Friendly Disclaimer: All of my television posts, and definitely k-drama posts, will have spoilers. For some, even a vivid impression may be a spoiler, and when I write here, I like to work with whatever comes up, and let it be fun for me. If I mention an actor or actress by name, it will be to praise rather than denigrate, but usually I’ll prefer to refer their role.
So here is my basic list of dramas, some of which I stayed up nights to finish in the course of days, some of which I skimmed and skipped through while making up the difference by reading recaps on others’ sites, some of which I watched week to week, clicking on Viki every hour watching in anticipation for subtitles. Some I dropped without apology. It is roughly in the order of viewing rather than a favorites list, and these are just snapshot impressions. I will highlight the shows I really loved though.
First Shop of Coffee Prince – This was my first k-drama, so that may influence what is my unabashed affection for it, but I don’t think so. I watched twice, and felt equally swept up in the story and relationships both times. Coffee Prince offers something that no other TV show I’ve seen has, whether American, Korean, etc., which is a sexy and sensitive portrayal of love beyond gender. It isn’t ‘daring’ necessarily, just a genuine romance, and that is more respectful than making some sort of statement. I said there would be spoilers and I’m saying it again so someone can stop reading now if they like. No? Okay, here is my take: Although other shows may show the attraction of a man for (who he thinks at first is) another man, this one takes us there. Although it is about gender, it isn’t about gender, but love.
Master’s Sun – Really liked this, even with many elements (memory loss ::::rolls eyes:::) that frustrate me. The middle episodes are particularly rich, and the metaphors work on a personal level.
Boys over Flowers – Too much, too young, but I still liked it, after the second watching. It hyperbolized angst and first happenings in ways that ‘felt like’ they truly would to a teen, or at least to a teen like I was… romance as life or death, writ large, strong elements of fantasy.
Secret Garden – Beautiful aesthetically with great supporting characters. The first time I so wanted the female lead to end up with her mentor, and having seen just a few dramas by that time, didn’t realize how unlikely that was. The second, I went along for the ride and smiled a lot.
The music was lovely too.
Faith (Great Doctor) – Enjoyed a lot once I was able to get past a few supernatural powers elements that at first spoiled immersion. Lee Min Ho is soft and sensitive in this part, which is an interesting quality for a military captain, but what I kept in the strongest way, what I think back to, is the unique dynamic of the king and queen’s relationship that develops and the way he comes into his own. For me that was the core of the story. Friends are more passionate about this drama than I am, but also more attracted to Lee Min Ho, who to me, resembles my daughter’s best friend.
Fated to Love You (Korean version) – My second viewing was like watching an entirely different drama. In the first, I found it hard to get past certain misunderstandings or to forgive some characters; I rooted for Daniel, the second lead. Once the sting of first viewing was gone however, the OTP’s sweetness together took hold strongly – so pure in its context, conveying deep and difficult love. Eventually I understood and clung to Gunnie, and was affected by the ranges of both main actors.
* Greatest Love – Cha Seung Won at his most captivating, with a perfect pairing. Gong Hyo Jin playing ‘scandalous character’ Au Jung. Compassionate writing. So funny all the way through, even when over-the-top ridiculous and sad. Well chosen, playful music. Changed my view of potatoes, cows, and chickens forever.
The City Hall – Were I to recommend this to someone else who isn’t as enamored with Cha Seung Won (the reason I followed the above with this one) as I am, it would be with qualifiers that the lead actress’s voice will get easier to take. I really enjoyed hearing CSW make rapid fire speeches, and found the romance fairly believable.
It’s Okay That’s Love – Serious themes handled well. Wonderful side characters, and enviable dynamic in the shared house. Compassionate. Cathartic. Even so, not one I’ll watch very often, because the journey isn’t easy.
You Are All Surrounded – Yeah, okay, I watched it, twice, for Cha Seung Won. I never thought another actor could take over the space Ralph Fiennes occupied for decades, but that seems to have happened. :) Oh, but the show? Compelling not as a romance (darn), but more so as redemption tale.
My Name is Kim Sam Soon – Enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, but the weight string got to be a bit much for me (I mean, she wasn’t nearly obese yet sometimes not just she but those around her referred to her that way), as did her high pitched voice. This drama has a strong following, and I can see why, but for me it was just good. Sort of a foodie drama.
* My Love from the Star (You from Another Star) – So beautiful, visually, but beyond that, poetic. Danced a very fine line of humor and seriousness, while keeping the metaphor believable within its context. Okay, not believable but not a distraction.
Rooftop Prince – Liked some aspects but skimmed through. Probably just too young of a demographic target. I question myself because many people give it top reviews.
Big – Lots of cute aspects – was gripped tightly for the pairing and thought it might be a favorite, but then the ending was a dud.
King 2 Hearts – a lot that I enjoyed, but too many episodes so I did a fair bit of fast forwarding. I don’t like going on and on with blatantly evil characters. It was an interesting balance of elements though, with fierce females.
* Blade Man (have a post about) – Love. Maybe this would have been a top 3 or 5 for me, except that they cut it short and before that, let the plot get flat and frazzled. There are these amazing moments with the main actress, of her laughing whole-heartedly on a bus, that just left me stunned. And marvelous fantastical scenes. Lee Dong Wook is as compelling as Cha Seung Won in some moments, and those who say he was overacting miss the point of a show like this.
This was the first that I watched week to week, so it holds a special place in my heart even if it infuriated me with fainting spells and Tae Hee running away and staying. http://coffeeandirony.com/2014/10/13/kdrama-review-iron-manblade-man-starring-lee-dong-wook-and-shin-se-kyung/
Emergency Couple – Not riveting, but I liked the actors, especially the Chief doctor character, who I wanted to see get the girl. Sort of paid half attention, so maybe I’d like it more if I hadn’t watched that way.
Lie to Me – I liked the last few episodes a lot, but mostly it stuck to formula and left a lot of potential uncovered. Not disappointed that I watched it but not interested in watching again.
Scent of a Woman – A better capture of Lee Dong Wook (Blade Man), with the actress from Civil Hall and My Lovely Sam Soon. I love the scenes where she is enjoying life fully and he is persuaded to go along. He isn’t the typically cruel-first male lead. He smiles a lot. And the female lead doesn’t often use the high pitched whiney tone that has bothered me in some of her other dramas. Episode #8 tango scene… yummy.
Secret Love Affair – Quite a different tone from most others on this list, serious and carried along by classical piano. I was moved by the plot of a special circumstance – a rare encounter to meet someone who shares a great or particular talent, the notion of a couple who truly can experience something astounding together. So rare a meeting that it is easy to give permission for that to obscure other important things in life, like age, status, even other relationships. I understood it at this level.
I’m Sorry I Love You – Oh my goodness. Took a few episodes before I was completely captured, then… somewhere after the middle, it just became too cruel. I was fixated, but mad, talking to the script, not wanting to see any more of them, especially So Ji Sub’s character, upset. As the end of the series came closer and closer without time together and happy moments, it was just too much.
[By this point in my drama watching journey the “I’ll hurt them to love them” idea was really old and I thought I was beginning to feel the possible end of my obsession coming]
I Hear Your Voice – There was an amnesia episode or two, which is my peeve, but it was handled in an okay way as a vehicle of letting the plot develop a little further. It was interesting the way they traced back motives and tried to have a compassionate view.
You’re beautiful – Gender play and heavenly themes. Music. Characters are a little young for me to relate to, but sometimes entertaining. Annoying the way the characters talk out loud to themselves far more than communicating with others. Meh. I would have loved it were I a teenager. :)
* Sungkyunkwan Scandal – excellent! – This hit all the right notes. Entertaining, but not a comedy exactly, and I was hooked into the premise right away: a Rosalyn scenario. Sexier than expected. Third good experience with a Park Min Young drama, and I can’t wait to watch again.
Ghost – watched it for So Ji Sub originally. Not a romance but rather a cyber drama that goes pretty deeply into tech jargon in a way I really enjoy.
