Since I’ve had a lot of requests for drama recommendations following You’re Beautiful, I thought I’d put this up as its own post. I may be spotty with some of the other genres out there, but I’m ALL about the trendy drama! The following is a list of my recommendations (and some that are not recs but merely possibilities) for trendies that have a similar tone and vibe to You’re Beautiful.
I’m sure many of you have seen many (maybe even all) of the dramas on this list. But some others who haven’t racked up as many drama-watching hours may want a guide to help them navigate the many, many offerings out there.
First, we’ll start with the other the Hong Sisters dramas…
DELIGHTFUL GIRL CHUN-HYANG (2005)
What it’s about: Modernized reworking of classic Korean folktale of a Romeo and Juliet-esque couple from Joseon times. Jae Hee and Han Chae-young are forced together at a young age, then fall in love as they mature.
Why you might like it: Jae Hee, Jae Hee, Jae Hee. Brilliant comic timing and heartfelt emotion. The situations are laugh-inducing and it’s a lot of fun; the couple bickers their way throughout but you can feel the love between them. Trademark Hong Sisters jokes — every episode ends with a sageuk parody that plays off the traditional folktale with a modern sense of humor.
Why you might not: This is my favorite Hong Sisters drama, but remember that it’s their first. If you’re watching it after seeing their others, keep in mind that what was fresh and new in 2005 may now seem common. Also, some people hate the second leads, particularly the male (even if it is a yummy Uhm Tae-woong!). Maybe it helps to remember that he’s based on the evil, possessive magistrate from the folktale.
MY GIRL (2005)
What it’s about: A girl who’s gifted at telling lies is hired to impersonate a long-lost granddaughter of an old, ailing rich man. Her warm, bubbly personality clashes with the old man’s cold, businesslike grandson, so naturally they fall in love.
Why you might like it: Super chemistry between Lee Da-hae and Lee Dong-wook. (Also: Lee Junki.) Lots of comedy, cute romantic moments, quotable lines.
Why you might not: I loved Lee Da-hae’s bubbliness, but some found her too much. The last few episodes get a little too angsty, and the big conflict is a little contrived. Still, it’s one of the better/best offerings in the trendy drama genre. If you liked You’re Beautiful, this is the first drama I’d recommend.
FANTASY COUPLE (2006)
What it’s about: Reworking of American film Overboard. A privileged, snobby heiress loses her memory, and the blue-collar worker she mistreated decides to get his revenge by pretending she’s his girlfriend. He brings her home and puts her to work.
Why you might like it: It’s less angsty than the other Hong Sisters dramas. Han Ye-seul completely reinvented her image with a great rich-bitch characterization; she doesn’t hold back and really goes for it. Quirky side characters like loopy Kang-ja add a fun touch. A subplot actively mocks Autumn Love Story.
Why you might not: The Anna & Chul-soo relationship is funny and cute, but not overtly romantic (perhaps this is a plus for some). I consider the directing to be the weak link, and while it isn’t outright bad, it veers into the slapstick. The writing is better than the iffy directing.
HONG GIL DONG (2008)
What it’s about: Fusion sageuk reimagining of Joseon hero Hong Gil Dong, a Robin Hood-like crusader for the poor. “Fusion” means that while the setting is in the 1600s, it has a modern sensibility and sense of humor.
Why you might like it: Kang Ji-hwan is awesome. He starts out a lazy, swaggering, troublemaking rascal, but that’s because Hong Gil Dong is an illegitimate son and therefore was unable to fulfill his dreams. His pairing with a cheery Sung Yuri is great, and she changed a lot of people’s minds about her acting, formerly deemed subpar. Jang Geun-seok plays a cool-headed prince. There’s comedy and wackiness, but also political machinations and a royal coup plot that adds complexity.
Why you might not: I liked the ending and wrote my big explanation in the finale recap, but many did not agree. Because this has more weighty plot matters, the humor scales back and the conspiracy takes over in the last third. I think it gets downright slow toward the end, before it picks up in the run-up to the finale. The humor is a little slapstick for my taste.
