javabeans: Okay, I think we were being punished in this list for saying how easy the last one was (in picking our top 10 drama tropes), because damn if picking our top 10 dramaland couples wasn’t HARD.
girlfriday: Yeah, Past Us really set us up to eat our own words. How can you even pick only TEN?
javabeans: I know we made the rules, but it was a struggle not to curse ourselves and break our own rules, just to sneak in an extra couple or two. Alas, Past Us and Present Us happen to be annoying sticklers for rules.
girlfriday: Maybe Future Us could learn to let loose a little. These lists would get a lot easier, just sayin’.
javabeans: And to make it even trickier, we had all sorts of internal debates about what “favorite couples” even meant—is it best-written love stories? Couples with best onscreen chemistry? Romances that made fans squee the most? These are all big aspects of romances, but they’re not all the same thing, so we had to decide what criteria counted and what didn’t.
girlfriday: And we also had long discussions about how some couples didn’t make the cut because they had lopsided romances, where the romance was more about one of the characters rather than the pairing, which can often be the case.
javabeans: Yes, lopsided romances are so deceptive on the surface! Sometimes one character sells the romance so effectively that you don’t stop to think that you’re rooting for the romance for that one character’s sake, rather than feeling invested in both sides of the love story. We had all these dramas on the shortlist (which was more like a longlist), only to realize that the hero had done all the work in one romance while the heroine was a bland robot, or that another romance was driven by the heroine’s pluckiness and not the hero’s assiness.
girlfriday: That emotional investment is really what it boiled down to for us, because when you’re talking about choosing your favorite couples, all of that stuff we mentioned factors in, like how they’re written and how they’re acted, but you also just have to feel it on a gut level. Did they make us swoon and cry and clutch our hearts?
javabeans: Funny story: We originally had Descended From the Sun on this list, because it seemed like such a gimme: Huge drama, huge romance, huge actors, huge pairing, huge everything. It felt, on paper, like it should belong. And then we started to assign entries to write and nobody wanted to write it. Everyone was all, “I’m not saying we should strike it from the list, but I can’t advocate for this romance.” “Me neither.” “Not it!”
girlfriday: Which said a lot about how we felt about it, and that actually made it easier for us to look at the list again and keep only the couples that really made us root for that happily ever after, as if our lives depended on it.
javabeans: As all the best romances should.
1. Queen In-hyun’s Man (2012)
javabeans: Queen In-hyun’s Man was a great show for a myriad of reasons—a clever time-traveling plot, a cheeky sense of humor, a pressing “How are they going to make this work?” conundrum that propelled the series onward—but it especially shined in the romance, and is a rare example of a love story firing on all cylinders. There was the mysterious fantasy element to give it intrigue, the life-and-death conflict to give it stakes, and chemistry out the wazoo between the leads, which certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that the actors fell into a real-life romance while filming the show (culminating in a bold public declaration, followed by days of disappearance when the lovebirds went underground and incommunicado).
But the behind-the-scenes excitement was icing, not cake: The drama’s crack factor came from its addictive story, and the way that it built around the romance without feeling empty of everything else. Where the drama excelled was in using all of its elements to drive the romantic storyline—the thrilling plot unfolding around the time-traveler, the mysterious travel-enabling talisman, the eerily changing rules—so that plot and romance were inextricable, driving each other. I’ve watched many a drama purely for the loveline, but the best ones don’t exist in a romance vacuum; they’re capable of holding up an entire world and mythos. All those heart-pounding kisses (so many kisses!) are just gravy.
2. Coffee Prince (2007)
HeadsNo2: There’s a reason Coffee Prince will always have a warm and safe place within our collective consciousness, and that’s thanks to the explosive nature of the romance at its center. What started first as a fun tale of bromance and camaraderie slowly morphed into an exploration of our characters’ deepest feelings and insecurities as our hero had to wrestle with his growing feelings of attraction to someone who he knew he could not and should not like.
While Han-gyul saw heroine Eun-chan as one of the boys and struggled with his growing attraction, she had to bear the weight of the false identity she had created, which both helped to strengthen their bond and to erect an insurmountable wall between them. Despite its light-hearted setup—crossdressing, boys, and hijinks!—Coffee Prince explored their love through a sensitive, thoughtful lens, giving us a love story that was complicated and profound. What more validation can you ask for, than to be loved for who you are, no matter what you are? Their love also served as a validation for every love, teaching us that it’s not about looks, gender, or societal norms, but simply about how you feel. (And how beautiful a message is that?) Han-gyul’s heartfelt struggle to deny his attraction to Eun-chan gave the surrender added poignancy, as he came to the realization that he couldn’t change the way he felt about his sworn brother, and would prefer to love him (her) than not. And though the truth of her real identity hit hard, we couldn’t help but feel for Eun-chan, who so believed she wouldn’t be adequate as a woman to Han-gyul that she would try to stay close to him as a man instead. Their love is the stuff of dreams, and of plain ol’ good TV.
