Year In Review: 2019 Best Korean Dramas
Phenomenal workplace stories dominated the roster of 2019 Korean Dramas this season and character-driven series went home with runaway hits.
Proving brave storylines yield favorable response, victorious 2019 Korean dramas had either courageous plot or peerless characters.
Hellokpop follows a slightly different K-Drama calendar. Dramas that premiered in December 2019 are not included in this list since the broadcast dates will cross over 2020.
On that note, some 2018 tail-end dramas will be recognized on this roster based on the same consideration. All Korean Dramas that end on or before 31 December 2019 are also acknowledged in this roster.
Going head to head, SBS and KBS produced five dramas reaching an average of double-digit ratings this year.
From SBS camp, The Fiery Priest, The Last Empress and VIP scored 16.1%, 12.2% and respectively. Meanwhile, KBS 2TV’s Doctor Prisoner, Liver or Die and When The Camellia Blooms clinched 13.2%, 12.1% and 13.9% average nationwide viewership scores.
Among the dramas which aired on cable networks, only jTBC’s Sky Castle registered an average double-digit output at 12.5%.
Rounding up the top-rating cable dramas are The Crowned Clown, Encounter, Memories of the Alhambra, and Hotel Del Luna which earned over 8% scores.
Considering how pay-TV platforms have relatively small audience, the aforementioned series are deemed successful at the time of its airing period.
Popular Dramas Online
Based on the data extracted by Good Data Corporation, a few dramas experienced popularity online. While some achieved success proportional to domestic viewership ratings, some are underrated, but has charmed the audience nonetheless.
2019 Korean dramas included in this list are: Encounter, Sky Castle, The Last Empress, The Fiery Priest, Her Private Life, One Spring Night, Arthdal Chronicles, Hotel Del Luna, Moment At Eighteen, When the Camellia Blooms, and VIP.
Dominating Trends & Story Genre
Compared to last year’s prevalence of healing dramas, most of the collated narratives in 2019 Korean Dramas produced remarkable and lingering characters. Moreover, ingenious plot moving deftly to the rules of its imaginative worlds left awe-inspiring moments to spur an auspicious future for Korean television series.
Banking on its powerhouse cast, The Last Empress, The Fiery Priest and Memories of the Alhambra proved worthy of the hype received. Emerging as a dark horse, Sky Castle notched a superb reversal as Netflix original series Kingdom rouse an unexpected following albeit its cliff-hanging season 1 ending.
With concentrated office dramas characterizing the second quarter batch of the season, the sequels and installment to popular series made their premieres. Despite fairing well, a few did not achieve the successful feat of repeating the magic, all except Partners for Justice 2.
Additional dramas with abiding presence for this batch are Doctor Prisoner, Chief of Staff, Nokdu Flower and Her Private Life. Another interesting note to include is how most memorable K-Drama characters this year can be traced in this quarter.
Passing through the middle part of the season, heroes and heroines abound in the third quarter of 2019 Korean Dramas. Screaming girl power, Search: WWW, Hotel Del Luna, Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung and Love Affairs in the Afternoon celebrated women’s fortitude.
The same way that Arthdal Chronicles, When the Devil Calls Your Name, Designated Survivor: 60 Days and Watcher endorsed men’s varied faces of bravery.
2019 Best Korean Dramas’ Guidelines
Our guidelines for choosing 2019 Best Korean Dramas are pretty much the basics: inventive plot, engaging narrative, novelty, character portrayals, appeal to general audience, and the re-watch value.
Out of 88 K-Dramas shown this season, we reviewed 66 and narrowed it down to the final list of outstanding series. Some dramas, we don’t have any choice but to drop, because we prefer not to write BAD drama reviews.
Here are 25 of the Best Korean Drama series we pick this year. Click the drama poster thumbnails to read our full reviews.
*Note: Weekend family dramas, special dramas, and daily dramas are not included in the selection of dramas we watched and reviewed this year
1st Quarter 2019 Korean Dramas
Neighborhood Lawyer, Liver or Die, Item, Less Than Evil, Spring Turns To Spring, My Strange Hero, Haechi, The Last Empress, The Fiery Priest, The Crowned Clown, Encounter, Touch Your Heart, Memories Of The Alhambra, Romance is a Bonus Book, Possessed, Priest, Trap, Clean With Passion For Now, The Light In Your Eyes, Sky Castle, Legal High, Kingdom
The Fiery Priest
The Fiery Priest was a satire done right with a good blend of humor and feelings. The drama was of course, fiction but with a dose of reality. We live in a world where we witness the same issues portrayed in the story.
