Dear kfangurl: What are some dramas where everything’s more realistic and not so pretty?

Lehar writes:

Dear kfangirl ,

I was watching kdrama clips and have been wondering. They all look so pretty, even one with jobs in which there is exposure to excessive sunlight and dust look so…. clean. Its all good adding to kdrama fantasy but are there any dramas whose leads look more like normal us…with common jobs and maybe cheaper clothes?

Maybe all I am talking about is more realistic dramas out there. I liked Another Oh Hae Young in that aspect and felt I was more into the story and scenes rather than their appearances.

Thank you for your time!

So.. we’re not too pretty?

Dear Lehar,

This is such an interesting question to me, because actually, one of the things that drew me to kdramas, is how pretty they are. I loved gazing at the Pretty on my screen, and if a show wasn’t pretty enough, Past Me would’ve definitely counted it against them. I guess I’m just more shallow that way? 😆

It’s interesting that you mention Another Oh Hae Young, because I personally find the Spring palette in the show very pretty, and Show’s fantasy bent not quite on the realistic side of things.

Thanks for singling out this show as an example, because this gives me an interesting benchmark to work against. I’m concluding that perhaps you’re referring to Hae Young coming across as an everygirl, and also, how well Show manages the emotions of our characters, because Show does a brilliant job of both those things, and makes our character’s emotional pain feel so accessible and relatable.

FACTORS THAT AFFECT THE LEVELS OF PRETTY / POLISH

Broadly speaking, I feel like there are a couple of main factors that we can take into account, when considering how realistic a show might feel. There might be other factors that I’m missing here, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below!

Story

The type of story is a big consideration, I feel. I think that typically, stories that have fantasy twists, or manhwa origins, tend to be given a lot more fizz and polish. Manhwa-inspired stories, in particular, are likely to infuse the watch experience with cutesy sound effects and OTT acting and situations that will feel far from realistic. On the other hand, stories to do with crime, or politics, or everyday things like family and work, would tend to get a more earthy treatment.

Setting

Our story’s setting plays a big part too, in making a drama feel more realistic. I feel that work or family settings tend to be treated with a more muted touch, and given more earthy color palettes, compared to stories about celebrities or aliens, for example.

Vintage

This might be a rather obvious one, but a drama’s vintage also is a factor. The older a drama is, the less polished it’s likely to look. So if you’re looking for shows that are less pretty to look at, looking through Dramaland’s vintage portfolio might lead you to some gems.

On a related tangent, shows that are not vintage, but have retro settings, are also likely to have a more earthy appearance.

Region

I know that this post is specifically about kdramas, but if you’re looking for dramas that appear more ‘real,’ perhaps exploring dramas from countries like Japan and Taiwan might be a good idea. I personally find that the dramas from Japan and Taiwan (I only quote these two countries because these are the ones that I know) tend to have a more raw quality to them, which can feel more everyday and relatable. I’ll mention a few Japanese and Taiwanese dramas in this post, just to widen our scope of choices a bit.

Budget

Last but not least, if a show has a smaller budget, it will also naturally have less polish to it. For example, I find drama specials and family dramas are pretty good places to explore, when looking for stories that are less shiny and more earthy.

A SAMPLING OF DRAMAS WHERE STUFF IS LESS PRETTY & MORE REALISTIC

A Jaunt [Drama Special]

An earthy, poignant story of an unlikely friendship, which also explores what it’s like to be an older person who feels invisible.

Flash Review is here.

A Sharply Graceful Girl [Japan]

A simple story featuring ordinary characters, while providing a nice virtual visit to Kyoto, Japan, even while retaining Japan’s quintessential earthy production values. He’s an earnest journalist, while she runs a hole-in-the-wall tobacco shop.

Flash Review is here.

After The Rain [Drama Special]

A down-to-earth story set in a small town, Show is as heartfelt as its production values lean rustic.

Flash Review is here.

All About Eve

Show’s 2000 vintage means everything leans unpolished. Yet, because tropes weren’t actually in place then, the watch experience still feels fresh.

Review is here.

