Bubblegum: Episode 1
So very sweet. TvN’s newest romantic comedy Bubblegum premiered earlier this week, introducing us to one delightful and adorable friendship between a guy who knows everything about the girl who keeps some secrets close to the vest. Even though these two may bicker as the day is long, they’re also best friends who deeply care for one another.
Calm and serene may not sound like much of a hook, but the show’s mostly breezy tone makes this an easy hour to watch. There’s something nice about having a dependable friend who can be there for you at the drop of the hat, no matter how old you two are.
Note: This is just a first episode recap.
SONG OF THE DAY
Hong Dae-kwang – “답이 없었어 (No Answer)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1: “Still, You Should’ve Said”
As night falls in Seoul, a female radio host checks in with her listeners’ responses to a question she posed earlier in the show: When do you feel the loneliest? While she reads off the replies, the camera pans over the city to reveal our world, zooming in on a baseball that crashes into a window; above that a female student standing on a rooftop’s edge, ripping up a test into pieces.
Those bits of paper flutter with the wind down to ground level, atop a middle-aged woman’s car. In a different car, another woman looks somber at the taxi behind her.
At last the radio host arrives at the last response: “When it feels like the person’s heart is absent even though that someone is by my side. And yet, when that person is my everything.”
Saying that those are some depressing answers, she figures that those who claim to not be lonely wouldn’t be listening in at this hour. Brightening at her PD’s written suggestion, she asks for her listeners’ participation to turn their lights on and off in beat with the next song as a show of support for their lonelier listeners.
The radio PD is none other than our heroine KIM HAENG-AH (Jung Ryeo-won) who joins the host in finding a spot to view the upcoming spectacle. The restaurants to the nearby gas station all join in, and that somber-looking woman in that station rolls down her car window to watch.
The radio host grows excited at seeing any flicker of light in the cityscape amidst the darkness despite her sardonic coworker’s response. Just above them, the head radio director KANG SUK-JOON (Lee Jong-hyuk) stops working to watch as well.
It’s pouring out when we catch up with Haeng-ah later that night, getting drenched while moving her things using an office chair. She reminds the security guard that she lives in this building, breezing past the question of why her boyfriend isn’t helping her out.
That answer lies in the recent past when Haeng-ah had told Suk-joon that this place would be empty of her and her things when he returns. He had said they’d pick up this conversation later, but she had sought out to tie up any loose ends here—he may have been the one to end things between them, but she’ll take care of the rest.
So Haeng-ah returns the chair, waters his plant, and sets the matching pillows on opposite ends of the couch. Taking one last look at the place, she bids him well before heading out.
The apartment shows memories of Haeng-ah spending many nights here alone, often waiting up for Suk-joon, only to be disappointed time and time again. A voiceover narrates how a simple phrase like “I’ll call you” can be construed in different ways—one may take it at face value to talk soon while another uses it as a polite way to put a conversation on hold.
“Since neither knew that they were speaking two different languages, that’s why people break up,” the voice finishes. And as if to cement Haeng-ah’s departure, the pink smiley face pillow rolls off the couch.
Back in her own place, Haeng-ah stops unpacking and lays out on the ground. Sighing, she asks herself if she’ll crumble like this, then pushes the thought out of her mind. She slides across the floor to turn on the radio to tune in for the last few minutes of the current broadcast.
In a gentle voice, the radio host speaks of how rain is a result of the clouds unable to contain the amassed water droplets anymore. And when the rain falls, it’s as if the sky is crying on their behalf, reassuring the people below that it’s okay to cry and also okay if one can’t.
As for Haeng-ah, she attempts to pull herself together before heading out to the balcony, listening while keeping any possible tears in check.
Although we’ve gotten a few glimpses of him, we finally meet our hero, doctor PARK RI-HWAN (Lee Dong-wook) who arrives at the clinic bearing a package for Haeng-ah.
