Several years ago, a friend introduced me to watching Korean television series (K-dramas) on Netflix. I was skeptical at first but I realized that K-dramas were the Korean language embodiment of all the tropes I love about romance novels. They cover nearly every subgenre of romance, and include well-known tropes like marriages of convenience, forced proximity, enemies to lovers, and more.
I took a break from watching them for a couple of years but I recently found a new one I like, and I thought it would be good to share some watch-alikes for romances for those interested in trying out the K-drama world. Don’t worry that you need to know Korean, as all the shows suggested are available with subtitles in English, and sometimes Spanish. Plus, you might pick up a little Korean while you watch!
Here are some suggestions of dramas to watch, based on romance subgenres.
There are almost too many titles to even narrow down here. Contemporary settings are the most common in K-dramas and there is a wealth of great options.
If you like a heart-wrenching story, with a touch of humor, try Coffee Prince. It is the story of a poor girl who disguises herself as a boy to get a job at an all male coffee shop. Her handsome boss (played by the always precious Gong Yoo) starts to develop an attraction to her, even thinking she is a man. This drama made me ugly cry as I watched. The love between Choi Han-kyul and Go Eun-chan took over my heart and soul. For those that love tropes, you’ll find some forced proximity, forbidden love, and gender bending. This is my all-time favorite drama.
If you want to go full-on tearjerker, try It’s Okay, That’s Love. It is the love story between a psychiatrist and a man with schizophrenia and it will tear your heart out.
If you like medical dramas, try Emergency Couple. It is the story of two exes who are now forced to work as hospital interns together. There is more than a little bad blood from their divorce, but the time spent working together, and some moments of jealousy over flirting with coworkers, brings them back together. Both leads are incredibly charming, even when they’re fighting with each other.
If you want more comedy than tears, Personal Taste is a great option. A young man pretends to be gay so he can land a place to stay with a woman. Her clumsy attempts to befriend him while he tries to maintain his facade are really fun. Plus it stars the very handsome Lee Min-ho.
Perhaps you want something with a surprise baby and plenty of melodrama. I’d suggest Fated to Love You. A young woman gets pregnant after a one night stand with a man who is destined to take over his family’s corporation. They have to make it work for the sake of the baby, and given their mismatched personalities, there are plenty of soap opera-like twists and turns.
More titles to try out:
Pride and Prejudice (legal drama)
The Good Doctor (medical drama that was remade for American TV)
I Need Romance (akin to Sex and the City)
Sly and Single Again (about reuniting exes)
The Producers (in the style of the American The Office)
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal
For those who want some light sci-fi, try My Love from Another Star. An alien comes to earth to and gets trapped for hundreds of years. Of course, he looks like the super cute Kim Soo-hyun, so when he meets an actress she falls head over heels for him.
There are tons of ghost stories in K-dramas. I’m currently watching Oh My Ghost, which is about a ghost who died a virgin and is now out to possess a living woman and get it on. Both the lead actresses are funny and compelling, and the love story is complicated and sweet. You might also like Master’s Sun about a woman who can see ghosts, and has more creep factor than Oh My Ghost. If you want ghosts in a historical setting, there’s Arang and the Magistrate,
In the Fantasy genre, there is the fairly new Goblin, starring Gong Yoo of Coffee Prince fame. He plays a centuries old goblin who cannot die until he meets his true bride and she pulls the metaphysical sword from his chest. There’s also Secret Garden, about a couple that switch bodies and have to learn to walk in each other’s shoes (literally) on the way to falling in love.
More titles to try out:
Scholar Who Walks the Night (historical vampires)
Most of the historical dramas I have seen are all set in the Joseon era, when Korea was a dynastic kingdom, from around 1392 to 1897. You won’t find any Korean Regency romances, obviously, but the costumes, monarchical politics, and sword-wielding warriors are worth the watch.
The Sun that Embraces the Moon was adapted from a historical novel about a king who falls in love with a female shaman. It was one of Korea’s most popular dramas and won several awards. It stars the same cutie from My Love From Another Star as the king who loves the same woman as his brother. It does have some fantasy elements as well, but if that isn’t for you, perhaps Sungkyunkwan Scandal would be better. It takes place at a prestigious Joseon era university that does not allow women to enroll, so a girl disguises herself as a man in order to attend.
If you enjoy a romance novel with a sexy soldier lead, or something with elements of a thriller, K-dramas have that covered as well.
City Hunter is based on the Japanese manga by the same name, and features Lee Min-ho looking so gorgeous it is unfair. His character is seeking revenge for the Rangoon bombing in 1983 and it has all the espionage, shoot outs, and hand-to-hand fighting you could want.
If you prefer military men, there’s Descendants of the Sun. It is about a Korean Special Forces captain who falls in love with the doctor treating his injury. They must overcome their opposing values, taking lives versus saving them, in order to find love.
Time Travel Romance
I included this as a separate category than Sci-fi and Fantasy because there seem to be a lot of time travel stories in K-dramas.
Both Faith and My Only Love Song involve modern people going back in time. Faith has a bit of an Outlander feel, as it is a female doctor who goes back in time 700 years to the Goryeo period and has to use her modern medical knowledge to help people. I liked that she was a plastic surgeon, so she had to refresh her own knowledge of basic healing techniques to work with the technology (or lack thereof) in the Goryeo period. My Only Love Song is about an actress and pop star who goes back in time to the 6th century Goguryeo kingdom.
