Open laptop sitting next to a box of popcorn. The popularity of Korean dramas has skyrocketed since the release of Netflix Originals Squid Game in 2021. Illustration by Ayanna Villanueva.
As someone who has been questioned a thousand times for watching shows (specifically East Asian shows) that are out of my language range, the recent skyrocketing popularity of the Korean thriller series Squid Game in the United States astounded me. Is our society finally progressing and breaking the stigma laid upon international films? Are we finally moving on from the “Ugh I can’t even understand the language and I hate subtitles” phase?
Following the Oscar-winning hit Korean film Parasite, the Netflix series Squid Game is officially the new talk of the country after becoming the most watched Netflix series EVER. If you are in a Squid Game frenzy, I’ll gladly open the door for you to the Korean drama blackhole. These shows come from a variety of diverse genres but are also somewhat similar to Squid Game.
Sweet Home is a horror series about a group of people who live in the same old crusty building, attempting to survive an apocalyptic event in which monsters hope to eradicate all of humanity. Aside from the fact that the cast of characters is attractive, the storyline and production is also a 10/10. Every episode is breathtaking and will put you on the edge of your seat with all of its horror and gore elements.
Kingdom and Kingdom: Ashin of the North
This TV show and movie are also gory and monstrous, but this time it involves zombies. Set in the medieval-inspired Joseon dynasty, a mysterious plague breaks out after the rise of the dead king and it is now the duty of the Crown Prince to protect the kingdom from extinction. The series contains two seasons plus a prequel movie called Kingdom: Ashin of the North, which further explains the sudden appearance of the flesh-hungry zombies. Although the series starts off slow, I can assure you that it is better than your average zombie show or movie since the plot is more intriguing and also plays with historical elements.
My Name and Vagabond
Next on the list would be two action-packed series called My Name and Vagabond.
My Name centers on a girl avenging her father who was murdered by a police officer. By entrusting a gang leader who her father was working with, the protagonist goes through a 360 degree identity change by entering the police force in hopes of extracting information about the killer and her dad’s murder. On the other hand, Vagabond is another thought-provoking show about a man investigating and plotting vengeance against the people behind the suspicious plane crash that killed his nephew. These series are perfect for those who love crime-related shows mixed with lots of action.
Save Me, Penthouse and Sky Castle
These three shows are unrelated but very similar. Everyone who’s watched this trio could attest that these are the most blood-boiling, stressful, depressing, yet intriguing shows they’ve ever watched. Save Me tells a story about a family being trapped in a religious cult that holds plenty of deep secrets, while the daughter’s former classmates, with whom she has a complicated past, attempt to save her and her family.
Penthouse and Sky Castle are shows about rich people. Both shows tackle the endeavors of wealthy people trying to stay richer than each other. Penthouse contains three seasons that tell a tale about wealthy families living in a hundred-story palatial apartment complex and their children who study classical music in the most prestigious high school in South Korea. No, it’s not as simple as it sounds (I’d hoped it would be). The show is filled with vengeful characters, allegory, incredible plot twists and absurd secrets, hence why the show is labeled as a “makjang” drama—an exaggerated show with ridiculous and outrageous storylines. Sky Castle is also a makjang k-drama. Set in a luxurious residential area known as the “Sky Castle” the wives of wealthy doctors and professors fight to ensure that their children attend the best universities. But of course, since it’s a “makjang” drama, there are tons of secrets that are left to unravel.
Law School, Class of Lies, Remember, and Vincenzo
If you’re interested in law related shows but also mixed with a sprinkle of drama, I have the perfect shows for you. Law School, Class of Lies, Remember and Vincenzo are on top of the list in this genre. Every show focuses on the legal side of the plot but still includes mystery and thriller aspects. Law School is a legal drama that involves a law teacher from a prestigious school and his students who are caught up in a complicated case. While Class of Lies features a lawyer going undercover in Korea’s top high school to dig deeper into the case involving his client, who went comatose before their second trial. Next is Remember; it’s a drama about a man seeking justice for his Alzheimer’s-affected father who was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering someone. Last but not the least would be Vincenzo, a show about an Italian mafia consigliere coming back to South Korea to recover his gold, however his intentions change as he crosses paths with a new enemy.
Alice in the Borderline
Alice in the Borderline is a Japanese show that netizens, or internet users, have been comparing to Squid Game after the release of its trailer. There are definitely some similarities but the differences are more distinct. Despite having fewer episodes than Squid Game, Alice in the Borderland explores and dives deeper into the backgrounds of the characters and the pace of the story is faster than that of Squid Game. The casts have been filming and the release date of the second season will be announced soon, so I absolutely recommend watching the first season prior to the release of the second season to build anticipation.
Expanding your film palate is not just a fun thing to do but it will also broaden your knowledge about other people’s cultures—plus, you might actually like them! Reading subtitles on the other hand will also help exercise your brain and will test your engagement. If you’re still in doubt on whether you should watch these shows or not, I can assure you that my recommendations don’t disappoint. Most shows can be watched on Netflix and some of them on Rakuten Viki.