Aug292021

Gail Carriger Recommends K-Dramas

I’ve been watching too many Asian dramas recently, Gentle Reader.

I thought I might suck you into my madness, so here are some reviews and suggestions for (mostly) K-dramas (Korean dramas) that might appeal you specifically, my dear reader.

Header Recommends K-Dramas

One of the things Korea has been doing consistently for years now is produce long running single dramas (16-20 45 min episodes) which are essentially heroine’s journeys, most of which would fall under the umbrella term of “romances.” This is something that Hollywood simply does not do.

During 2020 there was an increase in international interest and watching of these dramas for many reasons:

  1. the target demographic (women ages 25-60) was sitting still in one place and less distracted by life for the first time in maybe… ever
  2. like most heroine’s journeys these narratives offered primarily comfort which many desperately needed during 2020
  3. streaming services provided access to a large back catalogue that could be binged, and there are tons of these, so watchers could move quickly from one series to the next

I was one of these watchers.

Some things to know

K-dramas tend to be paced differently then western fare. You’ll find the romance is generally a slow burn with less physical touch than romcoms, with lots of involvement from friends and family, and the occasional love triangle. The endings can feel somewhat rushed.

Despite pacing that can seem odd, South Korea’s offerings are still mainly three act structure. All of my recommendations are captioned rather than dubbed (apart from anime, I prefer not to watch dubbed stuff).

These dramas (whether queer are not) are all typified by glorification of sexual purity and benevolent sexism. But then, so are a lot of romance novels and TV shows in the western world. To me, romantic K-dramas almost feel like a Jane Austen film adaptation ~ concerned with society’s strictures, social roles, and THE mannerly circumvention of both (for love, of course). Still, there it is. You’ve been warned.

And now, here are some of my favorites!

W

Probably my #1 most recommended K-drama. I LOST MY MIND over “W.”

Why?

Because it’s a hero character on a hero’s journey who becomes self aware, decides he wants a happy ending and tries to become a heroine on a heroine’s journey instead. But the hero’s narrative keeps trying to self correct for this. It’s flipping brilliant!

Heroines Journey Gail Carriger free pdf ripped download

The plot is confusing to describe but the concept is genius. Basically it is the hero of an online comic web series who realizes he is a fictional character but doesn’t want the inevitable fate that’s in store for him, so he tries desperately to move into either the real world, or different narrative arc, or both. A real world woman falls in love with him and tries to help.

Once you know this, and the two different journeys, the series is SO MUCH FUN. It basically becomes a dialogue between the inevitability of the two journeys plus how to satisfy reader expectations if the POV character is sentient and wants to change the narrative beats of his own fate. Very meta. I LOVE meta.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed Heroine’s Journey, or any of my more adventure driven series like Parasol Protectorate or Custard Protocol.

W is on Viki and might be available elsewhere as it’s from 2016.

Nobleman Ryu's Wedding kdrama

Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding 

AKA Scholar Ryu’s Wedding this newer K-drama is a historical set story of a man who accidentally ends up married to the pretty brother of his intended bride. He is such a good natured sweetheart he gets suckered into the farce of keeping his “new wife’s” real identity a secret. Along the way the two men fall in love.

Romancing The Werewolf Free PDFThis is a shorter drama that has a kind of fairy tale feel to it, and reminds me most of Shakespeare’s 12th Night meets Cinderella only hella gay. Eh, you kinda have to watch it to see what I mean.

It’s soft and sweet and somewhat atmospheric, as well as being cute and bit farcical and fluffy.

If you like my Supernatural Society books you might like this short series.

Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding is unfortunately difficult to find (as it hasn’t been picked up by any major international distributors yet) you might see it on WeTv or Netflix depend on your country, otherwise it’s on DramaCool.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal Kdrama

Sungkyunkwan Scandal 

I have said before that one of the tropes I LOVE more than anything is when a girl cross dresses as a boy in fantasy or historical fiction. I’ve never written one of these myself but Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Rampant series started me on this madness and I’ve never looked back. Sungkyunkwan Scandal is Korea’s version of this story.

A poor desperate young woman disguises herself as a male scholar who specializes in plagiarizing on the sly for a local bookseller, in order to raise enough money to feed her family. She’s brilliant and has a great memory for words and lists.

A rich upstanding young man catches “him” in the act of cheating and forces/blackmails her into take the entrance exam to Sungkyunkwan, the top university for scholars. This rich boy wants to prove that the poor can also become major intellectuals, not realizing they’re also about to prove a woman can do it.

