javabeans: Second leaaaaaaads! Where would we be without them?
girlfriday: Happier, probably.
javabeans: But also maybe more bored? Because c’mon, a well-placed second lead (and his unrequited love for the heroine) can provide a certain crackle to a juicy romance, even if sometimes that crackle often comes with big booming pain.
girlfriday: I just mean I’d probably be happier, because I often ship the wrong guy and then end up in a puddle of my own misguided tears. But dramas would be nowhere without second leads. Not all dramas need to have love triangles, but so many dramas do, and when they’re great, they can really drive a romance and make us feel for all the parties involved. It just makes sense that in order to have an effective love triangle, you need a really compelling second lead who has a shot at winning.
javabeans: Of course, this whole concept of “winning” is its own can of worms, since many of these effective second lead stories often present him as the perfect man, the one the heroine really deserves, instead of that mean ol’ hero who always makes her cry. It drives home the idea that nobody “deserves” a person’s love over anybody else, not when love isn’t a quid-pro-quo transaction, but damn if the shows don’t know how to dig that knife of injustice into our hearts with that extra twist.
girlfriday: That twist is mean, but clearly it works, because I’m such a sucker for the pining unrequited love.
javabeans: What’s funny about this phenomenon (which we’ve long been calling Second Lead Syndrome, because it is practically diagnosable at this point) is that half the time I’m convinced that I’m immune to its effects, remembering all the fantastic OTP’s I’ve never once betrayed. Then I remember all the doomed supporting lead romances that broke my heart and there I go, cursing the dramaland fates that make second leads so goddamned appealing.
girlfriday: It really only takes one to make you think that there’s suddenly something wrong with the universe, for not letting the second lead get the girl this time. Even if you’ve watched hundreds of dramas and never cared about a second lead once, there will suddenly be one who steals your heart and leads you to cry foul over the main loveline.
javabeans: Second Lead Syndrome is such a fixture in love stories these days that our Top Ten list had to narrow down the criteria, otherwise our shortlist would have been a hundred names long. In keeping with the theme, our choices were limited to the second leads whose love stories brought us the most pain or gave us the most grief.
girlfriday: Yes, the ones where we were cursing writers. And then of course second lead syndrome leads to shipping wars, which is a whole other dimension of pain.
javabeans: Oh my god, shipping wars. What a way to take your private agony, pour a ton of salt into the gaping wounds, and magnify them for the world to pick at. Why, whyyyyyy? Why do we do this to ourselves, and why do we never learn?
girlfriday: I DON’T KNOW. But I think it’s true that we never learn, because every other year when another Answer Me series comes out, I want to hide in a hole until the war is over and call my mommy to come pick me up.
javabeans: I like my second lead romances a little toothless, myself, because I want to feel pity and sympathy for the poor guy but not actually feel torn up inside about shipping the wrong person with the heroine. Because even when you like Mr. Second Lead better, 99.99% of the time, we all know she’ll end up with the hero instead. (And 0.01% of the time, we cry for days and write angsty lists about it.)
girlfriday: Cue list!
1. Answer Me 1994 (2013)
javabeans: Answer Me 1994 inflicted some serious raw wounds in my heart over its second lead arc, pains I’ve been keeping deep in repression ever since the drama ended, and I have this post to thank for dredging up all those terrible, agonizing, glorious feelings for Chilbongie and the love he was never destined to have. Of course, it wasn’t purely my fault for picking the wrong guy—not when the show did everything in its power to lead us astray, giving us actual hope that he wasn’t, in fact, the doomed second fiddle. That fakeout was part of the reason I felt so viscerally hurt when my ship crashed and burned: Answer Me’s writer understood dramaland’s cliches and rhythms so well that she was able to masterfully circumvent expectations (in a way I don’t think any other writer has been able to do regarding romance). Usually we know who’s getting the girl and who’s getting left in the dust, but 1994 faked us out brilliantly by giving the second lead the hero treatment, keeping the OTP in the shadows while building up the sweet, devoted, puppy-doggish Chilbongie as our heroine’s potential future husband. By the time the realization of the OTP’s direction hit, those of us on Team Chilbongie were already in too deep to get out without suffering damage. I could accept and appreciate Oppa ultimately being the husband, but it was the path to that end that did me in. And as an extra-salty kicker, the fanwars that sprung up over the two ships felt particularly vicious and mean-spirited, so invested did everyone feel in their particular team. This is the drama that made me swear off all future Answer Me seasons for good… and based on good ol’ Number 2 below, it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. Never say I don’t learn anything!
