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Best Korean Dramas of 2017

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Korean dramas of 2017!

Avengers Social Club
Three aggrieved women and a high school boy form an Avengers Social Club to get revenge against the jerks in their lives in the charming tvN comedy-drama based on a webtoon by Sajatokki. The unlikely team is started by Jung Hye (Lee Yo Won), a naively haughty but well-meaning rich woman who feels betrayed when her husband brings home a teenaged love child. She recruits Mi Sook (Myung Se Bin), the timid battered wife of a respected professor, and Do Hee (Ra Mi Ran), a widowed fishmonger with two kids, into the club. Then her clever stepson (U-Kiss member Jun), who wants revenge against his father, unexpectedly invites himself onto the team as well. While the way the four impulsively come up with schemes to punish those who degrade and abuse others may be light and humorous, the series brings up very serious issues of domestic abuse, bullying, sexual harassment and classism. It's satisfying when the petty revenge schemes work out and the bad guys get their comeuppance, but even more satisfying is watching the protagonists' growing friendship and heartwarming chemistry as they become each other's strength and pillars through difficult times.

Because This is My First Life
People get married for different reasons: some walk down the aisle because of love, some see marriage as a requisite stage of life, some marry because a so-called Mr. or Mrs. Right matches all their requirements. In the tvN romcom Because This Is My First Life, app developer Nam Se Hee (Lee Min Ki) hates marriage but he proposes a marriage contract with free-spirited assistant writer Yoon Ji Ho (Jung So Min) to comply with his mother's wish. Attracted by Se Hee's low rent, Ji Ho also agrees to the marriage. However, she finds fake married life stressful because of Se Hee's demanding mother, and starts to question the meaning of marriage. The well-planned and purposeful plot explores the topic of marriage from an unconventional point of view and challenges the stereotyped roles of women in a family in traditional Korean culture. Se Hee and Ji Ho's liberal attitudes on marriage may seem odd in Korean society, but their story shows that marriage isn't necessarily the ultimate destination of love.

Children of the 20th Century
Supernatural fantasy elements are often found in dramas these days, helping to extend the boundaries of existing genres, but all you really need is a resonant plot to create a good drama. Answer Me series screenwriter Lee Sun Hye continues her nostalgic and down-to-earth storytelling style in Children of the 20th Century, which shows smooth plot development without awkward twists. Centering on the topics of friendship, love and family, the romcom follows four friends in their 30s who struggle to find love. Actress Sa Jin Jin (Han Ye Seul), flight attendant Han Ah Reum (Ryu Hyun Kyung) and lawyer Jang Young Shim (Lee Sang Hee) are already 30 years old but none of them can find their Mr. Rights. When she gets embroiled in a sex scandal, Jin Jin re-encounters her first love Gong Ji Won (Kim Ji Suk), who helps clear her name. The four friends reunite and support each other through the thorny journey of life.

Circle makes our list on pure force of its imagination and ambition. With a dense mystery that touches on aliens, mind control, technology, existentialism and a dystopian future, tvN's sci-fi suspense drama unfolds across two timelines, enigmatically titled "Beta Project" and "Brave New World." In a simple but effective story construction, most of the drama's episodes are split into two parts. Half is set in a present-day world in which Yeo Jin Gu plays a college student dealing with a troubled brother (Ahn Woo Yun) obsessed with aliens, in particular a student (Gong Seung Yeon) who resembles a mysterious woman the boys met as children. The other half is set in a future world in which Kim Kang Woo is an anguished cop searching for his brother and lost memories. In the earlier episodes, it's unclear how the two parts fit together, but the worlds gradually connect as the mysterious conspiracy surrounding the missing brothers and a creepy utopian community takes shape. Circle simply has so many thought-provoking ideas happening, and it does a surprisingly good job of linking the ideas together while creating two visually distinct worlds. Unfortunately, since the series wasn't a hit, Circle probably won't get the sequel it deserves.

Guardian: The Lonely and Great God
In Korean mythology, dokkaebi, or goblins, are powerful and mischievous supernatural creatures that are derived from inanimate objects, not humans. In Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, better known as Goblin, the dokkaebi is reimagined as Gong Yoo's Kim Shin, a warrior who was betrayed by his king and tragically cursed with immortality. For years upon years, the goblin searches for his fated bride who alone can end his lonely immortality by pulling out the sword in his chest. But when the goblin's bride finally appears before him as a spunky high school girl, played by Kim Go Eun, he begins to fall in love and have second thoughts about ending his life. Renowned screenwriter Kim Eun Sook and director Lee Eung Bok follow Descendants of the Sun with another hit series that had everyone talking and fans squealing about memorable characters and pairings, in particular the frenemy bond between Kim Shin and Lee Dong Wook's grim reaper that the drama knowingly played up with many scenes of comical bickering. Besides Kim Eun Sook's usual ability to read audiences on romance (and bromance), Goblin is genuinely inventive and interesting in the way it updates and reinterprets supernatural, spiritual and folklore elements in a modern fantasy.

