[Dramaland Catnip] When the hero falls first
Strong Woman Do Bong-soon
There’s something about this concept of dramaland catnip that really appeals to me—the tropes or elements of a drama that lure me back in without fail, like a moth to a flame—because it puts the blame on the dramas for sucking up all of my time and making me addicted. I couldn’t help it, you see! It was the catnip that got me!
Though dramaland is rife with tasty catnip everywhere you turn, I have a particular attraction to romances where the hero falls in love first. Specifically, dramas in which the hero spends a good deal of the time pining in an unrequited love that is then requited in the end (otherwise, it becomes Second Lead Syndrome, and that is the way of paaaaaain).
It’s just one of those things I chalk up to pure preference, because I always gravitate towards love stories where the heroine is pursued and not the other way around. Perhaps it’s wish fulfillment—in my experience, real-life romance is full of flailing, awkward, mistimed confessions, and if there’s one thing I’d like to go back in time and tell my younger self, it’s to pay less attention to the hot guy and notice the doofus with a crush on you. Not that my sixteen-year-old self would ever listen. She was stubborn and thought adults were stupid.
In order to be truly catnippy for me, the hero has to spend a significant portion of the drama in a one-sided love, not just be the first to fall in love or confess his feelings. It’s all about the pining that ensues when the hero realizes he’s fallen—the delightfully angsty period of unrequited love and jealousy, because OF COURSE, she likes somebody else. It would just be too easy otherwise. And the pettier the jealousy and the longer the angsty pining, the better.
Answer Me 1997
I can trace my addiction to this particular trope all the way from 1997’s Propose—where the hero spent the bulk of the drama with a secret crush on his lifelong best friend while she almost married the wrong guy—to 2017’s Strong Woman Do Bong-soon—where we had a heroine who was blind to the hero’s affections because of a longtime crush on her friend, and a hero who fell for her instantly and waited on the sidelines for her to get over her first love. I found Park Hyung-shik’s hero to be just the right amount of patient/impatient, prodding but not pushy, and his jealousy for the starry-eyed way that Park Bo-young’s heroine looked at her crush was the cutest thing I’d seen in a long time. (And how satisfying was it when it was finally his turn to get the glory backlighting of reciprocated attraction?)
But what Strong Woman Do Bong-soon highlights best about this trope is that it puts the hero in the position of the observer, and he sees and loves the heroine for who she is, and not the version of herself she thinks she needs to project in order to be loved. In stark contrast to the willowy, helpless girl the heroine thought she needed to be in front of her crush, the hero saw her super-strength and was attracted to her because of it, and he reinforced time and again that her strength was a gift and an asset. He was the observer who saw everything going on in the love triangle and was aware of all sides, including his own painfully unrequited position in it, and when he saw the heroine’s insecurity and self-doubt, his approach to winning her over was to make her realize that she was lovable, and loved by him.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
The love triangle in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju was very similar in its themes, just less superpowered and more down to earth (but no less swoony!), and though this hero spent more time being clueless about his feelings, I appreciated so much that he was always the heroine’s best cheerleader, even when it angered him to watch her pine after someone who didn’t see how great she was.
Sometimes it’s simply the pure devotion that hooks me. There are some quiet pining heroes who are in it for the long game, like Seo In-gook’s character in Answer Me 1997, who spent eight years nursing his epic first crush and probably would’ve taken his unrequited love to the grave if the heroine hadn’t forced him to fess up. I Hear Your Voice’s hero takes the cake for searching for his first love for ten years, risking his life to protect hers, and falling for her again even after getting amnesia. Talk about your enduring loves.
Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim
And even in instances where the intensity doesn’t run that deep, this romance setup is addictive to me for the courtship shenanigans alone. There’s the breed of hero who makes foolish, overt declarations of love, like Yoo Yeon-seok’s character did all throughout Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim, much to Seo Hyun-jin’s embarrassment and my enjoyment. That hero was hilariously brash and put his foot in his mouth with a new confession at any given opportunity, each time in front of more and more people on the hospital staff until every single doctor, nurse, and orderly had become witness to his one-sided crush. I always loved the hero of Biscuit Teacher Star Candy for that reason too—he wore his bleeding heart right there on his sleeve, for the world to see.
On the flipside, there’s the hero for whom falling first means that he shows his feelings through the quiet thankless gesture of love. This is dramaland after all—doing nice stuff for credit isn’t heroic, you have to be anonymous and stealthy about it! Twenty Again’s hero was a little over-the-top with his stealthiness, but when he wasn’t being petty (which was admittedly most of the time), he went out of his way to protect everything that was important to the heroine without any hope of her loving him in return. This type of Daddy Long Legs character is usually the classic second lead, but once in a while it’s nice to meet a hero who spends all of his energy trying to make a heroine happy. Often it’s the mundane things that make me swoon the most, like Kim Young-kwang’s character in Plus Nine Boys taking the wrong bus every night for a year just so he could spend the ride home with his crush Kyung Su-jin, not caring that he had to double back in the opposite direction every time.
Plus Nine Boys
My favorite result of the hero falling first is the jealousy that ensues when the heroine’s attentions are directed at his rival. Jealousy is like catnip concentrate to me—I love how immature and petty and honest it makes people, and how it drives a loveline to the point of awareness. In every drama I know where the hero falls first, jealousy plays a big part in getting him to realize his feelings or act on them, sometimes to comical effect or crushing angst, or more likely, a bit of both.
Jealousy Incarnate is probably the best example of this that I know. It’s worth noting that technically, the heroine falls first in this drama, and spends three years pining after the hero in the show’s backstory. But then the hero is dealt a karmic blow when he falls for her after she’s moved on and is dating his best friend, sending him into a spiral of angst and jealousy and unrequited longing. Though this hero realizes his feelings all too late, there’s an added layer of satisfaction in the reversal—he only has himself to blame, and he knows it. The one-sided love in this drama is so painfully good, mainly because Jo Jung-seok is emotionally raw and funny-sad in a way that only he can do. Love is like an affliction for him, and he’s so desperate to be rid of these unwelcome feelings that he’s constantly mad at the heroine (inexplicably, from her point of view) for being so cute that he can’t help but love her. It’s as ridiculous and adorable as it sounds.
In dramas they always say that the one who loves more is the weak one—not a weaker person, but the one in the weaker position in the relationship—and I just like this dynamic where the hero is the one in a position of disadvantage because he loves more. Whether it’s Strong Woman Do Bong-soon’s hero laying his heart bare and asking the heroine to love him back, or Jealousy Incarnate’s hero begging to know which man the heroine loves just one percent more than the other, I like that this puts the choice and the power in the heroine’s hands, letting her call the shots in the relationship. Jealousy Incarnate is a hilarious example of how this power shifts from person to person whenever someone is loved more—after pining pathetically for the heroine, the hero briefly reclaims this power the minute he realizes that she loves him back, and lords it over her childishly. Knowledge is power, people.
I’m sure you’ve realized by now that the huge gaping pitfall of this trope is Second Lead Syndrome. Because no matter how much you tell yourself not to be catnipped onto the wrong ship, you will inevitably be lured by a pining schoolboy (Answer Me 1988) or two (Who Are You–School 2015), and find yourself wailing into a pile of tissues and cursing your incurable affliction for heroes with one-sided loves. This is an unavoidable side effect for which there is no recourse. That’s just the price we pay for our addictions, because if we could stop ourselves with logic, then it wouldn’t be catnip, would it?
I Hear Your Voice
Tags: Answer Me 1997, I Hear Your Voice, Jealousy Incarnate, Plus Nine Boys, Propose, Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim, Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, Theme of the Month, Twenty Again, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju