Updated: Feb 9
We may have cried and gnashed our teeth over these, but we’ve finally each narrowed down our favourite dramas of the last decade to ten. There’s some overlap, but in general they each reflect our very different personalities and our diverse viewing experiences as we discovered, fell in love with, and became lifetime addicts of K-drama. We’ve each listed our top ten shows below, and the reasons we love them. We’d love to hear your picks for the best dramas of the decade, too!
I have way more favourites than this, but since I’ve managed to spread a few out in other lists (thank you, Top Ten Romances!), I just followed my heart for this one. But by accident, it turns out that this list is made up of shows I’ve rewatched (either in part or in full), which considering that I don’t rewatch dramas anymore (because time! who has any!), is fairly rare for me. These are shows that even when I think of them now, my feelings are still as raw and sharp as when I first watched them. They definitely qualify as lifetime bests for me, and I only wish I could make this list about ten dramas longer! Or, you know, twenty. (Now let’s see how many times I can use the words “perfect” and “epic”, haha.)
I feel like I am no longer capable of explaining why this show. is. Everything. Was it the brotherhood, or the loneliness, or how wrecked each turn of events left you feeling? Impossible to say; I can only feel. Signal also kicked off my thirst for time travel thrillers, though nothing came close to replicating it. The yearning and the bonds between the characters still makes my heart hurt, in a really good way and I don’t think I will ever fully “recover” from it. It’s staying at the top of the list even if it’s not chronological I DON’T CARE.
Shut Up Flower Boy Band (2012)
This show is…just…I can’t. Raw, unadulterated feeling, all jagged and painful and real and heart-bursty and on my death certificate, you can write “death by bromance” as the cause.
I Hear Your Voice (2013)
This show is also perfect. Brilliant, flawed heroine I loved to death, tense plot with a properly configured fantasy concept, a male lead who was somehow simultaneously puppy and man, all cemented by the best OST. And feelings, so many feelings.
Two Weeks (2013)
It’s hard to find a really PERFECT action thriller. But this one is IT. Also Lee Jun-ki is the perfect person for doing them. Thank you. Now do more.
Perfect action thriller AND romance and every minute of this was everything I love. Park Min-young is made of magic, Ji Chang-wook is made of badass crossed with beta male. Writer Song Jinah really makes all her people come to vivid, intense life and they climb into your heart forever. I will never forget the wild, euphoric experience of watching this live and drowning in all my feelings for ten delicious weeks. Toppled City Hunter from its top spot in my heart at the time, and this is my way of slipping it into my list all the same, because breathless, badass, and heartfelt is forever, not just 2011. (I must protest this outrageous case of cheating! Why does Saya get an extra one?! — Paroma)
Hwarang: The Beginning (2016)
Look, I’m not going to apologise for putting this one on the list. I don’t care if clever people hate it. I love it. It’s so bromancey and cheerful and feel-good and also has some of my favourite tropes like the coming of age of a hidden king, brothers-in-arms, manes of glory with matching hanbok, and the warrior school setup. Tied together with brightly badass music, it’s epic and wonderful the way BBC’s Merlin was at its best. The thing to know about this show going in is that your lead is Park Hyung-shik, not Park Seo-joon. (“Kneel, I am your king” still gives me goosebumps.)
I LIVE for this kind of drama–that wistful, melancholy fantasy sweetness. It was sweepingly epic but at the same time so intimate and personal. Also deadpan humour, Reaper x Goblin bromance, taunting songs about undies, and all the things that could never be in this lifetime. I am still crying.
Aaargghh Circle was so damn perfect. God I love sci-fi but I love it even more when it hurts and heals all at the same time. Also love and longing between brothers. And aliens. And mysteries spanning different timelines. K-drama doesn’t do a lot of sci-fi but this one was worth waiting for. More please.
I Am Not a Robot (2017)
Modern fairytale and a study in how to be a person, and I felt ALL THE FEELINGS. Hey, can I just insert some screaming? I love this show to death but I can’t be coherent about it anymore! Give me more of this! Or let me watch it again for the first time! Or just break my heart and glue it back together with rice balls for god’s sake!
Temperature of Love (2017)
Death by romance. I’m seduced by talking and trains and food and also two really complicated people for whom love is as easy as breathing, but a relationship is so hard but dammit they will meet in the middle somehow. Ruined me.
Making a list of only ten dramas from the last ten years was painfully hard, but I’ve whittled my list down to something that only slightly makes me want to pull my hair out. There were a lot of excellent dramas in the 2010s, but I chose the ones that made me feel most deeply when I watched them, and stayed with me long after I said goodbye to them.
