javabeans: It seemed only natural to follow up our list of favorite couples with our list of favorite bromances, which are sometimes just as compelling as the love stories—er, I mean romantic love stories, since bromances are love stories of another kind.
girlfriday: The best kind! Bromantic love is one of my favorite types of love in dramaland, especially when they’re of the epic and gut-wrenching variety.
javabeans: Although, we can’t leave out the sparkling, comedic kind, either, since a bromance that makes me smile is worth a lot!
girlfriday: This is true. Never underestimate cute bromance.
javabeans: This list was initially our list of favorite dramaland friendships, which included relationships of both genders, but we realized that what makes an awesome bromance is distinct from what makes awesome girlfriends, and we thought it was worth splitting the lists to highlight them in their own element.
girlfriday: Or… maybe we just had a hard time picking ten and wanted to write about twenty.
javabeans: Is our plan to write ten Top 10’s going to turn into twenty by the end of the month?
girlfriday: In our defense, we never said we were good at math.
1. School 2013 (2012-13)
girlfriday: If there was ever a bromance to rival a romantic love story, it’s the one in School 2013, between Lee Jong-seok and Kim Woo-bin. Unencumbered by romantic lovelines (pfft, who needs those?), their story was all about the reconciliation between two best friends whose relationship had gone epically sideways. From its angry, hostile beginnings, these two apparent enemies turned high school into a war zone, where every run-in threatened to burst into a violent clash, and we were left wondering what frightening past they shared. Only to have it turn out that they were once two inseparable friends who had no one else in the world but each other.
The reveal of their happy past was what made their present so painful, when we realized that they were lashing out because they just missed each other. Their bromance had every bit of the emotional pull of any traditional love story, with all the baggage and heartache of separated love, regret, and longing. Their emotion was so raw and evident, but hampered by their inability to express their feelings properly to each other, which was a great source of realistic angst for two teenage boys. But sometimes, the only words you need are “dumb bastard,” because if you say it enough times with a look that means “my bestest friend in the whole wide world,” no bromance can stay broken forever.
2. Shut Up: Flower Boy Band (2012)
javabeans: Shut Up: Flower Boy Band remains one of my all-time favorite dramas, and a huge factor in its emotional pull is the the six-way friendship that forms the backbone of the show. Despite a title that sounds like fluff, the substance of the show was a lot more thoughtful and poignant than the term “flower boys” might suggest, built on a crew of sympathy-stirring underdogs, each with his own struggles to bear. These weren’t just troublemaking high schoolers who strutted around thinking themselves too cool for school—the drama showed each one as an abandoned boy, cast aside by society and finding new family with each other. Music was the common thread holding them together, and the show excelled at weaving in their musical journey alongside their stories of personal growth, both as the source of joy and then as a cause of conflict. The show took care to portray multifaceted dynamics within the groups and among different configurations of the friends, giving their struggles and relationships a realistic, gritty quality that made it all the more triumphant when angsts resolved and brotherly love prevailed. Rock on.
3. Answer Me 1988 (2015-16)
girlfriday: The entire Answer Me franchise is full of wonderful true-to-life friendships, but the childhood friends in Answer Me 1988 were pretty unbeatable in the bromance department. They were just a group of friends who grew up on one street, but as they became teenagers, their dynamic began to change, all because one of them was a girl. Unfamiliar romantic feelings and crossed wires made for some heady adolescent angst, topped off by the fact that we knew, of course, that she’d marry one of them in her future. But rather than become rivals in the traditional dramaland way, our two romantic contenders were endlessly loving and caring and devoted to one other, proving that two friends really can put their friendship first, and that a girl doesn’t have to come between them.
What really defined this group of friends was the blurring of family and friendship, and the feeling that they’d practically grown up in different rooms of one house, and all been parented by everyone else’s mom and dad as much as their own. That sense of community came through in every single one of their relationships, even the ones that seemed light on the surface. When two of them actually ended up real brothers, I cried happy snotty tears thinking of the family they would become. Because the only thing I cared about in anyone’s future was that these kids would remain friends.
4. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
HeadsNo2: So this bromance technically has a girl in it, but it counts if she was considered one of the boys—and better yet, became a leader among men on the basis of her intelligence. This foursome was a true meeting of minds—and for good reason, when all four were enrolled in the prestigious Sungkyunkwan University, where they would become future leaders and thinkers who shaped their country. The crossdressing-heroine premise allowed our heroine to get her foot into the hallowed halls of Sungkyunkwan, where she became the glue that held our group of disparate personalities together. There was this sense that when all four of them were together, they could actually bring about real, lasting change to the world they lived in. They had youth on their side and their bond as friends, and even the king trusted them to be his eyes and ears.
What made this foursome sparkle was that each of the relationships was distinct and rich, whether it was the broody one catching on to the heroine’s secret and becoming her silent protector, or the prickly leader who was drawn to her for her brains, or the flamboyant fashionista keeping moods light and tempers from flaring. Each of them was idealistic in their own ways, all dreaming of a new Joseon based on equality and fairness. If only they had achieved it, but at least they tried.
