Korean dramas have continued to captivate audiences worldwide in 2021, perhaps more than in years before.
So what are the Best Korean Dramas of 2021?
In this list, Cinema Escapist has chosen 2021’s top Korean dramas — across a diversity of genres including romance, thriller, action, sci-fi, crime, and beyond. These Korean dramas also star top actors like Song Joong-ki, Lee Seung-gi, Park Shin-hye, Yoo Ah-in, Han So-hee, and more.
Several factors informed our choices. First, we only picked K-dramas that debuted in 2021. Of those dramas, we then looked for ones with high entertainment value and wider availability on global streaming platforms like Netflix. Finally, in line with Cinema Escapist’s ethos, we tilted the list in favor of 2021 Korean dramas that eschew romantic tropes in favor of innovative storylines and social consciousness.
Using these factors, we’ve curated 11 selections for 2021’s best Korean dramas. Check out our list, which includes streaming links (when available)!
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Starring: Lee Seung-gi, Lee Hee-joon, Park Joo-hyun, Kwon Hwa-woon | Genres: Crime, Mystery
In the 2021 Korean drama Mouse, top star Lee Seung-gi plays a carefree rookie police officer named Jung Ba-reum. However, Jung’s idyllic life takes a drastic twist when he becomes wrapped up in a string of shocking serial killings across Korea. As Jung dives deeper into the killings, the show begins to explore chilling questions about what it means to be a psychopath.
Mouse became one of 2021’s most-watched Korean dramas, so much so that it got three special and two spin-off episodes on top of its regular run. While this K-drama’s plot can be a bit unwieldy, those who are Lee Seung-gi fans will probably enjoy it all the way to the end.
10. Sisyphus: The Myth
Starring: Park Shin-hye, Cho Seung-woo | Genres: Sci-fi, Action
There’ve been many blockbuster sci-fi Korean movies (ex. Space Sweepers, Seo Bok) lately. If you want a drama companion to those movies, look no further than Sisyphus: The Myth.
In this flashy sci-fi Korean drama, Cho Seung-woo stars as a genius inventor who invents a time traveling device, and Park Shin-hye stars as a mysterious woman with amazing combat skills who must help him save the world from catastrophe. Sisyphus has compelling worldbuilding and captivating special effects for a K-drama. It also has great fight scenes and suspense.
Starring: Jun Ji-hyun, Ju Ji-hoon | Genres: Mystery, Fantasy, Thriller
2021 drama Jirisan takes its name from one of South Korea’s most hallowed mountains, and the namesake of the country’s oldest national park. The show stars Jun Ji-hyun and Ju Ji-hoon respectively as Seo Yi-kang and Kang Hyun-jo, two rangers at Jirisan National Park.
In Jirisan, Seo and Kang start off collaborating on rescues of missing hikers. However, as the series progresses, more mysterious and supernatural events begin to fall upon Jirisan National Park, and test the two rangers. This K-drama holds a good amount of suspense, and BTS stans will likely enjoy the fact that BTS’ Jin sang its theme song.
8. Taxi Driver
Starring: Lee Je-hoon, Esom, Kim Eui-sung, Pyo Ye-jin | Genres: Action, Crime, Revenge
Don’t confuse this for the hit Korean movie called A Taxi Driver! The 2021 Korean drama Taxi Driver stars Lee Je-hoon as a former special forces officer who joins a mysterious taxi service called Rainbow Taxi Company. Rather than simply transportation people, Rainbow is actually a service that helps victims of crimes take revenge on their perpetrators.
Taxi Driver became one of 2021’s highest rated dramas in South Korea. The show took inspiration from real criminal cases in Korea, and highlights social issues like migrant worker exploitation and school bullying. While its violence and brutality might not be for everyone, Taxi Driver should satisfy anyone looking for a slick, stylized take on serving justice.
7. My Name
Starring: Han So-hee, Park Hee-soon, Ahn Bo-hyun | Genres: Action, Thriller, Revenge, Gangster
After gaining widespread recognition in 2020’s The World of the Married, Han So-hee garnered a captivating lead role in the 2021 K-drama My Name. If you enjoy action-packed female-led revenge stories like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or The Villainess, then you should check out this drama.
