Many things have been up in the air this year. (And no that’s not an airborne virus joke). Travels, studies, work, leisure, relationships, etc. have all been impacted one way or another. But there’s one thing that remains constant and that’s K-dramas. And with that, here is our annual superlative roundup.
Despite the particularly difficult year, we can still find the silver lining and be thankful that we’ve at least had a strong showing in K-dramas to help us get through our stuck-at-home days. We’ve seen plenty of fantasy, sci-fi, and even makjang dramas, though there does seem to be less sageuks this year. Cable channels in particular have gifted us with well-written, well-produced, and well-cast dramas.
To honor the dramas that have accompanied and provided us with healing or have just been a form of escapism, I give you, in no particular order, 2020’s superlatives.
Now before you get up in arms about not seeing your favorite drama, please note that this is not a list of the best dramas of 2020, but rather a fun, silly way to take a stroll down memory lane. So feel free to head down to the comments section and nominate superlatives for all the other deserving dramas!
Disclaimer: This article only includes dramas that premiered between December 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. Also, minor spoilers ahead!
Most victorious return from the military (2020)
Kim Soo Hyun in “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay”
Kang Ha Neul received this title last year for his victorious return with “When the Camellia Blooms.” This year there were actually quite a few male actors making their post-enlistment comeback, but Kim Soo Hyun was arguably involved with the most critically-acclaimed drama of the bunch. He had a cameos in “Hotel Del Luna” and “Crash Landing On You” before having his official comeback with one of the most talked about dramas of the year, “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.” Kim Soo Hyun plays Moon Kang Tae, a caregiver who works at a psychiatric hospital and has an autistic older brother (played by the ever-so-talented Oh Jung Se). The whole drama, with dashes of fairytale wonder, is unique, aesthetically pleasing, and fronted by a strong cast.
Most likely to make you take a double take
Cho Seo Woo in “Hi Bye, Mama”
“Hi Bye, Mama” is a drama about a (deceased) mother named Cha Yu Ri (Kim Tae Hee), who’s been given a chance to come back into the world of the living. With all the tearjerking moments between mother and daughter (and family in general), you’ll likely get dehydrated from all that crying. But that’s not the superlative that’s bestowed to this heartfelt drama. No, it wins “most likely to make you take a double take” because that’s what’s going to happen to you when you realize that the super adorable Seo Woo, ie. Cha Yu Ri’s daughter, is actually played by a little boy(!) actor named Seo Woo Jin. It’s surprising, but still so, so adorable.
Drama that gave you the most severe SLS
Han Ji Pyeong in “Start-Up”
“Start-Up” features two buzzy actors Suzy and Nam Joo Hyuk as the main leads but it’s the second male lead Kim Seon Ho who has completely stolen the hearts of viewers everywhere. Every once in awhile, we get an SLS (Second Lead Syndrome) so severe that we probably turn to fanfiction to soothe our aching hearts, and this time we experience it in Han Ji Pyeong, the “good boy” with a prickly exterior but a gentle heart. It’s impossible to not love this man with the irresistible smile and with how he unwaveringly watches over Seo Dal Mi (Suzy). It’s no wonder the actor himself, Kim Seon Ho, has become a hot commodity. It’s about time too!
Most likely to get you to risk it all and go paragliding
“Crash Landing On You”
There’s likely not a huge percentage of us who would dare to try extreme sports, including the tamer ones like paragliding (especially in bad weather). And yet when Yoon Se Ri (Son Ye Jin) does so and crash lands in North Korea, she manages to meet the super hunky soldier Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin). While trying to sneak her back into South Korea, the two develop feelings for each other, but naturally their bi-national relationship isn’t smooth sailing. But (and yes it’s a big “but”), if we were able to have our own whirlwind romance with someone as hunky, charming, and sweet as Ri Jeong Hyeok, then heck, sign us up for the next paragliding session! Fun fact: “Crash Landing On You” is currently the highest-rated tvN drama.
The drama hairstylists most likely (secretly) disliked
Based on a webtoon, “Itaewon Class” is about an eclectic bunch of misfits working at restaurant-slash-pub called Dan Bam, under the ownership of Park Sae Roy (Park Seo Joon), who also just happens to be a convicted felon. Other than the interesting characters and refreshingly untraditional storylines, the characters’ hairstyles were hot topics too. From Ma Hyeon Yi’s (Lee Joo Young) switch from silver to black hair, to Jo Yi Seo’s (Kim Da Mi) two-tone hair, to Park Sae Roy’s… well, Park-Sae-Roy hair, the show started a trend of people sporting similar hairstyles. And after the 100th request, it wouldn’t be surprising if hairstylists got tired of telling their clients, “I’m sorry, but only Park Seo Joon can pull off the Park-Sae-Roy-haircut.”
