2021 has brought some truly amazing Korean dramas. Stories like Squid Game and Hellbound which cemented the power and the strength of Korean content in international streaming platforms creating so much buzz with the streaming public.
Throughout the year, streaming platforms have become one of the major sources of entertainment during this whole pandemic; this social condition has allowed us to discover and binge on a wide variety of Korean content especially the dramas.
We at Hanadulses have curated from the long list of K-Dramas released in 2021 the best of the best (from what we have seen) based on the most interesting narratives, ability to stimulate powerful cathartic responses, great thematic elements, dramas that made us feel alive, and stories that touch on some of the most pressing social issues and human conflicts.
This list is narrowed down into the 10 best K-dramas of 2021. It’s quite a short list for all the amazing stories we have seen so far, we know, but this is a curated list where only the best stories made the cut. We actually felt sad to eliminate some dramas we have loved. But to produce the best K-dramas of 2021, limiting the list is just paramount.
Below is the list of the Best K-Dramas of 2021 (this list is by no means ranked).
Move to Heaven
From all the Korean dramas we have seen this year, there was never as deeply moving and emotionally charged as Move to Heaven.
The 10-episode drama shown in Netflix which starred Lee Je Hoon was masterfully done in tackling the many faces of death. It is a story of a man whose life was given direction by the adopted son of his dead brother as they continue his brother’s business of ‘dead cleaners’.
There was never an episode where we did not cry hard. Move to Heaven was such an interesting narrative on an issue that most of us would avoid because of its morbidity. But Move to Heaven was able to navigate such a sensitive issue and transform into something that is so moving and profound.
Another drama worthy to be part of the best k-dramas of 2021 is definitely Taxi Driver. This drama also starred Lee Je Hoon. But where his character in Move to Heaven is that of a reformed gangster, in Taxi Driver he becomes an antihero that helps the oppressed.
With his small team of people who also experienced similar instances of the problems the people they are helping with, hunts down criminals and those who circumnavigate the law to achieve their ends. This premise allowed Taxi Driver to showcase characters that represent people from different aspects of society being manipulated and exploited by the rich and the powerful.
The inclusion of different social issues in this drama gave Taxi Driver that power and social relevance. It allowed us to relate to the conditions of the victims and wished that we had something like the Rainbow taxi. Taxi Driver is intense and Lee Je Hoon is absolutely perfect for the role. He certainly exudes sexiness that we enjoyed so much.
Of all the Korean dramas we have watched this year, Mouse is definitely the most suspenseful and mentally intense because of its twists and revelations as well as the thrilling unfolding of the narrative.
Mouse is a thriller series starring Lee Seung-gi, Lee Hee-joon, Park Ju-hyun, and Kyung Soo-jin.
It narrates the story of the steadfast police officer Jeong Bareum and his confrontation with the serial killer who turned out to be himself. The poetic justice presented in this drama is so fitting that it left us so sad, sympathetic towards the main villain, and very satisfied.
The plot of this drama is something we have experienced in Korean dramas before.
Every episode created a sense of suspense and thrill that it wants you to want more. The major plot twist is truly gut wrenching. Mouse is definitely well-written.
How the key players were characterized well and how the circumstances that they were all in converge as the drama culminates is very satisfying. The performances of both Lee Seung-gi and Lee Hee-joon are truly stellar in this drama.
Song Joong-ki and his titular role in Vincenzo is another drama that made the cut as one of the best dramas of 2021. The cast of the drama carried the narrative so well, especially the portrayal of SJK as a mafia consigliere.
Vincenzo is a story of how a mafia consigliere crushed the villainy of the story’s antagonists using the system of the mafia. The show does not shy away from deaths and torture.
The finale episode alone was an all-out show of brute force and dark justice on Vincenzo’s part. It’s a narrative that tries to make sense and justify how one evil can end another evil using Vincenzo as the channel piece of this goal.
Song Jong-ki proved in this drama that apart from being romantic, he can be funny, violent, vengeful, kind, and charismatic all at once. His nomination into the previous Baeksang Awards was so well deserved.
Taecyeon was also a revelation in this drama. He was so good playing the villain.
Jeon Yeo-bin as the strong willed lawyer Hong Cha-Young also did a great job. Other cast performed amazingly too.
The execution of the narrative in unfolding the elements of the plot was done smoothly. The characters’ clashes that lead to the climax were tied logically.
How the characters made decisions based on these clashes made the story’s climb very exciting, making the climax reach its heights to the point of being fan service because of how gruesome and cruel the poetic justice was done to the villains. Vincenzo was truly a very solid drama and is definitely worth to be part of this list.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North
Although Ashin of the North is a prequel to the highly acclaimed Kingdom series, it certainly deserves to be part of the best K-dramas of 2021. Jun Ji-hyun was definitely stellar as Ashin.
The special episode was well crafted in providing the missing piece of the puzzle by showing Ashin’s background story. Driven by mad vengeance, Ashin’s character answered the questions left by the first two seasons and at the same time creating a portent of an exciting narrative extension and continuation to the story.
The build-up of the narrative was well written. How the 2 parts of Ashin’s life were shown in contrast driven by two different goals moved the story into the story’s dark climax. The technical elements of the drama complimented the narrative so well. Kingdom: Ashin of the North became the indispensable piece of the puzzle in the Kingdom series.
Hospital Playlist 2
Sequel to Hospital Playlist that unexpectedly ended with only 12 episodes in 2020 due to the pandemic, Hospital Playlist 2 was one of the most awaited Netflix Korean Drama Series for 2021.
