Ex-Girlfriend Club: Series review
Romantic-comedy series Ex-Girlfriend Club just wrapped this weekend on tvN, and despite being dealt a disappointing cutback that shortened the show by four episodes, the drama went out in much the manner of its run: sweet, understated, and feel-good. This was never a drama where Big Things happened, focusing more on everyday interactions and relationships, peppered with some seriously gut-busting comedy.
The official reason for the cutdown was to “keep quality high” through the end of the show, though I don’t believe for a second that it wasn’t ratings-motivated. tvN has been getting trigger-happy with low-performing shows (stop that, tvN!), and unfortunately the only episode of Ex-Girlfriend Club to break the 1% mark was its premiere; it ended on a 0.778%.
So it’s a little odd to say I’m glad that the show got cut, which never makes anyone feel like a success, but twelve episodes does feel like the right length for this series. It enabled Ex-Girlfriend Club to remain mostly brisk and humorous, rather than introducing angst that felt sluggish or mopey. (Then again, I often feel like most sixteen-episode dramas should be twelve, and twenty-episode dramas should be sixteen. Basically, a lot of dramas would be better with their stories tightened up.) It’s unfortunate for the production because a cut always hurts—it’s essentially a vote of no-confidence—but narratively I can’t complain.
SONG OF THE DAY
Lee Seol-ah – “무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다” (The rose of Sharon has bloomed) from the Ex-Girlfriend Club OST [ Download ]
So, the plot. The gist is straightforward: A movie producer learns that the production company she works for is on the brink of going under, and has to put all of her eggs into one last movie basket—which is based on a webtoon her ex wrote… about his ex-girlfriends. Now she has to deal with warring personalities, conflicting agendas, and having her ex back in her life while trying to keep the movie project afloat.
The longer version: KIM SU-JIN (Song Ji-hyo) works in a small, struggling indie film company that has seen better days. Her projects are serious and award-winning, but these days her staff has dwindled to three—then two, once her debt-saddled boss skips out, leaving the company on the verge of ruin.
The one project still in the pipeline is a webtoon-adapted rom-com. Su-jin initially protested because a romance is too light and fluffy for her taste, but when it becomes their last shot at saving the company, she goes after it, only to realize that the webtoon writer is her ex (sorta), BANG MYUNG-SOO (Byun Yo-han).
I say sorta because Su-jin soon discovers, in mortifying fashion, that while she’d harbored fond memories of Myung-soo as her ex, he never considered them dating. At first, she’s so happy to see him again that you wonder why they broke up; after hearing him call her “buddy” and “best friend,” her initial excitement makes her situation all the more embarrassing. Cue sympathy-shudders of horror.
It’s actually this one point that hooked me to the show, which took about three episodes for me to warm up to it. Before the girlfriends won me over, before the zany comedy kicked in, it was sympathy for Su-jin in this moment that kept me going, because I just had to see how Myung-soo would come around. I wouldn’t say I necessarily needed her to get revenge, but I felt such pity for Su-jin’s confused one-sided feelings that it fired me up to see if, and how, Myung-soo would earn his way into her heart, and therefore also mine. (Spoiler alert: He did.)
Add to that the chaos that erupts when each of Myung-soo’s exes reappears, equally opposed to the idea of having their past loves splashed onscreen for the public to watch. They’re a formidable bunch, strong independently but downright fearsome when you put them all together. In the webtoon they’re represented as animals—the cool Cat, ferocious Lion, sexy Fox—while Myung-soo is a cheetah that constantly gets mistaken for a dog, to his chagrin. (Nobody wants to be the dog of a love story.)
The human versions live up to their cartoon counterparts: First Love Ji-ah (Jang Ji-eun, Gu-am Heo Joon) is the Cat, a chic older woman who left Myung-soo to marry a rich man she didn’t love, now divorced and still carrying a torch. Lala (Ryu Hwa-young, Today’s Love) oozes sex appeal and is a third-rate actress doing bad ero-melo films, sly like her Fox persona. And Hwa-young (Lee Yoon-ji, King’s Family) is the high-powered careerwoman Lion, she of the scary personality and crazy eyes.
