Let’s Eat: Series review
Cable network tvN’s fluffy foodie rom-com Let’s Eat* just wrapped this past week, so it seemed like a good time to weigh in on the series as a whole and hear everyone’s thoughts on the show. The 16-episode Thursday drama was one of the network’s recent experiments with one-episode-a-week scheduling, which did make it easy to watch on the side, given a full drama-watching slate (that is, if you’re crazy and you’re me). But it made for a strangely paced story at times, and then when I found myself getting invested in the characters, suddenly one episode a week wasn’t enough.
Overall I’d call it a light, frothy watch that was at its core endearing and character-driven, despite the outward trappings of slo-mo food porn. It does need to be said that there was way too much screen time devoted to extended shots of people eating (it veered on voyeuristic, I swear), but if you were prepared with a bowl of food of your own or were blessed with the willpower of a thousand steely monks, then you’d eventually be able to look past the food to the heart of the show.
If you don’t want to be spoiled, stick to the Introduction portion and skip the rest; the Review section below that will discuss story points, though none of it will explicitly tell you how the show ends.
[*The title of the show is a funny pronunciation of the phrase “Let’s Eat,” that the PD adopted after hearing baseball commentator Heo Gu-yeon pronounce it that way in his regional accent. He later cameos on the show as the hero’s father, which ties together the show title and the hero’s blog, and doubles as some meta fun.]
SONG OF THE DAY
K Jun – “식사를 합시다” (Let’s Eat) for the OST [ Download ]
The drama focuses on the home and work life of our heroine LEE SOO-KYUNG (Lee Soo-kyung), a divorced woman in her early thirties who is content to live alone. The one thing she can’t quite reconcile is her abiding love of delicious food, and her inability to eat out alone.
She’s a foodie who enjoys trying every new restaurant under the sun, and avidly follows food blogs to feed her ever-growing appetite. Her favorite is a strange blog called Let’s Eat that only uploads photos of empty dishes—a sign that a place has to be scrape-your-plate-clean delicious in order to be worthy of a post.
Soo-kyung works as a paralegal in mostly a secretarial capacity, though she’s got a litigious personality to match her area of work. She’s highly distrustful of other people and keeps a rather tight rein on her hermit life, and only has one best friend she confides in. She’s a great bestie though; Lee Soo-kyung always seems to be blessed with great female friendships in dramas.
The heroine is a relatable everywoman, which is exactly in Lee Soo-kyung’s wheelhouse (the actress, since she uses her real name). She portrays the character with an eye for comedy—openly neurotic, uptight, hapless but proud—but grounded in realistic emotion. But then, I’ve always liked her and found her characters easy to root for.
Her next-door neighbor to the left is GU DAE-YOUNG (Yoon Doo-joon), a smooth-talking man in his late twenties who schleps around in sweats most of the time, and can be overheard telling a different girl each day that he’s two minutes away from wherever he’s supposed to meet her, even though he’s still standing in his hallway. Basically, Soo-kyung’s first impression of him is that he’s a liar and a playboy.
But the more we see of him, we find out that he’s mostly an oddball. He owns no furniture and has the bizarre habit of keeping all his clothes at the dry cleaners, and goes there to change every morning, ostensibly to save himself the trip to drop off dirty laundry. I totally admit to thinking this was a genius idea, and wished I lived close enough to a dry cleaner to try it.
The show purposely keeps his occupation a mystery at the start, but Soo-kyung eventually learns that he’s an insurance salesman. What she doesn’t find out for a very long time is that he’s also the author of her favorite food blog. He’s possibly the only person in the world more obsessed with food than she is—though he’s the connoisseur and she’s the rabid eater—they don’t mess around when it comes to the art of eating.
I was pleasantly surprised by Yoon Doo-joon in this role. I think it helps that Dae-young is a quirky character, and a guy with a sunny disposition and a quippy comeback for everything. He really has a lot of fun with the Angry Foodie segments—basically once every episode, someone fails to see the awesomeness of whatever dish they’re about to eat, and he looks into the camera and launches into this over-the-top lecture about why this food is the best food ever created, until your eyes roll into the back of your head. (Of course Soo-kyung is always well into her third bite before he ever finishes.) He totally goes for the comedy, which made me like him.
Soo-kyung gets a new neighbor to the right when a woman dies in the apartment next door (while eating alone, natch), and a bright-eyed bushy-tailed girl in her early twenties moves in. YOON JIN-YI (Yoon So-hee)—or Park Shi-yeon’s clone if you’re like me and couldn’t ever shake the resemblance—is a former rich girl who suddenly found herself penniless when Dad was sent to prison for corrupt business dealings.