At Eighteen

Don’t let Show’s Spring palette fool you; this one is subtle, restrained and wonderfully down-to-earth, as a sensitively told coming-of-age story. For this reason, Show feels realistic, despite having some polished touches.

Review is here.

Bad Guys

Show is polished, but it’s also very gritty, which lends it a rough sort of edge, despite the finesse in its production values. Also, love the idea of bad guys catching badder guys.

Review is here.

Beethoven Virus

Show’s 2008 vintage ensures a less polished drama world, and our characters – with the exception of our grumpy maestro – are all regular folks aspiring to make their mark through music.

City Hall

Show’s 2009 vintage gives us that raw, unpolished feel, and our female lead is an ordinary woman who wears ordinary clothes. No high fashion labels here, and yet, the story warms up to be something quite crackly, mostly due to the excellent chemistry between our leads.

Designated Survivor: 60 Days

Our political setting is far from glamorous, and so even though Show is not short on budget, this drama world – and the people in it – feels real and down-to-earth. A great underdog story, which you don’t need an interest in politics to enjoy.

Flash Review is here.

Dr. Romantic

Our story’s humble hospital setting dictates a more muted color palette, and our characters are mostly regular people trying to come to terms with themselves and their dreams. A little melodramatic in spirit, but still relatable and easy to enjoy.

Open Threads are listed here.

Father Is Strange

Family dramas are a great source of more earthy stories, and Father Is Strange is one of my favorites. Our characters feel accessible and relatable, and the watch experience is warm and cozy.

Flash Review is here.

Girls’ Generation 1979 / Lingerie Girls’ Generation

Our story’s set in the ’70s, which means that our drama world feels raw and retro, and full of nostalgia. Slightly rough around the edges, but engaging, charming and bittersweet.

Flash Review is here.

Home Sweet Home [Drama Special]

Aside from Show’s production values leaning basic, our characters also feel relatable, and their struggles, easy to understand. A heartwarming watch that also manages to be thought-provoking.

Flash Review is here.

Hospital Playlist

Our characters are regular people who just happen to be doctors, and the hospital setting is straightforward and no-frills, because, well, it’s a hospital. Altogether warm and lovely, thanks to the excellent writing, and the fantastic chemistry among our cast.

Review is here.

Hotelier

Show’s from 2001, so its vintage ensures a more raw and unpolished production finish. At the same time, our female lead is often shown working at her hotel job, where she wears a skirt suit and a no-nonsense bun. A surprisingly cracky watch, and Bae Yong Joon manages to be charming and suave, even though this is before he’d gotten his teeth fixed.

If We Were A Season [Drama Special]

The fact that this is a drama special means that our production values aren’t super high. And our friends to maybe-lovers (or not) sort of story leans poignant and relatable. A short but surprisingly affecting watch.

Flash Review is here.

In Time With You [Taiwan]

Show has Taiwan’s charming raw sort of quality, which is emphasized by its 2011 vintage. There are some flights of fancy in this thanks to our female lead’s active imagination, but our characters are such ordinary people, that it more than balances out. Such a charming friends-to-lovers story. And Li Da Ren will always be ❤️.

Flash Review is here.

Just Between Lovers

Show’s production values are high, but the muted color palette makes it vibe more earthy and everyday. Our characters are ordinary people whose lives have been touched by tragedy, and are both working to rise above the lasting effects of that tragedy on their lives, on their persons, and on their relationships.

Flash Review is here.

Kang Deoksun’s Love History [Drama Special]

Show’s production values lean basic, and our characters are ordinary people who are stirred to attempt extraordinary things. A wholesome and empowering watch.

Flash Review is here.

Midnight Diner

Show’s definitely working with a lower budget, so the end result is a lot less polished than other kdramas of the same age. The customers of the midnight diner are regular people with regular wardrobes, and it mostly just feels like you’re hanging out with a bunch of friends.

Flash Review is here.

Misaeng

This show is the epitome of normal, ie, following these characters around basically feels like you’re going to work with them each day, and doing overtime with them each day; it’s that down-to-earth. At the same time, it’s such a strong underdog story that it’s easy to get invested.

Review is here.

