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2010s Retrospective: The Decade in Drama

Updated: Feb 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. 


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


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)


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)


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


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 


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


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

너를 기억해

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


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


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


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)*

  3. Chief Kim/Good Manager (2017)

  4. Prison Playbook (2017)*

  5. My Ajusshi (2018)*

  6. Live (2018)

  7. A Poem a Day (2018)

  8. Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)

  9. Search: WWW (2019)

  10. Melo is My Nature/Be Melodramatic (2019)

Best Heroine’s Journey


Anisa: If Boys Over Flowers could be convincingly argued as the representative drama of the 2000s, this was the decade when K-dramas finally started to shift from making heroes their most interesting characters to centering heroines and giving them more to do than just fall in love. Many of the characters below are not only multifaceted, flawed, relatable, complex, and heroic, but they also mark breakout roles and/or career-making performances for these actresses—which goes to show just how much the abundance of Candys was holding back not only the quality of K-drama storytelling, but the very careers of these incredibly talented women.

  1. Ji-young (Lee Yeon-hee) in Miss Korea (2013) 

  2. Hae-soo (Gong Hyo-jin) in It’s Okay, It’s Love (2014) 

  3. Nora (Choi Ji-woo) in Twenty Again (2015)

  4. Oh Hae-young (Seo Hyun-jin) in Oh Hae-young Again (2016)

  5. Jae-yi (Lee Yoo-young) in Tunnel (2017)

  6. Seo-ri (Shin Hye-sun) in Thirty but Seventeen (2018)

  7. Bo-young (Lee Yubi) in A Poem a Day (2018)

  8. Hye-ran (Kim Nam-joo) in Misty (2018)

  9. Dan-i (Lee Na-young) in Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)

  10. Hae-ryung (Shin Se-kyung) in Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung (2019)

  11. Tae-joo (Kim Hyun-joo) in Watcher (2019)

Best Music

shut up fbb

Anisa: OSTs are an inextricable part of the magic of watching K-drama. Some work serviceably in the moment but instantly slip from our minds. Then there are the soundtracks that stay with us, even years later, serving both as reminders of what we felt as we watched those shows, and as purely enjoyable background music for our own moments of happiness, fear, anger, pain and catharsis. Some of the shows on our list were musical dramas where the characters themselves performed the music; in others the music is a seamless part of a larger whole that accomplishes exactly what the director needs it to, at every moment in the journey. 

  1. What’s Up (2011)

  2. My Princess (2011)

  3. Shut Up Flower Boy Band (2012)

  4. Miss Korea (2013)

  5. Misaeng (2014)

  6. Punch (2014)

  7. Jealousy Incarnate (2016)

  8. Age of Youth (2016)

  9. Signal (2016)

  10. Goblin (2016)

  11. SKY Castle (2018)

Top Drama Tropes

하트 투 하트

Anisa: There are timeless tropes of K-drama, like forced cohabitation and contract relationships, faux incest and the children of mortal enemies falling in love—they’e cliches for a reason, and will likely never disappear. But the 2010s gave us some surprisingly persistent trends, and often these dramas would come in waves. Why were there suddenly so many hot and/or creepy priests? We saw the rise of science fiction and with it the seemingly endless time-travel dramas; meta on a scale previously unheard of; secretaries and bosses falling in love willy-nilly. But some of these tropes weren’t just fads, but reflections of real social change. I still remember Jung Kyung-ho’s character in Smile, You at the start of the decade, and how shocked we all were that such a non-aggressive, almost submissive dude was actually the romantic lead to Lee Min-jung’s brash but adorable heroine. Ten years later it would barely raise an eyebrow, because now our female leads frequently tell jerks to take a hike. So it is with the glut of dramas about lawyers and prosecutors fighting a rotten justice system in the wake of recent corruption scandals. Or the admittedly problematic trope of psychiatrists falling in love with their patients: messed up, yes, but we also got some incredibly raw, moving portrayals of mental illness. (Kill Me, Heal Me deserves a special mention here because it embodies not just one but three of the below tropes, and I don’t begrudge it a single one.) 

  1. Beta Heroes Get the Girl

  2. I’m Your Psychiatrist, But It’s Okay

  3. Just Give Me One Do-over (Or Three, or Four…)

  4. Ghosts Among Us, Falling in Love

  5. The Drama Writer is Winking at Us

  6. Arrested Development

  7. My Boss, My Romantic Partner

  8. Robots Among Us, Falling in Love

  9. One Actor, Two Faces (or Seven)

  10. Childhood Crushes are 100% Destined Love

Most Cracktastic of the Decade

시크릿 가든

Anisa: These were the shows that kept us awake all night, binge-watching or live-streaming, refreshing the pages of our favourite recap websites because back then, subtitles didn’t take hours like they do today; when Secret Garden was airing, we had to wait at least a week. *grips cane and tells teenagers to get off my lawn* These dramas were cracktastic for different reasons, whether that was sparkly tracksuits or magnetic lead performances or romances that made us feel like we might stop breathing—but what they all had in common was that collective fandom experience, as we gathered in online spaces to squee and rant and speculate. Most of the list is from the first half of the decade, which makes us a little sad. Perhaps we’ve become jaded drama viewers, or maybe there’s so much to watch that even when we get crazy addicted to a show, there’s less of us watching at any one time. Paroma suggests that maybe some of these crack elements were actually problematic, and the industry feels less comfortable deploying them. I have a feeling it’s a combination of these factors, but I also have faith that a show will come along again that’s so big we’ll all be watching along, biting our nails over the cliffhangers. Isn’t Signal 2 coming out in 2020?