They form an uneasy alliance along with an older boy who is a ninja-type warrior with a chip on his shoulder and (eventually) the school’s brilliant Lord Akeldama style fop (he’s not gay but yeah…). The four of them take on political factions, bullying, and eventually the system itself which uses education as a mean’s of classism and ostracism. Oh yeah and they also fall in love. All while she tries to keep her identity hidden from her crush, her friends, and everyone else.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is on Viki, and if possible I recommend watching it before this next show (and as a companion piece to it) as it helps this next one make more sense.

Rookie Historian 

Rookie Historian is about a girl who is one of the first group of women to become historians, aka the highly trained scholars responsible for chronicling the day-to-day doings of the royal court.

Along the way she meets and falls in love with a soft lonely prince who is kept isolated and trapped and has entertained himself by writing hugely popular romance novels.

Their sweet gentle relationship underpins what is essentially a story of female empowerment and the deep cultural need to honor and respect librarians, scholars, reporters, and all those who write, keep, and teach the truth ~ protecting the historical record from politicians and swindlers.

There a pretty fun (if predictable) mystery of past plots and evil deeds to be uncovered, and although the story itself isn’t groundbreaking its a wonderful historic use of certain classic tropes. If you’re as big a Tamora Pierce fan as I am then this is the Protector of the Small to Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Lioness Quartet.

Rookie Historian is on Netflix.

Uncanny Counter k-drama

The Uncanny Counter 

This is about about a high school kid with disabilities and a tragic backstory who suddenly develops supernatural powers and becomes a demon-fighting grim reaper. I know it seems trite, but honestly it’s really good.

Etiquette & Espionage free PDF

Our newly minted superhero gets defacto adopted by the local band of crotchety older demon hunters who operate out of a noodle shop. It’s a classic heroine’s journey adventure about found family and righting old wrongs.

There’s no romance thread and the action sequences can get a bit martial arts violent, but it’s still an absolutely charming story. I really enjoyed it.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed the Finishing School series, or generally like reading superhero stuff or coming of age self actualization narratives where the plucky good guy overcomes the odds and finds hope and friendship along the way.

The Uncanny Counter is on Netflix.

  • If you like this kind of narrative in general you might also enjoy The Gifted which is a Thai YA “high school students with supernatural powers” drama available on YouTube. The best students in Thailand are recruited to a special school and then segregated into those that are just smart, and those that are Gifted. Then the Gifted start to change. I’m a huge fan of this ones ending: I couldn’t predict it and it had not one, not two, but three twists and STILL managed to be satisfying. As someone who studies tropes and archetypes for a living, this was very exciting to watch.

Color Rush Kdrama

Color Rush

If what you want more than anything is a gay romance with some supernatural elements, like my San Andreas Shifter series, than this short series (made into a movie) is for you.

This is a YA story (adapted from a manhwa graphic novel of the yaoi manga variety) and certainly less sexy than my G. L. Carriger stuff but a brilliant little series.

In an alternate South Korea, kids are being born without the ability to see color and called monos. They remain completely colorblind unless they meet their perfect match and mate: their probe, another human whose face can turn on the world for them in a single moment of color rush. Only around this person will they see color. As a result, monos have the reputation for becoming obsessed with their probes to the point of criminality and monstrosity .

This show cleverly uses the fated mates (AKA soulmates) romance trope and the simple premise of mono/probe to have a dialogue with viewers about queer awakening, burgeoning sexuality, and gay identity using the allegory of color rush. When the main character, a mono, meets his probe in high school he is convinced he too will turn into a monster and he will do anything he can not to fall in love. His probe, on the other hand, is ALL IN.

Some of the acting is a little stiff but the allegory is so brilliant I forgive this show it’s flaws. Also, it’s not very long, so definitely worth your time. Trigger warning for attempted suicide.

Color Rush can be found on Viki as either a series or a cut together movie.

If you like Color Rush, I also recommend two Thai dramas.

  1. He’s Coming to Me on YouTube, a paranormal romance mystery drama about a ghost, Mes, and the one boy who can see him. They team up to find out who murdered Mes and slowly fall in love. It’s sweet and yes it manages to have a happy ending.
  2. Or if you’re willing to go a little darker, there’s Until We Meet Again on YouTube which, like Color Rush, features the fated mates trope and suicide, but is one of my all time favorite Asian dramas. Two boys meet at university and feel instantly connected and fall deeply in love. But they are plagued by a lingering sadness from their past selves. They must uncover and come to terms with the horror of what happened in their previous lives, and the secret of their intertwined fate and family’s legacy of trauma and forgiveness. It does have a happy ending (for the modern day couple) but it’s hard fought. It’s also about Thai desserts, so yummy food porn!

