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Best Korean Dramas of 2021

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Korean dramas of 2021!

Beyond Evil
Beyond Evil
Would you become a monster in order to catch a monster? Winning Best Drama and Best Screenplay at the 57th Baeksang Arts Awards, Beyond Evil is hailed as the best psychological crime thriller of the year for its tight and suspenseful plot with heavy emotions. Shin Ha Kyun deserves special mention for his impressive portrayal as the exasperated, devious and subtly psychopathic police officer chasing after the culprit behind his sister's disappearance. He displays great chemistry with Yeo Jin Goo, as untrusting partners teaming up to hunt down a serial killer. The tension in their face-offs levels up into an unusual kind of bromance, which is indeed one of the reasons why this drama kept viewers on the hook – that and the unexpected turns in every episode that make every character look suspicious.

D.P., standing for "Deserter Pursuit," refers to a Korean military police unit tasked with retrieving army deserters. Unfolding in procedural fashion, this quick-footed series follows the two-man team of Jung Hae In and Koo Kyo Hwan, two conscripts of very different personalities, as they do legwork and piece together clues to locate deserters and bring them back safely to base. But what drives soldiers to desert? While some of the episodes of deserter-chasing are action or human drama-oriented, overall the stories behind the deserters' motives and the privates' day-to-day lives expose a culture of hazing and bullying in the Korean military, which has been a subject of great concern and controversy in recent years. Based on the webtoon D.P. Dog's Day, D.P. is gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch at times, showing the abuse and trauma that soldiers endure and then perpetuate in a grueling unwritten system that normalizes toxic masculinity and seniority. Serving in the military is an experience shared by nearly every man in South Korea. D.P. unflinchingly depicts and challenges this rite of manhood with painfully realistic accounts that hit close to home for too many people.

Before hitting it big commercially with Train to Busan, Yeon Sang Ho was known in the festival circuit for dark animated films that delved into the terrifying monster that is people. Adapted from Yeon's own webtoon, Hellbound has the big stars, budget and special effects of his zombie blockbusters, but its themes go back to the harrowing examinations of humanity and society that permeated The King of Pigs, The Fake and Seoul Station. When otherworldly beings appear out of nowhere to prophesize and then condemn individuals to hell, a cult-like group called New Truth gains influence with its doctrine explaining the fiery executions as punishments for sins. The scenes of violent supernatural deaths in Hellbound are shocking and grotesque, but the true horror lies in the grotesque actions of people who manipulate fear, moralizing and tragedy for power, profit and self-approbation – and the danger of blindly following. Yeon's haunting dystopian thriller is bold not only in its themes but also its storytelling, as the series makes the unconventional move of abruptly switching protagonists halfway through to expand the timeline and perspective.

Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
tvN's romantic hit takes a simple, familiar story and gives it a warm update that's easy on the eyes and the heart. Based on the 2004 film Mr. Handy, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha stars Shin Min Ah as big-city dentist Yoon Hye Jin who decides to open her own clinic in a coastal village. The move is driven not so much by lofty ideals but limited budget, and she has much to get used to in her gossipy new hometown where she keeps running into resident handyman Chief Hong (Kim Seon Ho). Their squabbly relationship that grows into love is classic Korean romcom cuteness set against the healing backdrop of a down-to-earth seaside town. The protagonists are surrounded by a chatty ensemble of neighborhood folks, whose own stories and troubles are gradually revealed over 16 very watchable episodes that are gently moving and funny.

Law School
"I never tell my students that the law is just. What makes the law just are the judges' decisions based on the presumption of innocence and the law of evidence." Set at a prestigious university, Law School stars Kim Myung Min as the strict Professor Yang who teaches his students a valuable lesson outside the classroom. Opening with the mysterious death of a professor, the drama centers around a group of law students digging into legal theories and actualizing them through court trials, both real and mock, to save their classmates and professors from the defendant seats. Beyond just showing intense courtroom scenes, the legal drama touches on social issues like domestic violence and dating abuse. As enthralling as the whodunnit mystery is, Law School is at times hard to comprehend due to all the legal jargon, but this well-made drama is worth the time and brain energy. It's also easy to see a bit of ourselves in the study group squad, especially when Kang Sol A (Ryu Hye Young) is procrastinating on schoolwork or pulling an all-nighter before an exam.