More Titles to Try:
Scarlet Heart Ryeo
Queen In-hyun’s Man
This is probably the most prolific category after Contemporary. K-dramas often feature teenage protagonists and are set in high schools. These tend to be stories about rich and poor students meeting and falling in love, and the poor girls working multiple jobs to help their families.
One of the most notorious examples of this is Boys Over Flowers. It is a manga and a Japanese drama as well, but the Korean adaptation is like the drama gateway drug for many viewers. It has every over the top thing that dramas are known for: kidnapping, super rich guys, amnesia, near death experiences, girls keeping their eyes open during kisses, love triangles, bad soundtracks… and I could go on. It is a hot mess of a show, yet it’s somehow completely addictive. The costumes are silly and so are the storylines, but it draws you in somehow. It launched the career of Lee Min-ho, even if he did have truly ridiculous hair in the series
Along the same line, and somehow also starring Lee Min-ho as a teenager four years later is Heirs. A poor girl meets two super rich guys who both fall for her. Interestingly, it has some scenes shot in California.
For something more lighthearted, try You’re Beautiful. It is another gender bender, this time about a girl pretending to be her twin brother in order to fill his role in a K-pop boy band. It is funny and over the top, and all three of her bandmates are really charming guys.
More Titles to Try:
Goong (a historical YA about arranged marriage)
So, what else do you need to know before dipping a toe in the K-drama waters? There are quite a few, especially older ones, available on Netflix. For those that aren’t, you can try DramaFever, which is similar to Hulu in that you can watch free with ads or get a paid subscription that is ad free. Also, be prepared that all dramas are, as the name suggest, very dramatic. Expect some histrionics and physical comedy. Also, they are all typically chaste love stories. The sexual tension and anticipation are what it’s about and the kisses are few and far between. However, if you want something a touch more saucy, both Emergency Couple and Coffee Prince have (fade to black) sex scenes.
I’d love to hear about any K-dramas you’ve enjoyed, or answer your questions so comment away and happy watching!
Haley K is a librarian-of-all-trades, book reviewer, writer, perpetual student, as well as a pretty crafty chick. She lives in Texas with too many pets and too little sleep.
I have heard good things about a few of these shows. I recently became obsessed with the Turkish rom-com called Early Bird (Erkenci Kus). It’s very angsty and romantic and funny and is on Youtube. Highly recommend it but it’s become an obsession, so viewers are forewarned.
If you want human drama I suggest watching mother .
It’s about a girl who is abused at home by her mother and the a teacher who kidnaps her…
Fantastic list! I wanted to add “Because This Is My FIrst Life” because it is a relatively quiet romance. The male lead is healed from past hurt through falling in love with the heroine. What I love about this drama is that it isn’t plot-driven, but character-driven. It stars Lee Min Ki and Jung So Min, and there are great romance plots for the supporting characters as well.
I find myself SO distracted by the plastic surgery on the actresses. Especially in historical dramas – it’s like seeing someone with a pair of modern eyeglasses walking around the 1500s.
Isn’t South Korea the plastic surgery capital of the world right now? I notice is a lot, especially on anyone playing a mom or aunt. Some look just awful
Almost forgot another suggestion. It’s a Thai drama but it’s a remake of a classic K-drama. It’s called Thai Full House and it’s a marriage of convenience and contemporary romance. Starring Thai actors Mike and Aom. Personally, I think the Thai remake version is better than the original K-drama version. It aired 4 years ago and I still get an itch to hear them sing the drama’s theme song: https://youtu.be/uTgkzbIzuX8
For young adult you definitely have to watch Shut up! Flower Boy Band. OMG, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve watched it. Think the actor who played the drummer Do-il should be cast as lead guitarist Ryusuke from the manga BECK or Rei from the Mars manga. You know, if the K-drama gods ever get around to making a live drama adaptation of the mangas.
I’ve heard about that one but it isn’t one I’ve watched. I may have to add it to my list.
Coffee Prince is the best thing ever. Cannot recommend it enough!
I also really enjoyed Secret Garden – contemporary with a bit of urban fantasy – the hero and heroine switch bodies, which is both incredibly awkward and hilarious.
Secret Garden is so funny! It isn’t one of my all-time favorites but I do know it is for many.
Coffee Prince I wish I could erase from my brain and watch for the first time again so I could experience what it was like to watch it as a newbie.
This is a terrific list. I’ve heard so many good things about current Korean television, which seems to be turning out one good show after another. Now I just have to find time to fit one of these in.
I also wanted to add that I love when AAR does a blog review of great TV shows, especially ones with strong romantic themes. I’ve found some of my favorite shows through these threads over the years. Thank you, ladies :)
OMG – I LOVED Coffee Prince! I remember binge watching it over a weekend and literally neglected my entire family. It was so good.
I haven’t watched any other K-dramas, and I don’t even know why. This is a great list to get me started again. So much fun!
When I watched Coffee Prince I was staying up so late at night to get in just one more episode. I remember watching the episode where they lay on the beach while wrapped in my blanket like ET, crying like a maniac.