As an Asian drama fan, I can no longer count how many dramas I’ve watched since I was in my pre-teens. Admittedly, I prefer Japanese dramas the most because of their ingenuity. But Korean dramas come as a close second because they are more accessible and they’re inescapable given their popularity. K-dramas are also beautiful cinematographically.
I’ve written a few plot prediction stories and reviews on recent K-drama favourites, and I may have already developed my own criteria for what makes something satisfying to watch.
I’m not really into checking South Korean local TV ratings. However, since they seem to predict what will capture the interest of fellow drama fans, looking into it serves as a good starting point for knowing what to watch. They did convince me to watch the titles we’ll be discussing today. But do these highest rated K-dramas (as of writing) deserve their rankings? Here’s my honest take.
Goblin/Guardian: The Great And Lonely God (2017) - 18.680%
Guardian: The Great And Lonely God (also known as Goblin) is one of those K-dramas that is so popular, even non-K-drama fans might be familiar with it. It stars Gong Yoo (Train To Busan), Kim Go-Eun (The King: Eternal Monarch), Lee Dong Wook (Tale Of The Nine-Tailed), and Yoo In-Na (Touch Your Heart). The story revolves around a warrior from the Goryeo Dynasty who was framed as a traitor and was ordered to be executed by the emperor. But because he was so well-loved, the cries of the people led the deities to give him immortality as both a reward and a punishment. His only way to finally find peace is to find his Bride.
Honest thoughts about this drama: I think Goblin is a good gateway K-drama. It has romance, fantasy, two good-looking male leads who have a compelling bromance, and a multidimensional female lead. I’m not sure if there’s anyone into K-drama who hasn’t seen this yet, but I won’t spoil the details if you’re here completely clueless about the rest of the plot.
If we look at the bigger picture, it is a well-written drama that is executed beautifully both through the acting and the cinematography. It has a lot of twists that I actually found predictable, but they are nonetheless interesting and even heart-wrenching. However, you may want to rewatch this for the second couple rather than the main one because they have a more compelling storyline.
Warning, though: If you’re iffy about the whole ‘immortal falling in love with a high schooler’ plot, you may want to skip this. The reason why she has to be at that age when she meets the Goblin also isn’t random because it’s significant to her story arc. Still, doesn’t erase the fact that it’s cringy.
Reply 1988 (2016) - 18.803%
Reply 1988 is the third and last season of the Reply anthology series (with 1997 and 1994 being the first two). It revolves around five friends and their families who live in a quaint neighbourhood in Ssangmun-dong, Dobong District, Northern Seoul in, as the title suggests, 1988. The five main characters Sung Duk-seon (Lee Hye-ri), Choi Taek (Park Bo-Gum), Sun-Woo (Go Kyung-Pyo), Kim Jung-Hwan (Ryu Jun-Yeol), and Ryu Dong-Ryong (Lee Dong-Wi) celebrate the peak of their teenage years in the story and navigate through the ups and downs of leaving behind childhood and becoming adults.
Honest thoughts about this drama: Reply 1988 is definitely my favourite amongst those on this list. Despite having a romance subplot, it is ultimately about friendship and familial relationship that extends beyond blood relations. It covers the perspective of both a parent and a child, especially when it comes to conflicts, without painting one or the other as a villain. It also highlights some pettiness and lighthearted moments in one’s youth without making them seem tacky or unnatural.
Despite stretching for 20 episodes (unlike the usual 16 for most K-dramas), there’s not a single moment in Reply 1988 that feels draggy or overcompensating. It has a certain warmth and nostalgia that makes it enjoyable even for older viewers who spent their youth during the 80s. However, what made it effective is the timeless themes and values it showcased.
There’s nothing bad I can say about Reply 1988. If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re totally missing out.
Crash Landing On You (2020) - 21.683%
Crash Landing On You (CLOY) is inarguably the drama that ended 2019 and started 2020 on a K-drama high. From Yoon Se-Ri’s (Son Ye-Jin) best fashion moments to predictions about how it’ll end, people simply loved talking about it.
It starts with South Korean chaebol (conglomerate) heiress Yoon Se-ri entering the North Korean side of the Demilitarised Zone after a storm swept her up during a paragliding accident. Her paths cross with Korean People’s Army captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok (Hyun Bin) who attempts to help her cross back to South Korea. However, they face many challenges due to the complex nature of their situation. They inevitably fall in love.
Honest thoughts about this drama: Needless to say, Crash Landing On You took many liberties when it comes to dealing with its depiction of North Korean and South Korean relations. However, despite its fictionalisation (and to some extent, romanticisation) of the situation, it inspired curiosity and made people look into the actual relationship of the two sides of the Korean peninsula.
Facts aside, the plot is actually pretty decent. The leads are star-crossed lovers who are interesting enough to root for; there are cool action scenes especially during military encounters, and we get lovable side characters that are memorable in their own way. Is it mind-blowingly fascinating? I don’t think so. But it does warrant a re-watch and I think it deserves its spot in the highest-rating K-dramas list.
Sky Castle (2019) - 23.779%
Fun fact: Sky Castle’s pilot episode peaked at only 1 per cent national viewership during its air date in 2018. It wasn’t until its 10th episode that it started picking up double-digits ranking-wise. By its 18th episode, it hit the 20 per cent mark, and it wrapped up at the number above when it aired its finale.
The story is set in a luxurious residential area named after the title of the series. In it lives the K-drama’s main families — the Kangs, the Hwangs, the Chas, and the Woos — who are all very competitive about the futures of their children. Things get cutthroat as they try everything to ensure their children get into the best universities, leading to the unravelling of scary secrets.
Honest thoughts about this drama: If you’re okay with a lot of suspension of belief, you’ll highly enjoy this series. There are real-life families who are as overzealous as the characters in this K-drama, but some of the events in Sky Castle won’t translate well in real life. This leaves little room for relatability. The gripping plot twists are definitely fun to watch, though. However, there are also some dragging subplots that somehow get lost in the bigger arc of things.
Is it worth watching? Depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re into a lot of drama that will make you confused, angry, and extra emotionally invested, then go ahead. But if it’s a feel-good story you’re looking for, I’d say turn to the other titles on this list.
The World Of The Married (2020) - 28.371%
The cheating husband, the scorned wife, the fiery other woman — The World Of The Married (TWOTM) is formulaic, to say the least. But hey, it worked. However, looking back at it a year later after watching it again, I’ve come to realise a couple of things about TWOTM.
Honest thoughts about this drama: I still stand by my detailed review of its ending. However, dissecting some of its earlier episodes again made me frustrated about why it ranked so highly. Even when I first watched it, I was already able to catch who the other woman was prior to the reveal at the end of the pilot. Its first half, despite being exciting and intriguing, was all sorts of predictable. By the second half, it transformed into something more dramatic and banked on its supporting characters to provide the ‘oomph’ the first half delivered.
I get why it got people glued to the screen, though. It has the appeal of any scandalous plot. Kim Hee-Ae’s Ji Sun-Woo, Park Hae-Joon’s Lee Tae-Oh, and Han So-Hee’s Yeo Da-Kyung are all stellar to witness onscreen, too. That, for me, is enough to make one want to watch the drama.
After revisiting my viewing experience of these dramas, I conclude that although numbers are a good reference for checking whether a K-drama is good or bad, what makes a drama compelling is based on your preference. Just because something ranks high doesn’t mean it’s something you’ll like; the same goes for lower-ranking dramas. So the next time someone judges you for not liking a certain popular drama, don’t feel bad about it.