These two above are also discussed in my massive post on the tropes and nuances and breakdowns of Thai BL. You can read more about them and this particular genre of cinema in this blog post.

Teh Devil Judge K-drama Korean Drama K-drama

The Devil Judge 

Its Judge Dredd x Dexter + a light sprinkling of homoeroticism/kink = a DARK DELIGHT. I am oddly taken with this drama as it’s way grittier then I usually enjoy, but I guess I get wild sometimes for the right formula. Unlike the other stuff on this list it doesn’t end happily. It doesn’t end tragically either. It’s sort of left up in the air but still managed to be very satisfying.

Warning, it has some serious feminist issues in terms of gendered archetypes but the story is an absolute blast, literally and figuratively. I forgive it everything because I absolutely could not predict the ending and the performances are killer.

The Devil Judge is on Viki

Hospital Playlist k-drama kdama review

Hospital Playlist 

Look this is one of the best found family friendship support group dramas I have ever seen.

Custard Protocol prudence imprudence competence Gail Carriger

Yes it’s het centric and has some other issues, but it’s so unbelievably comforting. Especially if you are someone like me who likes a procedural (medical or otherwise).

It’s about a group of surgeons who have been friends since college. They all have completely different personalities and specialties but end up working together at the same hospital. Their love lives, work lives, and families intermingle in fun and mostly low drama ways but really this is about their very endearing long term friendship, and gentle understanding of each others eccentricities and foibles.

Honestly this is what I was trying to do with the Custard Protocol Books. Hospital Playlist does it better.

Hospital Playlist is on Netflix.

Let me know if you liked any of these and would like more recommendations. Or if you have any K-dramas you’ve loved and want to recommend!

Yours in dramaland,

Miss Gail

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Posted by Gail Carriger

16 Responses

  1. Jess H said:

    You recommended W in a previous chirrup, and it is one of my favorite k dramas now! I also love 100 Days My Prince on Netflix, which I think could also be interpreted as the male lead trying to go on the heroine’s journey while being dragged back to the hero’s journey, but with amnesia, and everyone loves a good amnesia story.

  2. Cheryl said:

    Devil Judge was brilliant. Watch Vincenzo too. The two best Kdramas this year.

  3. Tara said:

    I’ve watched a fair number of these, but I haven’t jumped on board the Devil Judge train yet so I will definitely need to give that one a watch! Lately I’ve gotten really into Japanese dramas, and I’ve watched several really good ones over the last few months. I’ve found that many of them have a very heartwarming quality that is really comforting for me right now. They can be hard to find on Netflix/Viki. If they aren’t on Viki I watch them on DramaCool.

    Given – BL – based on a BL comic, about a teenage guitarist who stumbles on the perfect singer/lyricist for his band, except that the other boy is still struggling to process a tragic event in his past.

    Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte – M/F – About a woman who handles social media for a successful startup, but is so busy she forgets to renew the lease on her apartment. She ends up moving into a friend’s house, and the drama revolves around the FL and the other people who live in the house.

    Colorful Love: Genderless Danshi ni Aisareteimasu – M/F – The title basically translates to “I’m in love with a genderless boy.” About an editor at a manga magazine who reconnects with a high school friend who is androgynous, and a romance blossoms between them. Despite being light and fluffy, there’s actually a lot of commentary in this show about gender, bullying, queer issues, and work/life balance. Plus the side couple is laugh-out-loud hysterical. Some Japanese humor can come across as very goofy and exaggerated for western audiences, but I find that if you watch it through a manga lens it’s much more enjoyable.

    Tokusatsu Gagaga – (not a romance) – This is a show about being a hardcore fan of something and how that can be stigmatized in today’s society. The FL is a huge fan of Tokusatsu shows (think Power Rangers) and is trying to hide it from her coworkers and her family. Through the course of the show, she makes friends who are like her and learns to embrace her fangirl self. I love this drama because of the strong, realistic depiction of female friendships, which can be hard to come by sometimes.

    Neechan no Koibito – M/F – After losing her parents in an accident as a teenager, the FL is left to raise her three younger brothers by herself. She quits school and works at a home goods store, where she has a found-family type relationship with her coworkers (which is one of my favorite tropes!) She starts to get closer to one of the warehouse workmen, who is an absolute sweetheart but has a dark secret. This is a really heartwarming drama, and also one of the only dramas I’ve seen from 2020 which acknowledges the effect that COVID has had on the world.