And then the rest, in no particular order:
FULL HOUSE (2004)
What it’s about: A girl’s debt-ridden friends sell her house for the money. She comes home from vacation to find that a surly movie star has moved in. Homeless and alone, she works as his maid to earn her keep.
Why you might like it: Rain and Song Hye-gyo are cute as a bickering couple, and this was one of the early “contract romance” dramas. It was huge in the ratings and is probably one of the most-watched early Hallyu dramas.
Why you might not: Don’t think too hard, or the logic might collapse (even the premise doesn’t quite hold up — your friends sell your house and you don’t fight back?). This is one of those “shut your brain off and enjoy” dramas; particularly toward the end, the plot stops making total sense in its efforts to keep the couple apart. The romance is cute but not necessarily romantic. Still, it’s an easy, mostly fun watch.
MY NAME IS KIM SAM-SOON (2005)
What it’s about: Like Bridget Jones, the lead is a 30-year-old who isn’t the typical pretty skinny girl that most guys go for. She’s loud, hot-tempered, and likes to eat. Her boss is a cold, unfeeling type with whom she agrees to a contract romance in order to get his mother off his back about marriage.
Why you might like it: It sounds typical, but the execution makes this great; it was a huge phenomenon and broke 50% ratings. At times funny, at times heartwarming, the writing is solid and Kim Sun-ah and Hyun Bin work great together. You should really see this drama if you’re a fan of rom-coms.
Why you might not: Maybe the hype has turned you off? I do think it gets built up too much, but it’s a very solid drama.
GOONG (PRINCESS HOURS) (2006)
What it’s about: Modern Cinderella story with a twist, in that Korea is imagined as a monarchy; a handsome prince is the source of every young girl’s fantasy. A normal girl is forced to marry the prince because of a decades-old pact between their grandfathers. She is brought into the palace, where she starts out clumsy and out of place as she is trained to be a princess. The awkward couple gradually falls in love.
Why you might like it: Beautiful visuals, gorgeous soundtrack, amazing costumes. Yoon Eun-hye shot to stardom, as did Joo Ji-hoon, and this drama was a huge phenomenon with its young fanbase. The intriguing twist (an imagined Korean monarchy) adds interest to the opposites-attract romance. A gentle, caring second male lead makes for a good love triangle as Yoon Eun-hye is caught between the nice prince and the cold one.
Why you might not: The extension surely hurt the pacing of the later episodes, and this drama got downright sloooow. The political conspiracy was drawn out and sucked fun out of the latter half. The ending (which is a puzzler) feels sloppy. But the other elements are strong enough that it’s well worth a look.
WHAT’S UP FOX? (2006)
What it’s about: A 33-year-old woman has a one-night stand with a guy 9 years her junior — her best friend’s brother. At first they agree to ignore it, but they start to fall for each other and she fights the attraction because the age gap is such an obstacle, particularly when she’s being courted by a handsome, charming doctor her own age.
Why you might like it: This comes from the writer of My Name is Kim Sam-soon, and like that drama, the writing is solid and the acting very strong by leads Go Hyun-jung and the adorable Chun Jung-myung.
Why you might not: It has a mellower, low-key vibe with a realistic air, and it isn’t as outrageous or outright comical as some other rom-coms. The chemistry is great, but some people have a problem with the age gap. (I think they make it work.)
What it’s about: A light, humor-filled drama about the modern dating world, told through the relationships of six main characters. Each person has a different dating philosophy, demonstrated by how they view the concept of soulmates. (Is fate something that comes to you, or are you in charge of making your own?)
Why you might like it: Super, super editing and plotting. The storytelling plays with nonlinear structure, and in earlier episodes, one half of the episode tells something from the main girl’s perspective, while the other half takes the guy’s perspective, and we see how the two halves fit together by episode’s end. Clever writing, great dialogue. Lots of fun. It’s short and sweet at 12 episodes, and was completely written in advance of its broadcast.
