In case you missed it, we’re doing something special and different to end off the drama year this year! Guests posts, by patrons on Patreon!
After today’s post, there will be three more guest posts by mystery guest writers, whose identities will be revealed when their various posts go live. And then we’ll cap everything off with a poll, where you’ll be able to pick YOUR favorites for the year, from among the gems identified in these posts. How exciting! 🤩
..But, wait! Didn’t I already say, last time, that there would be three more..? Heh. Very sharp spotting there! Basically, one more mystery guest writer has volunteered to share their picks for 2021, woot! 🥳
Today’s post is brought to you by Trent, who manages to watch way more drama than I do! While I don’t think that Trent’s taste in dramas is identical to mine, we’ve had similar reactions to so many shows (most recently, Dali and the Cocky Prince 😉), that I tend to take a little extra notice when he recommends a show, coz the chances are pretty good, that I might like it too.
Trent’s got soo many nominees in all the various categories today, that I thought this image, of a sea of awards, fit this post quite perfectly.. I imagine that if Trent could, he’d give out many more awards than he’s given out today, heh. 😁 Thanks lots, Trent, for sharing your drama year with us!!
You might also like to check out Trent’s blog, where he writes more drama thoughts!
I hope you guys enjoy!
~ KFG ❤️
Greetings! I’m delighted to have a chance to take the mic for a little bit to throw out some thoughts about dramas that came out this last year (and with your indulgence, maybe a few remarks about some dramas I watched this year that were released in previous years).
Talking about me is sure to be the least interesting part of this post, but just to give you a feel for who I am and where I’m coming from, a brief introduction. My name is Trent, and I live in California. I watched my very first kdrama (The King: Eternal Monarch) almost by pure chance, when I stumbled across it on Netflix in May 2020, not too long after the advent of COVID times. As you will see below, I think I’m relatively eclectic in the types and genres of shows I’m willing to try out.
I started following thefangirlverdict just over a year ago now, ironically because my google news algorithm threw our host’s review of The King: Eternal Monarch into my suggested article feed.
Now I spend a decent chunk of time sharing my assorted drama-related (and occasional non-drama-related) musings here in the comment threads on the main blog, as well as over on kfangurl’s shiny awesome Patreon, where in addition to the great episode notes she puts up each and every day, she has also set aside a couple of monthly open threads for one and all to talk about dramas, etc. (and which we take shameless advantage of).
Now, before I leap into the various categories, a couple of prefatory comments.
To date, I’ve seen a total of 57 shows this year, and depending how binge-watching goes over Christmas, there’s a good-to-excellent chance that will hit 60 by the time we tick over to 2022. Thirty of those shows were released this year, in 2021.
So in keeping with the spirit of the project here, I’m going to be drawing from the shows released in 2021 for each of the categories, with the exception (and with y’all’s kind indulgence) of a separate “Top 10 non-2021 Shows,” which I’ll draw from the shows that I watched this year that originally came out some time before this year.
Oh, and in keeping with the general award-show format, it just wouldn’t feel right not to name a pool of nominees for each category before naming the winner, so (again, with y’all’s indulgence), I’ll name a group of around five for the various categories (with maybe an extra nominee or two, when I couldn’t bear to slim down the pool, sorry!). So, enough yackity-yack, here we go:
Top 10 Shows (2021)
Honorable mentions: D.P., Lost, The King’s Affection, Hometown Cha Cha Cha, My Roommate is a Gumiho.
This is the crazy-pants over-the-top slapstick comedy and action-y crime thriller mashup that you didn’t know you needed.
The show merges two wildly disparate tones in a way that should never work but somehow mostly does. Song Joong-ki slays (sometimes literally) as the suave, deadpan, cool as a cucumber Mafia consigliere in exile from his adoptive home Italy. Back in his native Korea, he teams up with Jeon Yeo-bin’s brash just-win-baby lawyer and a rag-tag crew of building tenants who put the quirk in quirky to take on an evil chaebol led by a sociopathic chairman.
By turns quasi-operatic farce and adrenaline-pumping thriller, this only fails to climb higher up the list because it goes on too long (sixteen episodes rather than twenty would have been a better decision here) and spends the final run of episodes descending, alas, into a regrettable overload of gratuitous torture porn. But it does get solid marks for the many things it gets right, and on balance it delivers strong entertainment value.
9. Mr. Queen
A fusion sageuk that really leans into the “fusion” side of things, this show asks the question “what would happen if the soul and consciousness of a swinging 21st century executive chef bachelor was transmigrated to the body of an upright royal lady in the mid-19th century Joseon court?”
If you answered “lots of very amusing hijinks,” give yourself a prize. Shin Hye-sun rips and roars her way through the staid orthodoxy of palace life, on the way to developing surprisingly affective emotional attachments to the various characters populating her new world.
I didn’t realize that there was apparently a fair amount of controversy and disappointment over the ending until after I finished the show and read some commentary on it. After reading the reasons for people’s dissatisfaction, I understand where it’s coming from, even though I ultimately don’t share it. I remain in the apparent minority of those that feel satisfied with the ending and that the show finished up as it should.
This show is sui generis in my experience (which is not saying a whole lot, as my TV-viewing experience is not exceptionally broad); I can’t recall seeing anything quite like it before this.
The show revolves around a single, fairly outlandish narrative device: a spectral head unexpectedly manifests to certain (impossible to predict) individuals and foretells that at a specific time in the future, they will die and be “bound to hell.” (you might think this is a spoiler, but the premise is stated outright in literally the first minute of the show). Then, at the set time, three demonic figures appear to immolate the person, leaving behind only a charred corpse.
Although that probably sounds excessively pulpy or even silly, by the time this show gets up and running and settled into its groove, it ends up as a vehicle for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of religious impulses and institutions. And although I’m sure mileages will probably vary here as well, I found the ending deeply moving.
The second season of the hit show about five best friends working as extremely talented doctors in a large and bustling hospital, this hits all the same warm and cozy notes as the first season, with the added attraction (if you view it as such) that each of our core characters sees some movement in their love life.
Characteristic of the creative team responsible for the Reply series (as well as Prison Playbook), this serves up comfortable slice of life narrative with a happy dollop of competence porn -patients don’t always make it, but our doctors are good at what they do, and they don’t subject us to endless angsting over how they screwed something up.
