Some Underrated K-dramas—As Recommended by Fellow Drama Fans

Do you ever feel like every new batch of K-dramas repeats the same exact plot you've seen a billion times before? Are you uninspired by the neverending wave of legal and historical dramas in the foreseeable future? Have you worn through everyone's lists of "must-see" dramas and feel like there's nothing good left to watch?

Me too. That's why I reached out to some K-drama-watching buddies to find some underrated dramas that may have slipped under the international fan community's radar when they aired or started out popular but were quickly forgotten. I've included some recommendations of my own below, but I'm already feeling inspired by all of the shows these other drama fans suggested!

1. My picks

Recommendation: History of the Salaryman

This show was first recommended to me by Orion (whose drama recommendations you can read below) on a post I wrote about smart K-drama female leads. If you think My Love from Another Star's Cheon Song Yi was badass, just wait until you meet Baek Yeo Chi, History of a Salaryman's foul-mouthed, unapologetic leading lady.

I think a lot of viewers gave this one a pass because it's a sharp satire rather than a traditional romcom (and Lee Bum Soo's character can be a bit over the top at times), but it's 100% worth a watch if only to see Jung Ryeo Won slay in what might be my favorite female K-drama role of all time. Watch it. She will never disappoint you by becoming the sad, crying noble idiot you see in so many other shows.

Recommendation: Bad Guys

To date, Bad Guys remains the one and only Korean drama my husband watched in its entirety. It aired without much international fanfare because it didn't get legal streaming rights abroad for way too long, but this is one every action/thriller fan should drop everything and go back to watch.

If you liked Squad 38, you'll love Bad Guys. At 12 episodes, it's full of interesting characters, an intriguing plot, and gritty action without any fluff to slow the ride. Start watching for hottie Park Hae Jin if you must, but you'll finish watching for veterans Ma Dong Seok, Jo Dong Hyuk, and Kim Sang Joong and their hilarious, touching bromance.

Recommendation: Plus Nine Boys

"The first show that popped into my mind when I heard 'underrated' was Plus Nine Boys. I watched it when it first came out because I was a bit in love with Kim Young Kwang at the time, and the premise seemed cool. Years ending in 9 are unlucky because they are the closest to the perfect 10 number. So this family of four 9s boys are all experiencing it at once. Sounds interesting, right? It still took forever for me to get my best friend to watch it, but when she did, she agreed with everything I'm about to say. I absolutely loved Plus Nine Boys from the get go because it was both hilarious and painful. Even though all the situations were still typically dramatic, they were also relatable and therefore super hard to watch, because we've all been there. Maybe not with two super hot best friends being in love with us at the same time or having super hot model best friends, but we can relate with the trust issues, unrequited love, sucky jobs that suck our souls away, or embarrassing moments that we'll never live down ever.

I loved each of the boys, from the 39-year-old uncle who is the PD for dumb kids show to the 9-year-old child star who is no longer cute enough to get away with being bad at acting. (He was so good at being bad at acting). The painful aspects of the show were the best parts, because it kept my heart bleeding for those boys, so as I got to watch their progress and growth, it was that much more joyful. It was also as hilarious as 4 real boys are, being their dorky, normal selves. Even though each brother (and uncle) is 10 years apart, they still acted like a family so well. It hooked me and then put me through the emotional wringer. ALL THE FEELS! And I mean it: you feel all the emotions, laughing, wincing, more laughing, some teary stuff, the works. And it stays good the whole time, so all I could do was keep watching and loving my boys.

Recommendation: Last

Another show I'm ALWAYS trying to get people to watch (mostly unsuccessfully) is Last. It deserves all the loving in the world, because it was so good. Maybe I'm just a Lee Bum Soo fangirl, which I am, but this show was good either way. Lots of lead pipe violence, lots of plotting and bluffing, lots of crazy, and it’s all wonderful. Lee Bum Soo is so good at being complex. How can I love him and hate him at the same time?! 

It was not your typical organized crime show because those are about gangsters, not bums. Last is about a stock manipulator who has to become homeless to escape some gangsters he failed in his last job, and ends up getting tangled up in the organized crime ring of the homeless world. They even have rivalry wars with the loan shark organizations. It's full of mystery as we find out what is going on in layers. It's one part street fighting, and one part mind games as our dude tries to work his way to the top, to being the king of the homeless. There are so many layers to what is going on too. All the characters are so interconnected in mysterious ways that it all becomes so intriguing. Past, present, all of it coming to play. Plus, there is Mantis to just love, in all his stoic emotions. Last kept me on my toes and made me love everyone, from the dirtiest beggar to the crazy beggar king."

3. Orion, Orion's Ramblings

"There are many dramas I think deserved better, be it in terms of ratings, local love, critic approval or interest by international drama fans. Titles like Evasive Inquiry Agency, Awl, Solomon's Perjury, Assembly, and others are ones I would recommend, but I have seen different kinds of recognition for them.

Recommendation: The Village: Achiara's Secret

The one recent drama I kind of feel received no love whatsoever despite deserving it is The Village: Achiara's Secret. This little gem features a solid murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural, but its "small town secrets" approach and its different, captivating and strong characters are just a delight. The plot remains mostly sensible and the mystery unravels well, which is an achievement for a Korean drama already, but there is so much more to its value. At its core, it is a human drama about victimhood and people governed by their trauma. Also, for those who like their strong women in fiction, you should definitely check it out. Aside from it being a woman-centric story, it features one truly stunning performance by Shin Eun Kyung for a fascinating character. This is a very unique, very atmospheric work which has just sunk into oblivion and that makes me sad. Dramaland could use more of these."

