So you finished watching Squid Game and are now unsure what to watch next? Well, fear not, my friend, because as someone who has watched dozens upon dozens of K-dramas over the years, I am here to give you some pointers as to what Korean shows have similar vibes, themes, actors and/or act as a wonderful healing balm after the trauma inflicted by episode 6 and that marble game.
The first K-drama I ever watched was You’re Beautiful, a Korean gender bender/reverse harem romantic comedy with some pretty camp acting, a slightly annoying female lead and a super unrealistic plot. There was also a love triangle that kept dragging on far longer than necessary. Was I still hooked on it and binged every episode I could find within mere days? Why yes of course! I was going through a pretty awful phase in my life back then, with physical health problems and mental health issues galore that often made it hard to go outside and interact with the world around me.
It may sound silly to some, but back then, K-dramas (and J-dramas too!) truly saved me from losing my mind entirely. They just offered this exciting, colourful escapism, while also showing me a world filled with emotionally open, caring men, beautiful “found family” style friendship groups, exciting adventures and all sorts of growth opportunities for the female leads. It felt like these were stories that were meant for me, with women at the center of the story and not just a pretty addition. Because – a vast majority of Korean dramas are actually written by women, for women, which makes them exceptionally “female gaze-y”, something I’ve written about before for another platform.
When I saw that Squid Game was turning into a sleeper hit for Netflix, I felt both elated and slightly anxious at the same time. Since this show will probably be people’s first experience of a Korean drama, this may set them up for disappointment if they watch another K-drama after this. As a Netflix produced show, Squid Game doesn’t have to obey the strict censorship laws of Korean broadcasting, which means they can feature a heck of a lot more violence, gore and sexually explicit content. If you are looking for that same kind of grittiness and hyper violence, you may be better off watching Korean movies, especially such gems as Parasite or Oldboy.
Having said that, I still sincerely hope people who got hooked on the unique quirkiness and layered symbolism of Squid Game will give other K-dramas a shot as well. Yes, you will have to read subtitles (please, for the love of god, don’t watch the dubbed version of Squid Game unless you have disabilities preventing you from reading subtitles!). And yes, most of the K-dramas on offer at streaming sites will usually feature a romantic plot and focus on the female perspective, so “tough guy” watchers who were attracted to Squid Game‘s grit and gore may at first be reluctant to dive into it. But – you will find a rich world of unique stories full of warmth, emotional depth and suspense, with people (especially men) open to showing emotions while also being badass.
If you are looking for “Korean shows like Squid Game“, you won’t really find anything exactly like it, given that the Netflix production had more freedom to portray something akin to absurdist horror mixed with allegorical social critique. What I can offer you, however, are 5 dramas that I feel feature similarly good acting, comparably well-written plotlines and also – because let’s be honest, this is another big factor in the show’s success – plenty of gorgeous people to develop unhealthy crushes over! From dark social commentary to cute rom-coms, here are 5 K-dramas that will help you get over that Squid Game binge hangover and hopefully discover the magic of Korean television shows long-term.
Dark comedy, larger than life acting performances and social criticism: Sky Castle
The acting in Squid Game is truly out of this world amazing and a very good showcase of what Korean actors can do. Gone are the days when actors from Asian dramas were slightly scoffed at for overacting and over-emoting, and K-stars such as Park Seo-joon are getting international recognition (not that they need it, mind you – many successful Korean acting stars have plenty of fans and lucrative brand deals already). In Sky Castle, we get a multitude of breathtaking acting moments from powerful actresses giving 100%, among them Yum Yung-ah (the stepmother in A Tale of Two Sisters, a horror movie that still gives me nightmares to this day) and Kim Seo-hyung, who you won’t be able to take your eyes off whenever she is in a scene!
Sky Castle aired in 2018/19 and became the second-highest rated show in Korean television history. Given that the drama focuses mostly on women in their 40s, this was quite the feat in a media landscape that tends to overly focus on youthfulness and “cutsey” girls. In most dramas, women 40+ are mere side characters, usually mothers (either psychopathically evil or angelic), but recently this has changed, and mature actresses are given more and more meaty, multi-facetted roles. Sky Castle is set in the world of the rich and ambitious upper class of Korean society. It tells the story of four women who are desperate to see their teenage children gain entry to one of the three top university (the so-called SKY universities, hence the title), no matter the cost. One of them will go too far – right over the edge of her own sanity.
This is a family drama slash dark comedy with many absurdist moments, but it will also make you cry your eyes out over the pain that these privileged people’s ambitions inflict upon innocents. It is also a drama with very little romance overall, so it may be a good pick if you aren’t into love stories.
