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7 Must-See Korean TV Shows Now Streaming for U.S. Audiences

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7 Must-See Korean TV Shows Now Streaming for U.S. Audiences

Korean TV is so popular in the Middle East that broadcast times are organized around prayer times, but its winsome, zany charm hasn’t yet made it into the American mainstream. The cultural paradigms differ, but the essential themes are similar, from get-rich-quick fantasies to love lost and then found. Most lovable is the tendency for Korean shows to last but one (longish) season, preventing the dreaded Season Six burnout.

2017 has seen a slow, steady creep of K-dramas and reality shows onto streaming services available to U.S. audiences, such as Netflix and DramaFever. But what to watch? Look no further than Paste’s “If You Love This, Try That” guide to Korean TV:

1. If you like Mozart in the Jungle, try Tomorrow’s Cantabile
Where to watch: Netflix, DramaFever

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Gael Garcia Bernal stole our hearts as the zany, rat-tailed conductor in Mozart in the Jungle, but he’s got nothing on Nae-Il, the madcap, stuffed-animal-toting protagonist of Tomorrow’s Cantabile. Set at a South Korean music academy where strict teachers war with willful students, this remake of the Japanese show Nodame Cantabile treats us to a Tchaikovsky-strewn landscape of musical maniacs. Boyish blonde punk-rock electronic violinist Il-Rak dismays the professors with his Vanessa Mae stylings, while handsome, nose-upturned prodigy Yoo-Jin fights his archnemesis professor to rise to the level of a true conductor. Both men are maddened by Nae-Il’s strange personality quirks and wooed by her virtuosic piano talent, though she spends all her time chasing Yoo-Jin, to no one’s surprise. Though the later plot lines (like most K-TV) are absurdly obfuscating, this aria to the love that blossoms through musical connection hits all the right notes.

2. If you like Friends, try Coffee Prince
Where to watch: DramaFever

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Ashton Kutcher’s torso has nothing on Han-Kyul, the self-satisfied, pec-flaunting prince of a Seoul coffee dynasty. Han-Kyul’s family is at their wit’s end trying to forge a meaningful pursuit for him, since he’d rather loaf at home ordering delivery and entertaining a parade of hot women. When they force him to run a coffee shop, he redeems himself as the boss of a motley crew of friends for life. Much to his homophobic dismay, however, he finds himself falling for one of his male employees. The dash of dramatic irony is, of course, that the viewer is waiting for the moment he’ll discover that his charming employee, Eun-Chan, is actually a tomboy in disguise. The common K-drama theme of a destitute, hardworking woman being saved by a lousy-rich corporate prince emphasizes the Korean idealization of the Cinderella story—a story likely to remain fictional in class-stratified Korea.

Realities aside, the magical realism in this show, from random fantasy sequences to superimposed sound effects, keeps the mood light. With its cheerfully absurdist plot mechanisms and above-par acting, this show boosted the career of now-famous film star Gong Yoo to international heights. Bonus: some shop talk for coffee nerds, including brewing methods.

3. If you like Revenge or Scandal, try White Nights
Where to watch: Netflix

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Desperately broke, seemingly innocent Se-Jin encounters steely, self-possessed Yi-Kyung by chance, but their rendezvous seems fated when Se-Jin proves she has the mettle to be a daring yes-woman for Yi-Kyung’s dangerous, ruthless business enterprise, Gallery S. CEO Yi-Kyung strives to break Se-Jin of her limiting, bourgeois views on money so she can live fearlessly as a financial assassin and conscienceless corporate warrior. But Yi-Kyung’s plans to mold and use Se-Jin go much farther than even Se-Jin anticipates, deep into a historical feud with her former lover, Gun-Woo, an unlikely corporate rival and free spirit. The drama is slow to unfold, but White Nights balances its mystery with stylish, polished visuals, deviously juicy plot twists, and vulnerable, relatable characters. And of course, no Korean drama would be complete without a love triangle.

4. If you like Homeland or House of Cards, try Korean Peninsula
Where to watch: Netflix, DramaFever

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This intrigue-strewn story of backstabbing, torture and political machinations will draw fans of classic Korean war films like JSA and Shiri. In this microscopic view on the post-Sunshine Policy peninsula, the 38th parallel tears apart not only two nations that share language and culture, but also deeply intimate relationships.

Myung-Joon is a South Korean scientist collaborating on a top-secret joint energy project with North Korean scientist Jin-Jae, who he also happens to want to marry. Aboard their research ship, North and South Korean scientists bond over soccer, science and romance. Alas, this North-South romantic union may prove as futile as national reunification when a political rebellion takes root in North Korea. Myung-Joon is as purely likable a protagonist as Korean TV has produced in a decade, and Jin-Jae is a conflicted and realistic agent caught up in the maelstrom, but it’s the bit characters, especially the North Korean scientists, that most engage the viewer’s emotional core.

5. If you like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Jon & Kate Plus 8, try The Return of Superman
Where to watch: DramaFever

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South Korea, still an extremely patriarchal society, usually puts Mom in the caretaker hotseat. But in reality show Superman, Korean celeb dads become Parental Enemy Number One as their kids look to get every last sweet out of the cupboards and knock over everything in sight. The loving fathers, used to press junkets, paparazzi and soccer prizes, find themselves wiping up spittle and attempting to assemble play furniture, much to their resting wives’ delight. But there’s fun too, from a field trip to a Big Bang concert to surprise visits to see Mom. The ridiculously adorable, clowning triplet sons of actor Song Il-Gook have long stolen the show, but the current cast includes three sets of twins to triple the cuteness.

6. If you like That ’70s Show, try Answer Me 1988
Where to watch: DramaFever

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This tender, nostalgic snapshot portrays a group of adolescent friends tossed into the waves of a vital event in Korean history: the 1988 Seoul Olympics. While everything modernizes around them, the five seem frozen in time, frequenting the same basement where they always watch TV and the same alley where their mothers always shell vegetables. Duk-Sun is a sunshiney, talented performer slated to be a flag-bearer at the Olympics ceremony. Though her hopes are dashed, the friendship that unites each unique personality in the group is unbreakable, and their support of one another buoys each other through growing pains, social awkwardness and poverty.

Almost 20 percent of the South Korean population watched the wildly popular program, which selected fresh, realistic young actors and broke from the often formulaic tropes of most Korean dramas to foster a new realism in Kdrama.

7. If you like Gossip Girl, try Boys Over Flowers
Where to watch: Netflix

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Meet the Korean Chuck Bass: Corporate heir Jun-Pyo has got Chuck’s sneer and the sharp suits down pat. When Jun-Pyo and his boy band-like entourage of longhairs, the F4, stroll into a room, girls at Shinhwa High go Beatlesmania. But when rebellious, quirky Jan-Di surfs a serendipitous scholarship to Korea’s most exclusive high school, she bathes F4 in contempt, eviscerating them for their cruel, spoiled behavior.

There’s nothing like an outlier to turn a rich boy’s heart—at least in the pictures, right? But while Jan-Di melts Jun-Pyo’s cruel, cruel heart, she finds herself warming up to quiet, mysterious, sonata-shredding F4-er Ji-Hoo, who plays the Nate Archibald of the series. We’re guessing you can predict who’ll win Cinderella’s heart, if Gossip Girl taught you anything about the cruel fantasies of TV-land: some love and heartbreak stories are universal.



Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. She is currently watching Goblin: The Lonely and Great God, starring Gong Yoo, on DramaFever.

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