4. Max's Opa G1지원, @maxqnz

"First off, a big thank you to my generous host for the surprise invitation to say a few words. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to plug a drama or two that may have slipped under the radar for some.

Recommendation: The Lover

'Some say a man ain't truly happy until a man truly dies.' Those words of Prince seemed to sum up the defining philosophy of writing romcoms in Korean dramas. Finding a romantic comedy which is both romantic and comic, and not built around the intrinsic hilarity of terminal illness is a real challenge. That's why I'm happy to seize this opportunity to put in a plug for The Lover. This cable drama is a true rarity, a Korean romcom that is both very romantic and very very funny, with a noticeable absence of death and despair. An ensemble comedy built around several pairs, this adult drama features a long-time unmarried couple, a noona-dongsaeng pair, two young male flatmates whose relationship becomes something more, and an engaged couple whose future may not be quite as certain as they think. Each of these pairings has its own potential for humour, and the drama does a good job of matching different styles of humour to the appropriate couple. This means that whatever your taste in humour, you are likely to find something to laugh at or with in this drama. The pairings are generally treated with respect and real heart as well, with sincere emotion adding depth to the humour. If you want a Korean romcom where the big C is Comedy, not Cancer, I urge you to try this one out.

Recommendation: Yeah, That's How It Is

When invited to write this I was told I could write a paragraph or two, so I'm taking that literally with a brief invitation to at least consider different genres. Personal taste is personal, and it would be odious to assert the dramas I like are better than ones I don't. But complaints about the lack of variety in K-dramas are common, so I'm going to touch briefly on two less popular genre. First, slice-of-life. The 2016 weekend drama Yeah, That's How It Is was a near-perfect example of this genre. A no-drama drama which simply chronicled the lives of an extended family. If you want a family-centric drama devoid of makjang, you could do worse than checking this one out. 

Recommendations: The Village: Achiara's Secret, Night Light, and Perfect Wife

The other 'genre' I want to plug is female-centric dramas. The Village: Achiara's Secret, Night Light, and Perfect Wife are all built around female leads. In all three, chief protagonists and antagonists are all female. Romance, if present, is secondary, with the stories driven by the actions and interactions of the female characters. Whether you end up liking or loathing these recommendations, I hope they help show there are different types of dramas out there, and that looking for variety can be rewarding. Good hunting!"

5. Kelsy

Recommendation: Unkind Women

"If you're tired of the kinda dumb, but persistent heroine falling for the meticulous and broody hero while the only smart woman in the drama uses her brains to sabotage their relationship, Unkind Women is for you. It follows the daily or not so daily drama of this family of four women. Each of the women is sometimes frustratingly, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes beautifully flawed. From the granddaughter who's a struggling part-time Korean literature professor, her mom who's a high school drop out still feeling the injustice of her expulsion, her successful maiden aunt facing pressure from younger women in her industry, to the grandmother who has to relive and process her husband abandoning her for another woman, you'll find a woman to laugh with, cry for, and cheer on. The whole drama is just refreshing. Watch through the second episode and you'll see what I mean."

(Vivi's note: Kelsy didn't mention it, but I'm pretty sure this drama wasn't hurt by the inclusion of Song Jae Rim!)

6. Eleanor, Samsoon Down the Rabbit Hole and Wang Kai International

"Sometimes it's hard to know which shows I've loved that others missed in the echo chamber of the internet. I've also not been watching much K-drama as of late (mostly because poor scripts and editing have been driving me absolutely insane), but here are some gems that I think people should check out. These are a few of the more 'mainstream' ones that many online friends enjoyed that I would recommend.

Recommendation: Angry Mom

This one also did well in Korea and totally kick started Ji Soo's career. It's definitely worth watching, has a kickass female lead, and has plenty of heart.

Recommendation: Cruel City (aka Heartless City

Jung Kyung Ho's work of a lifetime, I think. Beautiful cinematography, soundtrack, editing, and script were pretty excellent. It's probably my all-time favourite Korean drama. 

Recommendation: Heart to Heart

Surprisingly sweet, serious, and funny. It surprised me in many ways and had a sweet charm to it even while discussing some heavier topics. 

Recommendation: The Snow Queen

And then here are two that fewer people have watched, I think. One is The Snow Queen. It's an older drama, slow-paced but really beautiful. If you love sad but meaningful romances, beautiful soundtracks, and cinematography, then this one's for you. 

Recommendation: Time Between Dog and Wolf

And last but not least, Time Between Dog and Wolf. It's a pretty solid production, and while the ending is a bit of a mess, I wish that current K-drama would go back to some of the solid writing this drama showcased. It's not perfect, but it has style and substance. Also, Lee Joon Gi showcases some of his excellent martial arts talent, so what's not to love?!"

What Are Your Favorite Underrated Dramas?

I know my "to watch" list just grew a bunch! Which dramas did you love that no one else seemed to watch? Make your case for some more underrated shows in the comments!