Pasta – I seem to like most foodie dramas, and this one especially. Gong Hyo Jin, and “Sweepers Dad” from Coffee Prince – so charming. Mature chemistry. One I re-watch from time to time.
A Gentleman’s Dignity – Very attractive older male lead,. A memory theme but not handled stereotypically. Some extremely cute and sexy scenes, and well-developed side plots, even if I personally wasn’t that interested in them.
Personal Taste – a little racy humor, fun, and simple. Immature acting, especially drinking scenes that were hard to watch, but worthwhile as light fare.
Discovery of Love – Modern and mature, complex in some ways, even though I almost didn’t watch it because of the youthful appearance of the characters in the picture. Well acted and created a genuine tug of loyalties and affections. One of my favorite lines: “I was also surprised, that this kind of heart came out of me.”
The Heirs – Tiring, with the same song is used over and over again – too strong a song for that. Made it through only by skipping through large portions. Disappointing.
Cunning Single Lady – I didn’t really like at first… slow paced and not terribly funny as a romance, but there were some nice twists and layers of feelings do come across with the flashbacks and back story. Enjoyed the Seventh Princess story. :) And, going through divorce, there were things that I related to.
Good Doctor – Got a few episodes in, and while the main character was wonderful, there was a lot missing. Dropped.
Let’s Eat – Thank goodness that after a few misses, I found this. Lots of food porn and very cute characters. Another where I think I would have liked to have seen the lead end up with the 2nd male lead rather than the first, because I’m a sucker for the “nerd makes good” story, yet ultimately the enjoyed the chemistry anyway.
Soulmate – Some cute elements, lots of jumping around that doesn’t really work well for me. Another that I skipped ahead to a lot to get to the couple I was actually interested in. Nice soundtrack.
All About Eve – Sought this out for Jang Dong Gun, after his captivating sexiness in A Gentleman’s Dignity. It has a very different feel from most of the dramas I’ve watched so far, and after a few episodes I liked that. Around episode 10 I began to feel tortured waiting for the leads to seal their bond, and then that was too quick before the torture began again. I’m not sure why reviews and wiki make sure to say it has nothing to do with the Bette Davis film, when the basic idea of woman trying to step into the roles of another is the same.
My Girlfriend is a Gumiho – Cute and I love the symbolism of the “bead”. For a younger audience. A Hong Sisters drama. A little too silly to become invested in. “From now on I’m going to show my tails and live confidently!”
Moon Embracing the Sun – Enjoyed very much. Sageuk, following the story from childhood, with women’s witness at the center. Visually beautiful and often heartbreaking. Easy to immerse in and well layered in terms of diversity of relationships.
Queen In Hyuns Man – I think this was the last of the recommended dramas from my original list. I began it once early on, and then didn’t get beyond the first 30 minutes or so, but when I went back to it I really liked the steady sweetness from the beginning. The only annoying thing really, was the car string, but her great curry skill made up for that.
Chuno (Slave Hunter) – A drama with the care and attention of a feature film, interesting and intertwining plots and fighting sequences that didn’t swallow the rest. Strong characters easy to be empathetic toward. Changed pace several times. Appreciated this very much.
King of Dramas – Smiled a lot watching this. Nice balances. An unreal-person-seeming (I know that doesn’t make sense to read, hah) lead actor who was great in the role. Uses of the old tropes but with inventive efforts. Lead actress has wonderful expressions. It could have been brighter, crisper, with more romantic passion, especially at the end.
Nine: Nine Time Travels – Well done as a time travel. Turns many expectations of a k-drama upside down, with strong and passionate bond in the beginning and the rest of the time trying to get back to that. For me, it would have been better to end earlier, at least at 18 episodes. I did like the way they reverse revealed the relation strings toward the end, but the actual ending… not sure.
Prosecutor Princess – Entertaining enough comedy, kind of a Legally Blonde. Good actress. By about the 5th episode I had appreciation for the pace and writing and its steady move toward showing a dramatic character arc both previous and future. Music annoyed me. Could have been much steamier. :)
The Last Scandal – Refreshing to have older leads, but not what I expected. I am very divided on stories that humiliate the female lead a lot before turning her into a princess; my tolerance for humiliation is very low. In these stories usually it is about money, which he has and she doesn’t, with the female then helping the male to be good to other people/let go of arrogance. That said, this story pulled away from that formula more and more and over time I grew to really like the subtle turns.
