Hi there! We’re introducing our annual Best of the Year article featuring the best Korean dramas that have graced our screens over the last 12 months. 2019 saw the broadcast of 104 prime-time dramas and release of three Korean Netflix original series but not all of them were considered in our selection process because of this requirement: at least half of the total number of episodes of the series must have been aired in 2019 (so don’t blame us for not putting SKY Castle here). We’ve got 83 series in the final list and we’ve chosen five shows we think are the best Korean dramas of 2019.
How did we arrive at the top 5? Of course, we didn’t watch all those shows. I mean, no one could watch all of them within a year. But we did read a lot of reviews and comments online to find out which dramas stood out and for what reasons. The first four series are arranged alphabetically; the last one is what we call the drama of the year.
Be Melodramatic (JTBC)
IndoorEnthusiast: Coming from Lee Byeong-heon, the director of the hit 2015 coming-of-age film Twenty, I knew Be Melodramatic would be a fun, slice-of-life series. Which it was, but it was also so much more. By tackling heavy themes like suicide and depression, the show touched me in ways I did not expect. Think Age of Youth, but for the grown-ups. Leads Chun Woo-hee, Jeon Yeo-bin, and Han Ji-eun didn’t just make me laugh and relate to their mid-life crises, but they also bared their hearts and had me feeling the loneliness, grief, and confusion of their characters. My favorite thing about this drama is that it’s not pretentious at all—the leading ladies are messy, unkind, struggling, failing, and painfully real. But through it all, they’re there for each other. Ahn Jae-hong and Gong Myung lend wonderful support to the feisty heroines, the OST is phenomenal, and we get a delightfully progressive LGBT arc. If you’re in your late twenties to early thirties, this show will make you feel heard and have you rewatching it over and over.
Samfann: Kingdom, Netflix’s first-ever Korean original series, lived up to the hype and easily became one of the most highly praised Korean dramas of 2019. Its intriguing premise about a zombie apocalypse in the Joseon dynasty—penned by a screenwriter who gave us the award-winning 2016 crime thriller Signal and brought to life by a cast full of veteran and promising actors (led by Ryu Seung-ryong and Bae Doo-na)—seemed like a funny combination of genres but I got terrified the whole time I was watching the drama. And you know the show is doing a pretty good job when it effectively frightens you, right? What I liked the most about Kingdom is that it is more than people fighting zombies for survival. Its story highlights how corrupt government officials and the powerful shove the powerless around in times of crisis, which in effect, shifts the monster’s identity from the zombies to the evil humans. These ruthless individuals who will do anything to serve their self-interests are no different from the enemies who feed on human flesh.
Search: WWW (tvN)
IndoorEnthusiast: Also led by three brilliant actresses, Search: WWW is a story about modern career women. Granted, an office drama about women in their mid-30’s working in rival search engine companies might not sound very exciting to the average fan. But trust me, this one delivers on all counts—from badass characters and solid female friendships to swoon-worthy romance arcs. The women in the show—played by Im Soo-jung, Lee Da-hee, and Jeon Hye-jin—hold much more nuance than the “aggressive career woman” stereotype one is used to seeing in dramas. They are competent at their jobs and fall in love, but one aspect of their life isn’t sacrificed in favor of the other. I also loved that their love interests—portrayed by Jang Ki-yong, Lee Jae-wook, and Ji Seung-hyun—aren’t caricatured portrayals of submissive men but are incredibly interesting characters on their own who never drag their women down. And the romance! So refreshing! This drama didn’t have dramatic misunderstandings or unnecessary love triangles, and made me realize that healthy communication between a couple can be just as romantic as a passionate kiss!
When The Camellia Blooms (KBS2)
Samfann: I wasn’t a fan of Gong Hyo-jin until I watched When The Camellia Blooms, which tells the story of a single mother whom I couldn’t imagine being played by another actress. Her portrayal of the protagonist blew me away, and so did her flawed character whose determination starts to crumble in the face of adversity. I liked that the heroine is a single mother and the drama tackled the stigma facing those like her who struggle to make ends meet, which is why I couldn’t help but praise Im Sang-choon for writing yet again another underdog story that has the power to overwhelm its viewers (she previously penned Fight For My Way). The writing is not without flaws but overall it did well in delivering a compelling narrative about an ordinary person who cries tears of frustration at her gloomy situation and punches anyone with no hesitation if trampled upon. It has taught me that sometimes people do the worst thing to give what’s best for their loved ones and, we might not make the right decision all the time but we can always make the best of it and live a better life.
The Light In Your Eyes (JTBC)
IndoorEnthusiast: It’s my job to talk about dramas, but I’m struggling to put into words how The Light In Your Eyes made me feel. As someone in my 20s, I usually avoid contemplating a future in which I am old. But Kim Hye-ja’s portrayal of a 25-year-old who one day wakes up in the arthritis-ridden body of a 70-year-old broke my heart. It made me aware of the privileges of youth as well as the struggles of old age. While Han Ji-min and Nam Joo-hyuk were brilliant, it was the supporting cast members Ahn Nae-sang, Son Ho-jun, and Lee Jung-eun who stole the show. The emotion this series inspired in me can only be compared to what I felt with Reply 1988. If there’s only one Korean drama you can watch this year, The Light In Your Eyes is your obvious choice!
Samfann: Our 2019 Drama Of The Year award goes to this tearjerker series whose synopsis has led me to believe that…..wait, I can’t put spoilers here. It’s hard to state the specifics of the narrative because of a twist in the second half that makes it almost impossible to talk about the drama without giving spoilers. But I can reveal that episode 10 had the most astonishing cliffhanger in all of K-dramaland, for which you’ll probably say the drama is unique and truly the best this year. Veteran actress Kim Hye-ja nailed her role as a woman in her 20s who is trapped in the body of a 70-year-old and won the Grand Prize at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards for her performance. What makes the drama the shiniest gem this year is its well-written script with a heart poured into every character. Poignant and heartwarming at the same time, The Light In Your Eyes deserves your attention. Now.