Why you might not: I love this drama to pieces, but it may be a little slick and fast for some others. It’s a little risque and definitely not as chaste as most kdramas, but I think that’s a welcome thing.
BAD FAMILY (2006)
What it’s about: When a family is killed in a car crash, the only survivor is a little girl who suffers amnesia. Her uncle hires a “fake family” to act as her family to help her recover until he can get to the bottom of the car accident.
Why you might like it: Hilarious! The fake grandpa flirts with his fake daughter-in-law. The fake uncle starts to like his fake niece. They all have to juggle their regular lives outside their family performance. Comedy abounds and Kim Myung-min, in a rare comic performance, is fantastic as an uneducated ex-gangster; Nam Sang-mi is in one of her more adorable roles. Heechul plays a runaway hired to be the fake brother. This drama isn’t as romance-heavy (although there is romance), and is more about the wonderful shenanigans of the fake family as they go from fighting all the time to forming actual bonds.
Why you might not: I remember hating the first episode, which was boring. But after that, I fell in love!
DAL JA’S SPRING (2007)
What it’s about: Perhaps inspired by the j-dorama “office lady” genre, this series features the romantic foibles of a 33-year-old professional woman who’s unpracticed in dating; Lee Min-ki becomes Chae Rim’s romance coach.
Why you might like it: Funny, sweet, adorable. Chemistry is great, Dal Ja is lovable, and Lee Min-ki is perfect. Lots of pop-culture parodies and funny situations. Best of all, it explores friendships and working relationships in addition to the romance.
Why you might not: It was extended by two episodes, and while I almost don’t even notice, it does slow a teeny bit. Chae Rim’s makeup and hair takes a little getting used to. But definitely worth a watch.
COFFEE PRINCE (2007)
What it’s about: (As if I have to even tell you!) A tomboyish girl who is regularly mistaken for a boy takes a job at a cafe whose concept is to hire only good-looking guys. She falls for her boss, who falls for her too — while thinking she’s a boy.
Why you might like it: Gong Yoo’s portrayal of conflict is complex and nuanced. Jeremy in You’re Beautiful took a comic bent, but Gong Yoo’s exploration of his feelings is wrought with emotion. Yoon Eun-hye dove into this character and made it her own. The other “princes” are great to watch, and the director injects a breezy, refreshing air to the atmosphere. Fantabulous music selection.
Why you might not: The extension hurt the ending, and the tension drops off toward the end. Otherwise, this is one of the shining highlights of the trendy kdrama.
THE STORY OF HYANG DAN (2007)
What it’s about: What Shrek did for the Western canon of fairy tales, Story of Hyang Dan does for traditional Korean folktales. A modern comic spin takes us through multiple folk stories while centering the plot around the one about Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong (which is the basis for Delightful Girl Chun-hyang). However, this drama twists the tale to speculate what would happen if Chun-hyang were a selfish brat and Mong-ryong fell for her servant girl instead.
Why you might like it: You like irreverent, humorous reworkings of classics, and/or light-hearted fusion sageuks. Choi Shi-won (Super Junior) and Seo Ji-hye have cute chemistry, and this is low-commitment at a mere two episodes. Modern parodies (Love Actually, Prison Break) are included among the folktale allusions (Iljimae, Shim Chung).
Why you might not: This is not a serious drama at all. It’s purely a short, entertaining goof. But cute and sweet all the same.
WHO ARE YOU? (2007)
What it’s about: A dad dies in an accident and is granted 49 days by a sympathetic Grim Reaper to come back using the body of a young man in a coma. He gets three hours a day to do for his daughter what he wasn’t able to do while he was alive. The body he “borrows” belongs to a cold businessman, and the three-hour body-jacking episodes turn the unsuspecting businessman’s life upside-down.