Can You Hear My Heart (2011)
A criminally underrated family drama about revenge, forgiveness, and how to make a home in the wake of crushing loss. There’s a token Bad CEO but the real villain is his powerfully charismatic, power-hungry wife, who manipulates two households and changes the lives of three children forever. The story centers around these grown-up kids, played by Kim Jae-won, Hwang Jung-eum, and Namgoong Min in my favorite roles from all three, in a show overflowing with excellent performances. (The drama was ahead of its time in many ways, but one I want to highlight: it portrays its two disabled characters, one of them the male lead, with a nuance and humanity that we wouldn’t see the like of again until 2019.)
Shut Up Flower Boy Band (2012)
A perfect coming of age story. A perfect rock musical. A perfect bromance. Sung Joon has never been this vulnerable, intense and electric since. I still listen to this soundtrack regularly.
Scandal: A Shocking and Wrongful Incident (2012)
I’ll never go back to this after finding out what human trash Jo Jae-hyun turned out to be, but damn, this drama was so good. It’s a revenge melodrama about a man who kidnaps the son of the man who caused his own to die, but ends up failing at revenge because he genuinely falls in love with the kid. Every performance in this show is shockingly brilliant; Shim Eun-kyung especially should have gotten all the awards for her portrayal of a grieving, tortured woman whose only sin was marrying a monster, and then becoming tied to him forever because of the mutual loss of their son. The hero is given a lackluster romance, but the real love story—and the true heartbreak—is between him and the man he grew up loving as his father. A near-perfect show.
Miss Korea (2013)
I would have said you were crazy if you told me I’d love a show about a beauty pageant in the 90s, but l’m a fan of screenwriter Seo Sook-hyang so I had to watch, and here we are. The pageant is the least important part of this story. It’s about coming of age, learning who you are and who you can trust, standing up to bullies, finding mentorship and the respect of your peers, accepting and loving who you are as a woman. Oh, and a super satisfying romance between a reunited couple, too.
High School King of Savvy (2014)
How can I express the extent to which I love this weird, hilarious romance between a high-schooler playing dress-up and a painfully socially awkward office worker? This shouldn’t work, but it does. SO WELL. (Also, That music. That ensemble cast. That second lead chaebol jerk who actually gets called out for his garbage.) Seo In-gook and Lee Hana are magical in this, apart and together.
What can I say about this show that we don’t already all feel in our hearts? A work of genius. The ultimate elevation of the slice-of-life genre. Hilarious and poignant in equal measure, so you often don’t know the exact reason for your tears. Manager Oh and his scrappy team of underdogs will have my heart forever. ❤︎
It’s Okay, It’s Love (2014)
A prickly, flawed, wonderfully relatable heroine, a hero who at first seems like the stereotypical alpha male but turns out to be struggling deeply—both of them learning to face their demons in the most moving portrayals of mental illness I’ve seen in K-drama (Kill Me, Heal Me and Heart to Heart were close behind). Psychologists falling in love with their patients has been a weird thing in dramas this decade, but writer Noh Hee-kyung pulls it off with her characteristic empathy and insight into the human psyche, and this cast’s performances bring her ensemble of unique characters to sparkling life.
From the director of Misaeng, this is the best sci-fi drama I’ve ever seen, and no other contender comes close. The tenseness of the plot, the mystery of what happened/will happen/is happening, the relationships between the characters, even across time. Especially across time. This show took so many of my tears I think I got dehydrated. (Worth every drop.)
Age of Youth (2016)
How much do I love this group of friends who started as housemates and eventually became family? Years later, these five still feel like people I know, with all their petty roommate conflicts, their late-night gossip and snack sessions, and their eventual ride-or-die love for each other in even the most dire situations. This show managed several highly satisfying romantic arcs, but the real love story was in the friendship between these five women, and I wanted to cheer when they came to each other’s rescue, in small and large ways.
Be Melodramatic/Melo is My Nature (2019)
I had a hard time choosing between this and Search: WWW, but while both were equally excellent shows, this was the one that took my whole heart. This show embraces the struggles of women in their thirties to navigate work, friendship and love. It gives us a hilarious, swoonworthy love story between equals, played perfectly by Chun Woo-hee and Ahn Jae-hong; it presents a loving but sharp critique of the drama industry that is catnip for any drama fan. And all of this anchored by a cast of characters who speak and live and love and fight like people we’ve met, like us—and framed by gorgeous directing and music that makes each thematic episode feel like a mini-movie which fits perfectly into the larger narrative.
Reply 1997 (2012)
This is the drama that forever seared Seo In-guk into my heart. Those pain-filled eyes as he confesses his long suppressed feelings to Eun-ji will always be the yardstick by which I will measure the angst of all other heart-broken lovers. It’s been seven years, and none have surpassed my beautiful boy.
