2010s Retrospective: The Decade in Drama

Updated: Jun 9

This is part one of our 2010s Retrospective series. Find part two here.


Anisa: It’s been a decade of seismic change in Korean television—if the 2000s were the birth of the English-language Hallyu wave, the 2010s changed so much about the way the industry itself worked. K-dramas began to understand that their audience didn’t end at Korea’s borders. Reply 1997‘s record-breaking success started a cable revolution in 2012, which led to a sea-change in the types of stories, and more importantly the kinds of heroines, that we were able to enjoy on our screens. 


The fandom of the 2000s was sustained purely on fan passion and labour, but with Dramafever’s launch in 2009, we saw the rise of legal licensing and the mixed benefits and drawbacks that resulted from Korean networks turning their eyes to their growing global audience. And by the end of the decade, a new player jumped in: Netflix, resulting in a huge jump in production budgets, and many more people watching K-drama. 

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We saw a shift from the toxic gender politics of Secret Garden in 2010 to the incredibly nuanced, feminist dynamics of Search: WWW and Melo is My Nature this year; we’ve gone from a surfeit of Candys and the cold chaebol jerks that deign to love them to an abundance of unique and relateable leads, of both genders. So we wanted to do a retrospective on the last ten years of dramas, and highlight some of the unforgettable experiences they’ve given us. 


We’ve assembled our collective top ten lists of 2010 shows (or as close to that number as we could manage), some according to genre and others simply categories we wanted to highlight. The exception is our top ten romances: since that tends to feel very personal, and because there was no way we’d agree on just ten between the three of us, we each have our own list. (Let’s be real, given that 95% of K-dramas have a central love story, even choosing ten was painfully hard.)


An organizational note: Ranking these would have been impossible, so we’ve organized them chronologically by premiere year. Some dramas none of us got a chance to finish, but they were so widely beloved that we felt they had to be on the list (and I’m sure we still missed some)—these are marked with an asterisk.


And finally, as Saya notes below, we included in our lists some dramas starring actors who later revealed themselves to be predators, which we no longer feel able to watch, but were really important and excellent at the time. It would be a shame to ignore the achievements of the rest of the cast and crew because of one terrible person, so we’ve decided to keep those in.

Top Romances

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Saya: I like romances where people talk. Without reserve. And say things that matter. I like my heroes direct and sweet and my heroines prickly and weird. I like them open to being vulnerable, and able to say what they’re thinking, willing to negotiate on the difficult things between them. I also love most when my couple can go all-in with each other, and they see each other’s worst and weakest sides and that only makes them closer. Basically, these are (a fraction of) the romances that ruined me for real life.

  1. It’s Okay, It’s Love (2014)

  2. High School King of Savvy/High Schooler King of Life (2014)

  3. Healer (2014)

  4. Sassy Go Go (2015)

  5. Descendants of the Sun (2016)

  6. Doctors/Doctor Crush (2016)

  7. Saimdang–Light’s Diary (2017) (strictly speaking, this is a romance that never was and I am ruined by it)

  8. Temperature of Love (2017)

  9. I’m Not a Robot (2017)

  10. Her Private Life (2019)

IOIL

Anisa: The romances I love the most are the ones that don’t just give us swoonworthy moments between pretty people; I want to know why these two people have to be together, and how they love each other. I want to see the lead couple navigate what it means to commit yourself to another person while being a woman or man in the world. The best love stories don’t pretend that love heals all wounds; they give us people who dare to love each other despite their flaws and insecurities, without letting each other off the hook when they cross the line. A perfect, aspirational mix of idealism and realism that provides both fantasy and catharsis–and couples who stay with us, years after we’ve forgotten the details of the plot.

  1. Reply 1994 (2013)

  2. High School King of Savvy (2014)

  3. It’s Okay, It’s Love (2014)

  4. Heart to Heart (2015)

  5. Jealousy Incarnate (2016)

  6. Fight My Way (2017)

  7. Live Up to Your Name (2017)

  8. I’m Not a Robot (2017)

  9. Just Between Lovers (2017)

  10. Familiar Wife (2018)

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Paroma: I like my romances epic… sweeping. Spanning years and continents! Lives ruined. Blood shed! And K-dramas often oblige. So, the first and third dramas on my list are hardly a surprise. But I’m also a keen proponent of angst being driven by circumstances, not avoidable miscommunication. The separation must come because the hearts aren’t ready, or because being together will bring about the apocalypse. But, of course, the best romances are the ones with no angst! The ones where they fall in love, learn to trust and accept each other, and defeat all obstacles as a pair. 