To be honest, the only reason this one isn’t higher up the list is because, in broad outline, we’ve seen it once before in the first season.
6. Law School
A delightful show about a group of new law students at a (fictional) highly-rated law school.
Since I didn’t particularly love (or even like) law school myself, I wasn’t expecting much from the show, but I ended up not only feeling a lot of nostalgia from the various “law school life” scenarios served up by the show, but also really enjoying the characters in this show, as well as the central murder-mystery whodunit that drives the main plot.
This might just be idiosyncratic to me, but I felt like this was really quality entertainment, and I consistently very much looked forward to new episodes each week as this was airing.
5. Squid Game
Unless you’ve been rusticating in a cave for the last three months, this show probably needs no introduction.
I sense that there may be a bit (more than a bit?) of nascent derision toward the show from the kdrama cognoscenti, centered around the feeling that this isn’t a real kdrama, and even if we say it is for sake of argument, it’s somehow sullied by becoming so massively popular to the undiscriminating masses. Or maybe I’m imagining all that…
Regardless, my view is that this is certainly a kdrama, and that it contains a solid core of both societal critique as well as powerfully emotional character work – both qualities very much in the kdrama wheelhouse. It doesn’t hurt that, within the context of the violent all-against-all milieu it constructs, it delivers propulsively viewable episodes that practically beg to be binged.
4. Yumi’s Cells
Honestly, at first glance, this looks kind of gimmicky, if not downright silly: a live-action/animation mash-up in which the main character’s “cells” (portrayed through animation) act out her inner thoughts and feelings?
And yet, in the execution, it works stunningly well.
Not only are the various cells – their commentary, debates, decision processes, etc. – consistently hilarious, they end up providing impressively percipient analysis and depiction of how we as humans wrestle with thoughts, feelings, habits, and behaviors as we stumble our way through life. We follow the titular Yumi, a single just-hitting-thirty office worker who’s been on an involuntary love sabbatical, as she gets back into the dating arena and embarks on a new relationship.
It’s really shockingly good fun, all the more for being initially unexpected.
3. My Name
This isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but hey, it’s my list, and this compact little show (it’s eight episodes) really vibes right in my sweet spot.
A slick, well-plotted dark revenge noir, this aims its wheels right down the well-worn ruts of the cops-n-criminals thriller pathway, while still managing to give it a new and refreshing spin. Our protagonist is a seventeen year old high school girl whose father is a lieutenant in a drug gang; when she sees him murdered outside her apartment door one dark night, her quest for revenge drives her into the arms of the same gang, from whence she is eventually dispatched to infiltrate the police narcotics squad in search of the killer.
Adorned by twisty plotting, loads of noir-ish style, complex characters done justice by the talented cast, and a satisfying leavening of adrenaline-inducing (if bloody) action set-pieces, this one really hits the spot if you enjoy the genre.
2. Beyond Evil
Are serial killers an overused plot device? Yes. Are serial killers who prey exclusively on young woman a particularly tired twist on said device? You betcha. Is it nevertheless still possible, at this late date, to construct a pretty compelling drama around that unsavory trope? This show strongly suggests that the answer to that is also yes.
Or maybe I just haven’t seen enough serial killer shows to be completely jaded just yet, who can say?
At any rate, this offers an impressively constructed script that weaves in enough organically believable false trails and red herrings to keep us confused but curious for several episodes until we get a climactic blow-up in a particularly powerful episode right before the midpoint.
You might think that this would steal all the show’s narrative force, but actually, there are plenty of secrets to still be uncovered and a lot of really fine character work left to play out, particularly between our central pair of detectives, as they move from prickly antagonists to prickly allies. This is good stuff, even if (like me) you don’t generally go in for crime dramas.
(Come on, we have to leave a little suspense for the Best Drama category, right? If you don’t see a show listed above that you’re positive should be represented on the Top Ten list, well, hey, you can just imagine that it’s the number one! Right? At least until you scroll down…)
Top 10 Shows (pre-2021)
Honorable mentions: Stranger, Signal, Dr. Romantic 1 & 2, Lie After Lie, Search, Oh My Ghost.
10. I Am Not A Robot
Such a goofy premise, but oh my does this little gem powerfully exceed expectations in delivery of the romantic and emotional payload.
Through a convoluted chain of circumstances (that would take another half a page to describe), a plucky, emotionally intelligent young woman ends up “impersonating” an AI-driven android for a test-run with an isolated young chaebol head. Will chaebol and “robot” fall in love? The question answers itself, my friends.
So much angsty goodness (my angst tolerance threshold is generally pretty low, but this one got to me), as the main couple cycles through the various stages of falling in love in a decidedly unorthodox but absolutely winning fashion. Really really fond of this one!
A very well-done sageuk, this features Yeo Jin-goo in possibly his best outing, as he takes on the dual roles of the King and his doppelgänger, a low-born street performer brought in by the royal secretary to stand in for the increasingly erratic, violent, drug-addicted king.
Highlights of this show include a lovely, understated, almost sub-textual romance between the new/fake king and his young queen; one of the saddest but most beautifully filmed political murders I’ve seen committed to film; and the slow growth of the common clown into a king determined to do right by his people.
8. Thirty but Seventeen (aka Still Seventeen)
The word “healing” gets over-used as a drama encomium, as does the phrase “heart-warming,” but both absolutely apply to this cozy, gently meaningful little production.
Our show starts out with the female lead involved in a near-fatal accident while still a high school student. Thirteen years later, she awakens from her coma to find no trace of anyone she once knew, and bewildered and bereft, she sets out to try to rebuild her life as best she can with no contacts and no resources.
The found family and eventual romance that she manages to construct makes for a show that is kind and low-key and leaves a sweet ache as it winds its way to its, yes, healing, heart-warming conclusion.
A show that takes baseball as its canvas and backdrop, without really being about baseball at all, this is probably best described as a workplace drama.
A new general manager is brought in to turn around the perennial last-place team in the Korea Baseball Organization league (the Korean equivalent of the Major Leagues). This particular manager is known for building championship teams in several different sports, but of more interest to this baseball team’s owners, who are looking for a pretext to kill the team, all of his previous championship teams later disbanded for one reason or another.
The show follows the team’s front office as it schemes and strategizes through a single off-season in an attempt to put together a competitive team for the next season, while facing increasingly overt opposition from the owners. Well-acted, interestingly plotted, no romance… I quite enjoyed this.