When they get together… well, let’s just say that all the hair-pulling and screaming in the drama’s teaser wasn’t a metaphor:
Not that their opposition isn’t understandable: It’s their pasts that’ll be played out for audiences, sometimes for comedy’s sake, and what seems funny in a cartoon could come off a lot more unflatteringly when played out in live-action. Even after they’re brought round to allowing the movie to go on, they each want a say in the development, demanding rewrites and adjustments to suit their preferences. At best, it’s a headache. At worst, it’s a K-drama.
But among Su-jin’s more admirable traits is the talent for bounce-back, and she puts aside her chagrin to focus on the goal in front of her: Make this movie happen, or else. She’s even able to brush past that I’m-not-an-ex-girlfriend awkwardness, allowing for her former camaraderie with Myung-soo to return, and we see how well-suited they were as best friends.
Su-jin proves to be tough without being your typical drama Candy (the annoyingly downtrodden kind), and optimistic without seeming stupidly naive. It’s a great character for Song Ji-hyo, who hasn’t always connected with her characters (or her leading men) but comes through here to produce a likable, endearing heroine. (It helps that she’s allowed to smile here. All the time, in fact. Why are dramas so reluctant to let its characters be happy?)
And despite the potential for aggravation with the hero—he is the main reason everyone’s up in arms, after all—Myung-soo is a genuinely decent person, a point that all three exes and Su-jin recognize repeatedly. It’s a little unexpected for Byun Yo-han to have gotten a leading man role so soon after his breakout (Misaeng), but I so pleased that he got the chance to carry a story; he brings a genuineness and good spirit to the character that could have been lost with a different actor.
There are, of course, more complications. Su-jin scores an investor for the movie, only to find that Hwa-young (Lion) works at the company and is their liaison for the project. Stickier still, Hwa-young’s about to be married to a bureau chief at her company, and is dead-set on making sure he never finds out that she’s the Lion (who admittedly does some nutty things, as depicted in the webtoon). That means they have to keep her status as an ex-girlfriend a secret from the fiancé, which would be a lot easier if his pick for film director weren’t (1) his best friend who’s out to protect him, and (2) incredibly fast on the uptake and quick to read between the lines.
This kicks us off into a steady stream of comedy gags, which are surprisingly and often laugh-out-loud funny. For Hwa-young’s sake, everyone concocts an explanation for their acquaintanceship that avoids the ex-girlfriend question, which somehow turns Su-jin and Myung-soo into a current couple. An interesting development arises when instead of the fake relationship sparking new, never-before-felt romantic feelings, it instead sheds new light on old circumstances, adding a tinge of poignant wistfulness to the farce.
That isn’t to say that DIRECTOR JO (Do Sang-woo, Legendary Witches) buys any of their act—to the contrary, his sharp, cynical eye pretty much guesses the true situation, though he humors the crew while working out the details, testing the lies at every turn. The ladies’ panicked shenanigans trying to convince Director Jo that their lies are true make for a constant reel of comic situations, which are played with manic energy by the actors and edited smartly to draw out the absurdity.
I’d say that Ex-Girlfriend Club has two primary points of success, and one is its comedic touch. Once we get past the initial setup, the drama isn’t particularly original, nor are the predicaments the characters find themselves in, but the episodes zoom by and deliver a dose of laughter. (I haven’t laughed this hard in a while, and the frantic energy of the acting reminds me of the shenanigans that fueled Marriage Not Dating. And there are a lot of shenanigans at play here.)
It doesn’t hurt that the cast has a pretty well-stocked arsenal of reaction shots and funny faces. I attribute a lot of the drama’s pull to the actors’ commitment—everyone is well-cast and well-performed, a rarity for dramaland.
The ex-girlfriends constantly find ways to show up unannounced, putting a perpetual crimp into the plans for our main pair. The pretexts are flimsy and we know it’s a plot device to gather everyone together, but the excuses are integrated into the plot well enough that they fit logically within the context of the story. For instance, if two ex-girlfriends are working toward a goal (say, preventing Myung-soo and Su-jin from doing something), a third ex-girlfriend pops her head in to do the contrary thing (say, calling in Myung-soo or Su-jin).
