The Secret Life of My Secretary: Episodes 3-16 (Series review)
When I heard about The Secret Life of My Secretary, my first reaction was pure excitement to see Jin Ki-joo getting a leading rom-com role after her breakout performance in Come Here and Hug Me. My second reaction was worry. The Secret Life of My Secretary was not only being aired on the heels of a fresh and fantabulous rom-com (ahem, Her Private Life), but its plot description was one that we’ve seen and heard a hundred times.
Mean, demanding boss? Hard-working heroine filled with gumption? Sudden face blindness diagnosis? It almost felt like The Secret Life of My Secretary was setting itself up for inevitable comparisons to several different dramas that have rode on the same elements (What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim comes to mind first). Were we destined for disappointment, or would the drama be able to bring some sparkle to this trope factory? With the first half of the drama aired, I can safely (and happily) report there is a nice dose of sparkle.
Episodes 1 and 2 had a whole lot of introduction, as we met Director Do Min-ik, his minion secretary Jung Gal-hee in the red cardigan, and the diagnosis that changes his life — and is about to change their relationship, too. It’s a lot of set-up to start, but what unfolds afterwards is quite sweet and fun, and is the bulk of the story.
Because Secretary Jung is the only face that Do Min-ik can actually see, he seeks her out and clings to her in a way that’s so completely authentic and human. At first it’s desperate, then it’s hidden behind bravado, and finally it becomes sincere. Slowly, the gap between our two leads narrows, and though there’s a lot of hijinks and make-believe behind it, the evolution of the relationship is so organic and natural that it feels real.
Do Min-ik’s face blindness puts him at a huge disadvantage in both life and love. It’s a heavy duty reversal for his character to go from expert in facial expressions and body language to someone who can no longer recognize friend from foe (or chauffeur from assailant). There’s a fair bit of pathos in Kim Young-gwang’s performance, but I almost wish the drama dug a little more into the psychology of what he must be dealing with. The script touches on it in certain scenes, but there’s a lot more that could be explored. Then again, this is a romantic comedy, and in that respect, the face blindness device is used to perfection.
How can a drama take completely overused plot elements and create a story that’s still fun to watch? The Secret Life of My Secretary, at least in its first half, is doing a lovely job using common elements to feel warm and familiar instead of the alternative, dry and boring. My absolute favorite thing that The Secret Life of My Secretary is doing is echoing fairy tales, specifically the story of Cinderella.
While it’s not exactly a retelling, The Secret Life of My Secretary plays with a lot of fairy tale elements, and what better heroine to echo Cinderella than Jung Gal-hee, the faithful minion in the red cardigan? Like Cinderella, she’s an orphan in shabby circumstances. And while she’s not a servant of step-sisters, Gal-hee is not only a slave to her boss, but also to her little sister, who she’s determined to educate so she can become part of the 1%. The glass slipper angle is there, too, in the contrast between the giant clunky shoes she runs around in on a daily basis, and the bright and beautiful heels she switches into when she pretends to be a princess. Well, not an actual princess, but a chaebol princess.
Early in the drama we’re introduced to the chaebol princess herself, Veronica Park (Kim Jae-kyung). The film industry is at her feet, and she can make or break a film by her reaction to it, but mostly she just sashays around without a care in the world except her next fling. She’s loud, brash, spoiled, and she’s know to be a man-eater. But she’s also colorful and hilarious, with forced English, crazy inflections in her speech, and hilarious lines like, “Men are alwayyyys welcome!”
But, like many chaebol princesses, her mother is pressuring her to marry. And who is the chosen man? None other than Do Min-ik, who at first has no interest in meeting “that loud woman.” Gal-hee dreads them meeting as well — as it turns out, she was Veronica’s secretary before she worked for Min-ik, so she witnessed, impersonated, and/or covered up for Veronica and her flings time and time again. In the words of Veronica herself, “You did an amazing job as my avatar.” That experience comes in all too handy for Gal-hee.
Through a tangle of events (during which Gal-hee is conveniently dolled up by her secretary pals for a night of clubbing), she winds up rushing to the location of their blind date. Instead of saving her boss from embarrassment, she winds up making a startling discovery: Min-ik can’t see Gal-hee when she’s not wearing her red cardigan uniform.
