Let me make it clear right off the bat. The list (below) of the top Korean dramas in the first half of 2019 is based on television ratings—average nationwide Nielsen Korea ratings to be exact. So, if you’re equating a “top” drama to an “acclaimed/award-winning” series as you saw and clicked this article’s title, you might have landed on the wrong page (because you know, being popular among TV viewers does not automatically make the series a high-quality production). BUT, since it won’t hurt you to know which dramas were so popular in South Korea in viewership terms, you might as well just scroll the page and continue reading.
A total of 40 (21 on terrestrial TV and 19 on cable/paid channels) dramas were ranked, and all of them meet this requirement—at least 50% of their total episode count must have been broadcast from January 1 to June 30, 2019. Thus, a drama which premiered in 2018 but met that requirement (e.g. The Last Empress) was still included in the ranking. However, in calculating the average rating of each of the 40 dramas, we considered only the ratings of the episodes which have aired during the said period.
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Five out of the 21 terrestrial dramas are listed below (overall average–7.4%, KBS2–9.0%, MBC–4.5%, SBS–8.2%). And here are some interesting facts: 4 dramas in the Top 5 aired on Wednesdays and Thursdays and 3 out of these four were broadcast on KBS2 (wow, imagine if the network can enjoy this success until December). Just like in our previous rankings (1st & 2nd half of 2017, 1st half of 2018), we did not include all weekend prime time dramas (except for The Fiery Priest and Nokdu Flower due to their brand-new time slot) from the three major terrestrial networks because they tend to pull in ratings higher than what their weekday counterparts usually make. A case in point are KBS2’s Saturday-Sunday dramas (e.g. My Only One, Mother Of Mine) which are used to getting above 20 percent on their first week alone.
Similarly, the Top 5 of the 19 cable dramas are presented below (overall average–3.6%, JTBC–3.4%, OCN–2.3%, tvN–4.4%). Four of them are tvN series, three of which aired on Saturdays and Sundays.
Top Korean Dramas in the First Half of 2019 (Terrestrial TV)
5. Angel’s Last Mission: Love — 7.5% (Wednesday-Thursday KBS2 drama)
Starring promising actors Kim Myung-soo (aka L of the boy group INFINITE) and Shin Hye-sun, Angel’s Last Mission: Love tells the story of an angel who accepts a mission to find love for a cold-hearted ballerina in an effort to return to heaven, only to end up the one who falls for her. The series, directed by the PD of Queen For Seven Days and Healer, is continuing the success of KBS2 on the Wednesday-Thursday time slot. But L and Shin Hye-sun seem to benefit the most from this success, as they have shown what more they can do as actors and how much they have improved since their last projects—L’s Miss Hammurabi and Shin’s Thirty But Seventeen)—which could result in more fans following them and more directors, screenwriters, and production executives recognizing their talent and wanting to work with them in the future.
4. Liver or Die — 12.2% (Wednesday-Thursday KBS2 drama)
Liver Or Die’s (aka What’s Wrong, Poong-Sang) greatest strength that allowed it to pull off a successful run could be its relatable story of a middle-aged man who gets so caught up in the problematic lives of his four younger siblings that he hardly had the time to focus on his own life. Yoo Jun-sang portrayed the main character, while Jeon Hye-bin, Oh Ji-ho, Lee Si-young, and Lee Chang-seob played the four younger siblings. Not only did Liver Or Die become the first 2019 series to exceed the 10% mark, but it is also became the first terrestrial drama to surpass the 20% viewership this year. Until now, it remains to be the highest-rated Korean drama in 2019 in terms of peak ratings, with a remarkable record of 22.7%.
3. Doctor Prisoner — 13.2% (Wednesday-Thursday KBS2 drama)
This revenge drama is headlined by Namgoong Min, who played a doctor who has been unjustly ousted from his position in a renowned hospital and subsequently starts working in a prison’s medical facility to build connections with “VIP” inmates and carry out his revenge against those who wronged him. Doctor Prisoner recorded a double-digit rating in all but two episodes and obtained its peak rating of 15.8 percent during its finale. With his success in this drama, Namgoong Min recovered from the failure of his previous project, The Undateables. And it seems like he’ll not regret selecting a new drama with a role somewhat similar to the characters he brilliantly portrayed in Remember, Chief Kim, and Falsify.
2. The Last Empress — 13.7% (Wednesday-Thursday SBS drama)
The Last Empress (also known as An Empress’ Dignity) was so successful that its original 48 episodes got extended to 52. Set in a modern-day imperial Korea, the series centers on a struggling musical actress (played by Jang Na-ra) whose life is changed completely after she ties the knot with the emperor (Shin Sung-rok). However, things did not become easier for her as she gets entangled in a series of events that threatens the monarchy’s existence—a situation that supports a royal bodyguard’s (Choi Jin-hyuk) desire to exact revenge from the royal family. The series achieved a peak rating of 16.7 percent and successfully competed with Liver Or Die, making for a tight ratings game in which both sides are scoring a double-digit viewership.