  1. Queen In-hyun’s Man (2012)

  2. Reply 1997 (2012)

  3. Faith/Great Doctor (2012)

  4. Pinnocchio (2014)

  5. Sassy Go Go (2015)

  6. Jealousy Incarnate (2016)

  7. Strong Girl Do Bong-soon (2017)

  8. Fight My Way (2017)

  9. Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)

  10. Her Private Life (2019)

Top Melodramas

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Saya: This list brings together titles from across the melodrama sub-genres, from romance melo to revenge melo, and all the things in between: suicide, trauma, bereavement, illness, to name a few. These are the dramas that want to break you and then remake you. I find a good melo at the right time really cleansing, but I do need to be in the right place for it. I’m pretty sure the definition of melodrama is “here there be great pain and much grief, bring tissues.” But what makes them really outstanding is the way in which they resolve it to deliver justice, catharsis, and healing that you feel in the depths of your soul.

  1. One Warm Word (2013)

  2. Heartless City (2013)

  3. Punch (2014)

  4. Kill Me, Heal Me (2015)

  5. Marriage Contract (2016)

  6. Just Between Lovers (2017)

  7. Solomon’s Perjury (2017)

  8. Mother (2018)

  9. Red Moon, Blue Sun/Children of Nobody (2018)

  10. SKY Castle (2018)

  11. Beautiful World (2019)

Top Sageuks 

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Saya: I should preface this list by saying that while we’ve watched a ton of sageuk between us, I at least seem to have erred on the side of shorter, mediocre (also outright bad) and out-of-the-way ones, so our list of personal favourites wouldn’t match up to a list of all-time greats. Thus, we think it’s worth filling out the list with a handful of notable sageuks that we didn’t manage to watch/finish, which were widely loved and on our lists (plus I suspect the best of the sageuk bunch are pre-2010, so for the real heavyweight classics, you have to go further back). Those are the ones marked with an asterisk. I’m conflicted about including The Princess’ Man on this list due to the unsavoury activities of the lead actor. While I will never watch it again, in fairness to and recognition of everyone else involved in its creation, I’m keeping it in.

  1. Chuno (2010)*

  2. The Princess’ Man (2011)

  3. Tree With Deep Roots (2011)

  4. Gaksital/Bridal Mask (2012)

  5. Faith (2012)

  6. Six Flying Dragons (2015)

  7. Hwarang: The Beginning (2016)  (which I love but everyone else pans, haha)

  8. Queen for Seven Days (2017)*

  9. Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People (2017)*

  10. Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung (2019)

Top Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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Paroma: Korean dramas know how to do speculative fiction right. They take a generic fantasy concept—like a boy being able to hear your thoughts when he looks into your eyes—and then spin out an epic revenge saga that spans a decade, involves betrayals and blood feuds, promises broken and kept, questions of morality, and the tale of a hopeful young man falling head over heels in love with a cynical, amoral lawyer, who is nothing like the woman he’d dreamt she would be. They take a “What if?” and plunge as far into the question as they can, bringing out strands of human conflict you would never have seen arising from that question. Below are about a dozen we think it would be a crime to miss. 

  1. Queen In-Hyun’s Man (2012) 

  2. Nine: Nine Time Travels (2013)

  3. I Hear Your Voice (2013) 

  4. Pinocchio (2014)

  5. God’s Gift: 14 Days (2014) (it was 99% brilliant!!!)

  6. Splish Splash Love (2015)

  7. Signal (2016)

  8. Goblin (2016)

  9. W: Two Worlds (2016)

  10. Circle (2017)

  11. Tunnel (2017)

  12. Black (2017) 

  13. Familiar Wife (2018)

Top Thrillers/Mysteries

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Saya: I didn’t become the thriller-junkie that I am today until the triple hit of Missing Noir M, I Remember You, and Pride and Prejudice ruined me in 2015, so my thriller knowledge from the first half of the decade is probably a little less comprehensive. From what I can tell, though, thrillers just generally got better from around the post-2014 mark, and keep getting better (I’m sure the rise of cable has a lot to do with that). But curating a collection of the best of the decade is an undertaking that scares me a little because I’m a bit of an easy watcher and haven’t got to some of the big ones, so let me disclaim my list as highly, highly subjective. 

As with melodramas, we’ve conglomerated the spectrum of them into a single list, but we’re covering a LOT of ground, from action thriller to psychological thriller to mystery thriller to revenge thriller to detective thriller to, well, a thrilling caper. (Is that even a thing? Seo In-guk and Ma Dong-seok made it a thing!)

