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K-Dramas in 2022: Real people, real problems, horror, and romance

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2022 was a year of highs for K-Dramas and while many of these highs could be attributed to the success of breezy, tropey shows like Business Proposal, it was also the year where characters and their lives got real and rooted on screen.

Among the stand-out shows this year, My Liberation Notes, an affecting slice-of-life tale of three siblings living on the outskirts of Seoul, their weariness and seemingly exhausting everyday routines struck a chord despite its slow initial pace. The show greatly benefitted from stand-out performances by all its leads; Lee Min-Ki with his wide-eyed monologues, Lee El’s constant professional and romantic entanglements, Son Suk-Ku’s brooding sadness, and Kim Ji-Won at her melancholic best.

Perfecting the slice-of-life genre

There are long, dreary commutes, a loneliness that hangs heavy around all of them, increasingly frustrating work ambitions, and the desperate need to break out of this all that My Liberation Notes perfectly encompasses. “I don’t know where I’m trapped, but I feel trapped. There’s nothing in my life that relaxes me. I feel cramped and stifled. I want to break free,” says Ji-Won, as Mi-Jeong on the show, who also consistently gets the most memorable lines. This was truly the year for the slice-of-life genre, headlined by My Liberation Notes.

A still from ‘My Liberation Notes’

Louisa May Alcott’s much-beloved novel Little Women, which was adapted by acclaimed screenwriter Chung Seo-Kyung as a K-Drama of the same name, is set against the backdrop of modern-day Seoul which brings with it economic distress, the class divide, and corruption among a host of other socio-economic issues. What could have been a no-brainer thriller is elevated through nuanced writing and stellar performances by its ensemble cast.

Celebrating mature relationships

2022 was also the year that we celebrated more mature relationships on screen. In Our Beloved Summer, one of this year’s earliest hits, a couple that dated through high school and university have to face each other once again to shoot for a documentary that they were a part of nearly a decade ago. The show, however, wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill romance. The barriers that Choi Ung and Yeon-Soo (played by Choi Woo-Shik and Kim Da-Mi) have to surmount are real and relatable — there’s a haunting reminder of past insecurities, lingering dredges of self-pity, and a quest to find one’s true ambition and identity.

A still from ‘Our Beloved Summer’

A still from ‘Our Beloved Summer’

While the recent romance K-Drama  Love is For Suckers starring Lee Da-Hee and Choi Si-Won eventually petered off to frustratingly-cliched territory, the start showed much promise as well. Da-Hee plays a reality show producer in her late thirties, who is single and often in doubt about her work, and the loneliness that comes with her age and relationship status begins to envelop her.

Relatable and recurring themes

These have been several recurring themes across shows. The currently-airing  Summer Strike, starring Seolhyun and Im Siwan, has its female lead make a snap decision to go on ‘strike’, leave behind a toxic job and escape the emotional aftermath of getting dumped. Downsizing her life to a backpack, Yeo-Reum moves to a small, quaint seaside town to spend her days frequenting the library there, all the while forming slow and yet meaningful connections with the residents there. At some point, we’ve all been where Yeo-Reum has; she just wants to take off without an agenda, and leave behind the hustle and all the emotional burden.

Meanwhile, the second season of Yumi’s Cells brought back the much-loved animated cells encompassing Yumi’s thoughts and emotions, and worked very well as a relatable relationship drama. Yumi (Kim Go-Eun) falls head-over-heels for the charming and chivalrous coworker Babi (Jinyoung). As Yumi navigates new love, this season also sees her on a journey of self-discovery as she embraces her dreams of becoming a writer.

A show that broke many hearts owing to the sudden and almost baffling writing choices in its last few episodes,  Twenty Five Twenty One will no doubt be remembered for years to come for otherwise being a warm, lovely coming-of-age story. It was a show that immersed viewers into the world of five friends, set against the backdrop of the IMF crisis in South Korea in the late nineties. While the show had us all greatly invested in fencer Na Hee-Do and journalist Baek Yi-Jin’s (Kim Tae-Ri and Nam Joo-Hyuk in career-best performances) warmth and love until it all implodes, Twenty Five Twenty One was, above all, a story that celebrated friendships, and Hee-do and her fencing rival Ko Yu-Rim (Bona) get the most interesting trajectory.

A still from ‘Twenty Five Twenty One’

A still from ‘Twenty Five Twenty One’

Empathetic screenwriting

A lot has been said about one of this year’s biggest global successes, Extraordinary Attorney Woo. Park Eun-Bin, playing lawyer Woo Young-Woo who is on the autism spectrum, was backed by sensitive, empathetic writing and the legal drama delved into several issues ranging from sexist workplace policies, discrimination, and abuse. It is this sort of writing that we hope to see more of, and the promise of a second installment is exciting. Another affecting legal drama this year,  Juvenile Justice, took a sobering look at juvenile crimes and society at large through the eyes of a judge played by Kim Hye-Soo.

The affinity to Sageuks (historical dramas) continued, and in fact, grew even more in 2022. If the year began with the smash-hit  The Red Sleeve which received great reviews and viewership ratings, it was followed by the fantasy and period drama  Alchemy of Souls in June, written by the Hong Sisters, which delved very engagingly into magic, mages and soul switching. The second season of the hit show is currently airing.  Under The Queen’s Umbrella, a Sageuk which has powerhouse performer Kim Hye-Soo play Queen Hwa-Ryeong has become both a ratings hit and is being lauded for its strong female lead; a Queen and mother who hustles to shape her sons into capable princes all while battling palace politics.

A still from ‘Alchemy of Souls’

A still from ‘Alchemy of Souls’

The show hasn’t completed its run yet, but  Reborn Rich is already this year’s biggest ratings hit. Following Vincenzo, it seems like Song Joong-Ki is continuing his great run with picking scripts.  Reborn Rich has also introduced many viewers to the powerhouse actor Lee Sung-Min, who plays Joong-Ki’s grandfather and head of the Soonyang Conglomerate. Razor-sharp writing with a good dose of nostalgia thrown in (given its setting through the ‘80s and ‘90s), this reincarnation drama has everyone on the edge of their seats.

A still from ‘Reborn Rich’

A still from ‘Reborn Rich’

Top trends and looking ahead to 2023

Following  Squid Game, Netflix delivered another winner this year with the zombie apocalypse show All of Us Are Dead. Set in a high school, the show didn’t just stop with the quintessential gore and violence of the genre, but also invested time in its characters amidst the ensuing chaos. While  Business Proposal continues to trend on Netflix’s top ten shows eight months after its release, there were only a few breezy, romantic comedies this year that managed to strike gold like they did.

After a shaky start, Shooting Stars, starring Lee Sung-Kyung and Kim Young-Dae, and set in the world of entertainment, had several sweet moments, as did the smaller shows like  Once Upon a Small Town (which follows a hot-shot city veterinarian move to a village), campus romance  Dear M and sports drama  Love All Play. Shows that came with considerable hype including Song Hye-Kyo and Jang Ki-Young’s  Now We Are Breaking Up, and  Forecasting Love and Weather, starring Park Min-Young and Song Kang, didn’t quite find their footing.

In 2023, while there is the possibility of the sequels for several successful shows including  D.P., All of us are Dead, and Sweet Home gearing up for release there’s also a growing dearth of feel-good romances that needs to be addressed No one does a good, swoony romance like K-Dramas; here’s to hoping there’s more of that in the coming year!



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