K-drama of the other kind

Amrita V Nair | Updated on April 27, 2018 Published on April 27, 2018

Seoul stirring: Descendants of the Sun amassed 1.1 billion views in the first two months on air

May the fiction be with you: Joseon X-Files: Secret Book is loosely based on cases detailed in an ancient text

A kit for Korean series beginners. Choose one or all genres

Over the last two decades, the Korean Wave or hallyu has swept the world. In East Asia, where this spread of Korean culture holds its strongest fort, it was initially driven by K-drama and K-pop, and now extends into fashion and food. In 2016, the drama Descendants of the Sun created a sensation in the region, amassing 1.1 billion views during its first two months on air.

Today, Korean television shows, movies, and music are important instruments of South Korean soft power. Even in North Korea, where foreign shows are banned, activists risk their lives to smuggle in South Korean shows. So powerful is their impact that, speaking to The New York Times in 2015, a North Korean defector cited them as the inspiration for her decision to flee the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

in India, with the exception of the north-eastern States — where it is hugely popular — the Korean wave is still catching on. Indian fans of Korean movies and TV sometimes face ridicule as they are often caricatured as koreaboos (derogatory term for obsessive fans of Korean pop culture). Such derision is perplexing. With their high production value and engaging storylines, Korean shows are just as relatable and well-made as American and British shows. Furthermore, most Korean series last 20 episodes or less. Their brevity assures coherent and well-resolved plots rather than longer, slow-paced sagas.

A popular (and uninformed) critical opinion seems to be that Korean shows are “all the same”. Ironically, the prolific and diverse output of the Korean media industry can also be intimidating for the uninitiated. Here, in response to the critics and in aid of the curious, are five “starter” K-drama suggestions by genre.


Movie buffs will know that some of the best crime thrillers in world cinema have come from South Korea. It is unsurprising then that some of the best Korean television shows fall under this genre. If you are a fan of procedurals like Criminal Minds or Law & Order, you will also enjoy Signal. It has an intriguing premise. Inspired by as-yet-unsolved real-life serial murders between 1986 and 1991 in the city of Hwaseong, the drama tells the story of a detective in the year 2000 who communicates with a cold case profiler in the year 2015 with the aid of a mysterious walkie-talkie. Signal received all-round praise for its writing and performances.

Slice of life

Holding up a mirror to contemporary Korean life, the slice-of-life dramas are a great option for those who like slower-paced, undramatic, and naturalistic TV shows like Freaks and Geeks. Based on a popular webtoon, Misaeng tells the story of a young man who spent his whole life preparing to become a professional baduk (Go) player. When circumstances force him to give up this dream, he has to eke out a career in Korea’s hyper-competitive corporate environment, armed only with a high-school certificate and his baduk skills. Misaeng was a cultural phenomenon in South Korea, and critics praised it for its ability to portray even the most banal aspects of office life with poignancy and grace. Misaeng is a rare, empathetic and loving homage to our times that finds resonance across cultures.

Historical fiction

If slice-of-life shows are a great primer to contemporary Korea, historical fiction or sageuk dramas depict epochs or personalities from the country’s past. Amongst these, Queen Seondeok received rave reviews for its depiction of the tumultuous life of the eponymous seventh-century Korean ruler. Due to its epic scope, the drama is longer than the others in this list, at 62 episodes. However, the fast-paced storyline filled with Game of Thrones-esque twists and intrigue renders it an easy and riveting watch.

Science fiction

For fans of shows like X-Files or Fringe, there is no better introduction to the wonderful world of Korean science fiction than Joseon X-Files: Secret Book. As the name suggests, the show is set in the Joseon dynasty and narrates the story of an investigative duo working with a secret governmental organisation to understand and solve mysterious events. Loosely based on cases detailed in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, an actual ancient historical text, the show drew critical acclaim for its plot, as well as its gorgeous cinematography and superb editing.

May the fiction be with you: Joseon X-Files: Secret Book is loosely based on cases detailed in an ancient text




Psychological thriller

If intense and unusual psychological thrillers are more your speed, Liar Game is where you should start your K-drama journey. Adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name, the show tells the story of an unlikely alliance between an honest and conscientious college student and a jaded conman as they participate in a high-stakes reality television show. Pulling you in from the first episode, Liar Game is part philosophical exercise, part game theory lesson, and part edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer based in Singapore

Published on April 27, 2018

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