3. Goong (Princess Hours) (2006)
javabeans: Goong was a phenomenon in its day, and while there were a multitude of contributing factors, the popularity and addictiveness of the drama owed a tremendous debt to the magnetism of the central couple—and that wasn’t even so much magnetism to us as it was magnetism to each other.
The plot was dressed in grandeur and palace formalities but was, at its core, really a straightforward opposites-attract, Cinderella-and-Darcy romance: An ordinary high schooler discovers that her grandfather and his friend had pledged, years ago, to marry their grandkids together. Oh, and the grandson happens to be a crown prince. The plot thus sent her into a series of rags-to-riches, fish-out-of-water foibles, replete with cohabitation hijinks once she moved into the palace (there were a lot of tropes involved), and a huge chunk of narrative gratification revolved around the icy hero learning to loosen up around the bubbly heroine and opening himself up to her. High school romances tend to be fairly chaste in their romantic developments, but Goong did flirt with being ever so slightly more suggestive than its pure-hearted counterparts; it wasn’t quite mature on that score, but it did prove that a heroine could kiss her man with whole heart and open mouth without the audience clutching its pearls in shock, but clamoring instead for more.
4. You From Another Star (2013-14)
HeadsNo2: We’ve had dramas where love spans time and/or fate, but You From Another Star proved that love could span galaxies, and time, and fate all at once. Maybe this romance sizzled and popped its way to superstardom because it was the epitome of the things we love in a lead couple: polar opposites, in the form of an alien and a sassy Hallyu star; cohabitation hijinks, with the two of them being neighbors; reincarnation (to prove that they were Fated To Be); and a play on normal gender roles, because while Do Min-joon wasn’t necessarily a beta hero, there were definitely times where he would be out-alpha’d by Chun Song-yi’s enormous, and often hilarious, personality.
Watching these two come to know each other and eventually fall in love was as rewarding and crack-fueled an experience as they come, and not only because it was fun to see a fastidious and crotchety centuries-old alien come around to a woman who was surprisingly normal and resonant at the end of the day, despite her tendency to cry her mascara off over the loss of a shoe, or answer her problems with “But I’m Chun Song-yi!” There was a beautiful everydayness to their gut-bustingly funny courtship, bolstered by an epic backstory that 400 years and millions of light-years will automatically bestow on a story. In short, the best of both worlds.
5. Healer (2014-15)
girlfriday: The Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent love triangle is iconic for good reason—when you put a superhero and his own secret identity in direct competition for the woman he loves, you’re guaranteed high-stakes angst and mistaken identity shenanigans when she longs for one and confides in the other. Healer distilled the best of that setup into its romance, between our intrepid reporter Young-shin, the mysterious night errand boy Healer who always came to her rescue, and his daytime persona as her bumbling hoobae reporter Bong-sookie.
With Healer, she got high drama and heart-stopping romance, with death-defying action, blindfolded rooftop kisses, and hands held in the dark, his face always tantalizingly out of reach. With Bong-sookie, she got a best friend, a trusted confidante, and someone she thought of as a sister (much to poor Bong-sookie’s chagrin). The thrill was in seeing the conflict in our hero when he yearned to get close to her, but always fell short in either persona, and the angst was played deliciously every time she’d confess her feelings for one to the other, and he’d feel rejected and delighted all at once. Never has self-jealousy been so entertaining. And the best part was that she was the strong one who held our hero together and brought him out into the light, and she loved him most of all when he was completely himself—neither hero nor ‘fraidy cat, but just a lonely boy withdrawn from the world. Healer may have saved her more often, but she saved him immeasurably more.
6. Master’s Sun (2013)
HeadsNo2: It was pretty clever of Master’s Sun to use its supernatural ghost-seeing premise as both the central conceit and an excuse for all sorts of hilarious skinship. It would’ve been fun enough just to pair a ghost-seeing heroine with an eccentric chaebol, but by having Gong-shil’s specter-spying problems disintegrate upon touching Joong-won (who charged her for every touch, since his body was precious), we ended up with a couple who got to know each other by literally being glued to each other’s sides. What’s not to love?
Along with all the cute antics and loads of bickering, a real love story started to emerge, grounding the emotions in more than just sizzling skinship. What started out as cheeky innuendos (and there were soooo many—this couple could win for their sexual innuendos alone) and excuses for physical contact grew into a bonding of two lonely souls who helped each other heal old wounds and face their futures. It’s this heartfelt bond that makes this romance a winner… although okay, maybe all the touchy-feely stuff doesn’t hurt.