Queen In Hyun’s Man (2012)
One of my very first Korean dramas, Queen In-hyun’s Man is a legend. No man will ever be as clever as Kim Boong-do, and no woman as determined in love as Choi Hee-jin.
Their story was properly epic. They defied history, destiny, and death. They were smart and adorable and utterly perfect for each other. Every time Boong-do had to find his way back to her and Hee-jin had to fight time-space continuum to remember him, I fell deeper into their love story.
School 2013 (2012)
Lee Jong-suk and Kim Woo-bin gave ‘bromance’ its first proper definition in this drama. While the story was about two high school teachers of diametrically opposite world views trying to get a class of unwilling students to pass their exams, what truly elevates this drama is the casting of the students. While their portrayals fell into familiar high schooler tropes, I’m pretty sure this was the template subsequent teen dramas copied from. Also, Kwak Jung-wook as the bully making hard life choices will always be one of the favourite drama bad boys.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-soo (2016)
(I nearly forgot this one, but I’m sneaking it a little late. Don’t tell Saya and Anisa.) There are so many reasons I love this drama. The realistic friendships, the adorable leads, the highs and lows of one-sided crushes, the journey from friends to lovers, the portrayal of both body positivity and the realistic struggles of female athletes in a society that prizes delicate femininity over excellence in sports. So much of this story just makes you happy because Bok-soo has an excellent support system to get her through any rough patch. And then there’s Nam Joo-hyuk being a complete puppy in love and there is nothing more perfect.
I Hear Your Voice (2013)
It might be nostalgia but I think this drama is kind of perfect. It adds a dash of speculative fiction into its tale of revenge melo and turns the whole soup magical. Lee Jong-suk is a mysterious high-schooler with an abiding crush on Lee Bo-young’s cynical lawyer. He also has the gift of reading minds. Somewhere between rooting for their noona romance, laughing at Lee Bo-young’s relationships with her colleagues, and worrying about the actions of a killer on the loose, you’ll realize that you’ve fallen in love with these people. It’s that kind of writing.
Heart aches and flutters galore in this one. Another friends to lovers story that I adore to bits. Pinnochio gave Park Shin-hye the terrible gift of being unable to lie without giving herself away. It makes her character instantly trustworthy in the world of TV news. But there’s one person who doesn’t trust Pinocchios, and that’s her adopted uncle/best friend, Lee Jong-suk. Just watch these two support and compete against each other as they do their time as rookie reporters. They made me so happy!
Kill Me Heal Me (2015)
I don’t know what to write about this one. Find you a man who turns into a teenaged girl and calls your adopted brother ‘oppa’ like Ji Sung does? It’s hard to explain why it’s so attractive that an actor in his prime is willing to be downright ridiculous as he portrays a hero suffering from split personality disorder. Or how emotionally wrecking it is when one of the personalities becomes legitimate competition for Hwang Jung-eum’s heart. At least 40% of this story is about how Ji Sung is jealous of Ji Sung. And we all get it.
Father is Strange (2017)
I’ve never had the patience for 50 episode weekend dramas, but Anisa convinced me to watch one episode and I was hooked. Every character in this self-aware, funny, introspective drama is worth rooting for. But my favourite – the woman who won my heart forever – was Lee Yu-ri’s Byun Hye-young. The eldest daughter in a large family, she was responsible but irrepressible. She was hilarious and outrageous and a woman fully in control of her decisions. She’s the woman I want to grow up to be.
Search: WWW (2019)
I’ve always loved K-dramas for having a wonderful, fleshed out female characters who have realistic family and workplace conflicts. But I didn’t know what I really needed until this drama. Search gave me the female friendship love triangle I’d been craving since I discovered the concept of ‘bromance’ between Kim Woo-bin and Lee Jong-suk in School 2013. The whole story is about the intensity of relationships between women and how none of it is like your mother’s makjang soap opera.
Be Melodramatic/Melo is My Nature (2019)
Dramaland occasionally gives us an odd, unique character, or a subplot that was particularly memorable. But you never expect them to get a full drama. Well, Melo is that drama. It’s staffed with weird characters, whose greatest conflicts are all with themselves. If you ask me what the story of Melo is, I couldn’t tell you. There’s a group of friends. Each of them has a story. The obstacle between them and happiness is the everyday minutiae of life. Defeating one just brings up another, but they know that they’re winning. Watching the whole drama makes you feel like you’ve been embraced by the most perfect group of people who want you to be happy doing exactly what you want to. It’s also intensely quotable. Keep a notebook handy.
And that’s all folks! If you missed Part 1 of our 2010s Retrospective, find it here. And look for our Year End Yak very shortly!
Happy New Year!