The top 10 K-dramas of 2020, from Start-Up to The Uncanny Counter


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Korean entertainment hit a high point in 2020, notably with the Academy Award success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite . Yet while the movie industry went on to suffer following the onset of Covid-19, Korean dramas have been flourishing across the globe.
It has not just been lockdowns that have been driving viewers to the small screen, however. The Korean drama machine made its boldest strides in 2020, exploring exciting new territory in terms of theme and genre, in addition to its bread-and-butter tales of romance – forbidden or otherwise.
With so much to choose from, many of our favourites could not quite make the cut for this list, which includes a couple of shows that debuted in December 2019 but had most of their episodes screened this year, while a few more recent series haven’t quite wrapped up their runs.
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Here are our picks of the 10 best K-dramas of 2020, ranked from good to great.
One of the most recent shows on this list, Start-Up pairs K-pop singer Bae Suzy with rising star Nam Joo-hyuk in a glossy, romance-soaked tale of grit and ambition in a made-up mini-Korean Silicon Valley in the heart of Seoul. With its pleasing visual tones and youth-centric subject matter, the show presents a thoroughly diverting spin on the standard K-drama model.
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Veteran actress Kim Hae-sook is the comforting rock that keeps it all on the ground as the halmoni (grandmother) who runs a snack truck and provides an all-too-necessary shoulder to cry on in life’s harsher moments.
Medical dramas are hardly new to the Korean drama scene, but Hospital Playlist, the second instalment of the “Wise Life” series, after Prison Playbook, emerged as the most compelling example to date.
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A group of young doctors follow their friend, Jung-won (Yoo Yeon-seok), secretly the heir to the hospital, to work in a VIP ward, but only after agreeing to get the “band” back together – literally. Emotional tales of illness and grief play out against the gentle camaraderie of a group that finds solace from the hardships of their job in each other, and their delightfully lousy five-piece garage band.
Itaewon Class does not exactly set itself apart in its first (flashback) episode, but once the action moves to Itaewon, the former US Army stamping ground that was turned into Seoul’s cultural melting pot, it becomes one of the most progressive shows we’ve ever seen on Korean TV.
The story features ethnically non-Korean characters speaking Korean and approaches extremely taboo subjects such as transgenderism that were long thought to be too outre for TV.
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Throw in bullying, some romance (of course) and a steady narrative of trying to get back at an evil corporate boss, and what you have is a compelling and fresh addition to the world of K-drama that throws down the social gauntlet.
The hit period zombie series Kingdom returned for its second season. Winter descends on the Joseon Kingdom, which makes life much harder for our returning heroes battling an undead horde who can now run amok in the daytime.
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The sets, locations and costumes remain a highlight in Netflix’s first Korean original. But while death and betrayal rage more furiously than before, the on-screen carnage loses some of its novelty on this second lap, especially as the story steadily contracts back to its starting point.
No word on season 3 just yet, but a special prequel episode called Kingdom: Ashin of the North, featuring superstar Jun Ji-hyun, is due out in 2021.
Without a doubt the biggest star pairing of the year was Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin – previously co-stars in the thriller The Negotiation – in the hit series Crash Landing on You . This tvN drama is the tale of two star-crossed lovers – she the fashion executive heiress, he the North Korean military officer – who meet when a tornado shifts her parachute into a tree on the wrong side of the DMZ between the Koreas.
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Imagined life on the other side of the border is a bonus, but in an otherwise by-the-numbers story, it’s the chemistry and wonderful performances of the leads that make this one a keeper.
Which stories mattered most to you in 2020? Find out with our Year In Review 2020 retrospective.
Korean TV is far less prone to hysterics these days, but sometimes you need a good old makjang (exaggerated soap-style Korean drama) to clear the air, and The Penthouse: War in Life is the makjang par excellence.
A knowingly outrageous series that pits the uber-rich, living in a 100-storey ultra-luxury high-rise, against each other, this series features the iciest stares, the loudest arguments and some barnstorming melodramatic set pieces that give the infamous “kimchi slap” a run for its money.
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Following in the wake of the similarly themed Sky Castle, the show has been a huge hit and received a rare two-season renewal while still on air.
Kim Hee-ae is a force to reckoned with in her award-winning turn as a loving wife and mother whose life begins to unravel as she suspects her husband of having an affair.
And that affair is only the tip of the iceberg in this whirlwind story of revenge and regret, which became the most highly rated cable series of all time in Korea this year.
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The World of the Married is a Korean remake of the British TV series Doctor Foster, which is itself inspired by the Roman story of Medea, the wronged wife who kills her children and poisons her husband’s new bride.
Netflix’s bold and edgy youth crime drama Extracurricular follows a diffident young student who is actually an unlikely mastermind enforcer – he protects a ring of underage prostitutes from dangerous clients.
Streaming online as opposed to the safer waters of TV gives the show greater leeway to explore violent and expletive-ridden Korean youth culture.
Furthermore, the show runners clearly weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, and show just how dangerous society can be to women in what is often a searing portrait of the world in front of us but just out of view.
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Beyond its pressing themes, this is also thrilling entertainment, with the young cast finding themselves in many a pulse-raising situation and in need of an escape.
Clearly K-drama’s MVP of 2020, The Uncanny Counter star Jo Byung-gyu makes another appearance in the cast of the wickedly entertaining baseball drama Hot Stove League. This small-screen Korean Moneyball stars Namgoong Min as a handsome numbers man brought in to shake up a losing team filled with clashing egos and diamonds in the rough.
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More than anything else this year, this show has the feel of a high-class American drama, yet it does not forget to bring the emotion home when it counts. Office rivalries, sports stats, secret agendas – rooting for the underdog has rarely been this much fun.
This late-year surprise shoots straight to the top of the list for its winning combination of superhero action, clever family dynamics and fun world-building. Its lead characters Tracksuit-wearing noodle shop restaurateurs by day, super-powered demon-slayers by night, The Uncanny Counter scores with terrific leads (Jo Byung-gyu, Sejeong, Yu Jun-sang and Yum Hye-ran) playing 2020’s best on-screen motley crew.
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It’s a few Korean cultural quirks removed from Spider-Man, but no one’s likely to accuse this fresh and zippy show of being anything but a true original. As of writing, the show is exactly halfway through its 16-episode run, but barring some major sidestep, it should have little trouble hanging on to the No 1 slot.
For more great stories on Korean entertainment, artist profiles and the latest news, visit K-post, SCMP’s K-pop hub.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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