This creative team (PD & writer(s)) is really playing in my wheelhouse; just as with Hospital Playlist 1 & 2 and Reply 1988, within an episode or two, I was locked in to the style and narrative and happy to just waft along through the (quite lengthy) episodes.
Interestingly, this is another drama with a strong but somewhat tangential connection to baseball. The protagonist is a star professional pitcher on the verge of a breakthrough to the Major Leagues (in the US) when he instead ends up sentenced to a year in prison due to an unexpected incident.
Wonderfully played by Park Hae-soo (who I’m glad I saw first in this, before his fraught appearance in Squid Game) as a man who stoically projects a slightly shell-shocked, dumb-jock affect while nourishing a certain inner cunning and innate decency, the protagonist is also surrounded by a motley crew of cellmates who don’t take long to develop a pronounced found family vibe.
The secondary characters all get an arc, and although a couple go astray – one very unfortunately so (the show’s biggest dramatic misstep) – they also provide some of the more moving moments. Good stuff, and well worth the investment of time and attention.
My very first C-drama, and I started at the top. I almost feel the need to apologize to this show’s legion of fans for not having it higher on the list, but look, it’s a real murderer’s row up here at the upper levels… So this is the epic, intricately-plotted Chinese historical drama that you probably knew you needed, but were maybe afraid to approach.
We all got lucky that we got to do this as a group watch, with our host’s wonderful episode notes and MVP NiF-er @phl1rxd’s detailed insights and commentary to lead us through.
Incorporating by turns elements of mystery, palace intrigue, wuxia derring-do, romance, and a quest for revenge, if not vindication, this tale is set in a lightly fictionalized version of the Liang dynasty of the Northern and Southern Dynasties era in ca. 6th century CE China.
It follows our protagonist, a genius-level strategist, as, aided (and opposed) by a fascinating cast of dozens, he plots and schemes his way toward accomplishment of his goal (which remains obscure for awhile, so I’ll not say more here).
Impressively plotted, with many amazing costumes, fantastic sets, and beautiful scenes – take the plunge if you haven’t seen it before (and don’t hesitate to use the episode notes archived here on the site, they make the journey so much smoother and more enriching!)
4. Money Flower
Not gonna lie, I loved this show. Easy enough to dismiss as a revenge drama in which bad people scheme to do bad things to other bad people…I instead found it technically near-flawless, intricately plotted, and a rich and compelling character study.
Another show that was immeasurably enhanced by the group watch experience, in which cogent, interesting commentary added to each week’s viewing experience (I would have been unlikely to even see this had it not been our host’s “editor’s pick” for a group watch).
Our protagonist, Kang Pil-joo, has worked his way up to become the consigliere and indispensable man to a powerful, ambitious, quasi-feudal chaebol presided over by its ruthless elderly founder and patriarch. Unbeknownst to the family (at first), he has been biding his time for years in a plot to bring about the downfall of the chaebol’s central figures.
Played with coiled, restrained intensity by master actor Jang Hyuk, Pil-joo is a complex, near-tragic figure. Stuffed full of gripping episode-ending cliff-hangers and a number of makjang elements, the show never feels particularly makjang or over the top due to its tightly controlled, mannered tone and the technical mastery of its dramatic composition.
Special shout-out to its musical score, which is deployed to such fantastic effect that it’s practically an extra member of the cast.
Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here; it’s true that all of the upper half of this list have been group watches on the site. I guess we and our host pick quality shows to watch together?
Although I don’t think I loved this quite as well as many do, that’s only because so many are so very passionate about it. And understandably so! This is a beautifully written exploration of the power of artistic expression – in this case classical music – to open two kindred souls to romantic love across daunting chasms of age and class.
Young, poor, lower-class piano prodigy Seon-jae is “discovered” almost by chance in the course of making a delivery (he’s working as a courier) to a prestigious arts school. Elegant, sophisticated Hye-won is the vice president and de facto fixer at the foundation that runs the school and in turn is established and supported by a wealthy, deeply corrupt chaebol (is there any other kind in kdramaland?).
Despite the extreme differential in power and life experience, their shared love and passion for classical piano leads to kindling of love and passion in a rather different key.
The show boasts uniformly strong performances across the board, but mutual standouts Yoo Ah-in and Kim Hee-ae light up the screen as our fated pair.
2. Chuno (aka The Slave Hunters)
A show that practically screams “epic,” this has got it all (or well, at least, a lot): hot buff dudes showing off their hotness; political intrigue; doomed first love, unrequited love, love triangle, mature love; sword fights, fist fights, chase scenes; slave rebellions; outlaw villages; fantastic, panoramic scenery…whew! It’s…a lot.
So how to describe Chuno?
Set during the tail-end of the ill-fated reign of King Injo (so around 1647), the political maneuvering around Injo’s son, and after his death, his son, provides the backdrop and motive force for the overarching plot…which is way too complicated to attempt to describe here, but in form is basically a chase down the peninsula and back up, punctuated by a few fights, followed by…more fights. Simple, right? Yeah.
This makes excellent use of one of my favorite tropes: manly men slowly evolving from deadly enemies to brothers-in-arms. It also boasts eye-candy out the wazoo (of both the human and landscape varieties) and lots and lots of heroism and pathos and broad earthy humor. It’s the good stuff, is what I’m saying.
Same deal; you want to know what drama could possible squeeze out Chuno, Secret Love Affair, Nirvana in Fire, et al. from the top spot? Scroll down, and let the recriminations begin!
Best Female Lead
The nominees (this is one category I couldn’t cut down to just five!):
Kwon Yuri (Bossam: Steal the Fate)
The single best thing about Bossam (in my view, at least), Kwon Yuri plays a prematurely widowed princess, daughter of the reigning monarch, with a calm, assured gravity and regal presence.
Effortlessly projecting nobility of character with an understated pathos, as her journey proceeds, flashes and sparks of her innate humor, toughness, and loving nature shine through the tranquil veneer to great effect.
Shin Min-ah (Hometown Cha Cha Cha)
As a fish out of water dentist trying to start a new practice in a bucolic out of the way seaside town – after spending her entire life in the big city, no less – Shin Min-ah brings her long-established star power and killer dimples to the role and acquits herself well.