Drama with the most star-powered cameos
“Record of Youth”
“Record of Youth” is about the story of three youths who are striving to achieve their dreams despite the harsh realities of their respective industries, including Sa Hye Joon (Park Bo Gum) who’s working towards being a model-turned-actor, and Ahn Jung Ha (Park So Dam), a girl who quits her office job to become a makeup artist. The drama gained quite a bit of attention not just for being Park Bo Gum’s last drama before his military enlistment, but also for the caliber of guest stars they managed to get for quick cameos. The star-powered cameos include Kim Hye Yoon, Seo Hyun Jin, Park Seo Joon, Kang Han Na, Lee Sung Kyung, Girl’s Day’s Hyeri, and many more!
Most scandalous guilty pleasure
“The World of the Married”
Aired on: JTBC
Air date: March 27 – May 16, 2020 (16 episodes)
Starring: Kim Hee Ae, Park Hae Joon, Han So Hee, Park Sun Young, Kim Young Min, Chae Gook Hee, Lee Geung Young, Kim Sun Kyung, Jeon Jin Seo, Shim Eun Woo
Earlier this year, one of the buzziest dramas (from both viewers and critics) was none other than “The World of the Married.” Even now it holds the title of highest-rated drama across all cable channels. Ji Sun Woo (played by the especially superb Kim Hee Ae) seemingly has the perfect life, with a happy family and a successful career. However, this all comes crashing down when she finds out she’s been betrayed by her husband and thus starts her journey to seek revenge, giving us a rich and compelling storyline that’ll send you on a rollercoaster ride!
Most likely to draw you into a controversial debate
“Tale of the Nine-Tailed”
The debate here isn’t about the motivations of the antagonist, The Imoogi/Terry (Lee Tae Ri), or about how the epic, folktale-centered storyline may or may not have (slightly) unraveled in final episodes, or even about whether you’re more interested in the Yeon-Ji Ah romance or the Yeon-Rang bromance. No, the truly controversial debate here is to do with nine-tailed fox brothers’ preferences towards mint chocolate ice cream. And as much as I love Rang (Kim Bum) — and let’s face it: Rang’s character arc is arguably the more superior — I am firmly on team Yeon (Lee Dong Wook) and team mint chocolate here. (Where are all my #MintChocLovers at?).
Start watching “Tale of the Nine-Tailed” here:
Theme of the year: Multiple dimensions
2020 was the year that heavily featured shows with alternate/multiple dimensions, though it probably felt more so because these three shows aired one after the other, and suddenly, our K-drama viewings were packed with sci-fi shows about time-traveling and alternate worlds. (Maybe screenwriters themselves were hoping for a non-COVID-19 alternate dimension?)
“The King: Eternal Monarch”
In the epic fantasy “The King: Eternal Monarch,” there’s a parallel world, multiple doppelgängers, time-travel, a lot of math and physics, and even more product placements that barely bother to be discreet. (Seriously, this drama nearly won a different superlative — most likely to get you to binge on milk tea and fried chicken). When Lee Gon (Lee Min Ho), who’s also the King of the Kingdom of Corea, unknowingly uses a magical alternate-dimension-opening flute, he finds himself in a parallel world. There, he comes across the person he’s been searching for all this time, Lieutenant Jung Tae Eul (Kim Go Eun), believing that she was the person who saved him from an assassination attempt some 20 years ago.
“Train” starts off as a standard (but intense) crime thriller, with detective Seo Do Won (Yoon Shi Yoon) investigating mysterious murders all somehow linked to one another. Then right at the end of the second episode, we suddenly see that there is in fact a parallel world in play. The two alternate dimensions are linked by a train that can travel between them. The characters from world A are vastly different from world B, all because of a decision made by Seo Do Won one fateful night many years ago. With conflicts and drama happening in both worlds, there’s double the exhilaration to keep us absorbed in this thriller of a drama.
Start watching “Train” here:
“Alice” is the most sci-fi of these three shows, with the whole premise revolving around time-travel. As an agent of a time-travel agency, Yoon Tae Yi (Kim Hee Sun) travels back in time to acquire an object, but ends up staying in that time after she learns she’s pregnant. Years later, certain forces seek her out and murder her, to the horror of her son Park Jin Gyeom (Joo Won). Then begins a time-hopping cat-and-mouse chase, as Jin Gyeom tries to uncover the truth behind his mother’s murder as well as the story behind the genius physicist who bears the same face and name as his deceased mother.