It turns out that baseball we saw earlier crashed through a window in Ri-hwan’s herbal medicine clinic, and the young baseball player sits nervously across from him, denying any responsibility in last night’s incident. Rather than some broken window, Ri-hwan cares more about why the youngster won’t play in his upcoming game.
A sudden sound of breaking glass prompts the boy’s mother to rush inside the office in alarm. Ri-hwan sends her back out with the reassurance that he, not her son, threw that glass, then lets the young pitcher have a go at it, too.
That shattered glass breaks the ice, as the young pitcher admits that it’s not that he won’t play but that he can’t. Playing for the baseball team requires money his family doesn’t have—plus, his mother uses cut-up pieces of pain-relieving patches for her aching wrist just to save pennies.
Ri-hwan tells him that he has two choices: either putting up with it in silence or become a better player and at the opportune moment, show everyone what he’s made of. Giving him hope about a future in baseball, Ri-hwan offers to treat his mother’s wrist for free… in exchange for an autographed baseball when he turns pro.
As Ri-hwan cleans up the glass, he declines an offer to eat with his carpool buddy. He has to head out to attend to a special patient, and is told by the security guard that Haeng-ah hasn’t picked up his food package for days now and doesn’t ever seem to be home.
Skeptical, he calls Haeng-ah to ask if something’s up. She denies that anything’s the matter and lies that she’s at home and has been all day. He asks if she’s eaten, and when she says she has, he replies she must’ve gotten the diced radish kimchi he left her then. I love how their casual back-and-forth says everything about their close friendship.
When she hesitates, Ri-hwan chuckles, knowing that Haeng-ah’s been caught in her own lie, then asks to meet up. Haeng-ah protests that she’s got plans — really important plans — and Ri-hwan doesn’t press the issue.
Too bad he catches her trying to run away from him as he’s leaving the restaurant Secret Garden. Haeng-ah sticks to her story that she was at home eating the radish kimchi until Ri-hwan pokes holes into that—it was cabbage kimchi, not radishes. Heh.
He runs through a variety of possibilities from getting beat up to going on a diet, crossing them off when Haeng-ah doesn’t react to any of them. Something feels off even if he can’t get a pulse on just what yet, and it’s telling that Haeng-ah seems surprised that he’s leaving so soon, though she quickly buries her disappointment.
Haeng-ah greets her father through a picture of him before the restaurant employees sit her down for a proper meal. It’s sweet how they all fuss and worry about all aspects of her life just like any family member would.
We see Haeng-ah revert to her younger self before them, and the restaurant family hangs on her answer that there was someone before she takes it back so as not to worry them. She returns to her adult self when she takes a call from work.
They’ve got a problem—their diva-like live radio show host can’t make it tonight because her dog is sick. Haeng-ah meets up with her co-worker and writer NOH TAE-HEE (Kim Ri-na) who is taken aback at Haeng-ah’s casual appearance in a pair of overalls.
After convincing the radio DJ to go through with tonight’s broadcast, they stop by the dentist’s office. Haeng-ah and Tae-hee are told to wait outside with the dog, and cross paths with a snooty and wealthy woman on their way out.
Dentist HONG YI-SEUL (Park Hee-bon) is the same gloomy woman we saw at the top of the hour. Her mother is the wealthy woman in pink, whose disapproval to everything fits the description of every chaebol mother in dramaland.
She’s here to talk about her daughter’s next seon (an arranged date with an intention of marriage), giving us a breakdown on Ri-hwan’s familial background: he’s an herbal medicine doctor, his mother is a fellow physician, and his father passed away before he was born.
It’s unlikely he’ll inherit his grandfather’s wealth, but he’s got a good job and there isn’t a speck of dirt on him either, so he’ll do. Yi-seul’s exasperated sigh is enough to tell us that all of this is routine, and so she lies that she has a patient to see.
When Ri-hwan visits the broadcasting station, he takes a quick selca with a banner of Suk-joon. Ha, a fanboy I see. Haeng-ah pops in just then, saying that she meant to see him but attending to the diva radio host’s errands kept her.