Presenting at first as a bit standoffish, her slightly prickly reserve is largely due to her introversion and unfamiliarity with the natural rhythms and folkways of her new surroundings, and as she acclimates to her new environment and new neighbors, she opens herself to new experiences, new friends, and new love.
Park Eun-bin (The King’s Affection)
This is Park Eun-bin’s show, as far as I’m concerned, and she carries it very, shall we say, regally on her slim shoulders.
As the surviving female half of a pair of fraternal twins, thrust into a ten-year masquerade standing in the shoes of her deceased brother, the crown prince, she bears up under the immense and potentially deadly pressure with admirable fortitude.
As she projects a stoic, stand-offish reserve without ever quite surrendering her core decency, watching her slow unfold to the prospect of love and a “normal” life is by turns heart-warming and heart-breaking.
Kim Min-jung (The Devil Judge)
This was not a great, nor even a particularly good, show, and we’ve seen Kim Min-jung swan about as a devastating femme fatale before (in Mr. Sunshine, a significantly more accomplished drama than this one).
Nevertheless, she rather masterfully chews a whole lot of scenery here as she plots and schemes, alternately pining after and trying to take down Ji Sung’s protagonist. In the end, show didn’t quite do right by her character, but she was compellingly watchable all the way through.
Kim Go-eun (Yumi’s Cells)
I’ve been a confirmed Kim Go-eun partisan ever since she was the female lead in the first two dramas I ever saw (The King: Eternal Monarch & Goblin), and she really puts on an acting clinic here, demonstrating real technical mastery as she smoothly brings to life the internal debates, discussions, and decisions being depicted in her animated interior “cell town.”
Even when – maybe especially when – her character is doing something irrational or counter-productive, Kim Go-eun’s Yumi is never less than entirely believable, and she’s always a delight to watch, even when we’re peeking through our fingers out of second-hand embarrassment.
Shin Hye-sun (Mr. Queen)
Another acting clinic, Shin Hye-sun’s performance is delightfully over the top and yet so assured and packed with meaning that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Initially tasked with portraying a 21st century male libertine stuffed into a slender 19th century royal lady package, she boldly (but with no little cunning) sets about trampling every toe in sight, and skewering more than a few sacred cows as well. Yet as the narrative unwinds, she also enacts her character’s emotional journey with a great deal of subtlety and nuance.
I really was disappointed that she didn’t win the best actress award for this role at the Baeksang Arts awards this last year.
Go Min-si (Youth of May)
I believe this was Go Min-si’s first leading role in a full-length drama, and she certainly didn’t draw an easy one in which to step into the lead.
Centering as the show does around the May 1980 Gwangju Uprising, the part calls for a lot of skill, and she more than rises to the occasion.
Playing a young nurse with aspirations to go abroad and take advantage of the opportunities that have eluded her in her hometown, she faces first the unexpected prospect of romance, before the onrushing train of events looms directly ahead for everyone in her circle. Go Min-si really brings her character life in all of her living, breathing facets, and easily entices us in to caring about her journey.
Han So-hee (My Name)
I take this as Han So-hee’s bold throw to break out of being typecast as the pretty young Other Woman or romantic butterfly, and if that was indeed the intent in taking on this role, I’d say mission accomplished.
Playing a young high school student seemingly largely abandoned by her single-parent father, only to hear him cut down in the hallway one night by an unknown assailant, Han So-hee showcases a heady mix of frailty and vulnerability, soon tempered into a convincing toughness, and driven by rage and a powerful, consuming drive for revenge.
As the clearly central figure around whom the entire narrative pivots, can she manage to carry the whole production with her performance? Absolutely. Can, and does.
And the Winner is: (this was a tough pick; I loved so many of these performances!)
I went back and forth on this one, but in the end, it kind of has to be Shin Hye-sun in Mr. Queen. Her performance is just too multi-layered, too assured, way too entertaining, to overlook.
Best Male Lead
Lee Do-hyun (Youth of May)
The other half of the central pairing in Youth of May, Lee Do-hyun continues a string of impressive performances with his role in this drama, taking on the part of a med student and unappreciated son of a powerful man who gets swept up in the tumultuous events of May 1980.
As a young man fighting against parental expectations and the crushing onslaught of historical events, Lee Do-hyun really illuminates his character’s struggles, internal and external, with the forces arrayed against him.
Shin Ha-kyun (Beyond Evil)
As the small town detective at the heart of this show’s central mystery, a connection stretching back over a couple of decades, Shin Ha-kyun’s character is an enigmatic bundle of layers that only slowly get peeled back.
That means we spend a significant amount of time trying to figure out where he’s really coming from and what he’s really thinking and feeling. Needless to say, keeping a character both interesting and enigmatic is a challenge, but Shin Ha-kyun rises to the challenge well.
Jung Hae-in (D.P.)
Jung Hae-in anchors this hard-hitting dive into the excesses of the military conscription system, playing a private newly inducted into a military police unit who gets assigned to “deserter patrol,” active duty soldiers sent out into the civilian population to track down and apprehend conscripts who have gone AWOL.
He ably portrays a young man plunged into a crazy, messed-up system where bullying and abuse of the weak by the strong seems like a common, every-day occurrence, and conveys his character’s intelligence and continuing grip on a fundamental decency in spite of the incentives to join the system and cast that decency aside.
Kim Myung-min (Law School)
Commanding the screen as the prototypical, even stereotypical, law school professor, Kim Myung-min holds the lecture hall full of eager law students in rapt attention, while bringing his cunning intelligence and deep knowledge of law and criminal procedure, acquired in his former career as a prosecutor, to bear on the murder mystery at the heart of the show.
Projecting an impressive presence, Kim is always a pleasure to watch in this show.
Lee Je-hoon (Taxi Driver)
Quite a departure from his cerebral, somewhat subdued police profiler in Signal, Lee Je-hoon here plays the “muscle,” the tip of the spear of a small, tight-knit vigilante organization that takes on the cases of victims whose oppressors have escaped punishment by the law.
Using the persona of a taxi driver as his cover, Lee Je-hoon gets to show off a fairly impressive range as he goes undercover in various scenarios to infiltrate organizations and put himself in range to apprehend and punish the guilty.
He brings a real physicality to the role, which makes it a lot of fun to watch as he visits a good dose of Old Testament style vengeance on the corrupt and the wicked.
Song Joong-ki (Vincenzo)
Playing the suave, cool Mafia consigliere who doesn’t believe in justice, only pay-back, Song Joong-ki really makes this drama hum.