7. The King 2 Hearts (2012)
girlfriday: There have been some epically assy heroes in dramaland, but this spoiled-prince-turned-tenderfooted-king who didn’t seem to have a sincere bone in his body is one of the more memorable ones, because of the delightfully satisfying way he was bested by love. It helped karmically that the heroine, a special forces soldier from North Korea, was better than him at just about everything and was always the one to get him out of scrapes. This hostile couple really put the hate in hate-to-love romance: They were political enemies of two warring countries who never saw eye-to-eye on anything, and he was a manchild whose favorite activity was to taunt her for his petty amusement, forced into a political marriage with the one woman who’d pricked his pride. The best part was that hate was so strong that the denial was even stronger, and I’ll never forget his big revenge plan to make her fall in love with him and believe he loved her for the rest of her life, so that he could say on her deathbed that it was all an act.
Needless to say, it was extremely satisfying to see a guy like that change because of the woman he loved, and become part of a team with her to face their enemies together. Their love had the power to cross the DMZ, stop wars from breaking out, and it literally saved two countries; but the true feat was that it was tenacious enough to overcome the king’s ginormous ego.
8. The Princess’s Man (2011)
javabeans: The Princess’s Man earns its spot as one of my all-time favorite romances, thanks to a rock-solid romantic and emotional match-up that felt grand in scope, epic in spirit, and balanced on both sides. Although these two star-crossed lovers started out betrothed to each other, their circumstances soon embroiled them in a maelstrom of betrayal and conflict, a partial lie spiraling out of control even as their attraction grew. The fact that her father massacred his family might have been enough to crush any other love, but the strength of this drama, and this couple, was that every obstacle only seemed to strengthen resolve and deepen ties. She was particularly admirable as the fierce, principled woman who would not condone her father’s actions, who stood by her man—and sometimes even protectively in front of him—even when he angrily pushed her away, determined to exact his revenge. She fought for him even when it put herself in danger and when it challenged her family ties, but I especially appreciated that fighting for her love was just as much about fighting for herself and her belief in justice; I loved how beautifully those principles coincided, making it so much more than romantic attraction or physical love. And once their commitment was solidified, it was never again shaken—not in the face of treacherous enemies, malicious interlopers, or even death.
9. 1% of Anything (2016)
javabeans: 1% of Anything is the lowest-key romance on this list, and probably in dramaland at large, which makes it a bit of an outlier. There’s very little conflict and barely a plot to speak of, other than the baseline premise needed to throw these two characters together: A meddling grandfather (always those guys!) writes a stipulation into his will that his grandson must marry a specific woman unknown to him in order to inherit, and the couple decides to contract-date to fulfill Grandpa’s basic criteria and then split up.
What ensues is six months of dating in the most ordinary of ways, and the couple realizes they rather like each other after all, and might want to keep dating after the terms of their contract are over. It sounds obvious and unexciting, and yet the magic comes in the very mundaneness of the story, and how the drama found a way to develop this love story with small brush strokes, sweetness, and a naturalness to the couple’s interactions that I’ve never seen in a drama before. It’s enough to make you suspicious of their real-life relationship, because their interactions felt so genuine that I often wondered if we were watching a real couple falling in love while playing a couple falling in love. This is a case where the feedback loop elevated the end result, with the loveline developing into winning chemistry, and that chemistry in turn driving the love story into deeper, more heartfelt emotions. This drama proves that details can add up and spark into something much more than the sum of its parts, and that genuine feeling from the characters can be as gripping as the most twisty kind of plot.
10. Ojakkyo Brothers (2011-12)
girlfriday: Ojakkyo Brothers had the most addictive romance at the center, and part of its magic was a stroke of luck in casting Joo-won and UEE, who happened to have fantastic chemistry together. I was convinced the entire time that Joo-won actually loved her in real life, because he would just give her these looks, like he was struck dumb because she was the purtiest girl he’d ever seen. They’re one of the most conventional couples on this list, but their love story made me sob like a baby and grin like a loon, and I needed their happy ending like I needed air. Sticking with a couple through 58 episodes can do that to you.
The heroine was a spoiled-girl-turned-Candy overnight when her father left her penniless and all alone in the world, and in an attempt to reclaim Dad’s farm she just moved right in with the family living there, putting her in a particularly combative relationship with the family’s third son, a terse, prickly cop. Watching their budding hate-to-love relationship was particularly enjoyable—everything from farm chores to coffee debts become thinly veiled excuses to spend more time together, as she wedged her way into the family’s hearts. Their romance had everything from drunken hijinks to petty jealousy to truly heart-wrenching family opposition, making their happy ending feel genuinely earned, like we’d been through battle together with the tear-soaked tissues to prove it. Sometimes, the obstacles to love don’t have to be time and history and the threat of war—real life is plenty dramatic enough, and a couple who endures and fights to stay together is just as inspiring.
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