  1. City Hunter (2011)

  2. Two Weeks (2013)

  3. Pride and Prejudice (2014)

  4. Golden Cross (2014)

  5. Liar Game (2014)

  6. Healer (2014)

  7. I Remember You (2015)

  8. Police Unit 38 (2016)

  9. Forest of Secrets/Stranger (2017) 

  10. Lookout/The Guardians (2017)

  11. Watcher (2019)

Top Medical Drama

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Saya: This category does not actually exist as none of us are really big on medical dramas. I personally only find myself watching them by accident where, most times, the medical stuff is a backdrop for either romance or dastardly deeds. When the medicine really matters, though, it can get kind of dry if, like me, you’re not into the procedural format or boardroom backstabbery. While I’ve loved lots of ostensibly medical dramas, it wasn’t for medical reasons (as you can see by their appearances on other lists here), and there are a couple I’m very fond of, but I know they don’t belong on a best-of list (and Yong-Pal belongs on a worst-of list). However, this category has been called into service for the sake of one most excellent show:

  1. Romantic Doctor, Teacher Kim (2016)

Anisa: This might be a good place to give an Honorary Crossover Award to The Good Doctor. It wasn’t on any of our best-of-the-decade lists, but not only was it remade into an American show but became a legitimate multi-season hit in the US.

Top High School/Youth Dramas

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Anisa: These are the shows that take us back to what we often think of as a simpler time, but in truth was a much more intense one, and that’s what makes these stories so enjoyable. The best coming of age dramas remind us what it was like to feel everything so deeply we thought our hearts might burst, when crushes seemed like destiny and the end of a friendship might as well have been the end of the world. These shows remind us what it was like to figure out who we wanted to be in the world for the first time; they reconnect us to the youthful idealism that we often become too jaded to remember. These characters have that fire for fairness and justice, that reckless drive to follow their dreams and protect their friends. They make us feel a little younger, in the best way. 

  1. White Christmas (2011)

  2. Shut Up Flower Boy Band (2012)

  3. Reply 1997 (2012)

  4. School 2013 (2012)

  5. Angry Mom (2015)

  6. Sassy Go Go (2015)

  7. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016)

  8. Age of Youth (2016)

  9. My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018)

  10. My Strange Hero (2018)

  11. Moment At Eighteen (2019)

Top Family Dramas

내 마음

Anisa: For all three of us, rom-coms were our first introduction to Korean dramas, and for me it took a while before I gathered the stamina for fifty-episode weekenders, but I discovered that they bring a joy all their own. Family dramas may be longer, but they have multiple lead plotlines; instead of watching three rom-coms in a row, those stories all exist in one sprawling world and bump up against each other, which depending on execution can either be infuriating or highly entertaining. The best family dramas give us compelling, complex characters in impossible situations; by the time we say goodbye, we feel like we know these people—their journeys and relationships, traumas and triumphs, their epic sagas of revenge and redemption, stay in our memories for that much longer. 

I always say that one of my favourite things about the K-drama format is the space it gives the writers for character development, and that’s especially true in family dramas. You can really see the passage of time and the organic growth of characters, because their arcs have a carefully set up and planned trajectory with a defined end. (This only describes the best of the genre, of course—there’s a reason weekend dramas are infamous for makjang.) And, love them or hate them, these might be the most realistic and relatable dramas of the whole bunch. As we’ve all found out after becoming adults, every family has a few skeletons in its dark closets.

  1. Can You Hear My Heart (2011)

  2. High Kick 3: Revenge of the Short Legged (2011)

  3. Ojakkyo Brothers (2011)

  4. You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly/My Husband Got a Family (2012)

  5. Scandal: A Shocking and Wrongful Incident (2013)

  6. Five Children/Five Enough (2016)

  7. Father is Strange (2017)

  8. SKY Castle (2018)

Top Slice-of-Life/Workplace

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Anisa: I’m on record loving slice-of-life dramas, which when done well are my absolute favourite genre. The closest I can get to articulating why is that they communicate something basic about what it means to be a human, day to day. Often television shows us the fun, dramatic, tragic parts of life, and that makes sense, because those highs and lows make for stories that move and spark and get people’s attention. But maybe my own life experience has made me especially sensitive to how difficult, important and big the “little things” can feel, especially when we’re feeling down and as if the world is passing us by. So whether I’m watching an intern fighting to stay above water at a company where everyone seems smarter and more capable than him, or a woman recovering from a failed marriage and having to start from zero again despite her storied career history, I feel for these characters, I cry with them, I cheer when they finally overcome whatever obstacle was holding them back—and my heart swells when they discover they’re not as alone as they thought. May every Jang Geu-rae find his Manager Oh.

  1. Misaeng (2014)

  2. Dear My Friends (2016)*