Live

Full disclosure; I haven’t actually finished this show. But I did see 2.5 episodes of it, and Show has a very down-to-earth vibe about it, enhanced by its muted color palette. I’ve had lots of people tell me that this is an excellent show that brings out the everyday lives of those in the police force. (I just chickened out at a particularly bloody case in episode 3, which involves a victim losing their tongue. I’m told it gets better; I just haven’t tested that out yet. 😅)

Miss Korea

Show might have a nice Spring palette that makes its appearance pop more, but the struggle of everyday underdogs striving to make their mark in the world is very relatable, and makes this story world feel accessible.

Review is here.

My Friend Is Still Alive [Drama Special]

The production values lean basic and a little stark, even, but that just makes this little drama special feel all the more down-to-earth. Poignant, bittersweet and heartwarming.

Flash Review is here.

My Mister

Show is wonderfully written and excellently directed, and the reason it feels so raw and real, is because this drama world is created to be so, in a deliberate and detailed fashion. All-around amazing, and achingly beautiful.

Review is here.

Off The Course [Drama Special]

Production values lean basic because this is a little drama special, and our characters are regular people with regular lives. Show’s more comedic than I first expected, but it does a great job of balancing the funny, with the unexpected and heartfelt.

Flash Review is here.

Ojakgyo Brothers

Show’s 2011 vintage, along with its family drama pedigree, ensures a drama world that leans less polished. A wonderfully heartwarming story that vibes like an omnibus of romances, since there are 4 brothers, and each has his own loveline. Joo Won and UEE make an unexpectedly cute and sweet couple.

Review is here.

One Spring Night

This drama world feels real and raw, and its central romance also feels real and raw – but also, sweet and aspirational, at the same time. Subtle and satisfying.

Review is here.

Plus Nine Boys

The muted colors and lower budget makes this drama world feel understated and earthy, and our various plus nine boys are all charming in their own ways – and with their own love interests. Uncomplicated and relatable.

Flash Review is here.

Prison Playbook

The muted colors and prison setting makes this drama world the opposite of glamorous, and the production team somehow manages to color it in with warmth, and make all the characters and relationships come alive with empathy and humor.

Review is here.

Reply 1988

The nostalgic setting ensures a drama world that vibes raw and unpolished, and the very everyday sort of characters makes the watch experience feel like you’re just hanging out with these folks in their neighborhood. Warm and wonderful.

Review is here.

Reply 1994

Another nostalgic and raw drama world, peopled by characters who feel like they’re your quirky friends who just won’t leave your house, because they feel that at home under your roof. A little indulgent with the Who’s The Hubs game that Show likes to play, but so heartwarming that I forgave Show anyway.

Review is here.

Reply 1997

A retro, unpolished drama world, with very ordinary people, who just happen to have their own quirks and eccentricities. Our female lead is a huge kpop fan, so you might be able to identify with her fangirl struggles, if you’re a serious fangirl too.

Review is here.

Review Notebook of my Embarrassing Days [Drama Special]

The production values lean basic because this is a little drama special, and our female lead is super relatable, with her tendency to embarrass herself in new and interesting ways. Such a sweet little romance, that I wished this show was longer.

Flash Review is here.

School 2013

Show’s 2013 vintage ensures a drama world that feels a little rough around the edges, and the struggles of the student life are brought across really well. The (platonic) bromance is deep and epic, and I loved these two soulmates together, so much. ❤️

Review is here.

Secret Love Affair

Show is very well-made, and is very deliberate in its use of color and lighting, in order to create the various social spheres that exist in this drama world. Very real and raw in its examination of social issues like class, even as it explores the deep and sensitive meeting of two souls.

Review is here.

Sleeping Jukujo [Nemureru Mori no Jukujo] [Japan]

This show boasts Japan’s typically less shiny packaging, and features a very ordinary protagonist; a 46-year-old housewife who suddenly has to find her bearings and build a new life, when her old one falls apart. Simple, down-to-earth, and uplifting.

Flash Review is here.

Someday Or One Day [Taiwan]

Show feels quintessentially Taiwanese, boasting production values that have that typically raw Taiwanese quality. Show is also fantastic, with excellent writing and solid acting by its cast. There’s a fantasy element to this love story, and that’s about all you need to know, before going into this one.