  1. Secret Garden (2010)

  2. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)

  3. City Hunter (2011)

  4. The King 2 Hearts (2012)

  5. Secret (2013)

  6. Healer (2014)

  7. Kill Me, Heal Me (2015)

  8. Goblin (2016)

  9. Signal (2016)

  10. W: Two Worlds (2016)

  11. SKY Castle (2018)

The Meta


Anisa: I couldn’t leave this category out, despite not having a full ten, because although it’s a short list, all of these shows had such outsized impacts on the K-drama world. They either poked fun at the drama tropes we love to roll our eyes at, or they took an illuminating inside look at the Korean entertainment industry (or both). These dramas broke the fourth wall in a way that we’re becoming used to now, but at the turn of the decade was far less common. At its core, meta is a kind of love letter to fandom, which means that even when it fails to live up to its potential, or even falls flat completely (I’m looking at you, Orientalist white-woman fantasy Dramaworld), we can’t help but feel some type of way about it. 

  1. The Greatest Love (2011)

  2. The King of Dramas (2012)

  3. You From Another Star (2013)

  4. The Producers (2015)

  5. W: Two Worlds (2016)

  6. Search: WWW (2019)

  7. Melo is My Nature (2019)

  8. Extraordinary You (2019)

Top Variety Shows


Anisa: I know, I know. Not dramas! But variety shows were a huge part of my K-entertainment experience in the 2010s, and I couldn’t end this without acknowledging the joy, comfort, and laughter they brought me. This list includes variety shows that were cultural juggernauts, dominating the national airwaves and becoming international hits, but also the purveyors of weird, quirky, gut-bustingly funny, and heart-meltingly sweet moments that brought us stress relief in dark times. Then there are shows that introduced the domestic audience to their new neighbours as more people began to travel to and live in Korea; the best of these are Abnormal Summit and My Neighbor Charles, which broke stereotypes about other countries while also portraying the incredible difficulty of moving to a new country and starting life from scratch.

We also had the Over Flowers series, which we feel a particular kinship with around here, just one example of the giant influence the legendary Na PD had this decade in both variety and drama. Grandpas Over Flowers in particular ran for five seasons and had Chinese, American, and Dutch adaptations. I had to include Love Naggers 2 because it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Jaded Older People Tell You to Dump Your Trash Boyfriend genre that’s so dear to my heart. And last but never least, the two seasons of Sisters’ Slam Dunk, for being the only all-female variety show in a sea of testosterone, unabashedly supporting a group of young to middle-aged women in pursuing their impractical and sometimes silly, but always meaningful dreams. (Watch it. You will sob.) 

  1. 1 Night 2 Days (2007-present)

  2. Running Man (2010-present)

  3. Shinhwa Broadcast (2012-13)

  4. Sisters’ Slam Dunk (2016)

  5. Abnormal Summit (2014-17)

  6. Love Naggers 2 (2019)

  7. Knowing Bros/Men on a Mission (2015-present)

  8. The Return of Superman (2013-present)

  9. Grandpas/Noonas/Youth Over Flowers (2013-18)

  10. My Neighbor Charles (2015-present)


The 2010s were full of change, of ups and downs. There are the news stories none of us will ever forget, like the shocking reveal of Lee Ji-ah’s secret marriage and divorce years earlier in 2014, or the tragic passing of many beloved entertainers over the years. There are also the iconic onscreen moments that live on in fandom lore, like Jeon Ji-hyun’s iconic “Sawwwry” in You From Another Star, or Kim Nam-joo’s pantsuits in Misty. There were the shipping wars of Reply 1994, and those days when all of us asked each other “What would Anthony do?” whenever we saw messy behind-the-scenes news. But whether you loved the same shows that were popular with most others, or binge-watched to the beat of your own heart, it’s been a decade overflowing with riches for any K-drama fan, and a wild, sleep-deprived ride. We’d love to hear what your favourites were in the above categories, and if you’re in agreement with us—or feel that we’re wildly incorrect. Regardless, thanks for finishing out this crazy fandom journey with us. 

We’ll be posting the second part of our 2010s Drama Retrospective soon, featuring our personal top ten lists for the decade, so keep your eyes peeled!

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