He plays straight man to the manic antics whirling in orbit around him, and in so doing anchors a production that would otherwise be at risk of flying into the realm of cheap farce with no path back. His handsome, still boyish face, coupled with a smoldering deadly intensity, make for a lethal combination, while his understated comedic timing as the designated straight man provides the cohesion that makes various wacky set-pieces actually land.
A definite star turn.
And the Winner is:
I admit I was tempted by Kim Myung-min’s law professor, but ultimately, the prize has to go to Song Joong-ki, as Vincenzo Cassano, our Mafia bad-boy extraordinaire.
Best Supporting Actor (Female)
Shin Dong-mi (Bossam: Steal the Fate)
As the palace attendant who essentially raised our now-widowed princess, Shin Dong-mi’s Court Lady Jo is utterly devoted to her charge, and willingly follows the princess on her winding and dangerous odyssey.
Supplying the requisite comedic fodder often expected of the good supporting character, she also gets her own little loveline which is, yes, comedic, but also touching and heartfelt. And of course, Shin Dong-mi makes the role pop and sparkle.
Ryu Hye-young (Law School)
Ryu Hye-young has been a favorite since we fell in love with her Song Bo-ra in Reply 1988, and I have to say her name on the cast list was a significant factor in checking out Law School in the first place. She doesn’t disappoint.
Playing a lower-income first year student who matriculates under her school’s version of affirmative action, Ryu Hye-young’s law student is scrappy and morally grounded, which allows her to not get lost in the law as an intellectual game, but rather to see the actual people that it affects and which it’s meant, in theory, to help.
Jung Ho-yeon (Squid Game)
So for your debut acting role, you’re cast in this little Netflix joint, and then it blows up into a massive world-wide phenomenon, and next thing you know you’re appearing on American late-night talk shows…
Anyway, Jung Ho-yeon makes quite an impression as the gutsy North Korean defector who jumps into the arena because, just like all the other contestants, she’s desperate for money. She’s got presence and charisma, and we’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her sophomore outing.
Kang Han-na (My Roommate is a Gumiho)
Kang Han-na first caught my eye playing the estranged older sister in Start-up, and I would have liked to have seen more of her there; frankly, her family reconciliation subplot was a lot more interesting than Suzy’s love triangle.
But setting that aside, I was delighted to see her in this, and even more delighted at how her ditzy ex-gumiho with a hidden caring heart lit up the screen whenever she graced it. Proving that she not only has dramatic chops, but also understated but impeccable comedic timing, Kang Han-na was an absolute highlight of this show.
Choi Yu-hwa (River Where the Moon Rises)
Although the show itself was underwhelming, Choi Yu-hwa’s high-end herb merchant cum spymaster was a definite highlight, and she put real soul into the seemingly jaded, cosmopolitan woman who nevertheless loses her heart to the dashing 2ML, only to see him waste his life, and most of the show, pining after a FL entirely indifferent to his charms.
A perhaps thankless role, but she made it interesting and relatable, and so elevated at least somewhat a show in need of help from whatever quarter it could get.
And the Winner is:
Some great performances here, but really, it has to be Kang Han-na, who’s never anything but a delight as the ex-gumiho doing her best to learn how to be human.
Best Supporting Actor (Male)
Kim Beom (Law School)
To be honest, I actually liked Kim Beom better as the bratty half-gumiho younger brother of the ML, working through his abandonment issues in Tale of the Nine-tailed.
Be that as it may, he’s also plenty fine here as the brainy, top-of-the-class law student who kinda-sorta takes charge and leads his small study group as it becomes embroiled in the mystery of just who caused that dead body to materialize in the moot court waiting room.
Park Hee-soon (My Name)
What a fine job Park Hee-son does as the cool, charismatic big daddy drug gang boss, taking in our lost puppy of a protagonist – bereft as she is of just about everything save a burning desire to avenge her slain father – training her in the brutal arts of hard, dirty street fighting, and then infiltrating her into the police to hunt down her prey.
By turns ruthless and roughly compassionate, Park Hee-son subtly showcases the inner conflicts gnawing at the soul of this bad man.
Yeo Jin-goo (Beyond Evil)
Showing, one hopes, that Hotel del Luna was a sidetrack diversion down anodyne lane, Yeo Jin-goo steps up to the plate with his tightly-wound perfectionist young detective on the fast track, juggling sublimated guilt and daddy issues as he provides a sharp, nuanced foil for partner Shin Ha-kyun’s equally sharp, nuanced performance.
He’s one half of the central (eventual) bromance around which this whole very good show pivoted, and Yeo Jin-goo pulls hard in the traces to make it work.
Jung Kyung-ho (Hospital Playlist 2)
Okay, now, as should be obvious to anyone who’s seen either season of this great show, any one of the central five actors could justly be plucked out for recognition. And I like all of their characters a lot!
I just chose Jung Kyung-ho’s thoracic/heart surgeon because I particularly like his cerebral, prickly but caring persona, and I really liked his understated loveline in both seasons. Jung Kyung-ho, needless to say, is great at breathing life into the character and making him both believable and relatable.
Lee Ji-hoon (River Where the Moon Rises)
The second male lead in this Three Kingdoms era sageuk, Lee Ji-hoon’s martial princeling spends his time alternately opposing and getting sucked into his villainous father’s schemes to subvert the throne. In his spare time, he romances the mysterious local pharmacist while always and ever carrying a torch for Kim So-hyun’s princess (who, in traditional FL/2ML fashion, is just not interested in that way, sorry).
It’s admittedly kind of a thankless role, but Lee Ji-hoon gives it the old college try and manages to nuance his character out of just the sad and pathetic (although, unavoidably, there is some of that too).
And the Winner is:
Park Hee-soon. Han So-hee really acquits herself well as the protagonist, no question, but this show wouldn’t be half as watchable or entertaining without the backstop that Park Hee-soon provides. He’s great in this, full stop.
Best OTP (One True Pairing)
Song Joong-ki & Jeon Yeo-bin (Vincenzo)
The romance here is very understated, even back-burner, but what I appreciated about this pairing is that they really are scripted as partners; everyone else is on the outside looking in, along for the ride, but from fairly early on, these two are more or less fully in each other’s confidence, scheming together to take down the bad guys and strike it rich.