Review is here.

Something About 1% [1% of Anything]

Show’s lower budget shows in its more basic production values, and that works well with this simple drama world, where the focus is the OTP love story, and all other filler is cut out. No fancy wardrobe here; in fact, our male lead’s suits are sometimes bafflingly ugly. But the love story is cute, and the OTP chemistry is crackly, making for a really fun watch.

Flash Review is here.

Thank You

Show’s 2007 vintage guarantees that our drama world leans raw and unpolished. At the same time, our female lead is a regular person who just wants to do her best for her HIV-positive daughter. Poignant and warm.

The Light in Your Eyes [Dazzling] 

Show has a pretty muted palette, and features regular people in its story. It’s just good to know that Show has a fantasy bent and comes across as off-kilter in spots – until everything falls into place later in the story. Beautiful and affecting, and very special.

Flash Review is here.

The School Nurse Files

Show has a strong fantasy bent, so it’s not exactly realistic, BUT, this is definitely a show where nobody is at all airbrushed. People in this drama world look as unvarnished as the most regular joe, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this could work for you. Show’s brand of quirk is aggressively eccentric, which typically seems to mean you either love it or hate it. LT’s guest review really helps with appreciating what Show has to offer though!

Flash Review is here, and LT’s guest review is here.

Two Weeks

Because of its subject matter, of a father racing against time to save his sick daughter, Show’s drama world leans raw and gritty. Well-written and nicely paced, with excellent performances from the cast. Thrilling, yet poignant and warm.

Review is here.

We Married As A Job [Japan]

Thanks to Japan’s signature muted touch, this contract marriage story lands relatable instead of fantastical, even though it has a few manga-esque quirky touches. Down-to-earth yet whimsical and thoughtful. And altogether very cute.

Flash Review is here.

IN CLOSING

I hope this list of shows manages to hit the various angles of realism you might be looking for, and gives you some new titles to add to your drama plate!

If you guys have more realistic, down-to-earth shows to recommend, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Thanks, you guys.

Smooches. ❤️

~kfangurl

What they say is true.. Pretty isn’t everything!

POST-SCRIPT:

1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!

2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!

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learjet1
learjet1
3 months ago

Familiar Wife is my suggestion. Yes it’s a fantasy and the leads are gorgeous but I think it’s a very realistic portrayal of the struggles of marriage (and long term relationships) with small kids while trying to balance work and ageing parents with only a bit of exaggeration. And the focus on reflecting on your life choices made me reflect on my own life.
My other suggestion is Go Ahead, the truly amazing Chinese slice of life drama (and my favourite C drama)

Wolli
Wolli
3 months ago

I agree with Kfangirl that it’s nice to look at Pretty dramas. I don’t usually watch any dramas that aren’t pretty unless the story is extremely well written and acting is excellent. Watching dramas is a way to escape one’s ordinary every day life by submerging in the fantasy presented by the drama world. There are plenty of reality shows to satisfy different needs. I will continue to follow Kfangirl’s recommendations for pretty shows!

beez
3 months ago

@Elaine Phua – 😂😂😂😂😂 Flower of Evil was an ugly story (although it was good). No fancy camera work. No exceptionally pretty scenery or decor. It’s not Show’s fault that Lee Joon ki (with some held from that other “joon” actor) were so blazingly good looking they prettied up the place. 😂😂😂

Elaine Phua
Elaine Phua
3 months ago
Reply to  beez

Moon Chae Won as the wife is so beautiful too! Like an angel… haha. Her romantic scenes with Lee Joon Ki were so lovely.

Jiyuu
Jiyuu
3 months ago

I absolutely agree for Coffee Prince, School 2013, City Hall and Chuno.

For Korean dramas, I want to add maybe Padam Padam, The Producers, It’s Okay that’s Love, Fight for My Way and Gaksital (Bridal Mask) would fit also.

For Japanese dramas, almost everything doesn’t look as polished (when compared to K-dramas) but I remember enjoying Ikebukuro West Gate Park and nearly all of Takuya Kimura’s series (especially Pride and Engine).

ngobee
ngobee
3 months ago

Really good question and I’m relieved that I’m not the only one getting tired of so much pretty sometimes.