However, we tend to become desensitized, either because we are not at the receiving end of the problem or we have been overly exposed to it. Whatever the case, the change we wanted to see should start from within.
This series emphasized that if we truly want to improve or see changes, we have to be courageous to go against the flow. The result, whether it was the expected outcome or not, will only be possible if we take action.
Memories of the Alhambra
Ambitious on its run, Memories of the Alhambra almost achieved a perfect 2019-drama-to-beat label. The polished weekly episodes maintained its mystery while making sure that viewers would be haunted. That ultimately led to anticipate what’s in store for the series each week.
Sans the safe landing, and if we were given a definite answer if Jin Woo’s return in the game also transcends to his real life, the series would have been perfect.
Memories of the Alhambra still scored high among the dramas in the recent years owing to how it kept surprising the audience with its imaginative premise and well-utilized cast.
Romance is a Bonus Book
For people who genuinely like to read, this tvN series was a perfect treat. In its 16-chapter run, it abundantly went through the challenges of adult living, whether someone may be single or raising a family.
Mostly woman-empowering in the majority of its airing, it has managed to leave contemplative lessons about human interaction, friendship; and the concept of family and belonging for people who are not blood-related. Boasting introspective aftereffects. It might not appeal to younger generation, who prefers oppa-romance themed stories, but it was saccharine nonetheless.
From lessons about women’s strength, individualism and friendship; its ultimate message was finding one’s purpose.
Romance Is A Bonus Book has presented a beautiful tale of life and romance, which is honest and reassuring.
Soaring high throughout its run, four families colored the narrative of Sky Castle to intriguing bends. Coupled with proportionate moments for its big cast, its fictional world probed on elite families different opinions on supporting their children’s future.
Beautiful on its own right, the drama was not something spectacular that ever graced K-Drama land to be honest. If we mull over the lessons from its fictional world perspective, all those family dramas are honestly sad realities, which can make the viewers retrospect.
Layering history-inspired fiction with modern supernatural element, Netflix original series Kingdom took the viewers to switching level of thrills which decelerate quickly, only to upsurge the tension with its impressive cliffhangers.
Evidently proving why Netflix chose Kingdom as one of its pioneering Korean series production, the first season gripped attention fast with its dynamic yet clearly-pictured narrative.
The series steered a rewarding complexity, which befitted its intention to present a paradigm-shifting Korean historical drama.
The Crowned Clown
The Crowned Clown was such a treat with its immersive story and complex characters. Each week, the drama managed to stir the viewer’s curiosity regarding the story’s trajectory.
The conflicts and the major players had been established from the start. So it was easy to remember which characters you needed to keep an eye out for.
Though the drama introduced few significant characters as the story progressed, it did not complicate the narrative, it added more meat to it instead.
It is true that humans crave power and could easily be blinded by it. But once we realize there is so much good we can do using it, the world can become a better place – and that is The Crowned Clown’s legacy.
The Light in Your Eyes
The Light in Your Eyes was a whimsical reminder to live beautiful days. It was a healing tearjerker that reminisces our own happy memories. It was an inviting watch that heals and appreciate life for its ordinary and fleeting moments.
It’s such a short drama, but it’s packed with shining moments and life lessons. The cast jived well together and produced a certified tearjerker interspersed with occasional comedy care of its endearing characters.
2nd Quarter 2019 Korean Dramas
My Fellow Citizens, Doctor Prisoner, Angel’s Last Mission: Love, Perfume, Partners for Justice 2, Special Labor Inspector Jo, The Banker, One Spring Night, The Secret Life of My Secretary, Big Issue, My Absolute Boyfriend, He Is Psychometric, Abyss, Nokdu Flower, Her Private Life, Confession, Save Me 2, Kill It, Voice 3, The Wind Blows, Beautiful World, Welcome to Waikiki 2, Chief of Staff, My First First Love S2
Rallied by a brilliant male-dominated cast, Doctor Prisoner has moved to exchanges of ploys and deceptions that keeps you high with its thrilling drive. Providing equally engrossing textures of its protagonists and anti-heroes, the series expertly constructs its vengeance-driven story.