A young baller dancer experiences a slump and finds strength again while tutoring an old man in the tvN/Netflix drama Navillera. Veteran Park In Hwan stars as the 70-year-old grandpa Shim who worked all his life to support his family, and desperately wants to soar just once. He grabs his last chance to live out his lifelong dream as a ballet dancer before it's too late, but has to face family pressure, inner conflicts and physical struggles during the process. Inspired by Shim's perseverance, Chae Rok (played by Hallyu heartthrob Song Kang) reignites his passion for ballet, and nothing can stop him from claiming a position on the stage. They heal and help each other, building a grandfather-grandson bond as they learn and grow together during difficult times, especially when Shim is battling with Alzheimer's disease. Navillera's touching story may seem too beautiful to be true, but its message is meaningful and inspiring: No matter the age, you can still pursue your dream and fly like a butterfly.

Racket Boys
Four years after the acclaimed Prison Playbook, writer Jung Bo Hoon proudly presents another masterpiece, the SBS teen sports drama Racket Boys. Set in the countryside of Haenan, Racket Boys casts Move to Heaven's breakout star Tang Joon Sang as a cheeky city boy who moves to a rural area and is forced to give up on baseball. He grudgingly joins his new school's doomed badminton team to fill an empty spot for their upcoming competition. Discovering their fiery passion for the sport, he and his teammates work hard to get a win in order to avoid disbandment. Much like the "Wise Life" series, Racket Boys is packed with all those beloved K-Drama elements that hit the soft spot – family love, neighborhood camaraderie (that comes ever strong in village households), friendship, sportsmanship – with a little bit of puppy love that makes us grin from ear to ear. Heartwarming and lighthearted, Racket Boys is the best drama to binge if you want to relax your mind.

Squid Game
The K-Drama that needs no introduction, Squid Game became a benchmark work of Korean entertainment with its worldwide success this year. Film director Hwang Dong Hyuk's first TV series lives up to the powerful aesthetics and themes of his award-winning cinematic features, and some extra. The tight and twisty thriller about poor and desperate people competing in an underground death game grips audiences with its intriguing mystery, shocking violence, stunning art direction and captivating children's games gone brutally wrong. A compelling ensemble of characters led by Lee Jung Jae demonstrates the chilling spectrum of human nature and primal instinct for survival. Players are pushed to their mental, physical and moral limits, and then casually disposed of in a cruel, allegorical game that serves as an indictment of the world we live in. It's not for naught that Squid Game is the must-watch drama of 2021.

The Uncanny Counter
Before Squid Game popularized teal green tracksuits, The Uncanny Counter rolled out bright red tracksuits as superhero uniforms. It's easy to forget that this paranormal thriller actually ended its run this year in January, setting a ratings record for OCN with its final episode. Based on the webtoon Amazing Rumor by Jang Yi, the series revolves around a ragtag group of ghost hunters who run a noodle joint on the side. Jo Byung Gyu, Yoo Jun Sang, Kim Se Jeong and Yeom Hye Ran play comatose individuals who were returned to life under the condition that they become "Counters." Granted special powers by partner spirits, they're tasked to capture malicious spirits that possess the living. Even with all the other high-profile fantasy K-Dramas that came out this year, The Uncanny Counter stands out with its quirky tone, strong visuals and lovable, bickering found family of unlikely heroes. Laced with horror, heart and humor, the series' battles of good vs. evil bring not only fast-paced action and suspense, but also gentle reflections on loss and mortality.

Youth of May
Sweet Home's Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si take on their first leading roles for a public broadcaster in KBS's Youth of May. The two play star-crossed lovers fighting against the world during the political turbulence in 1980. While its melodramatic tropes are presented in old-school fashion, Youth of May sets its story against a daring backdrop – the Gwangju Uprising – providing a vivid reenactment of the bloody, tragic and brutal historical event. At only 12 episodes, the period melodrama is fairly short but poignant with its memorable romantic scenes, as well as heart-aching scenarios that tear us up until the very last second of runtime.

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Published December 15, 2021

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