Here at Kdramapal, we believe in not only hyping up the biggest dramas of the year—as we have in our list of the highest-rated, most talked-about, and best Korean dramas of 2019—but also unearthing underrated gems from among the heap of dramas released last year. It is with this sentiment that we bring our list of underrated dramas to you, and hope that like us, you discover a comforting show that hits all the sweet spots for you.
Note: we define “underrated dramas” here as decent dramas that obtained very low average TV ratings (<2 percent for cable dramas and <6 percent for free-to-air or non-cable series). To know more about the benchmark for average ratings of Korean dramas, read this article: Korean Drama Ratings Explained: Hotel del Luna got 10%, which means?.
When The Devil Calls Your Name (tvN) – 1.9%
With a combination of great concept and amazing cast, When The Devil Calls Your Name was one of my most awaited dramas of 2019. And while it failed in winning me over completely, there was still quite a lot I appreciated about this show. For starters, no drama can go wrong with the team of Jung Kyung-ho and Park Sung-woong, who play a music composer who signs a contract with the devil, and the devil, respectively. Caught in a thrilling battle of morality, the two actors complement each other and perform in a way that leaves you thinking. This show deals with moral dilemmas as well as the conflicts between humans and higher beings, and has a more philosophical tone than emotional. It also boasts of movie-like cinematography and special effects, as well as a stunning OST. It’s quite an unusual K-drama, one that rarely gets made, and for that reason alone I would encourage you to watch it.
Welcome 2 Waikiki 2 (JTBC) – 1.6%
I know, I know. I’m aware of how the second season of the sleeper hit Welcome To Waikiki wasn’t as funny or entertaining as the first one. And for the most part, I agree. However, since season two features completely different characters and storylines, I also feel that it is unfair to judge it solely in comparison to the first. As a standalone season, Welcome To Waikiki 2 isn’t bad —Lee Yi-kyung still delivers his punchlines and is a riot as a struggling actor, while Kim Sun-ho and Shin Hyun-soo lend him support as young men also struggling in their careers. A pleasant surprise this time is that the female characters, played by Ahn So-hee, Moon Ga-young, and Kim Ye-won are much better fleshed out, and so are the relationships. This season’s focus is more on the struggles of these clumsy, silly young adults rather than just fun. And while in the beginning, I missed the slapstick humor I associate with Waikiki, as the season went on I realized that I could appreciate its new, slightly more serious approach too.
Be Melodramatic (JTBC) – 1.5%
No matter how many end-of-the-year lists I make, I won’t get tired of talking about Be Melodramatic. It makes absolutely no sense that a show as rich in comedy, romance, and heartbreak as this consistently obtained low ratings. I’m not bitter, however, because this show was so satisfying that I just don’t have time for negative emotions. Let me instead tell you everything good about it—three unflinchingly real and hilarious female leads in Chun Woo-hee, Jeon Yeo-bin, and Han Ji-eun, their equally amazing love interests played by Gong Myung and Ahn Jae-hong, friendships to die for, lots of meta humor and cameos because the ladies work in the TV industry, a gorgeous soundtrack, delightful LGBTQ representation, and hard-hitting exploration of the struggles of adulthood including mental illness.
The Lies Within (OCN) – 1.4%
A web of murders, lies, and plot twists—that is what awaits you as soon as you press play on the first episode of The Lies Within. I won’t lie, I only started this show for Lee Min-ki and Lee Yoo-young, two of my favorite drama actors, who are both solid in their roles as a detective and a reluctant lawmaker, respectively. While Lee Min-ki’s character wants to transfer to a quiet town after a long and illustrious career, Lee Yoo-young plays the daughter of a lawmaker who is forced to turn to politics after her father and husband fall prey to a conspiracy. If like me, you’re considering checking this one out for the actors, you won’t be disappointed. Although, I have to say that the drama did fall short of expectations in the writing department, especially Lee Yoo-young’s character who barely had any development during the course of the series. Still, considering The Lies Within comes from the director of Argon (2017), it has many redeeming qualities, including thoughtful plot-twists, a nicely-paced plot, and some really surprising cameos.
