2020 saw a diverse array of quality Korean dramas. Which of these K-dramas are most worth your time though?
Our list of the Best Korean Dramas of 2020 can help you decide.
Here, Cinema Escapist has chosen the top Korean dramas of 2020—across a variety of genres like romance, thriller, action, crime, and more.
We made these selections using several criteria. First, the K-drama must’ve debuted in 2020. This disqualified worthwhile hits like Crash Landing On You, which you can see on our list for 2019. We then found 2020 Korean dramas that had the best combination of entertainment value, narrative innovation, social relevance, and global streaming availability.
With these factors, we’ve come up with 11 choices for 2020’s best Korean dramas. Take a look at our list, which includes streaming links for easy viewing (when available).
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11. The Good Detective
Starring: Son Hyun-joo, Jang Seung-jo, Lee Elijah | Genre(s): Crime
Those who enjoy “odd couple” detective pairings should check out The Good Detective, which falls squarely into that genre. One of this year’s surprise hits, the drama’s viewership ratings doubled between its first and last episodes.
Kang Do-chang (Son Hyun-joo) and Oh Ji-hyuk are this series’ detective leads. Kang is a grizzled veteran who solves cases through the force of his personality, while the younger Oh instead applies a more scientific approach. When a murder case from five years ago gets reopened and potentially threatens Kang’s career, this pair of opposites must work together in a delicate tradeoff between power and justice.
Besides providing a layered exploration of what “being a good detective” means, The Good Detective offers an intricate story with many pleasing twists and turns. Furthermore, the character development and interactions between Kang and Oh are superb, and will please anybody who enjoys detective dramas of this sort.
10. Hi Bye, Mama!
Starring: Kim Tae-hee, Lee Kyu-hyung, Go Bo-gyeol | Genre(s): Fantasy, Family, Comedy
Leading actress Kim Tae-hee returned to the K-drama scene this year after a five year absence with the lead role in Hi Bye, Mama! In this sentimental drama, Kim plays a woman named Cha Yu-ri who gets a chance to temporarily return to the human world after being dead for five years. She wants to reconnect with her family, but finds that her husband has since re-married.
Hi Bye, Mama! unfortunately isn’t as innovative as most of the other K-dramas on this list, choosing to stick with tried-and-true narrative elements. Therefore, if you aren’t a diehard K-drama fan, this might not be the best show for you. If you live and breathe K-dramas for their tropes and saccharine nature, Hi Bye, Mama! will deliver all of that in a reliable and entertaining manner. Apparently many Koreans still love a good ol’ series about family love, because Hi Bye, Mama! was one of the most watched K-dramas of 2020.
9. Mystic Pop-up Bar
Starring: Hwang Jung-eum, Yook Sung-jae, Choi Won-young | Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Mystery, Supernatural
If you enjoyed our 2019 K-drama top pick Hotel del Luna, then you might like Mystic Pop-up Bar. This drama has similar supernatural premises to Hotel del Luna, but adds an additional twist of heartwarming comedy.
Mystic Pop-up Bar centers on Weol-ju (hwang Jung-eum), the proprietress of a pojangmacha—a type of tented Korean pop-up bar that serves drinks and snack foods. Despite youthful appearances, the ill-tempered and glamorous Weol-ju is actually a 500 year old ghost who’s been sentenced to essentially serve as a mystical therapist to mortals.
Along with a cheerful part-time employee and a former “afterlife detective,” Weol-ju helps assuage the worldly worries of her pojangmacha customers. Reminiscent of the Japanese series Midnight Diner, each of Mystic Pop-up Bar’s twelve episodes focuses on a particular theme and realistic life challenge.
For each struggle, the show showcases a process of self-exploration and healing, infected with ample humor and stunning cinematography. Even more laudably, the series avoids the sappy formulaic romances of many standard K-dramas. Each episode of Mystic Pop-up Bar feels like a breath of fresh air.
Starring: Kim Dong-hee, Jung Da-bin, Park Ju-hyun | Genre(s): Youth, Teen, Crime
Extracurricular isn’t your average teen K-drama. This series might focus on high schoolers, but it depicts some pretty serious and mature themes—and is better for doing so.
