Someday I’ll write up a proper introduction post for the entire Taiwanese drama genre. But until that time, here are the five Taiwanese dramas I would recommend starting with if you’re new to the genre. They all combine popularity and quality, and feature many of the top stars in Taiwanese entertainment.
Most are also from around 2000-2005, because that was the heyday of Taiwanese dramas (there have been fewer good ones made in the past few years). If you like Korean dramas, I can’t recommend Taiwanese enough – they are lower budget and very different stylistically, but just as romantic and addicting.
If you’ve already seen Hana Yori Dango and Boys Over Flowers, the Japanese and Korean versions of this story, you’re likely to be disappointed in this one, which is by far the lowest-budget, but Meteor Garden was the first television adaptation of the manga, and it is amazing. The gateway Taiwanese drama for many people, it’s also the gateway to dramas in general (i.e. the first one ever seen) for others. Barbie Hsu absolutely lights up the screen as the most kick-ass, spunky portrayal of her manga character out of the three adaptations. She and Jerry Yan have amazing chemistry and the script is extremely incredibly well-written. Meteor Garden just has a spark of magic about it; it’s one of those classic stories that draws on some of the most basic impulses that drive us as human beings. Part underdog tale, part growing-up story, part romantic Cinderella-story, it’s one of the first Asian dramas to become incredibly famous, and helped set off the drama craze in the early 200s.
Shancai (Barbie Hsu) is a poor girl unhappily attending a wealthy school. The school is led by four boys called the F4, a group of handsome, incredibly wealthy, domineering boys who hold absolute sway over all the school attendees and are headed by Daoming Si (Jerry Yan) the richest of them all. When one of Shancai’s friends is bullied by them one day, Shancai snaps and openly defies them, and immediately finds herself the target of bullying by the whole school. Daoming Si, however, fascinated by her stubborn courage, soon finds himself falling for her.
That rare drama which is both critically and popularly acclaimed, Mars was an instant classic upon its broadcast in 2004. Re-uniting the almost-couple from Meteor Garden, Barbie Xu and Vic Zhou, it was almost destined to be popular, but no one expected it to achieve the greatness that it did. The breakthrough performance for Vic Zhou, who proved that he was far more than the pretty-boy he’d portrayed in Meteor Garden, it’s a love story between a shy, traumatized art student and a tortured, daredevil playboy. Often dark, it never pulls its punches, yet it’s got a lovely light romantic feel to it too, as well as an incredible emotional depth and psychological complexity.
Vic Zhou and Barbie Hsu seamlessly integrate with their roles and also have intense, exquisite chemistry. (Embarking on a six-year-long offscreen relationship after the drama, they would become the reigning couple of Taiwanese entertainment). It’s not perfectly written by any means – the middle sags, with too much focus on a minor character, and it can be extremely dark. The beginning and end parts, and so much in between, are simply brilliant however, and it’s easily one of the most poignant love stories I’ve ever seen.
3. Devil Beside You
Often abbreviated as DBY, this has remained one of the most popular Taiwanese dramas ever since its broadcast in 2005, and was the breakout drama for current top stars Rainie Yang and Mike He. Starting out over-the-top and strident, it recovers its pace an episode or so into it and reveals itself as an absolutely lovely, funny, delicious romantic comedy, with chemistry-laden main leads and a gorgeous attention to relationship detail. Mike He and Rainie Yang had such delicious sparks onscreen that they instantly became one of Taiwan’s favorite onscreen couples (they would go on to star in almost equally popular Why Why Love two years later).
It’s love at first fight when Qi Yue (Rainie Yang), after gathering all her courage to hand a love letter to her long-time crush, basketball captain Yuan Yi (Kingone Wang), hands it instead by accident to the school’s bad boy Jiang Meng (Mike He), better known as “the Devil”. The exchange sparks Jiang Meng’s interest and he begins pursuing her, to her horror, which becomes even greater when she realizes that he’s the son of her mother’s fiance and that they’ll be living in the same house from then on…
Thoroughly adorable, My Lucky Star is a fan favorite, more for its excellent story than for its (at the time) relatively unknown cast. Often compared to My Girl, it’s the story of a down-oh-her-luck con artist who falls in with a wealthy race car driver. Unusually starring a Korean actress (Yoo Ha Na), it’s funny, charming, and addicting, and hits a nice balance between comedy and more serious elements.
Xia Zhi Xing (Yoo Ha Na) has been drifting most of her life, penniless and on the run with her father from debt collectors/people they’ve scammed. In order to survive, she’s become a skilled con artist, and is used to lying to get out of sticky situations. When her path crosses with Zhong Tian Qi (Jimmy Lin), a down-on-his-luck race car driver, she has no idea that he is in fact the heir to a huge company. Brash, intelligent Tian Qi sees right through her however, and while the two initially clash, Tian Qi is gradually drawn to her courage. His family is less than pleased about the match, however, and put incredible pressure on Zhi Xing to end it. Zhi Xing may just have to pull off her biggest lie ever.
The Outsiders is beautifully shot for a Taiwanese drama, and is also unusually dark for a genre better known for its romantic comedies. A bittersweet love story, it stars Dylan Kuo and Ady An, and is characterized by superb acting, well-chosen music, and a plot that never pulls its punches (yet is grounded in the romance between the leads).
Yu Hao (Dylan Kuo) is a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Abandoned by his parents as a child, he becomes the leader of a small group of teenage delinquents in high school, and is on track to join the triads and become a full-fledged gangster. That is until he meets Yan Zi, the fragile, sheltered daughter of a wealthy family. Yan Zi is a gifted pianist, but feels stifled by her overprotective parents and narrow life. The two experience an immediate powerful connection, but Yu Hao’s friends and Yan Zi’s parents are against the pairing. After Yu Hao and Yan Zi save each other’s lives, they become even closer. The love and loyalty shared by Yu Hao and Yan Zi and their friends will be fiercely tested in the face of violence, poverty, and betrayal however.