The Secret to a Good K-Drama

People write off Korean-language TV series as sappy melodrama. That's a mistake.

A still of Yoon Se-ri and Ri Jeong Hyeok from the K-drama 'Crash Landing on You'
Lim Hyo Seon / Netflix

Don’t write off popular Korean-language TV series as sappy melodrama. These shows will expand your conception of what storytelling can be. Read on for recommendations for your weekend.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

To describe the plot of Crash Landing on You to the uninitiated is to invite mockery. After a paragliding test from Seoul gone wrong, a South Korean heiress and entrepreneur crash lands, literally, onto a stunningly handsome North Korean army officer, who, despite being lawful and rigid, decides to hide her and help her return home. What follows are 16 episodes, totaling more than 20 hours, of a story so propulsive I could watch nothing else for weeks after.

Netflix first waved the show in my face in January 2020, but I was preoccupied with the self-imposed assignment of finishing all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, because I felt left out at the cultural watercooler. My mother, though, saw the light. Throughout the first year of the pandemic, she watched Yoon Se-ri and Captain Ri fall in love, hide and then unearth their respective familial traumas, and find friends and purpose, in and out of North and South Korea.

My mom had long known this world. For two decades, in between the demands of teaching, she would watch Dae Jang-geum (a 2003 drama that follows a girl who grows up to be the first female royal physician of the Joseon era) and savor the series Winter Sonata (a thoughtful 2002 romance about first love and second chances). As a disaffected teenager, I considered my mother’s devotion to Winter Sonata’s Bae Yong-joon embarrassingly out of tune, but she had been one of millions to join in the beginnings of the Hallyu wave. In 2021, Netflix, which has a bit of a stranglehold on the streaming market for new K-dramas, said it would spend about $500 million on Korean programming that year (and enabled the production of about 80 new Korean shows and films between 2015 and 2020).

To paraphrase my colleague and eminent critic of all things BTS, Lenika Cruz, first, you aren’t a fan. Then, you are. And so I am. K-dramas, in all of their multitudes, expanded the boundaries of what I thought good storytelling could be. Like their cousins the telenovela and the Indian serial, K-dramas (the term broadly refers to Korean-language TV series made in South Korea) are critically sidelined as melodrama, given their sensational plotlines. Of course there are low-quality duds, and some are ridiculously plotted, if still good fun (no judgment). Of course there are tropes (amnesia, rich-girl-poor-boy or vice versa, tragic illness, overlapping past lives). But the “drama” in K-drama misleads. K-dramas come in all genres—intimate dramas, yes, but also fantasies, histories, horror; multiple genres often swirl into one show. Crash Landing on You is a romantic drama, but it’s also part mystery and part satire that winks at K-drama tropes. And Little Women, nominally based on the Louisa May Alcott classic, is a visually jaw-dropping thriller about family, class, and morality in which three hustling sisters wind up at the center of a major conspiracy involving the wealthiest family in South Korea.

To me, a K-drama’s core tenets are its satisfying moral arcs—even for side characters—plot twists, and a preponderance of feeling. (Bonus: beautiful clothes.) The shows prize emotional clarity, whether the feelings are loving or ugly or just little: worry, pettiness, a first crush, the dancing insecurity of early friendships. There’s no value in repressing them, no shame in expressing them.

I watched Game of Thrones so I wouldn’t miss out. The same impulse drove me to start Crash Landing on You last fall, years after its release, because I wanted to join the growing universe of breathless viewers who had seen the light. As I watched at home, my partner, catching up on some emails, would turn over his shoulder to see the screen and ask me questions such as “So how did his dead brother’s watch end up in her possession?” and “Did the reluctant spy who found his conscience make it out with his family?”

Look over your shoulder. Come see the light. I know you’ll find a K-drama you’ll love. Here’s where to start (all of these are available on Netflix):

If you want a lengthy thriller to get lost in … Little Women (12 episodes)

If you want a snackable legal procedural with heart … Extraordinary Attorney Woo (16 episodes)

If you want to cry and cry and cry … Thirty-Nine (12 episodes)

If you want to be awash in nostalgia … Our Beloved Summer (16 episodes) and Twenty-Five Twenty-One (16 episodes)

If you want to breeze through something silly … Business Proposal (12 episodes)

If you want your zombies with a dash of historical political intrigue … Kingdom (12 episodes)


Today’s News

  1. After an investigation prompted by the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, the U.S. Justice Department found that Louisville, Kentucky, police have engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights.
  2. California officials are warning residents of a powerful storm later this week. About 16 million people across Central and Northern California are under flood watches.
  3. In the budget he will release tomorrow, President Joe Biden is reportedly set to propose measures to reduce federal-budget deficits by $3 trillion over the next 10 years.


Evening Read

Red, black, and white illustration of Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey
Lauren Tamaki

The Freakish Powers of Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey

By James Parker

If you’re looking to the stars—and why wouldn’t you be?—you’ll know that Saturn has entered the sign of Pisces. It happened in early March: Shaggy old Saturn, god of constriction and mortality, lowered his iron haunches into the Piscean waters. He’ll be there until May 2025, an intractable lump in that wishy-washy element. Displacing it. Blocking it. Imposing his limits. Enough with the changeability, he says to dippy, fin-flashing Pisces. Enough with the half-assedness. Endless mutation is not possible. Now you’re going to face—and be stuck with—yourself.

This will be a challenge, one senses, for artists in general. And for pop stars in particular. Who sheds selves, and invents selves, faster than a pop star? Who defies time and gravity with more desperation? Something else was augured for March: the release of new albums by two of our most continually expanding and dramatically evolving celestial bodies. I’m talking about Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey. Two emanations of the holy city of Los Angeles; two distinct transits across the firmament.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Arnold Schwarzenegger portrait
Ryan Pfluger for The Atlantic

Watch. The Terminator, home to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature line—“I’ll be back.” It’s a movie that has continued to define him.

Or watch the new Netflix limited series The Plane That Disappeared—and read the definitive account of how Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished, the subject of our July 2019 cover by William Langewiesche.

Read. Mona Simpson’s new short story “Second Life,” an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Commitment.


Speaking of a growing universe of fans: Before the orchestra music plays me off the Daily stage, I’d like to point you to a new song that’s been on repeat for me on my commutes: “On the Street,” by j-hope (one of the rappers and dance king of the Korean supergroup BTS) and J. Cole (the American rapper and longtime idol of j-hope). I hope it brings pep to your next train ride, bike ride, walk, or whatever it may be.

— Shan

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.