Dramaland justice: What about the second lead?
Justice might be a strong current running through dramaland, but there’s a corner that lies untouched: the land of the second male lead. If there’s a part of dramaland justice I struggle with repeatedly, it’s this one. However perfect, patient, and delightful these second male leads are, they’re always on the losing side. Again and again. Drama after drama.
It wasn’t a stretch to start thinking about second leads while writing about dramaland justice. After all, I’ve been talking about carefully constructed story worlds where elements balance, baddies are punished, rewards are earned, love conquers all and… wait a minute. That works for the lead couple, but it leaves the second male lead in a ditch somewhere, alone with his broken puppy dog heart. Where’s the justice?!
Second leads of the female variety are mostly antagonistic plot stirrers, but the second males leads? Let’s just say there’s a reason why “second lead syndrome” became a thing. To some (okay, to many), the secondary hero shines brighter, burns harder, and is a better fit for the heroine than the leading hero is. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the heroine’s logic when, pulled between two suitors, she chooses the flawed and somewhat obnoxious hero, instead of the steadfast hero in the background.
We all have a drama (or two or three) where something about the second male lead grabbed us, and wouldn’t let go. Whether it was his face, his story, the way he supported the heroine, or his sincere attempts to win her over — he stole our hearts, and nothing else would do for the heroine. And he not only stole our hearts, but our heads, too. Everything about him seemed to make him a better match for the heroine. Why she doesn’t choose him not only baffles our brains, but can cause actual physical damage to our drama-loving hearts. You know the dramas I’m talking about — everyone has a list (and hint hint, some of mine are sprinkled here in the drama screenshots).
Sometimes we all agree on a second lead scenario, and the entire dramaverse seems to reverberate with the same raw emotion. Ryu Joon-yeol versus Park Bo-gum in Answer Me 1988, perhaps? (I’m still not over that one; it tops my personal SLS list.) But there are also dramas where you feel alone in your SLS. While everyone else seems blinded by the charisma of the main male hero, it feels like they are missing out on the magic of the second lead. For me, this was Park Seo-joon versus Ji Sung in Kill Me, Heal Me, or maybe Seo Kang-joon versus Park Hae-jin in Cheese in the Trap.
But that’s not to say I always bite on the second lead bait. Sometimes I inexplicably have no sympathy for the second male lead, as with Kim Jae-wook versus Yang Se-jong in Temperature of Love. Or, even worse, sometimes I like both of them equally. Kim Jae-wook and Ahn Bo-hyun in Her Private Life. Lee Won-geun and Jisoo in Sassy Go Go. Or even Song Kang and Jung Ga-ram in Love Alarm (call me crazy?). Whether you’re rooting for the first lead, second lead, or torn between the two — either way, you’re having a strong emotional reaction, and that just might be the intention.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ramifications around the second male lead, not only as a construct, but as one where we’re doomed for disappointment and bitterness. I can only make sense of it when I remove the real-world logic, and instead look at the experience the story creates for viewers. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head, cursing at your drama, or bawling your eyes out — and none of those are mutually exclusive, either.
The first clue that we should abandon real-world logic is that the probability of two amazing suitors pursuing one woman at the same exact time is not as common as dramaland would have us believe. In the world of dramas, though, there is always this overabundance of wooing. Is it to create an important statement around the fact that love is a choice and an action (meaning, the heroine has the power to choose instead of falling blindly in love)? Or, is it merely because it’s delicious to watch a heroine we identify with be adored, pursued, and have the embarrassment of riches known as the love triangle? In other words, is this just another form of fan service?
If the second male lead is about giving the heroine the power of choice, I can agree with it on paper. I like the pragmatism of choice swirling with the magic of romance. I also like that the woman gets to be the decision-maker here; she’s presented with two very different men, and two very different paths, and we get to watch her choose. It’s empowering, in a way. Is that why we like it?
Then there’s the second possibility — that the second male lead and the ensuing heartbreak are is created solely for our (the viewers’) enjoyment, instead of the heroine’s. It could be that the pitch perfect second male lead is there because we want him there, and because this scenario lets us vicariously experience the things we crave (if that’s something we do crave, or admit to craving). The secondary hero might provide the ego boost of being fought over, but in a way, he also empowers the idea of an OTP. At first glance, he might seem to be against it, or be on one end of a storytelling seesaw — but the fact that he always loses the girl only strengthens the argument. There’s only one true pairing possible. No matter how many suitors offer their hand, only “the one” will do.
The second male lead could be about the power of choice, about vicarious enjoyment, and about the strength of the OTP — but, he can also exist purely as a function of the story. What if the second lead hero is there just to add dramatic tension, give us an underdog to root for (I’m a sucker for an underdog!), and feed the romantic entanglements just enough to keep us watching? This is a likely explanation, since a story without conflict is not a story at all (in the classical sense). And the second male lead always gives us conflict. No matter which of these possibilities of functions is true (if any!), they all beg the question: if the second male lead is a construct created for our storytelling pleasure, why is it often one of the most painful and/or frustrating elements of the story?
When I leave stories where I’ve fallen for the second lead, I feel upset, frustrated, and sometimes even a bit disheartened. I might be happy for the main lead couple and their happy ending, but often, my heart leaves them behind. Instead, I walk away down the metaphorical railroad tracks with the second lead hero. So, what’s the message in all of this? Nice guys finish last? Be caring and understanding and the girl of your dreams will Hulk-smash your heart? Serve your purpose in the plot and then get left behind? Surely not.
This is where circling back to the theme of dramaland justice comes in handy, and gave me another lens through which to look at the second male lead and his sad saga. What if we’re looking at the second male lead the wrong way? He could exist in a drama for any, none, or some of the reasons discussed earlier — but what if his truest purpose is to bring balance to the story?
It’s no accident that the second male lead is so easy to empathize with. Dramas need us to like him, and understand his plight, for that extra umami punch to the plot and the story’s conclusion.
Stories with heroes vying for the heart of the heroine are ones that end with a happy union. Storms are ridden out, choices are made, and our OTP comes together. It’s all very heart-warming and sweet, but I think we would all agree, it’s dramaland — not real life. Maybe, just maybe, the second male lead is there to balance that more saccharine side of K-dramas with a nice side dish of the bittersweet.
After all, he reminds us again and again that falling in love doesn’t always mean a happily ever after, that what makes sense to the head doesn’t always make sense to the heart, and that sometimes, life (and drama conclusions!) don’t seem quite fair.
Often, we’re so busy enjoying the fun, swoony, and pleasing parts of the story that we forget how much we need this kind of catharsis from stories. We need to hear about disappointments and setbacks just as much as we need the rose-colored glasses and happy endings. And thanks to the presence of the second male lead, we have both.