Always afoot, the exes insert themselves into gatherings at every turn, in general doing things that would make them pests if not for the fact that they’re cute and well-intentioned. I appreciate the drama’s approach to depicting the ladies as relatable women, so that even when they’re interfering, it’s not for malicious purposes. It makes them adorable complications rather than aggravating ones, which is a trade I’ll take any day.
The stakes aren’t particularly high, but the drama makes sure to remind us why the characters have to keep up the ruse: Hwa-young wants to get married without a fuss, her fiancé is their main investor, and if she can’t get married their own movie is at risk. A simple conflict, but it’s to the drama’s credit that these scenarios play out with good humor; some of these plot points are old hat, like the hero and heroine being forced to play a couple, but if I’m entertained at the hijinks that arise in between major developments, I don’t mind the familiarity of the story.
Better yet is the grudging friendship that springs up—between the three exes, and also between the exes and the current couple, Myung-soo and Su-jin. At first the exes are at each other’s throats, huffy that they’re lumped into the same group with each other. As the plot keeps throwing them together, they develop an understanding of each other that bridges the gap, even when they don’t want to admit it aloud. There’s nothing like being thrown into co-conspiracy to turn a reluctant truce into meaningful bonding, and when they suffer emotional setbacks, the ladies are there to offer up a place to cry, confide in, and in some cases, crash. You won’t get them to admit they like each other, but that comes across in their actions every time they fill in as friends.
I have to give a lot of credit to the drama’s director, PD Kwon Seok-jang, for finding the little moments that keep the show alive even when the plot, by all rights, was merely inching along—there are only so many steps you can cover between a film’s conception to production. But the show was never about the mechanics of the plot, and one look at PD Kwon’s resumé (Miss Korea, Golden Time, My Princess, Pasta) reminds us that his skill is in finding the human moments in everyday life.
It doesn’t hurt that this director has a direct line to the rock band Every Single Day, which has been heavily featured (sometimes music-directing) on his past shows. There’s just something distinctly moody about an Every Single Day song that stirs wistfulness in the heart, isn’t there? (I’ve also decided that Every Single Day should really not score more than a drama every year or two, lest that effect be dulled.)
There were flaws and gaps, of course, and the primary one that I’m glad I was able to get past was the emptiness of the opening. I don’t mean it was empty of plot, but I had difficult connecting with the story until the setup was well established, and I wonder if the drama wouldn’t have been able to maintain its initial 1% rating if it had found a way to inject that heart earlier, into the first episode or at least first week.
Also, the drama’s comic highlights are sometimes few and far between; when they hit, I found them knee-slappingly funny, but the show did sometimes feel like it was taking its sweet time getting to the point. I don’t mind the slower moments as a whole—there are lovely thoughtful moments that stretch languidly, and I wouldn’t give those up just to pack in more jokes—but I won’t deny that a teeny bit more plot would have been nice. These characters were endearing and a hoot when they were doing nothing but bicker with each other, but consider how much better it could’ve been if you’d given them more narrative lifting to do.
All in all, I’m satisfied with Ex-Girlfriend Club and pleased with a few things it left us with: I’m glad to see Song Ji-hyo being winning, for one, because I’ve always wanted to like her characters more than I’ve actually done. Byun Yo-han’s leading romantic turn may have been a mixed bag from a ratings/success standpoint, but I can’t think this show was a bad thing for his career—not when it let him be so cute and approachable and decent. I also loved to see a couple being healthy and supportive of each other, and how that didn’t preclude them from having conflicts and fights—but they found ways to resolve those points of tension with love and affection intact.
Mostly I’m happy to have gotten a drama that was, from start to finish, consistent and sweet, that had both humor and feeling. A drama that let its characters be nice people at heart, that depicted ex-girlfriends as women with more narrative value than just bitchy rivals, that showed the drama in life without sacrificing goodness.
- Ex-Girlfriend Club gets shortened to 12 episodes
- A chance reunion in first stills for Ex-Girlfriend Club
- Pillow talk and hair-pulling in tvN’s Ex-Girlfriend Club
- Roses and catnaps for Byun Yo-han and Song Ji-hyo’s Ex-Girlfriend Club
- Lee Yoon-ji joins tvN’s Ex-Girlfriend Club
- Song Ji-hyo courted to join Byun Yo-han’s Ex-Girlfriend Club
- Byun Yo-han offered starring role in new tvN rom-com