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Korean Shows Are Ruling TV Right Now, and Here’s What to Watch

You’ll be amazed at the comedies and dramas out there

Minha Kim kneeling down in a scene from Pachinko and contestants look high above in a scene from Squid Game

Noh Juhan/Apple TV+; Noh Juhan/Netflix

(Left to right) Minha Kim in “Pachinko” and a scene from "Squid Game."

You may have noticed that Korean pop culture has been having a huge moment internationally: Parasite picked up best picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, Grammy-nominated boy band BTS was the highest-selling musical act of 2021, and Broadway is set to welcome a musical called KPOP this fall. In fact, the popularity of Korean culture has been so hard to ignore that last year the Oxford English Dictionary added to its pages the word “hallyu” (or “Korean wave”), which the OED defines as “the increase in international interest in South Korea and its popular culture, esp. as represented by the global success of South Korean music, film, television, fashion and food.”

Following the success of Netflix’s Squid Game, this month the streaming service released Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area (a spin-off from the wildly popular Money Heist Spanish drama series), which takes place in an imaginary universe where North and South Korea have agreed to reunify. That’s just one in a long line of recent South Korean television hits that are storming streaming charts worldwide, thanks to their risk-taking storytelling, masterful blend of genres and glamorous lead performers.

If you’re ready to get swept up by the Korean wave, here are 10 more South Korean shows to stream.

Squid Game (2021–)

The premise: In this brutal survival drama, 456 cash-strapped players compete in a series of children’s games for the chance to win 45.6 billion South Korean won — or about $35 million. The only catch: If you lose, you die. The global sensation is Netflix’s most-watched show of all time, racking up 1.65 billion viewing hours over the first four weeks after its release and reaching number 1 in 94 countries. The series has also proved a critical darling, becoming the first non-English-language show to win acting prizes at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Squid Game is expected to clean up at the Emmys this year. 

Check it out if you like reality television, The Hunger Games and dystopian fiction that makes you feel terrible about the state of the world.

Watch it: Squid Game on Netflix

Crash Landing on You (2019–20)

The premise: While out on a paragliding trip, South Korean heiress and businesswoman Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) gets caught in a sudden tornado and blown across the DMZ. Once she crash-lands, she meets a North Korean army captain named Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), who decides to help hide her. Surprise, surprise: It isn’t long before the two start falling madly in love, despite the obvious political divisions that threaten to tear them apart. Just how strong is the chemistry between the two leads? They got married in real life this March! 

Check it out if you like star-crossed lovers à la Romeo and Juliet, and romantic comedies with zany premises. 

Watch it: Crash Landing on You on Netflix

Kingdom (2019–)

The premise: This genre-smashing series combines elements of period costume drama, political thriller and horror — so there’s something for everyone, as long as you can handle quite a bit of zombie-inflicted gore. Warning: It gets pretty graphic! Set in the 16th century during the Joseon dynasty, the show follows Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who must contend with a mysterious illness afflicting the king, potential plots to unseat him from the throne and a deadly (undeadly?) plague sweeping the countryside. In his round-up of the best international shows of 2020, New York Times critic Mike Hale wrote, “Along with the feature films Train to Busan and Peninsula, this spirited mix of fast-moving monsters and royal skulduggery puts South Korea at the forefront of the action-zombie genre.”

Check it out if you like Shakespearean history plays about royal succession, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

Watch it: Kingdom on Netflix

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)

The premise: In this fairy tale–like romantic comedy, Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun) is a selfless caregiver who works at a psychiatric hospital and looks after his older brother Moon Sang-tae (Oh Jung-se), who has autism. Ko Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji), meanwhile, is a popular children’s book author with antisocial personality disorder who begins to fall for Gang-tae after she finds out that their paths crossed in the past. Each of the trio comes with his or her own unique set of traumas, but can they help each other on the road to emotional healing? Adding to the whimsical tone are stop-motion animated segments that’ll remind you of Tim Burton.