In any case, Ri-hwan pulls Haeng-ah aside to make sure she consumes her prescribed herbal medicine. He takes an opportunity to ask if everything’s okay when she immediately sends him on his way again. She denies it, of course, and he fusses over her checking for any symptoms: does her stomach hurt, is she not sleeping, or having bad dreams? Or did she faint from seeing blood?
Her voice gets louder and more defiant, especially when he asks if she has relationship issues. She tugs at him to leave when the elevator arrives, and when the doors open, her eyes grow wide.
This is Ri-hwan’s mother PARK SUN-YOUNG (Bae Jong-ok), who looks bothered at seeing the two looking so friendly. The reason? Years ago after her parents died, a teenage Haeng-ah was dropped off to live with Ri-hwan and his mother, and Mom had been prepared to send Haeng-ah away if she got too close to her son.
Although it appears like Mom and Haeng-ah get along enough to speak in banmal to another, there’s also an unspoken distance between them. When Haeng-ah mentions how she wanted to spy on Ri-hwan’s last seon, Mom cuts her off to say it’d be better if she and Ri-hwan didn’t appear so friendly in public.
Even if they practically grew up together under the same roof, people can misinterpret their closeness. His upcoming date (Yi-seul) has previously called off an engagement because of her fiance’s womanizing, so she may be more sensitive about her date having a close female friend. Haeng-ah tenses and quickly nods in understanding.
Tae-hee arrives to collect Haeng-ah just as Ri-hwan returns, divulging later that it was a lie to draw Haeng-ah away from that awful woman. Why would Haeng-ah be so scared of her when she clearly isn’t a threat in any way? But Tae-hee’s show of concern makes Haeng-ah smile and nuzzle up to her. Aw.
Haeng-ah reminds the radio host to keep her language in check for tonight’s broadcast before going live. We see Ri-hwan listening in while grocery shopping, and the host reads off a post entitled “You Won’t Read This Anyway.”
The listener writes that she asked for some encouragement on her upcoming exam, but never received a call back. In a chipper voice, the host reads on the dreary contents about how she failed the exam and was met with her mother’s disappointment until she stops short at the line about how the listener plans on killing herself tonight.
The rest sounds like a suicide note, and we see a pair of legs standing at a rooftop’s edge. Uh oh. The mood quickly turns dire as Haeng-ah mouths to get this listener on the phone, stat. While they call the emergency in, the radio host desperately asks the listener to call in.
She hurriedly says that one grade doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world—she ranked dead last in her class and extremely successful now. Haeng-ah chimes in that she was a great student, but earns a paltry salary. They keep trying to reach out, saying that all mothers say terrible things that they don’t necessarily mean.
She turns to Haeng-ah for help, and Haeng-ah agrees—she lost her mother at the age of five. Her father passed away too, and the unexpectedly honest and personal story leaves the radio host speechless.
The radio host redirects the pleas to a less morbid topic, and Haeng-ah adds matter-of-factly that she broke up with someone yesterday. Ri-hwan stops in his tracks at hearing that last statement, then leaves the groceries with his roommate (and fellow doctor), KWON JI-HOON (Lee Seung-joon) whose pockets are practically empty.
The staff finally gets through to the suicidal listener, and after confirming that the young listener — the same female student we saw in the first few minutes — is standing on the roof, the radio host prattles on about lighthearted topics, which are only met with chilling silence.
Panicked, the radio host calls out to the student screaming when there’s no response… and the student responds, to her utter relief. They can hear the paramedics calling out to the student, and everyone in the studio breathes a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that the student is now safe.
Now that the immediate danger has passed, a commercial break follows. Not too far off, an ajusshi runs up to the studio in his slippers; we’ve seen him a couple of times in this episode making remarks about the show in what looks like the station’s break room.
He’s general manager JO DONG-IL (Park Won-sang), who praises the crew for resolving the emergency, though he’ll expect that he’ll need to do some damage control for all the alarming personal stories their radio host shared.