Start watching “Alice” here:
Most complicated love triangle (or five-angle)
When I say complicated, I mean complicated. (Refer to the above infographic if you get lost). Basically, once upon a time, there were two behavioral analysts working in the National Criminal Investigation unit named Lee Joon Gi and Moon Chae Won (“Criminal Minds”). One day, Moon Chae Won decides she’s had enough of crime-fighting and becomes a fairy. She falls in love with a woodcutter, and after he dies, she waits 600+ years for him to reincarnate. That’s when she comes across two potential candidates, Yoon Hyun Min and Seo Ji Hoon (“Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter”).
Unfortunately, Moon Chae Won just can’t figure out which of them is her husband, so she just ditches them both and goes back to her first love — crime-fighting and Lee Joon Gi — who turns out to be her real husband after all (“Flower of Evil”). And what happens to Yoon Hyun Min and Seo Ji Hoon, the two spurned men? They figure that a fairy who can’t recognize them isn’t really worth their time, so they move on and turn their attention to Hwang Jung Eum instead (“To All The Guys Who Loved Me”). They also may or may not have continued their bromance.
Basically, this AU fanfiction is just a way of saying, how on earth did we get so many coincidental pairings and reunions this year?! And just to be very clear, none of the above actually happened (not in the literal sense at least), so actors… please don’t sue me.
Start watching “Flower of Evil”:
Start watching “To All The Guys Who Loved Me”:
Man with the longest life span
Joo Ji Hoon in “Kingdom 2” and “Hyena”
A Crown Prince from the Joseon era battles a horrifying plague in the 1300s. 600+ years later, the same man is seen working as a lawyer. Coincidence? I think not. Ladies and gentlemen, Joo Ji Hoon — the man who lived for 600+ years!
The second season of “Kingdom” is just as acclaimed as the first, as it continues Lee Chang’s (Joo Ji Hoon) struggle to save his people from the zombie-plague — in case you haven’t heard, this is a historical-zombie genre mashup, which is actually much better than it sounds — while also trying to prevent rival factions (and a certain cray-cray queen) from stealing his rightful seat to the throne.
Aired on: SBS
Air date: February 21 – April 11, 2020 (16 episodes)
Starring: Kim Hye Soo, Joo Ji Hoon
Switching gears, “Hyena” is a fun, somewhat campy drama led by Kim Hye Soon and Joo Ji Hoon, and whose chemistry together basically stole the show. While the characters themselves have various shades of gray to them, you’ll find yourself falling in love anyway thanks to the actors’ strong performances. And as with other legal dramas, there’s a lot of twists and turns but there’s also plenty of humorous aspects too, and you’ll enjoy seeing Joo Ji Hoon tapping into his comedic side.
Most deliciously dark and twisted drama
As the superlative indicates, this is quite a dark drama, mostly because the people involved are teenagers, which makes everything extra troubling. Model student Oh Ji Soo (Kim Dong Hee) is such a goody-two-shoes that his teacher even encourages him to “cause a little trouble.” If only the teacher knew what Ji Soo was up to after school. Let’s just say it’s highly illegal. But the boy has dreams and those dreams are expensive. This non-typical school drama with its complex and intriguing (and topical) storyline will leave you wanting for more.
Most dysfunctional family
“My Unfamiliar Family” revolves around a family where the various family members find out that they don’t truly know each other and some have even chosen to cut ties with the others. While some of the events in the drama may veer towards soap-drama territory, everything still feels grounded and realistic, which only makes you feel even more for the difficulties and struggles the family is going through. The drama examines what “family” is from different perspectives, and it does so in a poignant, brutally honest, and thought-provoking manner.
Start watching “My Unfamiliar Family” here:
Most likely to make us very greedy
For years, fans have been begging for a second season to the highly-acclaimed “Dr. Romantic,” and this year we finally got it. This sophomore season is just as superb as its predecessor, with medical cases that will tug-at-your-heartstrings while also giving us character-driven writing. Other than the backbone of the drama, Han Suk Kyu, who plays Doctor Kim, the show also adds Ahn Hyo Seop and Lee Sung Kyung to the cast as second-year fellows that are taken under Doctor Kim’s wings. And now that we’ve seen how well they’ve overcome the sophomore slump, we can’t help but be greedy and ask for a season three!