2. Answer Me 1988 (2015-16)
girlfriday: Apparently some of us don’t learn, because even after suffering through the agony of rooting for Chilbongie, I found myself back here, thinking that this time I’d play it safe and be on the right team. The obvious team. The one that wouldn’t make me cry. I had a plan and everything! Of all the installments of the Answer Me franchise, this one really set us up for the ultimate fakeout. Honestly, I never thought in a million years that Ryu Joon-yeol wouldn’t get the girl. He was the classic drama hero through and through, as the prickly boy next door who kept his feelings close to the vest while our heroine flailed over her adorable crush on him. I didn’t even spend the drama feeling bad for him like a regular second lead, because it seemed like such a foregone conclusion that he’d be the heroine’s husband in the future that viewers invented a term for it, which translates to “Obviously Future Husband Ryu Joon-yeol.” Instead, I spent the drama having (totally unnecessary) second lead sympathy pangs for quiet Park Bo-gum, because he was just like Chilbongie, and surely doomed to break my heart. Surely! This was a case where I loved both boys, but just fell for the trap of expecting characters to follow the archetypes we’d seen in drama after drama, which of course the writer played up for maximum twistiness. I might even consider it clever, if not for the fact that Ryu Joon-yeol cut my heart out and left it on a restaurant table sometime in the early ‘90s, next to the confession he gave and then took back. On the upside, I no longer feel feelings.
3. Boys Before Flowers (2009)
javabeans: This drama was practically designed around Second Lead Syndrome, and judging from the sea of tears shed by the sinking ship (the better to float it with?), it utilized it mighty effectively. This drama offered a textbook case of how being a “better” man doesn’t entitle anybody to anybody else’s heart, and second lead Ji-hoo was established as pretty much all of the good things that leading man Jun-pyo wasn’t: thoughtful, kind, gentle, calm, mature. The drama went so far as to declare Ji-hoo the heroine’s soulmate—platonically, of course—and she forged a friendship with him immediately; her relationship with him was as easy as her relationship with the hero was perpetually turbulent, as though two kindred souls need no time deciding that they’re simpatico. Even when the main romance was in full swing, it was often Ji-hoo who understood her thoughts and concerns better than the guy she’d chosen, and to underscore his general decency, he often helped smooth the bumps in their relationship even as he was pining for her heart himself. It was enough to make you figure, Well, if she has this perfect sunbae dying to be with her and still picks the volatile, immature, jealous other dude, then I guess it really is love! Sadly for second leads of dramaland, being Mr. Perfect is no longer enough for true love. Tough crowd!
4. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
HeadsNo2: There’s something tragic and swoony about the second lead who is the heroine’s constant but silent protector, operating behind the scenes while being hopelessly in love with her. Maybe the appeal of the second lead is the doomed nature of it, the fact that they Can Never Be, even though in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, I really, really wanted them to be. I wanted them to be so badly that my bones will be found on their sunken ship years from now.
In many ways, Moon Jae-shin was the typical hero character—dark, handsome, deep, and a bit of a bad boy. He was the rebel who discovered our heroine’s crossdressing secret and went to any lengths to protect her, all without her knowing. Who wouldn’t want a guardian with that soul-stealing gaze? The way he looked at her with all that hopeless devotion broke my heart, especially since she remained mostly unaware of everything he did for her. It wasn’t easy to protect her secret in an academy full of men, but watching him try, whether by stopping others from discovering her bathing or by wriggling his way in between her and the lead while sleeping was half the fun of the show. Okay, that and the fact that he got a mad case of the hiccups whenever he became romantically aware of her. That was always adorable. *hic*
5. Heirs (2013)
girlfriday: Trying to argue Lee Min-ho vs. Kim Woo-bin in Heirs is a little bit like judging the heights of acorns, as they were both punks in a school full of rich entitled punks. I couldn’t tell you that Kim Woo-bin’s brash high school tyrant was a good person, but I can tell you that I found him more compelling than our hero, whose wardrobe often had more personality than he did.
I guess I have a big soft spot for the thorny teenage rebel who lashes out because he’s harboring so much inner pain. This guy totally deserved to go to jail for half the things he did in the drama, but I was surprised that I often cared more about his character development than anyone else. I couldn’t believe that he thought tormenting a girl and bullying her publicly was the best way to get her attention—like pulling a girl’s pigtails, but in a violent, criminal fashion. But then when he started following her around and trying to do nice things for her (and failing miserably, as being nice is a behavior he actually had to learn for the first time), I found myself moved by his tiny steps toward humanity. He seemed so starved for friendship and love, and even though he always went about asking for it in the wrongest way possible, I really wanted him to get his happy ending.
6. You’re Beautiful (2009)
HeadsNo2: The force was so strong with this second lead ship that it almost felt like fanservice when another drama (You’ve Fallen For Me) later cast the two actors as romantic leads, which at least soothed those fans who’d been heartbroken by the lack of a happy ending for Shin-woo and Mi-nyeo. In You’re Beautiful, which also featured a second lead intent on protecting the heroine’s crossdressing secret in silence, Shin-woo stole hearts by just being there for our heroine as she tried to navigate the world of boy bands—a far cry from her previous calling as a nun. His approach toward looking after the naive and adorably childlike heroine was the completely opposite of the hero, who fit the cold-on-the-outside-squishy-on-the-inside mold to a tee. Perhaps this personality divide is a large reason for the fandom divide between the two love interests, since both extremes were available to root for, even if we all know one of those sides was futile. Despite knowing the secret of her true identity, Shin-woo formed a friendship with the heroine and treated her as one of the boys, and always made sure to be available to step in to help her, whether she knew it or not—whether it was providing a shoulder to sleep on, carrying heavy equipment for her, or bearing the fact that she liked his bandmate more than him. Such is the fate of doomed second leads, sigh.