At the center of Extracurricular is Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee), a shy loner who gets top grades at his high school. Unassuming on the outside, Oh harbors a dark secret: he’s a pimp. Using a mobile app that helps preserve his anonymity, Oh brokers “compensated dates” between young women (or sometimes men) and clients. One day, wealthy classmate Bae Gyu-ri (Park Ju-hyun) discovers Oh’s secret—and blackmails him into letting her help run his compensated dating ring. Soon, Bae’s ambitious new approach to business starts creating challenges for both her and Oh.
While some of our staff members wish the series could’ve had more character development and thematic focus, overall we find Extracurricular a novel and noteworthy addition to the teen K-drama subgenre. The show is far more dark and action-packed than most K-dramas, steers completely clear of sappy tired tropes. This makes it extremely suspenseful; while you can pretty much predict what happens next in most K-dramas, you can’t do that with Extracurricular.
Furthermore, the show has immense societal relevance. Its digitally-tinged focus on compensated dating has realistic echoes of sexual exploitation scandals—for example the Nth room and Burning Sun cases—that have recently plagued South Korean society. Teenage bullying, income inequality, and academic pressure also factor into Extracurricular’s storyline. You won’t just want to binge this series; you’ll perhaps feel motivated to learn more about social issues plaguing South Korean youth as well.
7. It’s OK to Not Be OK
Starring: Kim Soo-hyun, Seo Ye-ji | Genre(s): Romance
Stalwart romance K-drama fans will absolutely love It’s OK to Not Be OK, one of 2020’s hottest Korean dramas. The series features Kim Soo-hyun and Seo Ye-ji—two of Korean entertainment’s biggest stars—and also includes reunions of acting couples from other popular series like Plus Nine Boys and Romance is a Bonus Book.
In this series, Kim Soo-hyun plays a nurse named Moon Gang-tae, who cares for his autistic brother when not at work. One day, he meets the glamorous but icy children’s book author Ko Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji). Ko develops an attraction for Moon, and decides that she’ll win his affection no matter what the cost.
Fashionable outfits, eye candy lead actors, and slow-burning romance will please those who watch K-dramas purely to live out romantic fantasies. However, It’s OK to Not Be OK goes beyond romance: its depictions of mental illness and neurodiversity break new ground for K-dramas, and it also offers a heartfelt exploration of healing from past traumas.
6. Lie After Lie
Starring: Lee Yu-ri, Yeon Jeong-hun, Lee Il-hwa | Genre(s): Suspense, Mystery
Featuring a woman falsely imprisoned for murder who tries to reconnect with her daughter after release, Lie After Lie (alternatively titled Lies of Lies) feels like a less dark cousin of Park Chan-wook’s classic film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
In Lie After Lie, Lee Yu-ri plays Ji Eun-soo—a woman married to a rich chaebol heir. Within the first episode, Ji gets falsely accused of murdering her husband, and gives birth to a daughter in prison. However, she can’t keep the daughter, who ends up in the care of a gentle journalist named Kang Ji-min. After being released from prison, Ji concocts a plan to fall in love with Kang and, in the process, become mother to her daughter again. However, the truth about Ji’s past—and the lies that sent her to prison—are never far behind.
Even with Ji’s “fall in love” shenanigans, Lie After Lie isn’t a typical romance drama. Instead, it offers a suspenseful and bittersweet exploration of the effects of lies upon human relationships, both romantic and familial. This is an intense, mature show with compelling acting, especially among villainous characters.
5. Hospital Playlist
Starring: Jo Jung-suk, Yoo Yeon-seok, Jung Kyung-ho, Kim Dae-myung, Jeon Mi-do | Genre(s): Medical, Romance, Comedy
Like medical dramas? Then you should check out Hospital Playlist, 2020’s most popular medical Korean drama. From the same creative team as 2017 hit Prison Playbook, this K-drama focuses on the lives of five doctors who’ve been friends since medical school. Besides working at the same hospital, the five doctors also play together in a band in their off-hours.
Hospital Playlist eschews melodrama and cheesiness to provide a heart-warming slice of life narrative. The series explores relationships, career aspirations, and even cuisine—highlighting the beauty hidden in everyday existence’s seemingly mundane corners. Of course, with musically inclined characters, the soundscape of this series stands above most other K-dramas. With a perfect blend of serious, funny, and thoughtful, Hospital Playlist will make you feel good in all the right ways.
4. Record of Youth
Starring: Park Bo-gum, Park So-dam, Byeon Woo-seok | Genre(s): Youth, Romance
Millennials trying to make it big in the fashion industry—though this premise might sound trite, Record of Youth makes it work amazingly well.