5. The King 2 Hearts (2012)
girlfriday: There are a lot of good king-bodyguard bromances in dramas—the life-and-death stakes, the themes of duty and honor and loyalty all but guarantee heartbreaking man-love—but this one between a childish, reluctant king and his stalwart soldier is one that made me laugh as much as it made me cry, and it’s one for the ages. Part of its charm is in the humor of the mismatched bromance: Our hero was decidedly unheroic, as a spoiled and lazy prince who only ever worked hard at inventing creative excuses to get out of doing things. The badass bodyguard was assigned the seemingly menial task of babysitting princey, only to end up becoming the person who shaped him into a true leader. Earnest Bot was so hilariously humorless and sincere in contrast to the sarcastic king, which made for some of the funniest mishaps in basic communication, made even more ridiculous by the king’s petty jealousy. These two rarely understood what the other was saying, and yet somehow they came to be friends and brothers in arms who laid down their lives for each other and their country. This king was truly only as good as his best soldier, who remained so steadfast in his loyalty that the king stepped into his big boy shoes just to prove that faith warranted. This bromance left a permanent hole in my heart, and nothing short of a hundred happy Jo Jung-seok dramas will fill it.
6. Heartless City (2013)
HeadsNo2: When I think of epic, heart-shattering, I-want-them-to-be-together-forever bromance, I think of Soo and Shi-hyun from Heartless City. Even in a category dedicated to brotherly love, Soo and Shi-hyun stand out for the incredible loyalty they displayed to each other. One was the anchor and mentor, the other a loose cannon who followed him around like a puppy, and their onscreen chemistry was so intense that you almost believed you were seeing two real friends whose relationship had actually been forged by the fires of prison and the seedy, unrelenting world of drug trafficking.
But despite their roles as criminals, they were also two men searching for meaning in their bleak lives. When a huge discovery threatened to tear apart their bond when one’s identity was revealed to be a lie, the other had the chance to leave him behind. Instead, the two grew closer than ever—and even drove one to make the ultimate sacrifice for his best friend, no matter that it was a grisly, horrible fate he willingly gave himself over to. If that’s not the ultimate bromance, I don’t know what is. (Even better: They’re super adorable real life friends now. I know!)
7. Descended From the Sun (2016)
javabeans: This drama flew high on the wings of its bright, sparkly romance, but for me it was the bromance between our Alpha Team buddies that provided the biggest source of feel-good moments. Each character was charismatic and entertaining on his own—the smooth-talking, always-in-command Song Joong-ki and his stone-faced, dryly hilarious sidekick, Jin Gu—but when you put these two opposites together, they sparked with comic energy, quick banter, and a fierce loyalty that you almost never saw on the surface but could sense just the same. Even if they were just chatting up random girls (or then lying about it to avoid being shredded by their girlfriends). When you’re bros who fight side-by-side in war zones and risk your lives for each other on a daily basis, it goes without saying that your bond is rock-solid; never did I feel that they didn’t love each other like family, even if I did think they’d both die of mortification if they ever said the words aloud. Hey, sometimes love can be expressed on the inside!
8. The Lonely Shining Goblin (2016-17)
HeadsNo2: The reason why enemies-to-lovers works so well as a romantic trope is because all the bickering and angst whets our appetite for the payoff—the more two people hate each other at the outset, the more satisfying it is to watch them come around and bond. The warring roommates of The Lonely Shining Goblin not only have a bickering relationship in the present that plays for some laugh-out-loud comedy, but they have a 900-year-old backstory full of misunderstandings and bitter hurts that tugs at our heartstrings. It doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Gong Yoo and Lee Dong-wook is crackling, and their amazing sense of comedic timing bolstered by rapid-fire banter and deadpan deliveries.
For a goblin who never made family or friends and a grim reaper who always lived by his rules, the true sign of friendship was when they began to act out of character and break their own rules for each other, even when they weren’t ready to admit why. Never has “I wish you would die” sounded so much like “I love you, man.” Plenty of romances are Fated To Be, but a bromance backed by heaven and fate? What more can we ask for?
9. A Gentleman’s Dignity (2012)
girlfriday: Clearly writer Kim Eun-sook has knack for depicting winsome bromances, given that this is the third drama of hers on this list. A Gentleman’s Dignity is perhaps the lightest of these, but it’s an entire show dedicated to bromance, so we couldn’t very well leave it off. It’s not heart-crushing bromance like some of the others here, but as fluffy as the drama is, it’s one of the more realistic, down-to-earth portrayals of regular dudes who just love their bros. If you ever wondered what the high school bromances of dramaland would look like in middle age, it would be these guys: successful, confident, still bumbling at love, and not an ounce more mature than they were at eighteen.
The drama had a lot of fun in having the ajusshi cast portray their high school selves, and we got to see a four-way friendship that really felt like it had lasted over twenty years, complete with inside jokes, embarrassing stories, and exaggerated basketball skills. What felt the most realistic to me was their refusal to grow up even in their forties, as they faced marriage or fatherhood. A Gentleman’s Dignity is a celebration of guys being guys, that proves that while ajusshihood may be inevitable, oppa is a state of mind. And it’s your friends that keep you there.
10. Sandglass (1995)
javabeans: We can probably look to Sandglass as dramaland’s original epic bromance, which holds a place in my heart to this day for the rock-solid characterizations that drove the story: Three friends (two guys, one girl) grow up together and weather turbulent times at each other’s sides, only to find their lives diverging in significant, heart-wrenching ways as they head into adulthood. One friend becomes a righteous prosecutor, the other a hardened gangster, with the woman caught between the two as a casino owner’s daughter (and a badass in her own right). We felt the same conflict that drove the prosecutor, who did his best to save his old friend while being constrained by his principles, and felt that same mix of hope for reconciliation and despair at the thought that it might not happen. It was a setup designed for epic tragedy, guaranteed to twist our hearts and keep us praying against hope for a miracle to swoop in to resolve this impossible conflict—proving that while not all bromances end in happily ever afters, the tears, angst, and sympathy pangs last forever.
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