The K-Dramas To Watch After Twenty-Five Twenty-One

by Iana Murray

Still from twenty five twenty one
Courtesy of Netflix

Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine chooses a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, writer Iana Murray recommends Netflix’s Twenty-Five Twenty-One, along with four additional K-dramas to stream once you’ve finished.

If you haven’t caught Hallyu Wave yet, what’s stopping you? Of course, plenty of South Korea’s cultural exports have found critical and commercial success across the globe—from BTS to Parasite and Squid Game—but there’s also a wealth of Korean dramas that are so varied in genre and style that there’s something for everyone.

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate the diversity of the United States, but there’s also something to be said about the full breadth of stories being told around the world. If progress for global Asian representation feels slow, the full range of well-developed characters in K-dramas is wholly refreshing. In these shows, there are romantic leads deserving of love, aimless thirty-somethings in search of purpose, and villains whose immorality doesn’t stem from their nationality. There is no limit to what someone can be.

And if you’re feeling that there is a dearth of romantic comedies, K-dramas are the ultimate salve. Unabashedly deploying every silly trope you’ve ever loved then rewinded to watch again, from the shoulder naps and the piggy backs to falling on someone's lips, these shows aren’t afraid to embrace a good old-fashioned cliché. (But also prepare yourself for the Truck of Doom.)

Then there are the dramas that have a lighter touch, like the heart-wrenching coming-of-age romance Twenty-Five Twenty-One, which became one of Korea’s most highest-rated shows in history as well as a hit internationally via Netflix. Starring Kim Tae-ri (who you may recognize as the conniving servant in The Handmaiden) and Nam Joo-hyuk, the series takes place at the onset of the IMF crisis, the financial crash that struck Korea and the rest of Asia in 1997. Set in this tumultuous period of the country’s history, a young fencer named Na Hee-do is devastated to learn that her school is cutting its fencing team to save money, and so, she pulls any scheme she can (like going to a bar to get expelled) in order to transfer to a more prestigious club attended by her idol Ko Yu-rim (WJSN’s Bona). From the perspective of its childish protagonist, it's easy to empathize with Hee-do’s rash attempts to make it as an athlete, but the series is also not oblivious to the wider economic trouble the country is facing.

There’s much to love in Twenty-Five Twenty-One’s 90s nostalgia that starts from its VHS-style opening credits, but the series also makes for an enthralling sports drama. The show hinges on the tender, slow burning attraction between Hee-do and Baek Yi-jin, the son of a bankrupt conglomerate family, but it’s Kim Tae-ri who carries it. She handles the story’s gradual tonal shift from high school comedy to tragic love story with ease, exploding in a glorious cry baby tantrum, then later reeling it in as Hee-do matures with age.

If the success of the Young Royals, Elite, and the aforementioned Squid Game are indicative of anything, it’s that audiences are more than open to the rich storytelling available outside of the US. K-dramas are some of the most comforting treats you can have in your cultural diet, and with that in mind, we’ve compiled some of the best for you to enjoy.

Crash Landing on You

A surprising twist on the star-crossed lovers story, Crash Landing on You follows a chaebol heiress who accidentally flies into North Korea in a paragliding accident. Unable to return home, she finds refuge in the home of a quiet soldier where they, not so shockingly, fall in love. Despite the outlandish set-up, the series was praised for its nuanced approach to life in North Korea that humanizes the people living in a tough environment with frequent power cuts and house checks by the military. If you stay patient (episodes can stretch on well past the hour mark), you’ll be well rewarded with a sweeping epic that is as romantic as it is sobering. If nothing else, the recent marriage between stars Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin is a testament to the overflowing chemistry on screen.

Where to stream: Netflix

Because This is My First Life

K-drama romances love a slow burn so gradual that even a brush of the fingertips a dozen episodes in can be as cathartic as any development. In Because This is My First Life, a struggling TV screenwriter rents a room from a stoic computer designer, and though they have both written off relationships, the two enter a contractual marriage as part of a deal for cheaper rent. Because This is My First Life subtly deconstructs the weight of tradition and societal pressures to marry, but the show is above all a featherlight rom-com. There’s a comfort to be had in the predictable, and the drama revels in the “opposites attract” dynamic of its couple.

Where to stream: Netflix

Chicago Typewriter

Yoo Ah-in made his mark on the festival circuit with his alluring performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning, but the actor is equally as compelling as a jaded author with a buzzcut in Chicago Typewriter. In this time-skipping thriller, Han Se-joo (Yoo Ah-in), one of his fans, and a ghostwriter realize that they worked together as resistance fighters in their past lives during Japan’s occupation of Korea.

Where to stream: Viki

Extraordinary You

One for the more initiated, Extraordinary You is a clever meta take on K-dramas and webcomics. On the more fantastical side, the series follows a high school student who discovers that she’s a character in a comic book (and just a lowly extra at that) whose entire fate is at the mercy of a writer. Even when this high concept comedy picks apart the absurdity of K-drama tropes—such as casting protagonist Dan-oh as a terminally ill damsel in love with an irredeemable bad boy—it’s far from overly cynical thanks to the sweet romance she finds with another nameless extra.

Where to stream: Netflix