Starring A-listers Park Bo-gum (Reply 1988, Love in the Moonlight) and Park So-dam (Parasite), the series centers on two millennials with different roles in fashion. Sa Hye-jun (Park Bo-gum) is a model from modest means, while Ahn Jeong-ha (Park So-dam) is a makeup artist who adores Sa. Amidst common experiences of workplace mistreatment and societal disapproval, Sa and Ahn find companionship in each other.
Even if you’re not in the fashion industry, it’s easy to identify with Sa and Ahn’s struggles. Record of Youth poignantly depicts generation gaps between older parents and their millennial children; anybody who’s had dreams different from their parents can see themselves in the two leads’ shoes. In a world where youth malaise and burnout are rampant, Record of Youth offers a resonant respite.
Starring: Bae Suzy, Kim Sun-ho, Nam Joo-hyuk | Genre(s): Business, Romance
There’s a poetic amusingness to the fact that Netflix—one of the world’s most valuable internet companies—is now streaming a Korean drama that puts the technology industry front and center. Enter Start-up, which stars K-drama A-listers in a story that confirms tech’s ascendance on the world stage.
In Start-up, Bae Suzy plays a down-on-her-luck young woman named Seo Dal-mi who works a dead end job and lives with her grandma. However, through a series of amusing happenstances, Seo gains entry into a startup incubator. With machine learning genius Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) as a co-founder and steely venture capitalist Han Ji-pyeong (Kim sun-ho) as a mentor, Seo must lead a ragtag team of underdogs to build a successful company.
While Start-up doesn’t discard K-drama tropes like love triangles and sibling rivalries, it offers a more detailed and spiritually authentic depiction of technology entrepreneurship than any other K-drama or K-movie. This K-drama will not only entertain, but also educate you about startups without you even realizing it.
What might a Silicon Valley insider think about Start-up though? Is it accurate? Learn more in our article!
2. The World of the Married
Starring: Kim Hee-ae, Park Hae-joon, Han So-hee | Genre(s): Romance, Family, Thriller
As of press time, The World of the Married is the highest rated K-drama ever on South Korean cable television. Adapted from the British series Doctor Foster, the series explores how a married couple spirals into an abyss of vengeance and self-searching after betraying each other. Beyond the gripping premise, the psychological thrills, compelling characters, and high production quality will keep you coming back for more of this series.
Be warned: The World of the Married isn’t for the faint of heart. Its episodes are rated 19+, and contain depictions of sex and violence that Korea’s government censorship organ took issue with. That didn’t stop almost a third of South Korea’s entire cable television audience from tuning into the show’s finale though; it seems many viewers craved a change from the anodyne sappiness usually present in K-dramas.
As a result of its popularity, The World of the Married sparked unprecedented popular discourse about divorce and adultery, which are usually quite taboo in Korea. Parodies of the series proliferated, while internet searches and social media conversations about adultery spiked as a result of the show. Given adultery wasn’t decriminalized until 2015 in South Korea, this outpouring of sentiment—all thanks to this dark and steamy K-drama—could have intriguing consequences for how Korean society’s thinking about marriage and gender roles continues to evolve.
1. Itaewon Class
Starring: Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung, Kwon Nara | Genre(s): Youth, Revenge
An ex-con, a Korea-African, a trans woman, and a sociopath walk into a bar. Actually, they run the bar. Welcome to the world of Itaewon Class, our pick for the very best Korean drama of 2020.
Itaewon Class breaks so many barriers and incorporates so many juicy narrative details that we can’t list them all in this blurb; you’ll just have to watch the show to find out. Just know that somehow, this K-drama makes all of its diversity work together in an amazingly entertaining and captivating manner.
Popular actor Park Seo-joon headlines Itaewon Class as a young man Park Sae-ro-yi, an ex-con who starts a bar/restaurant—along with a motley crew of underdogs—to get revenge against a powerful food company. However, Park and his crew soon learn that, besides revenge, there is an even sweeter release: redemption.
Set in Seoul’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood of Itaewon, the drama highlights and empowers marginalized communities within South Korea—be they racial minorities or LGBTQ+ individuals. This is a positive push for Korean dramas, which often reinforce negative stereotypes or harmful homogenous beauty standards. We can only hope that more K-dramas follow in Itaewon Class’ lead.
Want to learn more about Itaewon Class? Read our full-length review.
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