Oh, and on the couple occasions when they do finally kiss…let’s just acknowledge that it’s pretty dang smokin’ hot, right?
Kwon Yuri & Jung Il-woo (Bossam: Steal the Fate)
A fairly stately, restrained loveline, one that gets off on decidedly the wrong foot when Jung Il-woo’s raffish jack of all trades mistakenly abducts Kwon Yuri’s widowed princess and then can’t really just put her back where he found her, unfortunately.
The slow growing but deeply felt connection between these two characters, each bereft in their different ways, makes for one of the finer, more mature romances in this year’s crop of shows.
Shin Min-ah & Kim Seon-ho (Hometown Cha Cha Cha)
Given show’s posture as a light, generally optimistic rom-com, it has more time and space to devote to the flowering of the OTP than some other shows, and it uses it to good effect.
This is a delightful pairing enacted by a couple of real pros, and their initial standoffishness and amiable bickering segues almost seamlessly into a deeper regard and awareness until the mutual care and attraction becomes obvious and undeniable. This is how it’s done.
Very special shout-out to Shin Min-ah’s breathless confession, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and to Kim Seon-ho’s righteous response, also no slouch.
Jo Jung-suk & Jeon Mi-do (Hospital Playlist 2)
Uh…so what to do? This one is kind of a spoiler to even mention their names together, since when Jo Jung-suk’s surgeon threw out his oblique invitation to be more than friends to Jeon Mi-do’s neurosurgeon at the end of the first season, it wasn’t clear there would even be a couple, particularly since at the beginning of the second season, she deflects the invitation in similarly oblique fashion.
Over the course of the season, she has cause to reconsider, and it’s all sorts of wholesome, warm-n-toasty goodness when these two long-time friends finally take the plunge into their destiny as a romantic pairing.
Lee Hyeri & Jang Ki-dong (My Roommate is a Gumiho)
Who would have imagined that a jaded, world-weary, thousand year old gumiho and a candid, friendly, straightforward college student would not only fall in love, but end up being so right for each other?
Hyeri is great as the honest, fresh-faced, ingenuous young co-ed who draws the quiet, reserved Jang Ki-dong out of his shell and teaches him about love and humanity both.
Lee Do-hyun & Go Min-si (Youth of May)
Lee Do-hyun is the tortured medical student on the cusp of graduation; Go Min-si is the smart, conscientious nurse looking to further her education by studying abroad.
Set up on a blind date on somewhat false pretenses, he’s smitten, while she’s looking to fulfill an obligation and then not look back. Somehow he gets her to fall for him as hard as he’s fallen for her (it is Lee Do-hyun, after all) and for a few brief shining days they capture magic in a bottle with each other. Then the world goes to hell.
Beautiful, poignant, deeply affecting, this is a lovely connection, all the more so for its brevity, and longevity.
And the Winners are:
You know, I’ve switched my vote back and forth on this one a couple times in the course of writing and editing this, so what the heck, this category gets our first dual winners: Shin Min-ah & Kim Seon-ho and Lee Do-hyun & Go Min-si share the glory here, two OTPs that were moving and meaningful while inhabiting very different milieus.
Razzie Award (“worst show, or the show that promised so much but delivered so little”)
You Raise Me Up
A shorter drama (8 episodes), this tackles a worthy, sensitive topic (erectile dysfunction), but sadly misses the mark, both tonally and plot-wise.
The show can’t quite decide when comedy is appropriate, and the protagonist’s utterly hang-dog, defeated affect and demeanor, although contextually understandable, is just really hard to watch.
By far show’s biggest sin, however, is the screamingly unethical behavior on the part of the urologist (and her psychiatrist boyfriend) who the protagonist consults for treatment of his issue. She turns out to be his almost-but-not-quite girlfriend from high school, and she probably breaks just about every rule of medical ethics related to patient treatment in the course of trying to get him to stand at attention once again…
An ambitious show that has a lot on its mind when it comes to injustice and societal dysfunction, but can never quite figure out exactly what either its agenda or its prescribed cure is, and before long has descended into a muddled, intermittently sensationalistic mess.
Its “people’s court” turns out to be pure mob justice, and show can’t seem to decide whether it’s satirizing it or playing it for straight approval. Ji Sung and Kim Min-jung are both insanely charismatic, but they can’t save this one from its own script, alas.
On paper this looks like it should be really good, and indeed, Seo In-guk and Park Bo-young do look fantastic, both together and individually (Park Bo-young in particular has never looked better; endlessly watchable, in my opinion).
Unfortunately, the writer never bothered to really figure out the governing mythology on this show, nor the terms, and their concrete implications, which dictate the course of the central plot. As a result, great stretches of the show flirt with outright incoherence, leaving the (highly photogenic) actors to enact the steps of a dance that makes very little sense. A real shame.
River Where the Moon Rises
This has to be this year’s winner of the “cursed production” award, if nothing else.
Six episodes into its run, a bullying scandal blew up and led to Ji Soo, the male lead, being unceremoniously yeeted off the show. After taking a week’s hiatus and insta-casting Na In-woo as the new lead, the show sailed bravely on to its twenty episode conclusion.
The thing is, it kind of managed to recover from the recasting fiasco (Na In-woo himself was fine, I felt). What ultimately did the show in was that the character both he and Ji Soo were playing was a charisma-deprived lump (he was meant to be a stolid, humble, man of the people, and “great” for that reason, but in actual execution it didn’t come out so well), and the overarching plot stumbled and meandered around Goguryeo/Three Kingdoms politics in a pretty uninteresting fashion.
Show did look really good, I’ll give it that, and it was a treat to see a very different historical style than the standard Joseon template that sets the stage for most sageuk.
Ah, this show…came out of the gate with such ambition and high-powered talent in front of the camera, and then drove merrily into the ditch.
Meant to be a high-concept science fiction time travel extravaganza, with Park Shin-hye’s time traveling warrior chick from the future on a mission to save Cho Seung-woo’s genius engineer so he could…do something to unkink the timeline?…in the event this boasted a fair number of individually impressive, or at least entertainingly watchable, set-pieces that never really cohered into a seamless, narratively satisfying whole.
The dramatic connective tissue just wasn’t there; it’s too bad, because there’s a lot of potential that got wasted when this one unspooled on our screens.
I might feel saddest about this one.