In My Name, Han So-hee plays a woman who pledges to avenge the murder of her father at all costs. She trains for combat with the gang her father was apparently involved with, and then infiltrates the anti-narcotics unit of the police force to better find her father’s killer. However, the deeper she digs, the more mysteries she begins to unravel about her dad’s death.
My Name contains non-stop action and will keep you on your toes with its twists and turns. Its soundtrack and cinematography also create a compelling, brooding atmosphere.
Starring: Han Hyo-joo, Park Hyung-sik, Jo Woo-jin | Genres: Action, Thriller, Fantasy, Horror
As coronavirus spread, 2020 saw pandemic-themed Korean movies like #Alive and Peninsula gain popularity on streaming services worldwide. 2021 gives us Happiness—a Korean drama whose cheery name belies its survival-horror premise.
Popular actress Han Hyo-joo stars as this K-drama’s lead, a special operations police officer named Yoon Sae-bom. Yoon lives in a world rife with disease—including a new variety that gives people zombie-like systems. As this novel zombie infection spreads around Yoon’s new apartment complex and triggers lockdowns, Yoon must contend with challenges both viral and human.
Happiness contains great acting, aptly implemented set pieces, and ample action. Unlike many other K-dramas, its pace doesn’t drag either. Furthermore, through techniques like the extended architectural metaphor of Yoon’s towering apartment complex, the show also offers intriguing commentary on social inequalities that evoke other hit Korean titles like Train to Busan and Parasite.
Starring: Kim Seo-hyung, Lee Bo-young, Ok Ja-yeon | Genres: Family, Mystery, Comedy
If you’re a fan of series like Penthouse and SKY Castle that explore the intrigues of wealthy Korean families, you’ll enjoy Mine. This 2021 top K-drama centers on three women who reside in the mansion of a conglomerate family. Two of those protagonists are daughters in law, and the third is a tutor.
However, Mine isn’t just some vapid chronicle of excessive spending and luxury. The drama’s main characters fight injustice and prejudice with strength and grace. Amidst conservative attitudes towards gender roles and LGBTQ individuals, Mine’s leads can prove inspiring yet also relatable to female audiences worldwide.
Starring: Song Joong-ki, Jeon Yeo-been, Ok Taec-yeon | Genres: Crime, Comedy, Action, Revenge
Song Joong-ki is one of the most bankable actors in the K-drama universe. In 2021, he scored another hit with the rewarding slow-burning Vincenzo.
In this K-drama, Song plays a Korean named Vincenzo Cassano, who was adopted by an Italian mafia family and becomes a lawyer for them after growing up. However, an attempted assasination sends Vincenzo fleeing back to Seoul, determined to rediscover his bearings. Vincenzo ends up teaming up with a scrappy law firm against an evil conglomerate, in order to recover his both sense of purpose and a hidden chunk of gold.
Vincenzo has something for everyone—violent action, jokes, romance, you name it. Song brings a strong performance as the title character, and his acting helps audiences better contemplate an intriguing central theme: do you need to be a monster to fight monsters?
4. Move to Heaven
Starring: Lee Je-hoon, Tang Joon-sang, Lee Jae-wook, Ji Jin-hee, Hong Seung-hee | Genres: Family, Social Issue
Loneliness is on the rise in contemporary South Korea—and so are solitary deaths. Move to Heaven explores this phenomenon through the eyes of trauma cleaners, who are tasked with cleaning the belongings and residences of those who buy along.
Specifically, the show features a 20 year-old named Han Geu-roo who has Aspergers and works with his father as a trauma cleaner. When Geu-roo’s father suddenly dies, his estranged uncle Jo Sang-goo (Lee Je-hoon) enters his life and starts trauma cleaning alongside him.
Through a succession of trauma cleaning jobs, the two get to know not only each other, but also the lives and struggles of deceased individuals from all walks of life. From transnational adoptees to gay men, Move to Heaven does an excellent job of helping audiences repsectfully empathize with, rather than sensationalize, people that Korean society tends to marginalize. It’s refreshing to see a Korean series with such social consciousness.