Check it out if you like quirky romantic comedies that deal with darker subject matter, like Silver Linings Playbook and Benny & Joon.

Watch it: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay on Netflix

Sky Castle (2018–19)

The premise: If you couldn’t take your eyes off the college admissions scandal that swept through the Hollywood elite a few years back, you’ll love this satirical dark comedy set in the materialistic world of upper-crust suburban Seoul. In the titular exclusive residential community, the ruthless wives of doctors and lawyers will do anything to get their children into South Korea’s top universities, employing blackmail and manipulation, among other underhanded strategies. At the time of its release, Sky Castle was the highest-rated series in Korean cable television history. 

Check it out if you like Desperate HousewivesMelrose Place and Amy Chua’s 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Watch it: Sky Castle on Netflix

Vincenzo (2021–)

The premise: You might not expect an actor named Song Joong-ki to play a feared member of the Italian Mafia, but alas, that’s the magic of this extremely popular crime drama. At the age of 8, Park Joo-hyung (Song) was adopted by an Italian family. He later changed his name to Vincenzo Cassano and became a lawyer and consigliere for the mob boss Don Fabio. When his life is threatened upon Fabio’s death, Vincenzo flees to Seoul to recover a massive stash of gold hidden in the basement of an apartment building, soon finding himself at odds with the real estate conglomerate that owns the complex. 

Check it out if you like The Sopranos and dark legal dramas like Better Call Saul and Damages

Watch it: Vincenzo on Netflix

Hospital Playlist (2020–21)

The premise: It’s very easy to fall for this heartfelt and nostalgic medical drama, which follows a group of five doctors who have been friends since entering medical school in 1999. In order to blow off steam from their high-stress hospital work, the quintet plays together in a garage band (most of the actors learned their instruments from scratch for the part). The series is beloved for its fantastic soundtrack of covers of Korean music from the 1990s and 2000s, plus some unexpected outliers, like a rock version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” 

Check it out if you like Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs and putting-the-band-together films like That Thing You Do!

Watch it: Hospital Playlist on Netflix

Pachinko (2022–)

The premise: Minari Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung, 75, stars in this sprawling family epic based on Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel of the same name. The trilingual — Korean, Japanese, English — saga follows four generations across nearly a century, first in Japanese-occupied Korea, then in the Korean immigrant ghettos of Japan and finally in 1980s New York City. Kristen Baldwin wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “Apologies in advance if the review veers rhapsodical, but Pachinko ... is truly ‘it’s time to start tossing around words like “masterpiece” ’ TV.”

Check it out if you like shows that span different time frames, such as This Is Us, and immigrant stories like Minari and Brooklyn.

Watch it: Pachinko on Apple TV+

The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016–17)

The premise: Based on a Joseon-era legend, this fantasy romance follows two parallel love stories separated by centuries. In 1598, a prefect, Kim Dam-ryeong (Lee Min-ho), falls in love with a mermaid he names Se-hwa (Jun Ji-hyun), who saves him from drowning as a child, but tragic circumstances keep them apart. In the 21st century, will their modern-day incarnations, the con artist Heo Joon-jae and the mermaid Shim Cheong, experience the same fates, or can they break the cycle?

Check it out if you like The Little MermaidSplash and non-mermaid-related romances about lovers trying to overcome major obstacles between them.

Watch it: The Legend of the Blue Sea on Hulu

Reply 1988 (2015–16)

The premise: Take a walk down memory lane with this warm comedy that follows five friends and their families in the Seoul neighborhood of Ssangmun-dong in 1988. It’s the third installment in tvN’s Reply series, which also included Reply 1997, about a high school student obsessed with the boy band H.O.T., and Reply 1994, about six university students who live together at a boarding house. Much like Hospital Playlist, Reply 1988 has a soundtrack featuring remakes of classic Korean songs from the era. 

Check it out if you like nostalgia-tinged shows like The Wonder Years, The Goldbergs and Everybody Hates Chris.

Watch it: Reply 1988 on Netflix

Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.