More Than Friends: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Friends-to-lovers stories never get tiresome. Or do they? JTBC’s latest romance/youth drama More Than Friends tells an age-old tale with some cable channel frankness, but also leans heavily on all the storytelling elements we might expect.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
Like many a drama that relies on relationship background, the premiere week of More Than Friends is heavy on its backstory. When we open, we meet our heroine KYUNG WOO-YEON (Shin Ye-eun) in the past during her high school days. She’s adorable and sweet, but a bit persecuted by the cool girl clique. For all the high school angst, though, she also makes two wonderful girl friends, who we’ll also follow through the drama’s storyline — they’re HAN JIN-JOO (Baek Soo-min who I always seem to love), and KIM YOUNG-HEE (Ahn Eun-jin).
But there’s a third character that becomes the centerpiece of her high school years, and that’s the school heartthrob, LEE SOO (Ong Sung-woo). He protects (and yet playfully torments) our heroine like the best of dramaland’s male leads — for all the teasing and mockery, though, Lee Soo is totally charming. It’s easy to see why Woo-yeon falls head over heels for him.
The basic construct of More Than Friends is Woo-yeon’s unrequited love for Soo, and how it’s held her back in more than just her love life. But it’s not like she didn’t try to win him over, either. Our first two episodes chronicle not one, but two, earnest confessions — once in high school, and once when Soo returns from school in the States during their college years. Both times she confesses, or any time she’s honest about her feelings for him, he’s just as frank back: he only sees her as a friend. Pfftt.
Soo often admits that he’s selfish and self-centered — maybe that’s why he has no qualms about being swoony and sweet to Woo-yeon, knowing full well he’s only encouraging her feelings for him? It’s a little cruel, because no matter the time frame we’re talking about (high school, college, twenties), he can make a girl weak in the knees.
Though he denies it, it’s pretty apparent on camera (at least to me!) that there’s some serious chemistry between them. Picturesque laundry washing scene where Woo-yeon trips and Soo has to grab her not once, but twice? Swoony meet-ups and the hints of liking her? Early on, the drama almost gave me Sense and Sensibility vibes, with Marianne waiting-waiting-waiting for a love confession from the rakish Willoughby.
Much like that Jane Austen story, though, the love connection doesn’t happen for Woo-yeon and Soo. And even worse, Woo-yeon spends ten years of her life unable to fit anyone else inside her heart. When we meet her in present day, she’s in her twenties and has racked up more than a dozen ex-boyfriends. She tries to have feelings for them, and dates people she thinks she could grow to like, but it always ends with a dumping: she can’t forget Lee Soo.
Ten years is a long time for a young girl to nurse feelings for someone, but Woo-yeon is totally believable in this circumstance for two reasons: one, that Soo is so flirty and familiar when they’re together that it’s hard not to take it romantically; and two, because Lee Soo is unequivocally melty and appealing.
In fact, I would argue this drama is basically held together by the boyish charm of Ong Seung-woo. If he wasn’t so convincing in this role, I don’t think the drama would be able to carry its construct as far as it does.
But does More Than Friends lean too much on Ong Seung-woo and his boy-next-door appeal? There were times during the premiere week when I thought they did. Even though Soo often gives Woo-yeon good counsel, whether she’s a struggling high school student, or a floundering twenty-something, it’s still not enough to balance all the mayhem he creates in her heart.
And so, by the time we reach our present-day story, and the two are thrown together as young working adults, I’ve pretty much had it with him. Yes, you’re adorable. Yes, you’re charming as hell. But you’re also taking this girl for a ride, and I’m getting tired of it.
It’s then that I started to wonder — is the drama doing this intentionally? Am I feeling this emotional exhaustion when Lee Soo is around because that’s what our heroine is also feeling? While I’m not yet sure if the drama is clever enough to be doing this purposefully, either way, by the end of Episode 2 I was done with him being swoony and ready for Woo-yeon to be done too. And lucky for us, at this point, she’s gotten there too.
Woo-yeon has long been dealing with what she calls the “curse” of Lee Soo — it’s what has rendered her unable to move on after all these years, and it’s what keeps her coming back to him even after he steps on her heart. But, in a perfect little turn of a fairy tale trope, our heroine decides she has to break the curse herself. And what better way to do that than with a kiss?
This early-in-the-drama kiss was a fun inversion for our premiere week. Not only did it bring in the idea of a kiss to break (instead of build) unrequited love, but there’s also the fact that it was our heroine that made the decision, and the first move. I don’t imagine this will go exactly as she intended, but for now, it works for me.
During the first two episodes of More Than Friends I kept trying to like Woo-yeon more than I did. There’s nothing particularly unlikeable about her, and she’s easy to root for and to understand. I also like the story of her early dream to be a writer and calligrapher and how she’s given them up in order to scrape together a living. But at the same time, there’s a little something missing from her character that I’m hoping turns up in subsequent episodes.
I know Shin Ye-eun can be great (she was totally magical in That Psychometric Guy and I’ve been a fan since then), but I’m waiting to see that same spark in her role as Woo-yeon. Maybe a little love triangle will help?
Before our premiere week closes, we meet our other hero, OHN JOON-SU (Kim Dong-joon). He’s a young and successful publisher, and his storyline is quickly connected to Lee Soo (who’s now a highly sought after photographer) and Woo-yeon (who’s now a struggling calligrapher and part-timer).
Woo-yeon’s calligraphy work catches Joon-su’s finely tuned editor’s eye — but that’s not the only thing that catches him. As if we needed confirmation that he’s a possible love interest, when the two first meet, there’s not only a trip/catch scene, but Woo-yeon’s hair gets caught on his suit jacket button.
It’s actually quite a cute scene, and tells us something about his character and manners, but there are so many falls, trips, and catches in the first two hours of this drama! I’m not exactly complaining, because I really do get a kick out of this trope, but there’s a point where it starts to feel like the only way to show interest and attraction between two characters.
There were things I really liked, and things that disappointed me, but it’s a bit early to judge More Than Friends just based off of the first two episodes. After all, they were full of important set-up, because in order for the rest of the drama to unfold, we need a heroine who’s ready to break her own spell, and change her course.
The love triangle will certainly be at the center of our action, but I’m also interested in the professional side of things, and I hope we’ll get to explore the more artistic side of our characters, and their respective artistic endeavors. Who knows, there might even be a book collaboration in the future, if the hints that have been dropped come to fruition.
While I wouldn’t argue with a little more substance and a little less lovesick heroine in the follow-up episodes of our drama, I also probably won’t complain if what we get is flirty and/or jealous meetings between the three when their paths (and careers) start to converge.