He broaches the topic about Suk-joon to Haeng-ah before catching himself, then turns to Tae-hee about how well she handled all of today’s unforeseen events.
Inside the recording studio, the radio host asks after Haeng-ah’s confessions, which is nothing compared to everything she shared from her poor studies to starring in adult films. The realization that the information is out there finally hits her, but there’s nothing they can do about it now.
Haeng-ah jumps a foot when Ri-hwan appears out of seemingly nowhere when she arrives home. He argues that he should be more shocked because she told him that everything was fine. How could she tell the whole world about her breakup, but not him?
He starts with the endless questions again, asking if the guy’s a celebrity or something and adding that a million thoughts ran through his head. She even said on the airwaves that she spent her last birthday alone, cancelling the arranged plans with friends. And no, he won’t let her get a word in because she’ll just lie to him again.
But that’s the last straw for her as Haeng-ah asks defensively, “Why do I have to be scolded like this?”. She’s not one of his patients who lied about how sick they truly were, but he says it’s practically the same thing because she pretended that things were fine when they weren’t.
Haeng-ah concedes to apologizing for lying and having a tough time these days, but that only frustrates him even more. She points out his tendency to be overbearingly concerned about others, but that’s when they’re interrupted by the security guard, who asks if he’s here to help move her things.
Not missing a beat, Ri-hwan immediately pesters her about it until they get inside where he sighs at the still damp, unpacked boxes piled up in her place. She tells him to forget it, but Ri-hwan grabs the first box he sees, and Haeng-ah jumps in alarm to stop him.
But it’s too late and Haeng-ah’s jaw drops at the spilled bras and sanitary napkins. Ri-hwan stifles a laugh, but doesn’t shy away when she flashes the pad in his face. He takes it from her, which grosses her out. Seriously, these two are the cutest.
He runs away and examines her practically empty refrigerator. Haeng-ah freezes when her phone rings just then—it’s Suk-joon, isn’t it? Ri-hwan swipes it, and despite her best efforts (which includes climbing him like a tree), he answers it.
Sure enough it’s Suk-joon’s voice on the other end, and the calls drops when the phone falls out of Ri-hwan’s hand. He’s surprised to hear that Haeng-ah’s ex is none other than Kang Suk-joon, whose morning show he diligently listens to on his way to work.
It’s sad to hear Haeng-ah defending her ex and his busy schedule, placing the blame on herself instead. Ri-hwan immediately calls her out on it with his usual laundry list of questions—why break up with him if he did nothing wrong then? Why did she freeze when he called?
He asks if the rumors that she was in an abusive relationship were true, which she quickly shuts down. He says it doesn’t make sense to break up for no reason, and Haeng-ah finally bursts, “I broke up with him because I felt lonely! Because I hated being alone!”
“I’d be up waiting for a text that could never come, waiting for my turn after he attended to those urgent and important matters, driving myself crazy, growing sick and tired on my own… I broke up with him because I was tired of all that,” she says. The very idea that this vicious emotional cycle of waiting up for him the same way tomorrow would made her skin crawl.
“He’s… done nothing wrong. He didn’t ask me to like him, and he’s never been gentle with me. I was the one who liked him more, that’s all.” Her voice drops as she says all the rumors about him are false—he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Like everyone else, they dated for a while and now they’re broken up.
Ri-hwan gets up to leave a little later, though asks if she’ll be okay on his own. He gets worked up when he hears that she’s put her apartment on the market without first looking for a new place to live, and she doesn’t seem altogether worried about it.
There’s nothing worth stealing here anyway, and that’s when Haeng-ah realizes that she left her mother’s bracelet at Suk-joon’s place. He starts berating her before stopping himself and asks what apartment her ex lives in.
She tells him not to bother because she’ll go get it later, and when he says it’ll be weird if she runs into Suk-joon, she fires back that it’ll be stranger if her ex runs into him.
Speaking of whom, Suk-joon parks in front of Haeng-ah’s building before heading the other way. Watching him leave, we hear Ri-hwan narrate, “When two people break up, could only one of them be hurting?”
