K-dramas contain an unbelievable amount of brilliance. With enticing narratives and emotional performances, they bring fame and attention to the screenplay writers, directors, and actors alike. Hallyu actors have certainly won the hearts of many around the world, and especially so in Thailand – if you visit Siam Paragon during a popular Hallyu actor’s birthday, you’re bound to see their face plastered across every digital advertising screen.
But for every top dog there’s an underdog sitting in the wings. With an entertainment industry as impressive as South Korea’s, there are bound to be shows and artists that fly under the radar despite its quality. The same goes for k-dramas: whether it’s a matter of timing, advertisement, or just bad luck, there are a lot of high-calibre shows that simply didn’t fly as high as they should’ve.
Even though there are an infinite number of k-dramas waiting to be watched, here’s a short selection of some shows that definitely deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.
Descendants of the Sun (2016)
With all the buzz around Vincenzo, it’s easy to forget the show that propelled Song Joong-ki into the limelight all over the world. His role as Yoo Si-jin, a captain of a fictional South Korean Special Forces Unit, captured the hearts and minds of viewers as he played the role of a witty and handsome soldier who’s never afraid to do the right thing.
The series revolves around Yoo Si-jin and Kang Mo-yeon (Song Hye-ko), an assertive and principled doctor, as they try to balance out their strong feelings of duty to their jobs and their mutual attraction for one another. As they tackle threats like that of foreign warlords and viral epidemics, the pair manage to work through their biggest obstacles and attain their happy ending.
Descendents of the Sun received critical acclaim everywhere, winning the Grand Prize in television at the 52ndBaeksang Awards. According the Korea Times, the show made “a phenomenal change” as it “revived hallyu that was in decline over recent years” when it first aired. Indeed, its popularity has inspired local adaptations of the show in the Philippines and Vietnam.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo (2016-2017)
By contrast, MBC’s Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo had the lowest ratings in the history of the channel’s timeslot. Despite this, the show has cultivated a large and loyal online following because of its adept storytelling, relatable characters, and overall feel-good nature.
We follow the love story of two college students: Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-Kyung), a determined if naive woman with dreams of become a national-level weightlifter, and Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk), a goofy but well-intentioned man aiming to become a professional swimmer. The pair knew were friends as children, were separated, and are reunited at a sports university. Following their reunion, love and friendship blossom as they navigate through the daily ups and downs of college life.
The show ties together one of the most heart-warming coming-of-age stories you can find today. Viewers find themselves laughing endlessly at Joon-hyung’s antics and his uplifting nature, empathizing with Bok-joo’s struggles as a woman in a male-dominated field, and relating to the two’s journey through university, growing individually and together.
Touch Your Heart (2019)
Many know Lee Dong-wook and Yoo In-na from their iconic performances as the second leads in Goblin. Fewer know about their reunion as the main characters in the light-hearted drama Touch Your Heart.
Based on a web novel of the same name, Touch Your Heart is a story about top actress Oh Yoon-seo (Yoo In-na) who agrees to work in a law firm temporarily for three months in order to make a comeback in a television series after a scandal that damages her career. There, she meets Kwon Jung-rok (Lee Dong-wook), a stony-faced lawyer who seems to care less about being her mentor.
Over time, the pair works cases and gets to know one another, growing closer despite their initial dislike. The show strives to be the gentle, go-to romcom for its audiences, following the journey of Yoon-seo and Jung-rok as the former humbles herself the latter learns to be more open with his emotions. At the heart of the series is that of a simple yet uplifting romance.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar (2020)
Like most supernatural k-dramas, Mystic Pop-up Bar skilfully combines comedy and mystery throughout its run, keeping you invested through all the twists and turns until the very last moment. However, its episodes offer a method of storytelling not often seen in k-dramas.
Audiences follow the story of an hot-tempered ghost, Weol-ju (Hwang Jung-eum), who must settle the grudges of 100,000 souls to be reincarnated. In order to do so, she sets up a pop-up bar in the heart of Seoul, entering the dreams of her customers and solving their problems. Helping her is a fellow member of the afterlife, Chief Gwi (Choi Won-young), and a bubbly human part-timer, Han Kang-bae, who has the special power of making people spill their secrets at the slightest touch.
Each episode is almost a self-contained unit, with the three main characters solving the problems of the bar’s customers, creating a series of vignettes that come together to create the overall arc of the show. At the end, audiences are rewarded with the conclusion of Weol-ju’s story as hinted throughout each episode.
Record of Youth (2020)
What does it mean to achieve your dreams when the whole world is against you? While Start-up attracted international audiences, Record of Youth gained the favour of domestic viewers, premiering with one of the highest ratings in tvN’s history.
The series follows the story of three people in their late-20s trying to succeed in the entertainment industry despite years of hardship, unsupportive families, and ruthless media gossip. Sa Hye-jun (Park Bo-gum) is an aspiring actor and model who has to work multiple part time jobs in order to sustain himself and his family. Ahn Jeong-ha (Park So-dam) is a struggling makeup artist who dreams of starting her own beauty salon. Won Hae-hyo (Byeon Woo-seok) is a model-turned actor trying to succeed professionally without his mother’s connections.
For both Hye-jun and Hae-hyo, their career prospects dwindle as the looming threat of military draft draws closer. For Jeong-ha, a hostile superior prevents her from fully realizing her talents at the salon she works at. As all three strive for success, matters are complicated as Hye-jun and Jeong-ha start dating, placing them both in the public eye. Navigating love, friendship, and loss, Record of Youth tells one of the most realistic stories about what it means to really follow your dreams.