Thank You – Jang Hyuk, Gong Hyo Jin. A real surprise of a drama. Serious, poignant, warm. Natural. There were times it felt as though there was a concerted effort to say the word AIDS as many times as possible, but I admire the intention. I missed Gong Hyo Jin as funny in this. She spent all her time stressed and crying.
Athena Goddess of War – Sleek, with good balances of male/female energies. Cha Seung Won. Yes, again. Don’t judge me. :) 20 episodes was a bit too many, even so.
I tried to find an image that would capture what makes CSW so magnetic, and there are very few where his presence as an actor can really be snapped – just a couple of ads. It is more sum of expressions and feeling of history/life lived: wisdom. This image came close to conveying… something.
Mr. Baek – Overacted, absurd. Did dance the charm lines well. There was no chance to be invested because it was ridiculous as a plot, but good chemistry between innocent-feeling leads. Nice father and son dynamic.
Surplus Princess – Cute and quirky. Young but also more sexually mature than most other dramas. Its own flavor. I wanted to skip through quickly at first, but found it too clever to do so. Only 10 episodes. Silly ending, but made sense when I read that it was cut down drastically.
Story of a Man – started, stalled.
The Princess’s Man – Historical setting with a modern feeling, in the vein of Moon Embracing the Sun. Well done with beautiful male lead (Park Si-Hoo) and sympathetic surrounding characters. Too long at 24 episodes, and overly dramatic music, but I was drawn in. Bit repetitive. The second time I watched, I found myself scoffing at various parts, rolling my eyes, but still liked it.
Flower Boy Ramen Shop – Young and quirky, sometimes annoying. The lead actor is like a Korean James Spader, similar in character to Spader’s Pretty in Pink character. The older male lead is balanced and sweet. Liked this more than I expected to.
49 Days – Satisfying. Again too long, with a few too many extra twists. But the central characters were wonderful and I related to the between worlds/multiple lives plot.
Que Sera Sera – Started, stalled, but then returned to finish it over a holiday. Very good, with a serious plot line and characters, but I didn’t feel dragged down by the seriousness. A nice surprise.
Pinocchio – Well done blend of childhood/teen/adult emotions and situations. Wish the 2nd main reporter from the past would have a more prominent part. It was pleasant all the way through but I didn’t feel wowed by the end somehow, and when I think back to it not much ‘sticks’.
Birth of a Beauty – Offensive as an idea, but I liked the lead male so I endured for a few episodes, after which I really could go no further with it. <yawn> Dropped.
Love Cells – Ten minute episodes, cute, quirky, small bites.
Misaeng (Incomplete Life) – Misaeng is a category of its own. I was not interested at first, due to the terrible promo photos I had encountered, but a friend let me know it had a GO/Baduk string, and although Baduk turned out to be just a light frame, I was immediately and obsessively hooked into the values that came across, eventually becoming a kind of evangelist by emailing everyone I knew about it and posting on my twitter:
“That so many like Misaeng gives me hope for the world.”
The writing relentlessly unearths appreciation for the intricacy of ordinary life. Ethics enacted without preachy tones or making the right thing seem to have magical fix-everything qualities, hidden character traits revealed at slight turns.
Hard to find any aspect that might have been better. Exceeded all expectations every episode. So the one downside may be that my measurements where other dramas are concerned were irrevocably changed. Not since West Wing have I loved a show this much.
Queen of Office – Every episode felt the same… no movement of characters, nor strong attachments. I ended up hop-skipping through the last several episodes, just to follow through. I continually hoped for it to take flight in some new way. So half dropped.
Love Frequency 37.2 – just a few love stories told each episode, with the backdrop of a radio show. Dropped pretty fast.