Why you might like it: Yoon Kye-sang is awesome. He does the body-switching surprisingly well, and his relationship to his ghost inhabitant develops with unexpected warmth.
Why you might not: The romance is funny and sweet, but mostly because of Yoon Kye-sang — Go Ara is rather flat. The drama gets off to a silly start, but get past the first few episodes and you may discover a gem.
LAST SCANDAL OF MY LIFE (2008)
What it’s about: Cinderella with a twist. An ordinary ajumma with a cheating husband and a kid runs into her first love, who is now a movie star (and faking his age as much younger). The movie star is horrified at how she’s let herself go over the years, but as they spend more time together when she is hired as his housekeeper, he sees past that and starts to fall for her again.
Why you might like it: Funny, fast-paced, and sweet! Rom-coms are often stronger in plot than in acting, but the benefit of having veteran actors is that they can ACT! Jung Jun-ho is fantastic as the pampered movie star, and Choi Jin-shil is winning as the ajumma.
Why you might not: If you’re still saddened over Choi’s death, you may not feel comfortable watching her last work. I personally think it’s a great way to remember her. If you don’t like the idea of watching an ajumma in love, well, you’re missing out!
BOYS BEFORE FLOWERS (2009)
What it’s about: Korean version of Japanese manga/anime/drama Hana Yori Dango. Poor girl gets a free ride to an exclusive, uber-rich high school ruled by the bored, privileged “F4” clique. She offends the leader, who makes it his mission to terrorize her and eject her from the school. Surprisingly, she stands up to him and fights back, and he falls for her.
Why you might like it: The premise is great. Lee Min-ho burst on to the scene with a star-making performance as the mean F4 leader, and the whole country fell in love with his character. He made the drama worth watching for me.
Why you might not: Out of all the dramas on this list, this is the one that I most hesitate to recommend (and it comes with a lot of caveats). Poor writing wasted the great source material. Often, it was riddled with poor acting. Poor directing. Middling musical selections were overused and badly applied. The production was so fraught with accidents that the live-shoot system exhausted everyone involved, and the time contraint really shows. Crazy, illogical plotting and a second half that drags make this a frustrating watch — but an addicting one. On the other hand, I don’t regret watching it, and the fandom craze was hella fun.
Other possibilities that I won’t/can’t vouch for, but that others surely will:
My Love Patzzi (2002): Jang Nara has two awesome guys chasing after her and the interactions are cute, but I don’t think you can take this drama seriously; it’s a real lightweight. It’s an update of the Korean Cinderella (Kongji & Patzzi), where the person everything thinks is the good girl is actually fake, and the rude, troublemaking girl is actually the one you root for. At 10 episodes, it’s a fast series.
Attic Cat (2003): One of the first dramas to have a couple cohabitate (or, as I call it, using the forced proximity device). If Jung Da-bin’s death interferes with your enjoyment of her roles, you may not want to watch. Like with many stories when the couple lives together, there are contrivances to get one of them to leave, then return, then leave again, which you may find tiresome.
Capital Scandal (2007): A little slapstick with the humor, this drama places leads Kang Ji-hwan and Han Ji-min in 1920s Korea at the time of Japanese imperialism.
Bottom of the Ninth with Two Outs (2007): The baseball motif works with the story of a 30-year-old single woman and her romance with her best friend. Low-key and naturalistic with strong dialogue, it may be refreshing for some or too slow for others.
City Hall (2009): Don’t listen to me, listen to the fervent praise of all the die-hard City Hallers! Strong, mature chemistry between Kim Sun-ah and Cha Seung-won make this one enjoyable if you’re hankering to see something more than the typical chaste trendy-drama kisses and hand-holding.
Brilliant Legacy (Shining Inheritance) (2009): Romance with plenty of dramatic, makjang elements. One of the year’s highest-rated dramas and a hitmaker, catapulting careers for Han Hyo-joo, Bae Soo-bin, Moon Chae-won and Lee Seung-gi.