This is her first apartment and she’s so new to life that everything from getting a utility bill to having neighbors is exciting to her. She’s so out of touch that it’s actually amusing, and despite the character sounding inane on paper, she’s played with such ebullience that you can’t help but wish her well (and cringe for the harsh lessons that lie ahead for her).
Jin-yi is the bridge between Soo-kyung and Dae-young, because she’s dead set on being friendly with her neighbors. She immediately develops a crush on Dae-young because he’s nice to her, though she has to whittle away slowly at Soo-kyung to have the unni-next-door friendship she’s always dreamed of. Soo-kyung reluctantly warms to Jin-yi in tiny steps, but remains as disdainful of Dae-young as ever.
Jin-yi desperately wants unni and oppa to get along, and finds the common ground—food—it’s the one thing Soo-kyung can’t say no to, no matter how much she dislikes Dae-young. So at Jin-yi’s request, they start eating out together and thus get involved in each other’s lives.
The rest of the players are people at Soo-kyung’s law firm, including Lawyer Kim (Shim Hyung-tak), a vain and petty boss who drives Soo-kyung absolutely crazy with menial tasks that send her reaching for emergency candy bars on a daily basis, just to stay calm and get through her day.
What she doesn’t know is that he’s getting his stupid petty revenge for the fact that she rejected him back in law school and can’t remember who he is, and has basically liked her for ten years from afar. He’s also really into the way Soo-kyung eats (her eating noises are vaguely sexual), and his crush veers into fetishistic territory, but he’s earnest and sincere enough that it doesn’t seem to be why he likes her. I hope.
Don’t get me wrong—he’s freaking hysterical, because we’re meant to laugh at his folly. He’s a funny sad sack. He’s just got a chronic case of foot-in-mouth, worsened by debilitating insecurity, and capped off with the emotional intelligence of a first-grader. But he’s played with this indescribable cheesiness that kills me, and does eventually show some depth that’s moving.
The other law firm characters are mostly around for comic relief, though I like that they have some layers and feel like people who have complicated lives of their own. The show also employs a great deal of cameos in exchange for having such a small core cast. The list is too long to name everyone, but a few favorites were Lee Sang-woo, who visits the law firm to ask about divorcing his wife while shooting his drama Warm Words, and Philip Choi as one of Lee Soo-kyung’s ex-boyfriends, because he played her boyfriend in Soulmate.
Last but certainly not least, Soo-kyung has a dog that she named after Che Guevara, though she calls him by the hilariously formal Vara-sshi (as if Gue Va-ra were a Korean name). The sole reason for the name is a pun—the way Guevara is pronounced in Korean is ge-ba-ra, or “look at the dog.” Dae-young teases the dog for what he thinks is a funny name, which Soo-kyung finds so insulting.
Because our heroine lives alone, she often talks more to her dog than anyone else, so he feels like an actual character with a personality all his own. My favorite thing is that she treats him like a little person, and when they fight, the dog runs to his cage and slams his door to show that he’s angry. Sometimes she even asks the dog for relationship advice, which might explain why she’s bad at romance.
You could mostly call Let’s Eat a slice-of-life drama about our heroine, and by extension the three neighbors who share a hallway. You could also call the show a commercial in drama clothing, though I’d only call it that if it forgot to tell a story wholesale.
The food sequences that were featured in every episode were highly indulgent (in story time, not calorie count, though it was that too), and often felt like we were taking a legitimate commercial break. I can see why CJ Entertainment wanted to experiment with this hybrid PPL sequence embedded into the show itself (CJ Group is a food company, so you just know they’re making a boatload in cross-promotion for something like this).
As commercials they were certainly effective, but I’d much rather have a clear separation between drama and commercial. Setting your drama at your home shopping network a la I Need Romance 3 is about as much brand promotion I can swallow without it taking me out of the story world entirely.
Let’s Eat regularly pulled me out of the narrative when we stopped to ogle at food, for what I eventually came to understand would be long enough to get up, take a bathroom break, and root around in the fridge. I like for my dramas to be able to pay their actors, but this show certainly walked a fine line between a commercial with a story and a drama with lots of commercials.
What keeps it, then, from becoming an extended food commercial is a thoughtful tone and an earnest portrayal of characters who are consistent and well-rounded. I found that despite feeling my brain disengage every time we broke for eating sequences, it reengaged when we got back to the story.
What helps connect all this is the way food is used as a language in the show—the writer makes as much use of this as possible, which I appreciate on a thematic level because it keeps the food relevant. Our heroine is someone whose emotional development is tied to food, whether it’s stress-eating or feeling inadequate to eat a meal designed for two all by herself. When she’s feeling downtrodden, she can barely muster the energy to buy a kimbap roll on the way home; when she and Dae-young keep getting their wires crossed, they both get plain triangle kimbap from the convenience store and eat it alone in their apartments—even in angst, their expression through food is the same.