Rather than seeing the real Gal-hee, which it seemed like he was, it turns out he is only seeing her image as it is imprinted on his mind. Because they are together 24/7, and because she’s always in the same cardigan, glasses, and frizzy-haired ponytail, it’s her face his brain has stored away. Wait, what? This pseudo-reversal disappointed me at first, and seemed like a bit of a stretch, but it turns out to be the main conceit of the show. And, if you swallow the logic, the best part of the Cinderella story is waiting to unfold because of it.
When Gal-hee runs into Min-ik while out of her “uniform” and realizes he can’t recognize her, she winds up impersonating Veronica Park in an on-the-spot decision. To her credit, she hates herself for deceiving him, but the temptation of his world, and the curiosity around seeing how he treats women, pushes her forward. Of course, they’re absolutely magical together. He falls hard for her, while Gal-hee flounders between being herself, and then chucking in some loud Veronica-isms to cover her tracks.
Jin Ki-joo is absolutely fabulous in this role, flipping effortlessly between the frumpy and loveable Gal-hee, and the flashy diva when she impersonates Veronica Park. It almost begs the question of which is more real, the character, or the impersonation of the character. (In fact, I challenge anyone to watch this drama and not be compelled to mimic Veronica’s trademarked “Awwwesooome!” — I know I’ve been doing it all week.)
Another thing I’m really enjoying about the drama is play on the intersecting love lines. There’s no tug of second lead love and pining from afar, which is so refreshing (we all need a break from this from time to time!). Instead, we have the romance between Min-ik and his pretend-Veronica, and at the same time the growing affection and closeness between Min-ik and Gal-hee.
I love how the drama plays with the idea of a person’s position or circumstance creating a barrier against seeing who they really are. Because Gal-hee was his minion, Min-ik never saw her true worth — or saw her as a woman. (Well, he’s beginning to see it but it’s taking a darn long time). In contrast, when Gal-hee is presented to him as an heiress from his world, he’s absolutely taken by her right away. And it’s the same Gal-hee he’s meeting each time, but the scenarios around them have the power to change everything.
As expected in a story of impersonations and duplicity (even if it’s mostly comic), things get out of hand fast. A one-off impersonation turns into several appearances, and pretty soon Gal-hee is role-playing all over the place. In one hilarious scene, she’s trying to be both women in the space of one jjimjilbang. But it can’t last for long, and as each episode passes, we’re waiting to find out how the reveal will happen, and how much damage it will cause these two and their budding relationship.
According to the logic that the story has slowly built around Do Min-ik’s face blindness, there’s a chance he will be able to recognize faces under certain circumstances: a rush of adrenaline while public speaking, overworking himself, or being with the woman he loves. The drama has a lot of fun dropping us these hints and clues as we work our way to Episode 8.
Episode 8 is not only the halfway point of the story, but often a point where the plot reaches an important turning point, and The Secret Life of My Secretary is no exception. Do Min-ik persuades pretend-Veronica to spend 12 hours with him before they part ways for good, and they enjoy a wonderful night doing random and adorable things together. But it’s not long before Gal-hee (like Cinderella) is watching the clock and dreading the moment when the magic must die and she has to return to being only his secretary.
The best fairy tale parallel of the drama is saved for last. Min-ik and pretend-Veronica are saying their farewells at the end of the 12-hour magical date, and he’s bared his soul and told her about his condition. He asks to kiss her before they say goodbye, and after a bit of a moral struggle, she agrees. What better way to end a magic spell, a masquerade, and the first half of a story than with a fairy tale kiss?
If the not-so-subtle hints and foreshadowing we’ve been getting mean anything, this delicious kiss should be enough to get him to see her face — even if it’s only a glimpse. The drama really feels like it has worked its way to this moment, but I’ve been fooled before, so I’ll keep a tiny corner of my brain prepared just in case.
We’ve had a really nice build-up of Min-ik and Gal-hee’s relationship through the first half of the drama, and though these two are clearly set up for a bit of a disaster, I’m anxious to see how the rest of the story unfolds. While I’m not sure if can be quite as fun as all this build-up was, I have enough faith in the drama to be hopeful that the second half will play out well. So, let the girl be seen and the mayhem unfold!
- The Secret Life of My Secretary: Episodes 1-2
- Premiere Watch: The Secret Life of My Secretary, Abyss, Rescue Me 2, Voice 3
- Love blossoms for second leads in SBS rom-com Love at First Sight
- Jumping new teaser for SBS’s Love at First Sight
- Kim Young-kwang transforms into cold perfectionist for SBS’s Love at First Sight