It’s amazing how the road to achieve redemption in Doctor Prisoner spins from a dysfunctional rich family’s power struggle and a doctor’s goal to claim justice for him and the people abused by the same family.
Polished and driven, this KBS series takes pride of its impeccable momentum and amusing outwitting game among the male-centered cast.
Deserving of full marks, although unlikely to initiate a rerun for viewers, Doctor Prisoner deserved a perfect score for its overall picture.
Angel’s Last Mission: Love
Probably, one of the best romance dramas of 2019, Angel’s Last Mission: Love hit bulls-eye for all the check points from refined story-telling to excellent acting. Shin Hye Sun impressed the most and she captivated the audience in all of her scenes.
The amazing narration of the drama revealed all the characters, both humans and angels, to have some flaws which made it more affecting. They made mistakes and they learned from them. The story had a lot of unpredictable twists and the mysteriousness of how everyone’s destiny was planned.
The main theme of the drama was pure love and it stays true to the theme. The trials that the lead couple had to go through and how they were willing to sacrifice themselves for each other gives a demonstration of selfless love.
Partners for Justice 2
Establishing a reliable niche, Partners For Justice 2 strongly impelled another brilliant run with solid storytelling and characters. Unearthing the cryptic surprises of the cases with the series’ crime busting team has always been a delightful and fulfilling K-Drama experience.
Fueled by inventive twists through enthralling crime stories presented, the series has also been blessed with stellar portrayals. Aside from that, its screenplay has been layered with humor and cleverness resulting to why it effortlessly stood out.
The charm of this drama is how it is an enjoyable watch if you marathon it from start to finish or see it in portions. Featuring richly imagined and executed episodes derived from crime cases, viewers would easily find themselves hooked on the stories and its entire picture.
Based on real historical events, Nokdu Flower is about the Donghak uprising against the corrupt officials in the 19th century. It unveiled the struggles of the common people, their battles for their rights to equality and the various aspects that influences human actions.
The journey with Nokdu Flower is mixed with various emotions as the story uncovers about people and their simple aspirations. What’s admirable about this drama was the message of equality not just across different classes of people but across genders. The women in the drama were the key drivers in the story, had their own voice and took steps for their own actions.
Overall, the drama was a superb watch packed with history, excellent acting, and various human emotions.
Her Private Life
Tidily executed, Her Private Life has an energizing habit of presenting its narrative in a bright light as much as possible.
Nothing but good vibes celebrating fan girl spirit in Her Private Life. It may be trite, but at least it went on to create a full story that did not rely strongly on kissing scenes.
Proving proper placement of sweet moments is the key to a remarkable romantic comedy, the tvN treat accomplished not having dull moments on its report card.
Given the plot-heavy laden roster of 2019 Korean Dramas, this tvN series easily makes any K-Drama fan happy. Kim Jae Wook’s first rom-com gave the actor an irresistible role. Cementing her bankable reputation, Park Min Young scored yet another work to add on her robust portfolio. For self-confessed and closet fangirls, make sure to add this addition on your watch list.
Beautiful World, despite its dark themes, taught us that we could never go wrong with kindness. It also reiterated that change is the only thing constant.
No matter how much we despise the harsh realities we experienced in life, we have no other choice but to go through it and learn from it.
The series managed to cast the perfect actors for each role. From the parents to the children, the actors were all able to deliver.
The characters made the drama so engaging as viewers became hooked and eager to find out what happened next to them. The actors definitely became one with their respective characters that you couldn’t help but root for them.
Chief of Staff
Chief Of Staff highlighted how ugly the world of politics can be — and how extremely dirty it can get. Throughout the drama, the contemplation of choosing between the right and wrong was raised.
Should the protagonist avoid playing by the rules and bend things in his favor to achieve the fast effective results or should he walk in the path of righteousness even if the process is slow?
Throughout the series, the question that was raised repeatedly was whether it was alright to perform wrong deeds like everyone else in order to change things from the inside.