Mad Dog
Yoo Ji Tae leads a tech-savvy team of insurance fraud investigators that skirt the law in the crime suspense series Mad Dog. The drama at first seems like it would be a fast and light episodic investigative serial, but tragedy hits early with the revelation that Choi Kang Woo (Yoo) lost his wife and child to a plane crash. Breakout actor Woo Doo Hwan plays Kim Min Joon, the younger brother of the pilot who was blamed for deliberately crashing the plane. A few years after the tragedy, Min Joon, who received a huge insurance payout from his brother's death, craftily appears before the Mad Dog team with new clues, and they reopen investigation into the plane crash and the massive cover-up engineered by the airline and insurance company. Tightly written and directed, Mad Dog is a tense and compelling ride carried by a well-developed and well-acted ensemble of characters, each of whom gets their moment to shine. Notably, the story stays focused on the team and the crime mystery, and has no romantic subplot. This is a KBS crime drama that would be perfectly at home on OCN.

Prison Playbook
Prison may seem like an unlikely place for Answer Me series director Shin Won Ho to set his latest heartwarming slice-of-life drama, but Prison Playbook deftly balances darkness and normalcy in its empathetic look into the daily lives of prisoners and prison guards. As always, Shin has an eye for casting, propelling stage actor Park Hae Soo to the lead role of a baseball superstar who gets sentenced to jail for gravely injuring the man who tried to sexually assault his sister. There, the simple-natured pitcher strives to adjust to a new life and rehabilitate his injury with the help of fellow inmates and his childhood friend, a prison guard played by Jung Kyung Ho. Similar to the Answer Me series, Prison Playbook draws heart and humor from the conversations, interactions and camaraderie of the core group of inmates sharing the same cell. The series is funniest in its random and small moments, like protagonist Kim Je Hyuk's failures in everything that isn't baseball and all the fights that ensue from the informal unfiltered speech of Lee Kyu Hyung's spacy drug addict. At the same time, Prison Playbook acknowledges the grayness of their world, gradually revealing what brought each person to prison and regularly disrupting the balance with the introduction of less friendly inmates.

Stranger (Forest of Secrets)
The world of Korean dramas is full of cool and stoic heroes who don't show their emotions, but Stranger's hero Hwang Shi Mok is actually unable to feel emotions as the result of a childhood brain surgery. The cold and rational mind that makes Hwang a lonely and impenetrable outsider also makes him a brilliant and incorruptible prosecutor as he navigates the increasingly high stakes and dangers of a serial murder case and corruption conspiracy within the prosecutor's office. Appearing in his first drama since 2014's God's Gift, Cho Seung Woo is perfectly cast in the lead role, appropriately opaque yet constantly alluding to the tortured inner world of one who understands but can't feel emotions. If Cho Seung Woo wasn't enough, Stranger also wooed Bae Doo Na back to Korean television for her first local mini-series in seven years. As the persistent and compassionate police officer who refuses to compromise, she becomes the best partner and guiding light for the unfeeling prosecutor. Bolstered by a meticulous script, well-paced direction and excellent acting, Stranger stands out in the crowded field of dramas about prosecutors fighting for justice.

It's hard to not think of Signal when another time-travel police drama about cracking a cold serial murder case comes rolling around so soon, but Tunnel approaches the time-travel premise from a different angle and immediately sets itself apart as a strong, thrilling offering from genre specialist OCN. Choi Jin Hyuk plays detective Park Kwang Ho, who is investigating a serial killer case in the 80s. After a run-in with the culprit, he emerges from a tunnel in the year 2017. Assuming the identity of a missing cop, he continues to chase after the never-caught serial killer in hopes that it will be the key to returning to where he belongs. Tunnel interestingly connects present-day characters, including Yoon Hyun Min's humorless detective and Lee Yoo Young's criminal psychologist, with Kwang Ho and the case, and the actors do a fine job of conveying the emotional impact of the reveals. The script also ably lightens the grave mystery with well-timed humor drawn from the hero's fish-out-of-water presence, in particular his amusingly imbalanced yet moving relationship with Jo Hee Bong as the former rookie who becomes his older superior.

While You Were Sleeping
Lee Jong Suk's third collaboration with writer Park Hye Ryun following I Hear Your Voice and Pinocchio continues to be a winning combination of romance, fantasy and crime suspense. Suzy plays a reporter who can foresee the future in her dreams, a special power that has vexed her since childhood. Lee Jong Suk's greenhorn prosecutor and Jung Hae In's police officer suddenly acquire this ability as well, and the three become inextricably connected as they look into each other's dreams and race to right wrongs and mitigate dangers. Though it did not do as well in the ratings, While You Were Sleeping is comparable with its predecessors in terms of themes and production quality, and particularly intrigues with its mysterious dreams. The beautifully shot drama is infused with a strong sense of justice and personal agency as the characters overcome fears and inadequacies to fight for each other's safety and for those who have been failed by the law. Lee Jong Suk and Suzy bring a lot of warmth and cuteness in their sweet romantic storyline, while the standout performances go to Jung Hae In's assuring wide smile and Kim Won Hae's poignant turn as Lee Jong Suk's assistant.

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Published December 26, 2017

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