jin-ah’s mother, who goes absolutely ballistic. Her vicious verbal and physical abuse, as well as vindictive manipulation of others, are hard to watch. The main couple’s unity breaks down under the constant, sometimes literal, assault, and eventually they break apart. The series’ (dissatisfying and unearned, in my opinion) ending does see them reuniting, but the pacing meant that Everything Is Horrible from mid-season to pretty much the final ten minutes. I would recommend watching the first half and then noping out once her mother finds out 🤷♀️
My favourite silly moment though is when Jin-ah’s brother and father, after her mother suggests sending her on a blind date, both go and yell, “NO” — and then stare at each other 😳, realising that the other also knows The Big Horrible Secret while her mum remains, for the moment, oblivious 😂
Strong trigger warnings for emotional and physical abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation by a parent.
This is an odd one: the female lead, Se-gye, is a famous, beautiful actress — but she has a secret. Once a month, for seven days (I know, it’s very thinly veiled) she physically morphs into another person, completely at random. So for a week every month, she may look like a small child, an old man, or whoever; all ages, shapes, races, and genders. For someone who has very tight shooting schedules, this presents a problem. One day, she meets Do-jae, a conglomerate heir who, after a car accident, can no longer perceive and remember faces. A match made in heaven, you say? Pretty much. I actually live-blogged my viewing of the series to my friend punch while I was laid up, and we both had a good time following the twists and turns. Thankfully, the “sometimes I look like a ten-year-old kid” angle is played for comedy rather than focusing on what that means, exactly, when you’re dating that person; since Se-gye uses her transformation to help people she meets.
Oh My Venus
This is one where mileage will vary for the viewer considering the premise: Joo-eun, a corporate lawyer in her 30s, is unceremoniously dumped by her ex-national-swim-team boyfriend of fifteen years — on the night of their anniversary. The reason? She’s “let herself go,” and is no longer the stick-thin beauty of her teens. Shocker. It also turns out that her ex was already cheating on her, so that’s great. In an effort to take revenge, Joo-eun vows to lose weight and put on a series of devastating dresses to make her ex regret it. To get there, fate leads her to the equally devastatingly handsome Young-ho, personal trainer to Hollywood stars and one young boxer in particular. He has to run home from the US after a scandal and agrees to help Joo-eun for complicated reasons that may or may not involve accidental blackmail. Of course, they fall in love.
The fatphobia inherent in the premise is partially subverted by the fact that it turns out that Joo-eun’s overeating had medical reasons and that Young-ho focuses on her blood work and protecting her from overdoing it rather than mystical bullshit like the BMI. Joo-eun also retains her good relationship with food by emphasising that it’s about the soul, not just the body. Still, it is a makeover plot that values thinness and fitness, and while its characters ostensibly seek a healthy balance rather than impossible beauty standards, viewers for whom weight loss and diet culture are a thorny subject may wish to skip this one.
TW for body image issues, a touch of thinspo, and fatphobia.
Descendants of the Sun
Si-jin and his sergeant, Dae-young, are both fools in love. Mo-yeon is a surgeon working at a major hospital, but exposed to lethal ambition from a colleague and harassment from male superiors. She meets Si-jin and the two start dating, only to realise how difficult that is when the man has to constantly run away on black ops assignment to save the world. Myung-Ju is also in the military, also a doctor — and she’s in love with Dae-young, but honour is his whole deal and due to anti-fraternisation rules set by her father (the general, oh dear), he refuses to be with her.
You can see where this is going: Mo-yeon, after being pushed out of seniorship track and the operating room, is more or less forced to go on a humanitarian assignment to the Middle East — where she once again meets Si-jin. Sparks fly, Dae-young continues to be a stubborn idiot when Myung-Ju shows up (having begged her father to be sent out as well), and there’s crisis after crisis. Will love prevail?!
TW for armed conflict and viral disease outbreak. (That one hit different.)
Oh, the fake dating returns — with a level up, because this is it, this is the big one: FAKE MARRIAGE. A content warning, though: this show heavily features terminal illnesses and a lot of hospitals. Hye-soo is a single mother struggling to care for her daughter after her husband’s death. She meets Ji-hoon, a chaebol heir who seeks a contract marriage — not because he has to show up at his brother’s engagement party but because his mother needs an organ transplant and, since she’s low on the waiting list, only family members by birth or marriage are allowed to donate. So Ji-hoon offers a lot of money for Hye-soo to marry him, since she’s compatible — money she needs to pay off her late husband’s debts. But what she’s hiding is that she’s sick, too: she has a brain tumor and not long left to live. Of course they fall in love and Ji-joon turns out to be a great step-dad, but Hye-soo is wary of letting their feelings — and thus their marriage — become real.