Start watching “Dr. Romantic 2” here:
Actors who were EVERYWHERE
Um Hyo Sup and Kim Soo Jin
Disclaimer: I am not actually taking attendance for every actor in the industry. That being said, if you were live-watching multiple dramas during October or November, you might have found yourself wondering if you were watching the right drama, because actor Um Hyo Sup was in no less than three of the then-airing dramas, including “Tale of the Nine-Tailed,” “Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol,” and “Start-Up.” These three dramas all debuted in October, so at one point he really was everywhere!
And if you thought Um Hyo Sup was busy, then there’s also Kim Soo Jin, who was in as many as eight(!) dramas this year, in both supporting and recurring capacities. She was in “My Holo Love,” “Hospital Playlist,” “A Piece of Your Mind,” “Sweet Munchies,” “My Unfamiliar Family,” “Tale of the Nine-Tailed,” “Stove League,” and also in the currently-airing “Cheat On Me, If You Can.”
If you didn’t catch the pun, “Stove League” is a drama about baseball. And you don’t have to like or understand baseball to enjoy this show for what it is — a really good underdog story that’ll give you all the feels. When Dreams, a professional baseball team, lands in last place for four straight seasons, they hire a new general manager who has managed several championship-winning sports teams. And though Baek Seung Soo (Namgoong Min) has no experience in baseball, he’s determined to turn Dreams into the best in the league.
Start watching “Stove League”:
Battiest drama (literally)
“The School Nurse Files”
“The School Nurse Files” is strange, to stay the least. Jung Yu Mi’s and Nam Joo Hyuk’s characters — a nurse and a teacher, respectively — work at a school that’s infested with “jellies,” which is a way-too-cute name for the physical forms of negative desires and feelings. There’s also a rainbow-glowy toy sword and BB gun involved, which are the “weapons” against these “jellies.” That should give you an idea of how quirky this drama is. Bottom line, this is definitely not your average K-drama and it’s binge-able in one sitting, so if you’re into whimsy and battiness (with really good CGI effects), then be sure to check it out!
Drama with the most murderers
On the surface, “Memorist” is just like your standard mystery-thriller, where detectives chase after bad guys. But once we really dive in, it’s so much more than that. There is a fantasy element to it, where the main protagonist Dong Baek (Yoo Seung Ho), has supernatural abilities to scan a person’s memories with a touch. And as the story gradually unfolds, we find that there are bad guys killing off other bad guys, forming a sort of bloody killer-chain. It’s an intense drama with enough thrills, red herrings, twists, action, and murderers to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Start watching “Memorist” here:
Most likely to make your blood boil
The currently-airing “Penthouse” gives us one of the most “oh-my-gosh-they-didn’t!” melodramas of the year. There’s plenty of makjang elements and morally questionable characters, which adds to the delicious addictiveness of the drama. And while you’ll be thoroughly entertained, we also suggest finding ways of calming yourself down, otherwise you may just blow a blood vessel from watching all the atrocious things these power-hungry parents and their children get up to.
Start watching “The Penthouse”:
Most likely to start a red tracksuit trend
“The Uncanny Counter”
The currently-airing “The Uncanny Counter” is the perfect watch for anyone who likes the comic book/superhero genre. Based on a webtoon, this fun-filled drama is about a group of red-tracksuits-wearing superheroes called “counters,” who work in a noodle shop by day and hunt down demons by night. Each “counter” has a different superpower, the demons have levels to them, and there’s plenty of action-packed scenes that will keep you thoroughly entertained. Fun fact: “The Uncanny Counter” currently holds the title of highest-ratings on OCN.
Playlist of the year
Anyone who’s watched “Hospital Playlist” will very likely tell you it’s one of their top dramas of the year. There’s something positively heartwarming about watching the strong bond between five friends, who’ve always got each others’ backs ever since meeting in medical school some 20 years ago. They enjoy each others’ company so much they even formed a band and spend more time together just jamming. The casting here is pitch perfect and the five share such great chemistry, it really does seem like the actors have known each other forever. And because the drama is more slice-of-life than intense medical drama, everything just feels chill and breezy and is the ideal watch for when you just need to unwind. And the music on the show? Pitch perfect!
Which of these dramas have you watched or will be adding to your watch list? What other superlatives did you bestow on your favorite dramas? Share your nominations and comments with us below!
Belinda_C has written 55+ articles and quizzes in 2020 and wishes to thank all the readers and let them know she appreciates each and every one of them. Talk K-dramas and SEVENTEEN with her on Twitter!
All-time favorite: “Kill Me Heal Me,” “Defendant,” “Hotel Del Luna”
Looking forward to: A more spectacular year of K-dramas in 2021!