The drama has showcased that the world of politics is scary and it is impossible for a single person to cleanse the system as there is big network of powerful people controlling things. The hero’s motivation was to change the system, but the bigger question is what if the power corrupts him.
3rd Quarter 2019 Korean Dramas
I Wanna Hear Your Song, Welcome 2 Life, Justice, Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung, Doctor Detective, Doctor John, Designated Survivor, The Great Show, Search: WWW, When the Devil Calls Your Name, Arthdal Chronicles, Hotel del Luna, Class of Lies, Watcher, Hell is Other People, At Eighteen, Be Melodramatic, Level Up, Love Affairs in the Afternoon, Love Alarm
Smartly written, Search: WWW celebrated the triumphs achieved by women determined to define their worth on their own. At the same time, it gave a picture of how even successful career women struggle to find their inner piece.
As women suffering from over-dependency are often depicted on Korean dramas, it is such a refreshing moment to meet ladies who genuinely portray the other type of girls K-Dramaland refuse to delve on.
Focusing on ladies who were on top of their career games drives an inspiring message especially to women thriving on an excuse that the lack of romance in their lives is proportional to their healthy high-powered job.
In the process of accomplishing their personal endeavors, the female leads learned to cope up with varied pressures in balancing their concerns in life, work and love.
Divided in three parts, Arthdal Chronicles trudged on the story set in the land of Arth, a civilization set in the backdrop of Bronze Age. Forged by tribes, the kingdom is reigned by leaders of tribes, who mutually detest each other in secret. When the kingdom’s elite army brought in an isolated tribe, a tribal dispute eventually broke out as the leaders contend to achieve the kingdom’s highest power.
Otherworldly gorgeous, Arthdal Chronicles has had me upended in formulating my thoughts about it. That is because it is one of those K-Dramas that will not lose its pragmatic value even after years passed by.
It might even be hard to create another work that can be compared to it. Hence, proving how dramas that are capable should be daring to explore and challenge the extent of the set fictional world.
Hotel Del Luna
Perhaps, the most obvious reason to watch Hotel del Lunawas the compelling story. The main arc, combined with the characters’ interesting backgrounds, were such major hooks.
The way each plot points connected created scenarios that made it easy for the viewers to understand the characters’ point of views.
The fantasy element and the spotlight shone on human emotions definitely captured the viewers’ attention. It was specially moving to learn about the characters’ pasts and how they ended up with so much resentments. The series played well on the idea that death is not the end as the stories of the guests and employees unfolded. It managed to deliver resounding life lessons viewers can all learn from.
Despite its supernatural theme, Jang Man Wol, Goo Chan Seong, as well as the rest of the characters, were representations of ordinary people grappling to understand their existence. They depicted emotions that viewers can relate to, most especially those we struggle to take control of such as anger, grudges and pain.
At Eighteen shows why our youthful memories are special. It confronted the growing pains and transition to future years, that once experienced, you can never go back.
It is one of the best school dramas of all time. It focused on both the bright and ugly sides that the youth has to face. Though headlined by a relatively young cast, their acting performances were commendable.
Class of Lies
Class of Lies put into perspective on how the rich and powerful took advantage of the flawed system to benefit themselves. Just because they thought it was possible to get away with their wrong doings, they did not feel any remorse and there is no limit to how far they can go.
There has been many school dramas that has portrayed the misuse of the system, but this drama was by far the darkest.
Also, there were multiple villainous characters in the story. Each of them doing their own bidding for selfish reasons. The drama featured the helplessness of the weak and how they get trampled on – Suh Ah being the best example of it.
The approach of the drama in portraying the story was very realistic. In real life, not everything gets resolved and in this drama too, the ending was ambiguous.
Sure, the evil guys got defeated, but not in the way that everyone would have wanted. There were still some unanswered questions lingering but that added to the beauty of the series.
4th Quarter 2019 Korean Dramas
The Tale of Nokdu, When the Camellia Blooms, Extraordinary You, VIP, Secret Boutique, Catch the Ghost, Vagabond, Miss Lee, Melting Me Softly, The Running Mates, My Country, The Lies Within, Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency, Chief of Staff 2, Leverage, Graceful Family
The Tale of Nokdu
The Tale Of Nokdu reeled in the viewers with an interesting narrative and appealing characters. But apart from that, the drama also left with lessons we all could apply on our daily lives.