What an A-list cast, a writer with a couple bona-fide impressive dramas to her credit (Signal, Kingdom), and a truly fantastic setting and cinematography…all in service of a story and a central plot that frankly was just a disappointment in the end.
In essence a long running murder-mystery, the mystery itself was painfully drawn out, relied way too much on clumsy red herrings (a standard device, but no less annoying for that), and needlessly but oh so aggravatingly killed off not one but three semi-core characters to generate “tension” or “audience buy-in,” I guess (I’m still mad about it, in case you can’t tell).
Jirisan (the mountain itself) sure does look beautiful, though. I’ll give show that; it’s a great advertisement for one of South Korea’s natural wonders.
And the Winner is:
Stiff competition here (no, that’s not a subtextual dig at the subject matter of You Raise Me Up, what were you thinking?), from Doom At Your Service and The Devil Judge in particular, but in the end, this award has to go to Sisyphus: The Myth, which set its sights so high and yet in the end fell so short. Given its cast and evident production budget, truly a pity.
Best Original Score
Unlike some people, I tend to pay a lot less attention to a show’s entire soundtrack, as opposed to individual tracks that stand out.
As a result, looking over this year’s shows, there was really only one soundtrack that made enough of an overall impression to stick with me. So it’s kind of the default winner. But I’m going to cheat a little bit here and look to pre-2021 shows that I watched this year to at least mention as “nominees”, because there turned out to be several soundtracks that were quite memorable from the pre-2021 group.
Contemplative, often shading into melancholic, this is a soundtrack that fits particularly well with the narrative it accompanies.
Fittingly for a show that relies so heavily on classical music for its storytelling and meaning, the soundtrack here is beautiful and emotionally powerful.
Anchored by the standout “Adult” (aka “Grown Ups”), this is a real standout soundtrack that adds a lot to an already amazing show.
So, so good; the music accompanying this show was so effective at enhancing and providing emotional cues that during the group watch we were wont to refer to it as an uncredited extra cast member.
And the Winner is:
Like I said, Lost wins here by default for the 2021 shows, although that sounds unnecessarily negative; it only made it on to the list in the first place because it made enough of an impression to stick in my mind, and I think it’s a strong, worthwhile effort.
Best Original Song
“Stay: Tempus” – Gsoul (Sisyphus: The Myth)
The opening title track for the show, this has a peppy, poppy electro-techno beat that perfectly signals the sort of futurist sci-fi vibe that show is shooting for; too bad the song is a more successful piece of near-future sci-fi fluff than the actual show turned out to be.
“Starry Night” – Ryeowook (Youth of May)
A slow, sunny, nostalgic song that sets the tone for our young lovers and allows us to bask, for a brief moment, in the pleasant conceit that all will be well and that happy endings await just over the horizon.
“From Me” – Sondia (Lost)
Slow, gentle, aching, soaring…this is a song that seems to musically encapsulate the main characters’ journeys so well. The instrumental version that accompanied the opening credits is so pretty that, somewhat atypically, I always sat through the credits just to listen to it.
“Breaking Down” – Ailee (Doom at Your Service)
A really very pretty song that starts off slow and quiet before bursting into a yearning, emotive cri de coeur in the chorus that’s probably an aural, lyrical representation of what the show thought it was going to be (it failed, alas, but the song is still great).
“My Name” – Hwang Sang Jun (My Name)
Song starts off on a quietly yearning note before building up to and breaking into a growly, pounding, propulsive beat portending kinetic action and violence. Kind of like the show. I could do without the rap track that’s laid down about two-thirds of the way through, to be honest, but this song is a banger that regularly pops up on my playlist.
And the Winner is:
It’s a tough choice, once again; I like all of these songs and they all have a place on my regular playlist. That said, “From Me” is the one that really digs the deepest and lingers the longest.
Hidden Gem (“the show you loved and wished others knew about”)
Once again, going with the “nominees” approach here, except there’s no “winner” in this category: the fact that they all qualify as a possible “hidden gem” means they’re all winners, right?
This actually did pretty well in the cable ratings, it appears, but I heard or saw surprisingly little discussion or mention of it, which makes me sad, because I did enjoy this one a whole lot.
The cast is really very watchable, particularly the core three (Kim Myung-min, Ryu Hye-young, and Kim Beom), and the story twisted and evolved in a way that was always interesting—a good example of a mystery that actually used misdirection and red herrings to good effect. I would recommend this one unreservedly as just a solid, entertaining show.
A short (six episodes) Netflix production that tackles a really important subject (military conscript mistreatment), I don’t know how actually “hidden” this one is, but I’m happy to plug it anyway.
Not necessarily an easy watch (although it does have its fair share of humor among the serious stuff), but well-written and well-acted, and definitely worth devoting five plus hours to watch it.
Again, not sure how “hidden” this is, but I feel like it could definitely get a bit more love, because it is a surprisingly mature, sensible romance despite its explicitly fantasy setting.
It for the most part eschews easy or cheap tropes, and its heroine, the redoubtable Hyeri, is an honest, tell it like it is and don’t beat around the bush modern young woman who also has a compassionate and caring heart. And her thousand year old non-human counterpart is largely respectful of boundaries and willing to learn new tricks in service of becoming human and making the relationship work. Worth a watch if you’re looking for that sort of thing.
Now this one really is a hidden gem. It’s also cheating just a wee bit, because it came out at the tail end of last year, not 2021 (even though I finished it at the beginning of this year).
Anyway, I liked an awful lot about this little show (ten episodes), a show that kind of flew under the radar. The actors (Jang Dong-yoon – who I hope recovers soon from the Joseon Exorcist blowback – and Krystal Jung); the overall aesthetic; the story; the pacing… all contributed to an interesting, fairly exciting watch.
It’s about an army special ops squad sent to track down something very weird going on in the DMZ, something with possible connections to a 20 year old NK defection incident. This was really quite good, and definitely exceeded expectations.
Much like the “hidden gem” category, there’s no “winner,” per se, in this grouping. It’s just a handful of shows that I think would really reward a rewatch.
You might think that a mystery would be shorn of its appeal once it’s been watched once and the mystery revealed, but au contraire, mon frères!
Much like certain other serial killer dramas of recent vintage we might name (okay, fine, I’m thinking in particular of Flower of Evil), this is not only a twisty mystery that would be fun to see a second time to note all the foreshadowing and true versus false clues, but also a nice character study that I feel would definitely support a second watch just to observe great actors playing off each other.