TW for terminal illness.
Don’t Dare to Dream
This is the one that put me firmly back on my OT3 bullshit (I say, as if I were ever off my OT3 bullshit). Na-ri works for a big TV network as a weather forecaster. Hwa-shin is the black sheep reporter. Jung-won is Hwa-shin’s best friend, as well as chaebol heir and fashion designer. Long story short: Na-ri used to have a crush on Hwa-shin, he always ignored (or actively dismissed) her. He’s back in Seoul after being sent to Bangkok as a correspondent, and meets with some bad news. (For this show, too: content warnings for breast cancer.) Enter his best friend, Jung-won, to whom he’s the most important person in the world. Na-ri and Jung-won fall for each other, which ignites Hwa-shin’s jealousy. The two men enter into a competition for Na-ri’s heart, but the show genuinely does so much work to show that they’re at their best when all three of them are together that in the end, forcing her to choose is the thing that breaks the series.
Which is why I am writing a chonker of a fix-it fic! Coming soon to an AO3 near you. There’s a reason you can’t spell AO3 without an O and a 3… I’ll see myself out.
Trigger/content warnings for breast cancer in cis men, additional TW for cis male infertility in the final episodes. Also, Hwa-Shin’s over the top jealousy is… a problem.
In this show, too, a younger man is dating an older woman — escándalo!!
The main plot of the series is about three executives — all women, one with incredible sapphic energy, I’m telling you she’s bisexual — in competing search engines. While I’m a search marketer, I still felt very seen by all the panicking about keywords 😂
Ta-mi is summoned before an assembly committee after allegations of search results are levelled against the company she works at. After a bit of plot, she defects to the company’s main competitor and vows to increase its market share to leading position within six months. Park Morgan is a game score composer and musician. The two meet at an arcade, playing Tekken very competitively. The trouble is: Park wants a marriage and kids, Ta-mi is strictly against the idea. Still, they get together, and it goes about as dramatically as you’d expect.
Birth of a Beauty
Birth of a Beauty is another show dealing — more or less adeptly — with fatphobia and beauty standards. After an accident, housewife Geum-ran vows to take revenge on her husband (played by the same guy who dumped the girl in Oh My Venus, talk about type-casting) and uh. Gets a dozen plastic surgeries, ending up the most beautiful woman on the planet, Sara. The guy who helps her, Tae-hae, has his own motives for breaking up her husband’s adulterous new relationship, but pretty soon finds himself falling in love with her, instead.
While the show makes a point to seek retribution for people’s treatment of Geum-ran while she weighed over 100kg, it falls short of real body positivity. And while there’s a zany sequence wherein Tae-hae alters his own brain waves to see the original Geum-ran instead of Sara, proving to her that he loves her fully; but the fact remains that the woman he’s marrying is petite and literally moulded after a male fantasy — his.
Another way that the show tested my patience is by introducing a cast of over a dozen horribly unlikeable, shady people; all who only seek to either get rid of Tae-hae or use Sara, or both. I started skipping scenes the two leads weren’t in together after one third of the series — at Episode 8 out of 21! While I myself write characters who are self-sacrificing and indulge in a lot of slow burn and pining, I don’t make a habit of testing my audiences’ good will quite this hard. The last two episodes with the leads finally working together again and the assholes getting their comeuppance are satisfying, but it’s not quite worth the slog.
TW for subjects mentioned above as well as gaslighting and emotional manipulation up the wazoo.
She Was Pretty (DNF)
Yet another drama about women feeling inferior and getting a makeover; and the second drama about a woman who’d lost her teenage beauty. I couldn’t finish this series because this one had serious what the fans call Second Lead Syndrome. The second male lead was so much better than the main lead in every way: for one thing, he fell in love with the female lead while she still had bushy hair.
Revolutionary Love (DNF)
Another one I did not finish, starring the second lead from She Was Pretty in the first lead position, this time. I had hoped I would like this one better, but they turned him into a jerk in this one. I have no compunction about spoilers, so I looked up the ending on AsianWiki and was not enamoured with how circular the narrative was going to be, showing no real character growth.
Want to watch:
- One Spring Night (because it’s supposed to be the antidote to SITR, even starring the same male lead and having the same writing team behind it)
- Strongest Delivery Man (because Don’t Dare To Dream should have been an OT3 and in this the second lead from DDTD gets the girl)
- Vincenzo (because it’s lethal to bisexuals)
- Chief of Staff (because political intrigue is hot)
- Encounter (because it stars Song Hye-kyo, who played the civilian doctor in Descendants of the Sun)