Just Dance offers a realistic view of the rather glum life of the protagonists in the seaside town dominated by a shipbuilding company. There’s a Billy Elliott vibe about it, but with less glamour, so …

Stranger, both seasons, comes to mind. Taxi Driver is also a contender.

Elaine Phua
Elaine Phua
3 months ago

Thanks kfangurl for answering this interesting question! I think most of the shows you’ve highlighted are slice-of-life shows. I’ve seen Misaeng and definitely agree on the realism, at times it felt almost like I was working a (very mundane) second job by following this show as you really go through office life with these characters. Agree in the end it was worth it! Great character drama.

Just wanted to add some genre shows which also have a more gritty/rundown aesthetic compared to most K dramas – Flower of Evil, Signal (I’ve only watched about 6-7 episodes) and Zombie Detective. Many of the locations were in a seedy underbelly sort of neighbourhood, suitably grotty and grimy. And the characters were mostly not well-off, or even struggling to make ends meet. Big contrast from the polished/pretty shows like The King: Eternal Monarch and most rom coms including CLOY and Her Private Life, the clean shininess and glowy prettiness of all the characters is unreal.

Elaine Phua
Elaine Phua
3 months ago
Reply to  Elaine Phua

For Flower of Evil, the two leads were amazingly good-looking. But Lee Joon Ki was saddled with amazingly unglam “Dad jeans” for many of his scenes, they did no favours for his physique!

Shree
Shree
3 months ago

Thanks for this post! I’d also like to add Because This Is My First Life. Sexual harassment in the workplace, ugly arguments between couples, interfering in-laws, and deeply-rooted patriarchy are all central themes of the show. Although the colors are bright, the subjects not so much.

Lehar
Lehar
3 months ago

Hi Thank you for so much for answering my question . This is such a great post and I love all the suggestions.
Yes exactly I meant how Hae Young and do kyung were more of typical job people with realistic looks. The show is very pretty and all the actors too.
I have been leaning towards Japanese and Taiwanese dramas these days. I am watching my sister’s soulmate (Jdrama) along with Another miss oh and was wondering about this.

I have watched 19 out of these and I look forward to watch all other dramas . Thank you so much for the list again. All I am want these days is good old realistic dramas.

BE
BE
3 months ago

One of the things I like about Chuno is although the royal court and its full classic costume sageuk elements are there, it is largely focused on poorer people–slaves, outlaws, slave hunters, escaped slaves, wandering entertainers, a young prostitute, tavern owners, a stable caretaker, lowlife police–and even the yangban heroes of story live the lives of former slave and outlaw on the run. Mr. Sunshine and Nokdu Flower also present the rougher edges of late 19th C-early 20th C Korea as well, the former had a runaway slave and the child of butcher as two of the main leads, and the latter was not only a picture of a great peasant rebellion but provided a glimpse into the merchant class, which were neither yangban nor peasant. Those dusty towns, the amazing landscapes provided an element of drama as well.

Tara
Tara
3 months ago

I’ve been watching more Japanese dramas lately for this exact reason. Lately the too-shiny world of kdramas has felt a bit stale to me. I recently watched Raise de wa Chanto Shimasu and really liked it. From the synopsis it looks like it’s just going to be raunchy, but there are a lot of layers to it, and the characters all have issues. It helped me feel a little more at peace with living life at my own pace.

ngobee
ngobee
3 months ago
Reply to  Tara

@Tara,

thanks for suggesting Japanese dramas. Made me start watching Hero from 2001 and am really enjoying myself. Fun.

j3ffc
3 months ago

What an interesting question! I’d add two to kfangurl’s excellent list, one vintage and one current. The vintage show in this category is Coffee Prince: the very first thing I noticed about it was how realistic the settings were in compared to the (relatively few) dramas I had watched at that time. And currently, in what shaping up as a maybe surprisingly satisfying watch, is “Sell Your Haunted House” where the neighborhoods seem positively downtrodden compared to most other shows (adding to the noir quality that the show seems to be aiming for). First time I remember seeing graffiti in a Korean drama.