“The one who can say nothing is hurting all alone, and the one who doesn’t even know he’s hurting, will feel hurt later.” As we see Ri-hwan follow Suk-joon up in the elevator, the narration continues: “The one who neglected that hurt is in greater pain.”
Ri-hwan climbs inside before the door closes to declare that he’s here for the bracelet and to confront Suk-joon about doing nothing while Haeng-ah moved out. That confrontation is put on pause so that we can travel to the past learn about the bracelet’s origin.
Little Haeng-ah had gotten upset when Ri-hwan came in and admitted to playing with another friend instead of her (and scraped a knee, at that). She’d demanded that he get out, to which he had whimpered: “But this is my house…” Heh.
Haeng-ah’s father had found him sitting on the stoop, and tiny Ri-hwan said he and Haeng-ah agreed to tell each other everything. He had intended to give Haeng-ah this bracelet which was in his mother’s possession.
Later that night, Haeng-ah’s father had given her the aforementioned bracelet on Ri-hwan’s behalf. She could wear this like her mother once did, and little Haeng-ah says aloud, “Like Mom did? So this is Mom’s bracelet.”
And that same bracelet lies in a drawer in the present, waiting to be found.
What an endearing opening hour for Bubblegum. For a show centered around a close, longtime friendship, I’d been looking forward to see what that interaction would look like between our leads. And I must say that there’s an inexplicable spark and an adorable chemistry that just works between them.
We’ve all seen so many dramas in the past where the friendship was cute, but rarely has any felt as natural and unassuming than between Lee Dong-wook and Jung Ryeo-won. Perhaps starring in a sitcom over a decade ago helps with that rapport, but right off the bat, Ri-hwan and Haeng-ah feel like true friends who have been together through thick and thin. I love that his character knows her inside and out, from her most endearing qualities to her oddest quirks. Moreover, he doesn’t take any bullshit from her either, although when he’s fussing over her, he barely lets her get a word in. Like any good friend, he cares for her and the people she cherishes, and calls her out whenever she’s trying to clam up.
So when they’re not supposed to have any kind of secrets in their friendship, I can understand that Ri-hwan would feel hurt that the entire world knew what was wrong with his best friend before he did. At the same, he wasn’t there to see Haeng-ah’s deep sense of loneliness. Those mostly silent sequences (often with a simple voiceover) did a wonderful job to tune us into Haeng-ah’s emotional state—that, and Jung Ryeo-won has this uncanny ability to draw viewers into the moment, whether that’s to make them laugh or cry. I could feel her heartache when Haeng-ah tried to hold back her tears and called up a smile in front of her co-workers.
It’s doubly hard when the woman who put a roof over her head after her parents died was prepared to cast her aside if something romantic developed between her and Ri-hwan. Hearing something like that would bound to leave an emotional scar, so I get it if that’s also part of the reason why Haeng-ah keeps certain things from Ri-hwan. Pair that with an emotionally absent boyfriend, and then it’s actually amazing to watch how Haeng-ah compartmentalize her emotions to get through each day.
Stepping back though, the visual roll call of minor characters in the beginning, though stylistically well-done, left me confused. Take Manager Jo for instance, whose first glimpse was as if I should already know who he was. As a viewer, I could watch that scene without much thought, but in a recap, I’m going to wonder why we stopped to highlight him in particular. Not every character introduction needs to use the same formula, but I wish I’d been shown somebody without the show presuming that I knew who they were from the start.
Still, Bubblegum certainly has its charm, rooted most importantly in the central friendship. Thanks to that flashback in the last few minutes, we can tell that where once little Haeng-ah was more bossy one, the roles have switched now that they’re adults. I do wonder how that bracelet will play out, but there’s one thing I’m completely sure of is that Ri-hwan and Haeng-ah are plain adorable. So I may not be there to write the words past this one-off recap, but I’ll be tuning in to watch every delightful moment between them.