It isn’t a particularly fast-paced show, and the single-episode format adds to the more languorous feel of the story. Overall it didn’t bother me too much, though it certainly keeps the show from being the first thing you reach for on your to-watch list. I felt that the romance was slow to start, and disliked almost everything about the neighborhood serial killer storyline, where the show decided to keep the lingering threat of a murderer overhead, while failing to develop it in any way.
Perhaps if the thriller element were executed better, I’d have forgiven the story thread for being such a glaring sore thumb. But it was a weird fit for a show like this, and for most of the drama it was such an afterthought that it was literally shoehorned into the epilogues as the credits rolled, to serve as a creepy reminder: Don’t forget, the serial killer is still around! We’ll get to it…someday! It was so badly integrated into the central story that I could never take it seriously.
Obviously there are romantic uses for the killer plot, in that Soo-kyung’s suspicious nature gets her into dicey waters when she jumps to conclusions about Dae-young, and then later when Dae-young worries about her being a potential victim. I do love how focused he is on her safety that he doesn’t even know he’s bleeding from a broken arm until she points it out. It’s a great moment in their story, but altogether it could have been achieved with a story device that was a more organic fit. The same goes for the mystery segment in Jin-yi’s story, which I could’ve done without.
The romance wasn’t one that had scorching chemistry or even a great deal of development, but it was squarely in cute and fun territory. I enjoyed the friendly neighborly bickering, and adored Soo-kyung’s fangirling when she discovers that Dae-young is the blogger whose taste buds she worships. Her sudden change in attitude is hilariously confusing for him, because he doesn’t see at all why she’d care.
Dae-young is an unconventional character, but that’s the main reason I liked him. He has this funny recurring bit where he invents a super dramatic backstory about waiting for his first love based on movie and drama posters in whatever café he happens to be in at the time, and feeds any new woman he meets that sob story in order to keep her at arm’s length. He doesn’t need to do this with Soo-kyung, of course, because she dislikes him already.
But when Soo-kyung calls him out on being too nice to all women and being the cause of all the broken hearts around her, he actually takes it to heart and starts drawing clear boundaries. He even roots for Lawyer Kim to confess his feelings for her, which prompts some of this:
Sometimes it’s nice to come across a romance that’s relatively angst-free, where the cute far outweighs the pain, and everybody in the love square (hexagon?) is likable or relatable in his or her own way.
What drew me to the story was its focus on singledom—not as a dating status, but as a way of life—living for one in a studio apartment, wondering what to eat every night, and the mundane concerns like what to buy at the grocery store that won’t go bad before you can eat it all. I liked that our characters were all middle class average people (or new to it, like Jin-yi), who had to worry about how to scrimp and save to keep the bills down.
What’s nice is that there’s a spectrum between all the characters, so that it’s not a blanket statement about living alone being lonely. In fact, our heroine never once regrets getting divorced and loves the freedom she has to do whatever she wants, as opposed to her best friend who’s married with kids and tied to her responsibilities. She enjoys single living, but her loneliness is real, and she thinks that she can stave it off by not relying on anyone ever.
Her new neighbor Jin-yi is at the opposite end of the spectrum, and is always a little afraid of being alone so much that she’s constantly trying to form new attachments to any warm body around. She’s naïvely trusting where Soo-kyung is deeply suspicious, which makes for a funny dynamic between the two girls. Dae-young is a happy middle ground, though his problem is more that he forms so many surface-level attachments that none are lasting.
The drama isn’t light or frivolous when it comes to that central theme, which is why I ultimately enjoyed the series for being more than its extended sequences of eating. It has a contemplative tone when exploring the characters’ loneliness and isolation, and is less about romance than it is about three neighbors looking out for each other and forming a family in their own way.
Little by little, they begin to lean on each other for small favors, then big emergencies, until they suddenly have people who worry about them when they’re not around. That familial neighborly love was more compelling to me than the romance was (despite enjoying the romance the whole way through), and the one moment that nearly brought me to tears was Soo-kyung’s best friend crying after her run-in with the killer because she was so worried that something could’ve happened to her. And Soo-kyung in turn learns to be a shoulder for Jin-yi to cry on and becomes a genuine friend to someone who needs her.
I really love that the triumph for our main characters is to form real attachments to people. It takes the common idea that family is just people you share a table with, and makes it literal by bringing three isolated people together over their shared love of food. It never mattered what they ate (sacrilege, I know!)—long after plates were emptied and meals were forgotten, friendships had already taken root and love had already wormed its way into guarded hearts.
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