Korean dramas: A beginner's guide

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Image Credit: SBS

Why are more and more Americans falling under the sudsy spell of South Korean dramas? One theory: These shows tend to come in self-contained 16- to 20-episode seasons, making them easily digestible. Another: If you don’t speak Korean, watching one demands your full attention (subtitles!), meaning you get sucked in that much more quickly.

And then there are the dramas themselves — endearingly theatrical and kooky, with a sweetness that can be tough to find in grittier American fare. “Their portrayal of love is a little more PG,” says Jacqueline Sia, senior content manager of massive international TV library DramaFever. “Korean dramas can spend 16 episodes getting to the point where the leads kiss.”

Want in? Simply start with any of these conveniently categorized gateway dramas. Anieyo (translation: You’re welcome).

Teen Soap: Boys Over Flowers (Hulu, Netflix, DramaFever)
The premise: A feisty dry cleaner’s daughter snags a scholarship to a tony prep school — populated exclusively by spoiled hotties.
Selling points: Imagine The O.C. infused with the silly energy of a TGIF sitcom. Bonus: The theme song is a K-Pop version of “Almost Paradise” as sung by what sounds like Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer.
If you like it, try… Heirs (Hulu, DramaFever), a Gossip Girl-inspired serial that also stars Boys breakout Min Ho Lee.

Romance: My Lovely Sam Soon (Hulu, DramaFever)
The premise: Sparks fly between lovably flawed Sam Soon and her reserved new boss, Jin Heon.
Selling points: If Sam Soon sounds a lot like Bridget Jones’s Diary, that’s because it is — only with a Pretty Woman-esque twist. (Sam Soon agrees to be Jin Heon’s fake girlfriend in exchange for the equivalent of $50,000.)
If you like it, try… Coffee Prince (Hulu, DramaFever), a gender-bending romance with a conventional soul.

Historical Fantasy: Gu Family Book (Hulu, DramaFever)
The premise: During the Joseon dynasty, a half human, half fox falls in love with a fearless martial-arts teacher.
Selling points: Great costumes, heart-pounding fight sequences, and an epic story line that’s a crash course in Korean mythology. (Nine-Tailed Foxes: They’re a thing, and they’re pretty cool.)
If you like it, try… Empress Ki (Hulu), a more realistic costume drama about a lady monarch in the Yuan dynasty.

Action Thriller: City Hunter (Hulu, Netflix, DramaFever)
The premise: A brilliant IT expert dedicates his life to avenging the death of his father, a bodyguard killed by the very government he was sworn to protect.
Selling points: Think Revenge, only minus the last two seasons of Revenge. Also: Min Ho Lee stars in this one too. Dude is everywhere!
The next step: Three Days (Hulu, DramaFever), the Korean answer to 24.

Paranormal/Horror: Vampire Prosecutor (Hulu, DramaFever)
The premise: Uh, it’s about a vampire. With a law degree.
Selling points: Vampire. Prosecutor. What about this needs explaining?
If you like it, try… Master’s Sun (Hulu, DramaFever), a spookier variation on Ghost Whisperer.

Genre-Defying Miscellany: My Love From Another Star (Hulu, DramaFever)
The premise: An alien falls for an actress. (Is she the reincarnation of the girl he loved in the 17th century? You bet!)
Selling points: Rom-com, sci-fi, melodrama, showbiz spoof – Love mushes them together in a tasty K-drama stew. And don’t you want to see the show so popular it’s ruining lives in China?
If you like it, try… Secret Garden (Hulu, DramaFever), which somehow turns Freaky Friday into a romance.

A version of this story appeared in the April 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now.

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