Intense action scenes, slowly unravelling intrigue (+ very hot people!): Healer
If you enjoyed the action-packed scenes in Squid Game with hot detective Hwang Jun-ho and are looking for an equally appealing hot guy fighting thugs, then Healer could be a great fit. Main lead Ji Chang-wook shot to global fame thanks to this drama, and I myself fell pretty hard for him if I’m honest. As “Healer”, an illegal night courier ready to take on any job except murder, he gets tangled up with a decades-old political conspiracy that also involves the resourceful Chae Young-shin, a young reporter with a mysterious past. Korean superstar actress Park Min-young and Ji Chang-wook have great chemistry throughout the drama, and even though their romance plot can get cheesy sometimes, they also portray a wonderful layer of vulnerability and sweetness in their relationship that I felt offers such a great contrast to the grimmer parts of the drama.
Healer starts slow and unravels its mysteries carefully, so you may need a bit of patience at first. But the balance between romance and action is done so well, the acting is stellar down to the smallest role (shoutout to veteran actress Kim Mi-kyung as middle-aged “hacker ajumma”!), and the writing is truly outstanding.
Gritty atmosphere, gore and opulent settings: Kingdom
I have to confess that I haven’t watched Kingdom beyond its first episode as of now, mostly because I have a strong aversion to gore (I usually looked away during the violent scenes in Squid Game), and this drama offers plenty of that. This is another Netflix-produced drama, so like Squid Game, it can show some things that are usually toned down or censored in dramas. The premise of Kingdom is really unique, which is probably why it became such a massive success worldwide. Kingdom is a historical drama set in the Joseon period, Korea’s dynastic kingdom that ended with Japan’s quasi occupation/colonisation of Korea. These types of costume dramas are very popular in Korea, known for their opulent sets and epic plotlines.
Now, here is the unique part: at its core, Kingdom is actually a show about a zombie plague! Yep, you heard that right – this is a historical drama about a king that becomes ill with a mysterious virus that turns him (and of course more and more other people) into a flesh-eating zombie. This genius combo of zombie horror and palace intrigue has, I believe, never been done before, and for a somewhat ridiculous premise, it’s done incredibly well, with optics that are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Supernatural police procedural with underdog characters to root for: Signal
I feel that not enough people know about this fantastic drama, which is a true shame. To me, it remains one of the best shows to this day, Korean or otherwise, and especially the spectacular acting by Cho Jin-woong deserves more widespread recognition. Signal is a police procedural with a supernatural twist: young profiler Park Hae-young stumbles upon a strange walkie-talkie that connects him to detective Lee Jae-han – 15 years in the past. Together they try to solve crimes that – from Jae-han’s perspective – just happened, while for Hae-young, they are cases that never found closure.
The twists and turns in this drama will make your head spin, and the way the writing manages to weave together the two timelines for a very satisfying ending had me on the edge of my seat. Signal also earned recognition for featuring real life crimes and raising awareness for how marginalised parts of society (women, children, impoverished people) are often mistreated by the Korean police. For me, this is one of the best crime dramas I have ever seen, with top notch acting and heartbreaking, infuriating, shocking moments that will make you want to binge the whole thing in one go.
Refreshing, light-hearted palate cleanser to help you get over episode 6 of Squid Game: Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
This drama isn’t out on German Netflix yet, but I feel I have seen enough fan edits and clips (and maybe caught the first episode already outside of my Netflix subscription, maybe…) to already know I’m going to love it. Netflix US is releasing new episodes of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha weekly, and the hype for each new release is intense! I am not surprised about the show’s popularity, given the incredible star power and charming dimple combo of beautiful actress Shin Min-a and Mr. “second lead” (now finally the main guy!) Kim Sang-ho.
The drama’s premise is a simple one, and indeed that is precisely why it is such a comfort watch: a young dentist from Seoul decides to move to a sleepy seaside town and open her own clinic there to escape her problems. Given her slightly awkward, clumsily direct ways of communicating and a tendency to judge others at first sight, Yoon Hye-jin immediately clashes with the town’s jack-of-all-trades and general nice guy, Hong Du-sik. But, we all know how it is – opposites attract, and not everything is what it seems at first.
What could have turned into a simple, one-dimensional rom com is given depth thanks to the various townies portrayed by an enthusiastic and utterly charming cast. If you still feel traumatised from everything that happened in Squid Game, especially that episode 6, then Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha is truly the perfect antidote for that. You will be smiling from ear to ear after every episode, promised. A fair warning though: the ending song will get stuck in your brain until the end of times!
I hope these K-drama recommendations will guide you in the right direction after finishing Squid Game and wondering what the heck to pick next. All of these shows should be available on Netflix, depending on your region, and they should give you a good idea of what type of drama you like best. These are just 5 of the dozens and dozens of dramas I’ve enjoyed over the years, so let me know if you need future articles giving you recommendations.
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Let me know in the comments: What are your thoughts and feelings about Squid Game? Have you watched any other K-dramas, and if you are a K-drama fan, how do you feel about the sudden interest in what was often seen as a silly pastime by many?
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