7. Who Are You—School 2015 (2015)
girlfriday: This one still makes me so mad! I’m not often confused about why a heroine chooses the leading man, since there’s usually enough in the drama to back the OTP when all is said and done, but in Who Are You—School 2015, I actually had a hard time understanding her choice. It was a case where I had to chalk it up to something she had seen in Nam Joo-hyuk’s character offscreen, because it wasn’t a thing I felt and could relate to. It didn’t help that second lead Yook Sung-jae had a very natural rapport with her, making all their scenes sparkle with warmth, or that he was so adorable about his puppy crush on her. He was the first person to recognize the heroine for herself and not her twin sister, the one who protected her from being found out as an imposter, and the first person to call her by her real name—something that genuinely moved me, and made me think that he was the only person who saw the real her. In a story all about finding the courage to live as herself, that mattered to me a great deal. When unni came back, it provided us with the perfect solution—two happy endings!—but they sank two ships instead. Why? Why would they do that? Why would anyone do that on purpose? Clearly I’m still not over it. I will never be over it!
8. Chuno (2010)
HeadsNo2: You know that love triangle that still gives you goosebumps, where just thinking of it makes you want to rewatch an entire show all over again? Chuno was that show for me, with its epic scope and equally epic love story at its center: a slave hunter, destined to hunt down the love of his life, who had once been a slave in his household. And while you desperately wanted him to find the love of his life, said love was completely oblivious to his undying devotion. An interesting thing happened as the show went on, when we began to realize that the hero wouldn’t reach her in time—she had, at that point, fallen for another man, a fellow slave on the run who had once been a deeply principled general. It was impossible not to fall for this classically heroic character, the direct antithesis to what antihero Dae-gil had become, even though the conflict of loving both characters at once (and wanting them both to get what they wanted, which was unfortunately mutually exclusive) was torture of the best kind. Her love story with the former general had a depth of feeling in a stoic and understated sort of way, until the pairing felt natural, even under their unnatural circumstances. And when the heroine eventually reunited with her first love, we saw a rare case of the second lead’s virtues winning out, which was a rewarding and bittersweet experience all at once. I’m still so torn!
9. Autumn Fairy Tale (2000)
HeadsNo2: I watched Autumn Fairy Tale retroactively after embarking on a Won Bin marathon, which is relatively easy since we’re going on seven years since he’s been in anything (Just be in a movie, Oppa! Any movie. Please?), so admittedly I saw the show through a slightly different lens than viewers who caught the original run. But both then and now, Won Bin’s character fits the bill of the the quintessential aggressive second lead, playing second fiddle to the perfect and amazing hero and definitely not taking it well.
So maybe he could sometimes veer toward the dangerous, with loads of wrist-grabbing and trapping the heroine against walls, but the shows of aggression and tears were just his way of saying that he loved the heroine, even when he was sometimes kind of maybe demanding that she love him back. I’m realizing now that he doesn’t sound quite so good on paper, but he was oddly captivating in the show, and you wanted him to get the girl because he wanted it so very badly. All my memories of him in Autumn Fairy Tale involve angry tears, low growling, and him trying to buy her love with all his money, but he was such a driving force for the show that I couldn’t help but continue to watch for him. He never stood a chance, and that was part of the angst of it—but like all melodramas of that period, we got to enjoy his paaaaain, which there was never any shortage of. Were we all masochists back then? Are we still, and is that why we fall in love with second leads?
10. My Girl (2005-6)
javabeans: Ah, what a throwback to the early days of Hallyu. My Girl certainly wasn’t the first trendy rom-com to invoke Second Lead Syndrome, but its fanbase’s reaction to its passionate second lead (thanks, Lee Jun-ki!) felt unusually strong for the time, and crested just as the first wave of Hallyu was really taking off and popularizing Second Lead Syndrome as a phenomenon. I confess to never succumbing to the second lead’s pull in this drama (I was loyal to our OTP, through and through), but I couldn’t leave My Girl off this list—not when Team Lee Jun-ki’s vehement and impassioned embrace of his character and doomed ship were so strong that I was amazed and a little bewildered by it. Granted, a large part of that appeal came from the actor more than the character, who was, on paper, familiar stuff: the nice, friendly guy who befriends the heroine when the hero doesn’t appreciate her. Even though I didn’t feel its thrall, I had to acknowledge that it was a powerful force, driven by the fire-versus-ice contrast between him and his hero best friend. Moreover, his pushiness was balanced by his basic good nature, offering us a welcome new development in the trajectory of the aggressive second lead—he felt emotions strongly, but took them out mostly on himself, rather than imposing them on a heroine who didn’t want them. It was a refreshing display of an ever-slightly-more-evolved Second Lead, and I’ll always remember him (and his mad elfin-fairy hair!) fondly.
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