Love Affairs In The Afternoon (Channel A) – 0.9%
Coming from the director of Bad Guys and Squad 38, Love Affairs In The Afternoon feels like a surprising breath of fresh air. Leading ladies Park Ha-sun and Ye Ji-won give heartfelt performances as two women trapped in loveless marriages. Park Ha-sun plays a shy, introverted woman who’s disgusted at the idea of cheating but cannot hold back when she finds love with the sensitive biology teacher played by Lee Sang-yeob. Ye Ji-won, on the other hand, plays a wealthy housewife with kids who is refreshingly open about engaging in casual sex outside marriage, until she falls for a brooding artist (Jo Dong-hyuk) and things get complicated. This drama is an emotional roller-coaster and I loved how honestly it depicted everything, from the trauma of being trapped in loveless marriages and the suffering and social ostracism experienced by everyone involved in an extra-marital affair, to the flutters of finding true love and the arduous personal journey one needs to make in order to find happiness. Most people passed on this because it deals with a sensitive subject, comes from a little known cable channel, and has no popular actors, but I’m here to assure you that it delivered and didn’t disappoint.
Welcome 2 Life (MBC) – 4.8%
Welcome 2 Life didn’t have much luck with ratings, but it sure had luck winning my heart. It started off as a fantasy thriller about a greedy lawyer, played by Rain, who helps rich people evade the law but one day finds himself navigating a parallel world where he is a good and righteous man. The series managed to inject so much heart into its plot that I was impressed. It beautifully explores grey morality through Rain’s character. Not only does it execute the crime and police procedural side of the story extremely well and gives us genuinely terrifying villains, but it also manages to showcase a solid romance arc between Rain and Im Ji-yeon, who plays his wife. My favorite thing about this show is that it depicts the process of changing from bad to good as slow and painstaking and doesn’t limit it to a black and white binary.
Secret Boutique (SBS) – 4.3%
In case you’re not familiar with makjang, you’ll only need to watch Secret Boutique to grasp its meaning. Think chaebol families, power struggles, revenge arcs, melodrama… all of this, but exaggerated. I confess that makjang dramas aren’t usually my cup of tea, but as a fan of K-dramas, I occasionally suspend belief and give in to the dark side. Secret Boutique has Kim Sun-ah in the lead, playing an orphan named Jenny Jang who rose from poverty to run one of the most high-end fashion boutiques and became an influential figure in social and political circles. She does this with the support of a wealthy woman played by Jang Mi-hee, who is actually just using Jenny for her own benefit. When these two dangerous women clash, they tangle everyone around them in a web of lies and conspiracies. While the drama’s plot has been criticized for being predictable, I find that Secret Boutique had quite a lot to offer in terms of performances and the sheer drama of it all.
The Banker (MBC) – 4.1%
Who doesn’t love an underdog story once in a while? A story that’s focused on being good and doing the right thing, and is brought to life by the rock-solid performances of a little-known cast. Every year brings with it one such drama, and for me, this year The Banker took the crown. Kim Sang-joon commands the screen as a small-town banker who is one day suddenly promoted to the Seoul branch of his bank and put in charge of an auditing team. You can imagine what happens next—internal politics, power games, corruption, and conspiracies. While this drama lacks in the fun and romance department, it makes up for those with a fast-paced plot that doesn’t get boring for one second. The supporting cast, which includes a combination of veteran and rookie actors like Chae Shi-ra, Kim Tae-woo, and Ahn Woo-yeon, makes this drama thoroughly watchable. There are some plot holes, but the story ties up all the loose ends in a way that it’s still a satisfying watch.
Big Issue (SBS) – 3.4%
In this list of underrated Korean dramas of 2019, Big Issue is probably the most famous one. And for all the wrong reasons—from editing mishap to episodes that are rated 19+. Amidst all the commotion, the story got massively overlooked. Through the story of Jo Jin-moo, who makes a mistake as an elite photographer and ends up having to make his living as a paparazzo, and Han Ye-seul, who plays the editor of a celebrity scandal website, Big Issue dared to go where Korean dramas usually don’t go. From showing a popular idol gambling to exposing celebrities distributing hidden camera videos and partaking in prostitution, this drama supplemented fiction with reality to create a compelling and powerful narrative that is worth mentioning. As for what stood out to me, I’d say Han Ye-seul gives a career-best performance as the heartless but ambitious editor-in-chief. Watch it for her if nothing else!
Spring Turns To Spring (MBC) – 2.5%
Looking at the poster and the synopsis for Spring Turns To Spring, I never could have guessed how funny it would be. At most, it sounded like a melodrama involving two very different women who switch bodies. I couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong! Lee Yoo-ri and Uhm Ji-won nail their contrasting personalities as a career-focused anchorwoman and a former actress-turned-housewife, respectively. It’s a joy to watch them slip in and out of their bodies as they struggle to adapt to each other’s lives. This is one of those dramas that take the tone of a light comedy but ends up exploring several serious issues, from casual misogyny to political corruption. A solid supporting cast and fun OST only serve to make it better. This one is a feel-good drama for the days when you don’t feel like investing emotionally or mentally in a show.