    I have a bunch more but I should stop here. Sorry this is so long! I just get excited talking about dramas! Keep up the great work and hang in there, Gail!

    1. Gail Carriger said:

      I’ve seen and enjoyed Given , I’ll add the other Japanese ones to my list. Have you seen the 1985 Japanese movie Tampopo? It’s always one I recommend it’s just brilliant, it’s the Japanese take on an old western, only the loner who sweeps into town to save the little woman is a trucker and she owns a ramen shop. It’s also all about the Japanese love of food. It’s wonderful.

      So far as Given and live action yaoi is concerned and CANNOT recommend Seven Days highly enough. It’s a two parter and you can find it on Drama Cool or sometimes YouTube. It is SO GOOD. Forgive it its hair sins? Hands down my favorite Japanese BL. My second favorite is Cherry Magic, which I assume you know abotu since everyone seems to. Also wonderful.

      1. Tara said:

        I’ve not seen Tampopo, but it seems right up my alley so I added it to my list! Also, yes, Seven Days is so good! That was actually one of the first Japanese dramas I ever watched. Cherry Magic is definitely a gem, it was what inspired me to go on a Japanese drama spree to try to find something similar!

  4. Tina Woelke said:

    I loved W!! And Rookie Historian! May I recommend, also: A Korean Odyssey, which is a clever, funny riff on the Chinese epic myth, Journey to the West. Also the all-time classic, Goblin: The Great and Lonely God, which has the best OST, too. And my Discord kdrama group is CRAZY about the Chinese BL Word of Honor, although I’ve not yet watched it.

      1. Dee Anne said:

        And yet…still so very very gay in spite of all the attempts at censorship! 😀

  5. Diana said:

    I LOVE all the recommendations! K-dramas (and C-dramas) have become my addiction for several years now. Two shows I repeatedly rewatch: Moon Embracing the Sun (k-drama) and The Untamed (c-drama). Moon Embracing the Sun is on VIKI with a membership fee but it’s well worth the money. It’s such a random mix of tropes–amnesia, hidden identity, reluctant royal, secrets, shamans, palace intrigue, love triangle, even cross-dressing. The Untamed is available on Netflix, VIKI, and WeTV. And, of course, it’s censored too, but the anime was good but not as good as the novel. The book fills in a lot of gaps from the show.

    Thai BL is another addiction. I LOVED Until We Meet Again. I’ve seen it a few times. I’m anxious for the sequel of Team’s story but fear it may not be as well done.

    The cross-dressing heroine trope is one of my favorite ones. I read a YA novel with this theme–Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim. A fantasy retelling of Mulan but with clothing.

    Please, please continue the rec’s of shows and books.

  6. Laura Brennan said:

    Love K-Dramas! My go-to recommendation is the quirky delight, Mystic Pop-up Bar. It’s about a woman who has been condemned to helping 100,000 human beings before she can be redeemed; it’s 500 years later, she has 10 to go and no sh*ts left to give. The backstory is a little dark (and slows down the pilot episode a bit; feel free to fast-forward through it if you have to, but don’t let it keep you from watching the rest). The today story is both warm and hilarious. Scrappy group of friends/frenemies, romance, melodramatic ups and downs, phenomenal acting (I also watch subtitled rather than dubbed). Did I mention it was quirky? On Netflix.

    1. Gail Carriger said:

      OMG I really enjoyed that one too! Such a fun premise. And such a tidy story pulling all the characters together in the end via their past selves. A little but like Until We Meet Again, actually. Now that I think about it.

  7. Abby said:

    Ms Panda and Mr Hedgehog is one of my favorite feel good shows to watch. Lots of found family and second chances. Be warned you will want to bake (or buy) fabulous cakes and pastries…

    If you like the main actress pretending to be a man Coffee Prince is a great one. The main character is mistaken as a man and just rolls with it so she can get a job. Romance and fluffy drama ensues.
    In that same vein Bromance is good too. A family is told to pretend their daughter is a boy to avoid bad things happening. Quite funny and the main character is very cool

    1. Dee Anne said:

      I also enjoyed Bromance. And the ML had a really nice identity crisis and coming to terms with being bi when he fell for his “sworn brother.” BUT then they ret-conned his character growth! Ugh… I was so annoyed by that. (Coffee Prince did not make the same mistake, and so I liked it better.)

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