The story centers around the life of 5 long-time best friends and outstanding doctors of Yulje Medical Center, who met as medical students in 1999 and remained closely bonded in their 40s as top doctors in their own fields.
Jo Jung Suk stars as Lee Ik Jun, the bubbly and friendly Assistant Professor of General Surgery specializing in liver transplants. Yoo Yeon Seok plays the kind and warm Ahn Jeong Won, an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Surgery. Kim Jun-wan, an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery who appears cold and rude but hides a soft hearted nature is played by Jung Kyung Ho. The sweetest member of the gang is Yang Seok-hyeong, played by Kim Dae-myung, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lastly, the legendary “ghost” doctor, over-performer, and the only muse of the group is Chae Song Hwa, played by Jeon Mi Do.
As another collaboration of Reply series’ Producer Shin Won Ho and writer Lee Woo Jung, Hospital Playlist series made us cry sad and happy tears as each episode navigates not only the extraordinary life of the doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other medical and non-medical staff in Yulje, but also the relatable stories of their patients.
The concept of doctors regularly meeting as a band and the songs they performed are also what makes this series extra special.
Racket Boys is another coming of age and sports drama with a gang of cast who captured our hearts. It tells the story of Yoon Hae Kang, played by Tan Jung Sang, a badminton prodigy, and the Racket Boys, the underdog badminton team of a rural middle school that is nearing disbandment.
With the help of Yoon Hae Kang’s father and their coach, Yoon Hyun Jong, a failed badminton player but with a hidden charm, Racket Boys fight their way to redeem Haenam Middle School’s reputation in badminton and protect their team from falling apart.
This show made us laugh, cry, and giggle as the young characters tackle friendship, family, dreams, competition, failure, success, and puppy love.
While Move to Heaven made us love Tan Jung Sang as he played the adorable Han Geuru, Racket Boys made us a complete fan as he ultimately rocked an opposite yet similarly charming character as Yoon Hae Kang.
Hometown Cha Cha Cha
Ofcourse, not missing this list is Hometown Cha Cha Cha, one of the most popular and highest rated dramas of 2021. Hometown Cha Cha Cha is a feel-good romantic comedy that revolves around Mr. Handy jack-of-all-trades Chief Hong (played by Kim Seon Ho), the pretty but proud dentist Yoon Haejin (played by Shin Min Ah), and the lovely community of Gongjin.
Kim Seon Ho and Shin Min Ah’s perfect chemistry drew us to this drama. But the amicable love triangle has surely left a strong second lead syndrome. This series probably has the healthiest love triangle in K-drama with the two leading men even showing us a hilarious bromance.
Demonstrating a wholesome love story and slices of life in an amazing seaside location with stunning scenery, Hometown Cha Cha Cha was our perfect Sunday healing drama amidst the pandemic.
Despite the title, Happiness is an apocalyptic thriller set in a near future and a period after the conclusion of the COVID 19 pandemic. Han Hyo Joo plays Yoon Sae Bom, a Special Operation Unit Police Squad member. Park Hyun-Sik plays her pretend husband, Jung Hi Hyun, an honest and excellent detective.
After agreeing for a contractual marriage to be able to obtain a purchase right and move in to Sae Bom’s dream high-rise apartment, their newly wed life made a quick transition to an action thriller show as the cop couple was suddenly forced to man their new apartment after an outbreak of yet another pandemic – this time, with the infected changing into a zombie like state. Apparently happiness doesn’t last long as the couple had to face various challenges while protecting their apartment and it’s residents both from the infected and uninfected residents.
This drama made us feel a roller coaster of emotions with each episode’s unpredictable twists and turns. Thankfully, there’s the budding romance of the long time friends and pretend couple to balance the thrill of the show.
The Red Sleeve Cuff
This truly was the most talk of the town Saguek drama of 2021. With the amazing chemistry of 2PM’s Lee Junho and Lee Se Young, the drama exuded such a romantic flare that is simple and very straightforward. Its narrative simplicity and straightforwardness, we believe, are what made the drama very popular.
The ratings that The Red Sleeve Cuff got every episode proved how popular it was and how the public has received the drama so well. Its finale alone achieved the highest rating the drama has ever had with an outstanding 17.5% in nationwide South Korea. It has also received a total of 8 awards in the recently concluded MBC Awards 2021.
The categories it has won are the following: Best Couple (Lee Junho and Lee Se Young), Best New Actor (Kang Hoon), Best Supporting Actress (Jang Hye-jin), Best Writer Award (Jung Hae-ri), Drama of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award for Lee Deok-hwa, Top Excellence Award- Actor in a miniseries (Lee Junho), Top Excellence Award- Actress in a mini series (Lee Se Young).
The characters are well characterized and the plot isn’t complicated. The lack of twists and turns of the drama became its advantage. It captured a moment in time in South Korea’s past really well that is suited for television.
We also appreciate how the female characters have agencies especially Lee Se-Young’s character; as an aspiring feminist, that was a win for us. Moreover, the sense of affection in the drama as exemplified by the main characters flows in a somewhat linear fashion that is not boring.
The thematic elements are not extraordinary honestly but it is how the narrative flowed that made the drama standout.
There you have it! The Best K-drama of 2021 for us. What dramas made the cut for you? Do we have the same list? Or are there dramas we have not included in the list that you feel should be included? Feel free to express your thoughts in the comment section…