1. The Fiery Priest — 16.1% (Friday-Saturday SBS drama)
The top Korean drama in the first half of 2019 is also the most talked about drama in the entire month of April. Viewers anticipated and loved The Fiery Priest so much that it hit a 10% rating on its first episode and went on to become the second terrestrial series to surpass the 20% viewership mark this year. With a peak audience share of 22 percent, it was an experimental success for SBS which changed the schedule of its prime time weekend drama programming in January and introduced the Friday-Saturday slot for The Fiery Priest. Described as an “extreme investigative comedy,” the series stars Kim Nam-gil as the titular Catholic priest with extreme anger management issues who teams up with a seemingly incompetent cop (Kim Sung-kyun) and a know-it-all prosecutor (Lee Ha-nee) to solve a murder and other cases involving the church.
Top Korean Dramas in the First Half of 2019 (Cable TV)
5. Confession — 4.8% (Saturday-Sunday tvN drama)
Confession premiered with a 4.6 percent rating and although its average viewership is close to this number, it peaked at 6.3 percent. The series was directed by the PD of the award-winning melodrama Mother and marked Lee Jun-ho’s third leading role in a drama. The actor played a lawyer who aims to clear the name of his wrongfully convicted father, notwithstanding the “principle of double jeopardy” that prevents an accused person from being tried again on the same charge following a valid and final conviction.
4. Romance Is A Bonus Book — 5.2% (Saturday-Sunday tvN drama)
After a nine-year hiatus, actress Lee Na-young—who is best known for her leading roles in positively reviewed dramas Ruler Of Your Own World (2002) and Ireland (2004)—returned to the small screen this year with Romance Is A Bonus Book. She played an accomplished woman who has suffered setbacks in life and struggles to find a new job until a publishing company headed by a writer prodigy (Lee Jung-suk) decides to employ her. As far as ratings are concerned, the actress made a successful comeback as the series recorded a peak rating of 6.7 percent. The drama’s PD was the talent behind Life On Mars and The Good Wife.
3. The Light In Your Eyes — 6.3% (Monday-Tuesday JTBC drama)
Poignant and funny at the same time, The Light In Your Eyes is undoubtedly one of the most popular and most critically acclaimed JTBC dramas in 2019. Reading its synopsis will give you an idea that it is a time-slip drama about an aspiring reporter (Han Ji-min) who uses her ability to travel through time to save her father, only to get stuck living the older version of herself (Kim Hye-ja). But watching the series and learning the full story behind that summary will probably give you the shock of your life as a K-drama fan. The Light In Your Eyes (also known as Dazzling) was a huge success as it made history as the first ever Monday-Tuesday JTBC drama to hit 6 percent in viewership and achieved a peak record of 9.7 percent. Kim Hye-ja won the Grand Prize for TV in the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards for her performance in the show. Nam Joo-hyuk also starred in the series as the male lead.
2. Arthdal Chronicles — 6.6% (Saturday-Sunday tvN drama)
Arthdal Chronicles has a star-studded cast, an ambitious storyline, and a production team led by the PD of My Ajusshi and screenwriters of Tree With Deep Roots. It is dubbed as the first ancient historical drama in Korea which follows the adventures of mythical heroes in a fictional land called Arth. The fans were so eager to watch it because it’s the first post-Descendants of the Sun drama of Song Joong-ki, plus he’s reunited with Kim Ji-won and joined by Jang Dong-gun and Kim Ok-bin. After garnering a 6.7 percent audience share for its premiere, the series has become the top Korean drama in the first half of 2019 in terms of first episode ratings.
1. The Crowned Clown — 8.4% (Monday-Tuesday tvN drama)
The highest-rated Korean drama in the first half of 2019 is The Crowned Clown, about a Joseon King and his doppelganger (both played by Yeo Jin-goo) who is brought in to pretend to be the king amid an assassination threat. A remake of the hit 2012 Korean film Masquerade, the drama proved to be a successful TV adaptation which premiered with 5.7 percent and concluded on a high note with 10.9 percent, becoming the first cable drama this year to exceed 10 percent in TV ratings. Interestingly, it was directed by PD Kim Hee-won (Money Flower, Warm Of Cozy), one of the only few female drama directors in South Korea. Yeo Jin-goo’s performance earned him a Best Actor nomination in the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards (but he lost to Lee Byung-hun, the lead actor in Masquerade).
RECOMMENDED: TOP KOREAN DRAMAS IN THE SECOND HALF OF 2019