As humans, we have the tendency to desire for more that often leads to dissatisfaction. Inevitably turning that little craving to full-blown greed, which was obviously not a good thing.
Life is never easy, and it is not supposed to be. But whatever challenges it throws our way, we only have the power to change it and live through it. The choices we make are the ones affecting and influencing our existence.
The contentment that we seek can only be made possible if we learn and choose to accept that we could not have it all. The Tale Of Nokdu just showed us, in manner, that is convincing and so true.
When the Camellia Blooms
The simple plot of a misfortune-magnet single mother who decided to begin her life on her own in a small town – has moved to a plot that does not have multiple bends.
Nevertheless, the unfolding of how she found the courage to be a better version of herself through the support of her avid-suitor-turned-boyfriend and neighborhood friends made the story engrossing.
A single mother who discovered love in a small town hounded by an unsolved serial killing stigma appears heavy on paper. Hence, the comforting feel of When The Camellia Blooms strangely does not fit its premise. Therefore, it layers as an additional charm of the narrative.
When the Camellia Blooms reminds us that happiness is not supposed to be chased. It has to be savored right at the very moment it happens. Although problems decorate life, and it’s not something that we want to welcome – it inevitably arises to make us stronger.
Vagabond, from its first episode up to its last, has satisfied fans of the action genre. Elements such as conspiracy, betrayal, camaraderie, and yes, a touch of romance, made this series such a fun watch. There were a lot of scenes where audience would be on the edge of their seats.
Apart from its action sequences, Vagabond excelled in highlighting human emotions and struggles. The story put a spotlight on how each character dealt with the situation they were in.
The plot was simple and yet so interesting as it could happen to anyone. The conflicts and problems the characters faced are relatable.
The drama gave us a glimpse into the complicated and dirty world of politics. Add in the power-hungry people and how their decisions affect the lives of the masses.
Catch the Ghost
There was absolutely no flaws with Catch The Ghost except for some of the illogical occurrences which can be ignored as it gets foreshadowed by the charismatic acting of the characters.
Moon Geun Young absolutely shone as Yoo Ryung which made the audience empathize with her character even more.
What was good about the drama is that the focus is more on the crime cases. Though the drama paid attention on the characters’ personal lives it does not shift attention from the main narrative of the story.
The humor too was there, but did not overtake the seriousness of the crime cases.
Catch The Ghost gave a perspective on how important the role of the police officers are as their simple negligence might end up ruining people’s lives.
Watcher kept the audience at edge continuously making them wonder about the outcome. Every character in the story has a surprise up on their sleeves. This drama was all about expecting the unexpected until the very end.
As expected of an OCN drama, Watcher was a culmination of unpredictability, suspense and excellent acting.
The drama kept the audience guessing what was going to happen next with unexpected twists. It further led the viewers contemplating to change their prime suspect in each episode.
VIP offered a lot in terms of storytelling. Fueled by the rumor of an affair, many hidden mysteries are unveiled throughout the series. While the first half of the drama is about pursuing the truth, the second half is about dealing with the consequences.
A must watch story for those who enjoy women-empowering narrative and the complexities of adult relationships. Full points should go to the actors’ performances which kept pulling the viewers to watch it regularly.
Unlike her past roles, Jang Na Ra explored a completely different territory and it was definitely worth it. Be it going through an emotional turmoil or unleashing the wrath to those who have wronged her, she exploded tremendously.
Another noteworthy thing in the drama was that the characters are realistic. Hence, they have flaws which reflects on their actions. For the uneventful occurrences, the writers did show both sides of the story that gave a further depth on their wicked actions given their deplorable situations.
While most of the actions are inexcusable, it only shows the complexity of human relationships.
Thank you for reading this list. Like the rest of K-Drama fans, our team at Hellokpop looks forward to more amazing stories this 2020.
Image Credits: KBS 2 TV | SBS |MBC |tvN |OCN | jTBC | MBN | Netflix
K-Drama Reviews Contributed By: abbyinhallyuland, Lil, Emylyn, and Nicole