Gu Family Book – Some might be put off by the fantastical aspects, but I could go along, since the actors do, and because there was just the right amount. It was by no means completely believable, but the young lead certainly carried the weight well. I liked the female lead also, though I would not call her a good actress, objectively.
Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy – Gong Hyo Jin and Gong Yoo. I liked the premise of a bad student returning as a teacher to the school she was expelled from due to a crush on a teacher. Silly effects and ridiculous musical interludes, along with a tedious gang string, but Buddhist wisdom throughout, which elevated the script.
Flower Boy Next Door – Super cute, and I related a lot to the lead character (obviously), who is a reclusive copy editor ridden with anxiety who writes rather than speaks her thoughts. Hm. Lead male is over the top but in an irresistible kind of way. The writers frustrated me with a tired trope toward the end, although the reason behind the use of it I related to.
Baker King, Kim Tak Gu – Excellent beginning. A rich and subtle drama in many places, although the unaccepting/evil step-mother string is always hard to bear, as well as the usual battle for the corporation. The father figure is such a perfect combination of gentle and strong, and the child actors are amazing. The episodes do have heart. I eventually felt worn down by so much crying / so little humor. I also disliked the way they left the female side characters so flat most of the time.
Successful Story of a Bright Girl – Jang Hyuk, Jang Na-Ra. An older romantic comedy that feels really dated but still sweet. I can understand why the two actors were recast together in Fated to Love You. I liked how he tries to do things for her without hurting his pride, but it keeps going awry. So many men in Korean dramas behave like children sticking the girl’s pigtails in ink, and I wrestle with myself for finding that so endearing, in the same way that the grab is appealing, going against my sensibilities.
Iris – Better than expected. Prequel to Athena Goddess of War.
Iris 2 – Basically a replay of Iris but with a few twists/“bad guy revealed as hero in another light.” Jang Hyuk, but also another fantastic actor as opposing lead.
A Witch’s Romance – More kisses in the first two episodes than in most of the other dramas until the 8th, or at all. I found myself instantly attached to this couple. It dragged a lot, and lost the personalities of the characters for a few too many episodes, but I liked that chemistry.
Healer – Solid drama with fantastic older characters and surprising lines of dialog, beginning right away. My favorite ahjumma in a cool hacker role. Incredibly vivid back story and the sweetest romantic chemistry. Very little second arrow suffering. Nice music. Will watch again eventually and likely recommend as a first or second drama to friends just taking interest.
* Valid Love – (wrote a post about this one) Strange, unexpectedly reaching into deep places and undoing my defenses. Too close to home. Cried all the way through the 3rd/4th episodes and found myself having thoughts I’d never had before, writing words I’d never written before. Beautiful visually, and every line rich with subtext. Amazing. Like Misaeng, in a category of its own. As is Lee Soo Hyuk. Not a show I would recommend to just anyone.
Deep Rooted Tree – Poetic, tragic. Very good actors, including the child actors. The actress who was the mom in FTLY, Jang Hyuk, Lee Soo Hyuk, Shin Se-Kyung. I like the puzzles aspect especially. “Vivid Bliss” was one delectable phrase used that stuck. Amazing twists of dialog and reason. I didn’t really believe in the romance, because there wasn’t enough of it to be real for me, but that itself was genuine to the story… she caring more for the king and the writing. I may have seen too many Jang Hyuk dramas at this point because every time Jang Hyuk got into a dramatic scene all I could hear was him crying for “Snail… snail…”
Kill Me Heal Me – (wrote a post about this one too) More cohesive and way more funny than the plot originally sounded.
The lead actor, Ji Sung, is able to go from very gentle to quite scary in a matter of moments. A few too many recaps in the beginning, but such whimsy and wonderful turns. Out loud giggles and very good job of tying up the strings.
Cathartic. Skillful. Yes!
Liar Game – Fun puzzles and anticipations, but lacking in some way I couldn’t identify until the last episodes, when it became more nuanced and optimistic. Maybe it was the gangsters angle, which >>yawn<<, kept me at a distance for a while. Also, the lead was too dependent on the genius professor for most of the game.