So here’s the thing. This show has a small but very passionate band of partisans who really love it quite a lot. And I, alas, am not one of them. I mean, I appreciated it. I found it (mostly) interesting, if often somewhat opaque.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one of those shows where you need to speak the show’s language, to be tuned to its emotional and narrative frequency, and I didn’t and wasn’t, quite.
But that’s also why I think this is the sort of show that would likely be fairly conducive to a rewatch, because it lives, nay, feasts in the land of subtlety and nuance, both in the quiet, measured performances of its leads (Jeon Do-yeon and Ryu Jun-yeol) and in the slow, contemplative unwinding of its narrative.
This is the only show on this list that I have actually rewatched so far – I binged it for the first time over the course of a couple days when it first dropped, and then followed along episode by episode as KFG was covering it on Patreon. And it holds up really well on a repeated viewing!
The acting is top notch, the action is good, the story is tight and exciting and just complex enough to be interesting without bogging down the forward momentum… Granted, one needs to be open to or interested in this particular subgenre in the first place, but if that describes you, it’s a slick, gritty heck of a ride.
While I didn’t end up liking this one quite as much as most people seemed to, and felt it flagged a bit in its latter stages, still, its strong point was the core ensemble of “superheroes,” who quickly developed a warm, familial camaraderie as they welcomed young orphan So Mun to their ranks as the newest member of the crew, then set out to conquer demons in a nurturing, mutually supportive sort of way (of each other, to be clear, not the demons. Them they beat up.)
In addition to our two leads, and the nasty villains they face off against, what really allows this show to pull off its wild flights of fancy with such panache are the assembled tenants of Geumga Plaza, the slated-for-demolition old building where Vincenzo sets up his base of operations.
You can sense the glee with which the cast dedicate themselves to bringing to life the various antics and set-pieces the script serves up.
This show is really all about the lovely, enduring two-decade strong friendship among the five main characters, and of course you need a great cast to bring that off, and well, of course they have a great cast, with not a weak link among the five.
Each one of them really makes their individual character live and breathe as a believable person, and the chemistry they all have with each other is great, and a delight to watch.
Yes, this has a great core twosome, with a fraught, complicated relationship between Shin Ha-kyun and Yeo Jin-goo’s police detectives, but beyond those two, this smart twisty script is really powered by the great performances of its ensemble cast, who really make the uncertainty interesting and the muted vaguely menacing atmosphere pop.
One of the elements that makes this show such a success is undeniably the fantastic cast, who one and all totally sell out in service of the narrative. (I specifically exempt the Western VIPs near the end, of whom no more will be said). So many great performances in this; who knew there were so many different flavors of needy, desperate, ambitious, venal…you name it, it’s here.
And the Winner is:
Come on, you know it has to be Hospital Playlist 2, a show that’s all about the amazing ensemble; these guys are so good, it’s like having a crew of your besties over to chill, and soothe you with the happy feels.
I’m going to be honest. This show is going to demand some emotional resilience and fortitude to drink it down to the lees.
An ominous framing story aside, it opens with a light, pleasant touch, introducing us to a nostalgia-washed tableau that gives off a distinctly provincial, if not small town, feel. Onto the stage thus set trips our delightful young couple, glowing with youth and beauty, and the ensuing rally and pursuit of courtship is almost perfectly calibrated, amusement and delight strewn before us in equal measure among the gauzy sunlight and drifting blossoms, perhaps to call forth from us fond reminiscence of our own halcyon days in times past?
Of course our young lovers will face obstacles; who doesn’t, after all. Theirs may even be steeper and more pressing than those faced by the common crowd, for he labors in the shadow of oppressive paternal expectations, wielded by a father both ruthless and powerful; while she dreams of escape, of life far from here, away from the inchoate familial stigma that grasps and nips at her heels without ever quite showing itself.
And all the while, aware that we attend at the unfolding of a history already long-painted in blood and then chiseled in stone, we have an ear half-cocked in dreadful anticipation to hear the pattering of that small stone that portends the rolling avalanche to come.
Is that it? Or that? What about that? Each passing chance glimpse of a calendar or newspaper – May 10th; May 15th; May 17th – seems to herald its arrival until there…that’s it. The call to mobilize rings out in the barracks, the rumbling cough of the troop transports sputtering to life, making ready to roll out. The avalanche has been triggered, and chaos and violence rides with and through it.
This is a drama about the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980, and after spending roughly half of its running time of twelve episodes establishing our characters, a group of young college-aged kids, for the most part, and inducing us to fall in love with them – or at least the main couple, Lee Do-hyun and Go Min-si – it spends the latter half showing what happens when an authoritarian quasi-military government decides to deal with student protests and civil unrest by unleashing the army on its own citizenry.
The show is beautifully written, beautifully acted, and beautifully filmed. It is a dramatic achievement, and well worth watching. And yes, you will need emotional resilience and fortitude to watch it. Even so, find some, and go do it.
Pre-2021 (that I watched this year)
This is such an amazing show; I’m more impressed with it midway through my second watch than I was the first time I watched it, earlier this year. And that’s saying something, because I was plenty impressed the first time.
It’s such a rich character study; so many of the characters it introduces, main and secondary both, are bursting with complexity and nuance.
The middle-aged professional, a cog in the big corporate machine, the rock that his family and friends lean on; the young woman, abandoned by good fortune and just paddling like hell to keep her damned head above the waves. The down-on-their-luck brothers; the adulterous, conflicted, regretful wife; the quirky, intimidated, scared-of-acting actress; the loving, beloved-by-the-community, jilted twenty years ago and still not over it bar owner…ah, there’s such a great human tapestry on display here.
And then there’s the story. I avoided this show for so long, needlessly, out of fear that it was some faintly disreputable romance between a middle-aged guy and twenty-something young woman. And that’s not what this is about.
It’s about a lot of things, but one of the central ones is certainly about forging a connection to and with others through kindness and compassion and understanding and the bravery to extend yourself just a little bit, and then a little bit more.
This one is a five hankie production, at least, so make sure you have the tissue box handy. And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Get it on your list, and don’t delay. You can thank me later.
..And that’s it!
Well. You still here? Wave your hand if you made it to the end!
That was a year in drama, it surely was. Let’s all raise a glass to the new year to come with best hopes and wishes for many a fine new drama to watch and enjoy.