One of the unexpected upsides of 2020 was the time and opportunity to get back into dramas. In the past, there had been a handful of series I absolutely loved, but I’d always had a hard time getting into new ones.
This year, though, I became somewhat of a drama fanatic, catching up on many that I’d missed and diving into quite a few new 2020 titles. So rather than focus on Korean variety this year, I’m excited to unveil my favorite dramas of 2020.
Unlike my taste in music (which can be somewhat predictable), I’m interested in a wide range of dramas. As long as the characters are good and the writing is sharp, genre doesn’t really matter to me. Here are eight Korean and Japanese dramas that I fell in love with this year. They aren’t ranked, as they’re all pretty pretty different from one another. But, I did include my top five “best actress” and “best actor” selections.
Feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments!
Alice In Borderland (Imawa no Kuni no Alice)
What it’s about: Without warning, nearly every human in Tokyo suddenly disappears. Those who are left behind are forced to play sadistic, deadly games to stay alive. But who’s controlling these games, and is there a way to escape this new nightmare reality?
Why it’s fantastic: This show is seriously messed up in the best way. It’s strangely cathartic to watch such a scary and violent dystopia in a year where we’re in a bit of a dystopia ourselves. Alice is whip-smart and edge-of-your-seat compelling, with big budget production value that really makes this barren future feel real. Halfway through, the drama flips on its head, transforming into an even more engaging show. Yamazaki Kento is magnetic as always, and Tsuchiya Tao makes for a great action heroine. Thank god there will be a second season, because I need to know where this story goes next. (And if you’ve read the manga, don’t you dare spoil it…)
Cherry Magic (30-sai made Dotei Da to Mahotsukai ni Nareru rashii)
What it’s about: Introverted salaryman Adachi Kiyoshi gains the power to read others’ minds when touching them, and is surprised to learn that his popular co-worker Kurosawa Yuichi has romantic feelings for him.
Why it’s fantastic: In a Japanese sub-genre that can sometimes be fetishized or made overly dramatic, Cherry Magic is a sweet, slice-of-life story that’s an instant mood lifter. Much of that appeal falls upon the two leads, who have great chemistry and fully commit to their characters. Akaso Eiji will utterly charm you as the clumsy, loveable Adachi, while Machida Keita imbues the “perfect” Kurosawa with unexpected depth. This drama has gained a somewhat unprecedented global following, and it’s easy to see why. There’s no way to come away from it without a huge smile on your face. This one’s special.
Fake Motion: Takkyu no Osho
What it’s about: Various table tennis teams compete against each other. And they have magical table tennis powers… because of course they do.
Why it’s fantastic: This drama is just a ton of fun. It’s as ridiculous and colorful as its summary would suggest, like a comic book come to life. But if you’re interested in getting to know the boys from Stardust Promotion’s EBiDAN J-pop groups, this is a great primer. They’re pretty much all in here, from main roles to supporting. And if you’re thinking “sports + sci-fi” sounds like a fun mix, Fake Motion might just be for you.
What it’s about: 17-year-old Gong Ju Young falls in love at first sight with classmate Wang Ja Rim, and attempts to woo her in earnest, over-the-top displays of affection. She’s not really having it.
Why it’s fantastic: Adapted from a webtoon, Love Revolution pops with energy and is often laugh-out-loud funny. Park Jihoon is more endearing and scene-stealing than I ever thought possible, and Lee Ruby’s disinterested poker-face is up there with the best of them. The supporting cast is also incredibly strong, giving each short episode the spirit and familiarity of a great sitcom. It has the kind of gawky charm perfect for high school. I knew I’d love it from the moment that Jihoon’s Ju Young decides to perform EXO’s Mama as part of a love confession. Good taste in music, right? But, episode 19 is probably the funniest half hour of television I watched this whole year, from any country.
Miman Keisatsu: Midnight Runner
What it’s about: Police academy cadets Honma Kai and Ichinose Jiro get some serious on-the-job training when their nosy sense of justice embroils them in several unexpected cases.
Why it’s fantastic: This is basically “The Odd Couple” set in a police academy, but you couldn’t ask for a better pairing than Sexy Zone’s Nakajima Kento and King & Prince’s Hirano Sho. Never mind that the two are basically playing themselves. Their chemistry is absolutely fantastic. Their opposing personalities make for great comedic moments, but Midnight Runner can also be surprisingly thrilling and emotional. I love that, when it comes down to it, the drama is about friendship and always doing the right thing.
Only I’m 17 Years Old (Boku Dake ga 17-sai no Sekai de)
What it’s about: Seven years after the tragic loss of her childhood friend (and potential love interest) Kota, the now-adult Mei returns to her hometown to find him reappeared – still the same 17-year-old kid he was before his untimely death.
Why it’s fantastic: This drama knows exactly what it wants to do. It wants to make you cry. And, it will. I usually avoid these kind of melodramatic tearjerkers, but 17 is quite good. From the rural setting to the naturalistic performances, there’s a palpable sense of nostalgia running through the entire series. The first episode is among one of my favorite openers of any 2020 drama, and even though tragedy is never far from the storyline, the series is never a downer.
#Remolove: Futsuu no Koi wa Jado
What it’s about: Type A perfectionist Ozakura Mimi is an occupational health physician, tasked with enforcing Covid guidelines at the corporation she serves. But when she starts having a conversation with a mystery man on social media, she realizes that she’s beginning to fall in love. Little does she know that this person is actually one of her co-workers.
Why it’s fantastic: Haru’s Dr. Mimi is so incredibly quirky and way more relatable than most viewers would probably like to admit. In fact, this whole drama is odd in the best way. It pulls off the difficult task of finding humor in 2020’s pandemic-stricken reality without being disrespectful or dismissive. It’s a very modern-day romance, drawing upon all the awkwardness that stems from our digital age. But yeah, this is Haru’s show. She’s just a delight to watch, and can convey more with her eyes (the characters are often masked and social distanced) than most are able to muster with their entire face.
What it’s about: A reinterpretation of the 2009 American film 17 Again, 18 Again stretches the same “return to the past” concept across sixteen episodes, expanding the supporting cast as main character Hong Dae Young gets the opportunity to reflect upon his life choices and how they’ve affected those he loves.
Why it’s fantastic: I remember seeing that Zac Efron film in theaters and thinking it was pretty fun. But, 18 Again takes that same basic story and deepens it to impressive levels. This drama hits so many nuanced emotional notes and can really knock you sideways with its examination of falling in and out of love, guilt and remorse, hope and regret. Leads Kim Ha Neul and Lee Do Hyun are absolutely phenomenal in their roles, playing complex characters you will root for with every fiber of your being. But what I loved most about 18 Again was how it took the time to dig into every single character – even the most minor or unlikeable – and give them a backstory that helped you see the drama from a new perspective. After all, 18 Again is all about reflection.
And now, The Bias List’s First Annual “Favorite Performances” Ranking:
(think of it like my own little Oscars!)
1. Kim Ha Neul (Jung Da Jung, 18 Again)
2. Haru (Ozakura Mimi, #Remolove)
3. Iitoyo Marie (Konno Mei, Only I’m 17 Years Old)
4. Lee Ruby (Wang Ja Rim, Love Revolution)
5. Tsuchiya Tao (Usagi Yuzuha, Alice In Borderland)
Eguchi Noriko (Tomichika Yuri, #Remolove)
Lee Mi Do (Choo Ae Rin, 18 Again)
Tanaka Minami (Himeno Reika, M: Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite)
– the drama was not good, but she was memorable… to say the least!