Shan Shan Comes to Eat (Chinese) – too many episodes but a nice change of pace. Lots that I really enjoyed about it, although not as much of a fun ‘ride’ as most Korean dramas.
Reply 1994 – So funny, and more of a family show than romance. I laughed so hard at so many points. Really loved this cast. There were about 4 episodes that lagged, so I became impatient, but it might be because I marathon-ed it and was so sleepy/curious to get to the end. I kept hoping against hope that this would be the first drama I’d seen to let the 2nd lead win.
Reply 1997 – This came before 1994 in production, but since I’d watched 1994 first, it wasn’t that easy to get into it at the start. I was preoccupied with the husband and wife because they were the same actors but in a different family and setting. Still, it was really sweet and inventive, like the character who can’t speak to RL girls because he has watched too much porn. So I liked it but didn’t love it, didn’t laugh aloud as many times as in Reply 1994, or feel as attached to the characters.
Shine or Go Crazy – Charming Jang Hyuk Goryeo era dramedy. The energy is great even when I’m not particularly surprised by the devices. The female leads are AMAZING and match Jang Hyuk’s chemistry – even some of the villains are full of noble aspirations. For most of the series I was captivated by “Gaebong”, the head of trading company that is the center stage, but there came a scene where the princess, played by Honey Lee, stepped forward very powerfully, even reminding me of Game of Thrones. Since the main structure has not ventured far from formula but rather played freely within those constraints, I don’t expect too bittersweet of an ending, and I wouldn’t have believed I could say this until this point in the drama (two more episodes before the end), but I hope for one.
Jekyll, Hyde and Me – Yet another divided identity story; wholeness discovered through fragmentation. As the show progressed, it flattened and went over the same ground again and again, wearing away almost all personality from the female lead. The circus aspect disappeared as well. What I did like, were the philosophical questions around finding out that one ‘doesn’t exist’ and that one’s memories are false… when a character goes to their home looking for the tangible proof of their life, and finds none. ..in that sense similar to a ghost story. Would not recommend this to anyone though.
King of High School – Many charming elements, but I skipped through almost all of the high school scenes. Watched it for Lee Soo Hyuk. :)
The Virtuous Queen of Han (Chinese) -Chinese dramas seem far more subtle, very toned down, when compared with Korean shows, but there is unique beauty and charm. It is amazing how I could be almost blind to the gorgeousness of such an aesthetic for so long. This was too long of a commitment but there was a particular sweetness that came through the relationships and the ideas of virtue.
Sweden Laundry – Simple, clever, happy. Unfinished so far. Only watching when daughter wants to.
City Hunter – Good storyline and realistic feeling, intense back story. I feel there are lots of similarities to Healer, not just the lead actress, but friends disagree.
Punch – Dense, riveting. Edge of my seat and immediate investment in characters – certainly not one-dimensional. Intense appropriate dislike at many times. Reluctant like. Evoking complex and unexpected reactions. Good material for ethics junkies. More like a sageuk even though a legal drama, until the ending, which I found too mello for the overall mood, but OK.
Heard it Through the Grapevine – ongoing – A fascinatingly slow tone, but wow. Interestingly written and grows on you slowly but powerfully, teaching you how to watch it.
Ando Lloyd (Japan) – Quite different from a K-drama. AI and fascinating effects. Light tension all the way through. Satisfying as a first J-drama. Great physical actor.
The Hours of My Life (Japan) – Devastatingly sweet. Obviously sad (ALS as main subject matter) but quietly paced and not trite. Such an incredible main actor (as with Ando Lloyd, gifted physicality). Achingly lovely female lead. All the important things come to the surface over the course of the episodes.
Unkind Women – ongoing – Very unusual, but gripping in an indefinable way. Musical soundtrack unique. Love so far.
School 2013 – Not thrilling but some great qualities. It is an empathy instruction drama, giving perspectives that although sometimes coarsely drawn, nonetheless touch the truth of situations that students are often in, especially when they have no support systems.
Date (Japanese) – FUN so far. Ongoing – lagging behind on.
Looking forward to Splendid Politics. Okay, yes, Cha Seung Won is in that too.