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Kim Hyun-joo, Park Jeong-min, Won Jin-ah | Genres: Fantasy, Thriller, Horror
Before achieving massive popularity with Train to Busan, Korean director Yeon Sang-ho made indie films like The Fake which meditated on religion and the darkness of human nature. This year, Yeon seems to have returned to those roots with Hellbound, albeit with much larger budgets and fanfare.
Set between the years of 2023 and 2027, Hellbound explores a reality in which massive demons regularly arrive on Earth to maul those destined for damnation. Amidst all this, a cult-like group called the New Truth Society and a gang-like group called Arrowhead play on people’s hopes and fears in a quest for power.
With only six episodes that span across two distinct storylines, Hellbound eschews traditional K-drama patterns to bring something completely novel. Despite its otherworldly premises, the series also tackles some pretty relevant modern issues like misinformation, vigilantism, the appeal of cults and conspiracy theories, and the conflict between secular societies and religious conservatism.
Arguably, Hellbound’s willingness to break out of usual soapy K-drama tropes and explore deeper themes helped give it global appeal. The show topped Netflix’s charts upon its release, and won many admirers outside of the usual K-drama bubble.
Starring: Jung Hae-in, Koo Gyo-hwan | Genres: Military, Crime, Action, Mystery
Virtually all Korean men have to serve in the military. But South Korea’s military can get pretty brutal—and 2021 Korean drama D.P. holds nothing back in exploring this reality.
This series stars Jung Hae-in and Koo Gyo-hwan as a pair of soldiers assigned to a “Deserter Pursuit” unit in the South Korean army. As the unit’s name suggests, their job is to pursue deserters. Through the eyes of these two protagonists, we start to learn about exactly why—hazing, abuse, and so forth—people might decide to desert the Korean military. By borrowing from conventions of detective serials, the show is suspenseful, entertaining, and very easy to follow even if you don’t know a lot about South Korea’s army.
However, D.P. is not for the faint of heart. Its depictions of military abuse are realistic and damning. The show was inspired by actual events—including spates of conscript suicides that have ocurred over the years. In fact, many South Korean men who’ve actually gone through military service have praised its chilling accuracy.
Because of this realism, D.P. is probably the most likely K-drama on this list to spark some sort of social change. After its release, it reignited conversations around the status of South Korea’s military, and even forced the Ministry of Defense to comment upon reforms.
Learn more about D.P. in our full length review.
1. Squid Game
Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon | Genres: Survival, Thriller, Horror
Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, our selection for the very best Korean drama of 2021 is Squid Game. In case you haven’t heard, Squid Game is currently Netflix’s most-watched series ever, across any language.
Squid Game’s title comes from an eponymous game in which 456 players must play a series of Korean children’s games in order to win a large monetary prize. The show centers on an inveterate gambler named Seong Gi-hun, who enters the Squid Game to pay off his debts. There, he meets other characters—a childhood friend who went to Korea’s best university, a Pakistani migrant worker, a North Korean defector, and more—who are all gunning for the game’s prize. Of course, there’s a twist. When someone loses at the “children’s games,” they get killed. Thus, a brutal—and suspenseful—competition ensues.
Here at Cinema Escapist, we were pleasantly surprised when Squid Game skyrocketed to global popularity. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been given the success of Parasite, which similarly touches on themes around economic inequality without compromising its Korean context.
What makes us especially proud of Squid Game’s success though is how it completely subverts traditional Korean drama formulae that we feel hold the genre back from broader success. The show has no love triangles, there’s no saccharine theme song, it has 9 snappy episodes instead of the customary 16+, and so forth.
Therefore, besides changing how people view the world, South Korea, and themselves, Squid Game’s success also has huge potential to shift what type of K-dramas (and probably non-Korean media too) gets made. Given Cinema Escapist is all about promoting media with societal significance, it’s a no-brainer for us to crown Squid Game as the winner of our top 2021 Korean dramas list.
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