An Exercise in Futility


Part of the attraction to K Drama is the common trope of the “4-Square,” leads, a lead male and lead female character, and a second lead male and female character. Sometimes we have the ‘triangle’ of a lead male and lead female character, and a second lead male character.  The two male leads generally serve as counterpoints, foils.  In general, the second lead is a “nice guy” and the first lead is a “jerk,” at least in the beginning.  There are many reasons for the tropes, including providing conflict and juxtaposition,  challenging or confirming fate as a theme, and rebelling against cultural mores and traditions or authority. There are variations and subversions of the theme of course, but there is a standard operating procedure in fictional romance: lead male character + lead female character = end game romance. There is NO guess work in this.

chaenungWe all love to love second lead male characters.  Sometimes they are just the best friends ever, so we cannot help but love them. Sometimes they are just sympathetic characters we wish would stop crying and do something, but we still love them. Sometimes they are creepy and/or annoying, but some viewer out there still has the feels for them. Sometimes, if we could put the two male leads together, we’d have the perfect guy for the heroine of the drama.

And here is where my post meanders off the normal second lead syndrome post trail. I’m not here to discuss why the second lead is a better choice (sometimes that is arguably true and sometimes it’s not) or why we love them or why we think we should love them.

I am going to talk about the shipping wars over end game romances in dramas. It feels like I see this way too much. Why is there any question?  Do some viewers not understand K drama structure and tropes, and that there is a format that is generally followed?  Maybe it is due to show formats from other countries, where while there are lead characters in a television show, they may run for multiple seasons, and love interests may change throughout the series run, as well as original concepts have more flexibility as characters develop over a longer period of time. Life is different in K drama land. The dramas are generally between 1-30 episodes, 16-25 being the norm, and there is generally a story to be told and an end in sight.

How many times have we seen the “I ship them” comments regarding second lead male characters?   Or how about, “I want them together in the end!” or  “I really hope this ends well with these two together!” or  “I’m going to be mad if she ends up with the other guy!” and  “I’m going down with this ship!”   Or  more aggressive comments bashing the first male lead character, or actor even, or “demands”  that the showmakers end the show “correctly” with the second lead male and the first lead female happy ever after.  Is part of this phenomena in fact connected to ACTOR fan bases rather than drama characters?

Sometimes I just want to ask the commenter, “Are we really watching the same drama?”

There is the problem of the “wars” between the second lead male actor and/or character “shippers” and  the fans of the first male lead actor and/or character.  Notice how I distinguished that there is an an ACTOR, and a CHARACTER, and that there IS a difference?  (That a whole other blog post however. It annoys me to see a CHARACTER referred to by an ACTOR’S name.  {Joo Won did NOT go on a date with Moon Chae-wonSi-on went on a date with Dr. Cha.)

And then there is the fan drama about the drama when it ends with the two main leads paired off, and second lead shippers upset that did not get what they wanted and wanting to flip tables.

On the other hand, equally damaging is the “delu fangurl” name calling that goes on in response, as the basher’s seem to forget that they too are fans.  The ignorant and aggressive fan damages the k drama experience, but the “delu”  basher behavior feeds the fire and perpetuate the crazy fangirl stereotype.

If this sounds like I’m calling bullshit on some of this, I suppose that is true.

The reason is that this behavior gives fangirl’s a negative image, and that is why I find this phenomena extremely vexing. Not only because of the “rabid or silly fangirl” stereotype it perpetuates, but because, well, if people cannot figure out that a plot is PREDETERMINED, it rather begs the question the ability of some viewers level of reason and critical thinking. Yes that means what you think it means.   Seriously, scary.

Some of the second lead shippers do not even seem to get that there IS a first lead male actor and a second lead male actor, they seem to think that this is an actual undetermined competition. These viewers do not seem to understand that there is not a lot of guess work in K drama watching.  I’ve even seen the experience of shipping the second lead and being disappointed because the writers “decided” to pair the female lead with the male lead referred to as “Chilbongied.”  I’ll talk about Reply 1994, a classic example of this situation, in a moment.

Here’s an instructional guide for these type of viewers:

  1. Unfortunately no matter how much a viewer complains about what they want to happen, they do NOT actually get to determine the outcome of a plot.
  2. There is a first lead male actor that portrays a first lead male character. There is a first lead female actor that portrays a first lead female character. 99% of the time if there is a romantic plot, the two lead characters will end up together.
  3. If for some reason one cannot understand which male character is the lead male character, one should read the cast list. The first male person on the cast list is the male lead.   The first female person on the cast list is the female lead.    This will solve any confusion, because CAST LISTS RARELY LIE.  The only exception to this is when there are veteran actors that may be listed first or amongst the romantic leads. This happens due to seniority, top billing rights in contracts, pay scale, etc.   Here is an example from Asian Wiki, oh look, it’s Reply 1994:


However, generally in other listings we would see Go Ara, Jung Woo, and Yoo Yeon-seok in the top 3 positions, with Yoo yeon-seok listed AFTER Jung Woo.  Have a google, see for yourself.

It is really that simple. No matter the shenanigans on screen, end game between first and second leads is NOT a competition with the winner to be determined. Again, cast lists rarely lie. I wish some k drama viewers would repeat this as a mantra.

This comment on Viki should be the standard approach to drama viewing:


Yes, again, we all love to love second leads.  Sometimes we love second leads more than anyone else in the drama.  But watching a drama and thinking that somehow there is an ending yet to be determined is NOT logical.

There are of course exceptions to the rule to skew the tropes, much to our delightful viewing pleasure.

Nail Shop Paris is such an exception. The male lead character behavior was subverted and that was a clue.   The lead male character, Alex, was the nice helpful guy. Kei, the second lead character, was the cranky jerky boy.

Dream High is sort of an exception, and one reason for confusion in this area for many viewers.  Kim Soo Hyun was listed as the lead actor.  But, his character was not the lead male character in the first HALF of the show, and that was very confusing.   At mid run, the focus became on his character and relationship with the female lead character. I have never quite figured out if this was a mid run change in plot or the original script. However, again, Kim Soo Hyun was listed as the LEAD actor when the drama casting occurred.

There are other exceptions such as Queen of Reversals, which is one of the most famous examples, and How To Meet the Perfect Neighbor. Queen of Reversals was an intentional switch during the filming to my understanding.

I would highly advise not trying to google examples of “second lead gets the girl,” as many of the people making suggestions clearly have never read cast lists. And yes, I checked when I planned to write this and spent a lot of time laughing and shaking my head.  One of the funniest was Medical Top Team where someone seemed to think that Choi Min Ho’s character was the lead male character, when he was a tertiary character!

But what about situations like in Reply 1994, where the drama runs on the premise of “Who is the groom?” Isn’t that confusing?  good grief, who could NOT love Chilbongie? I certainly adored him as a character,  but Na Jeong was just as certainly not interested in him romantically.   READ THE INSTRUCTION LIST. Problem solved. There are other clues throughout the drama.  Na-jeong never once looked at Chilbongie other than a friend. Why, hello, big, huge, clue, why did so many people ignore you?  For the life of me, I could not understand the fan wars on this, but again obviously a lot of people do NOT read CAST LISTS or understand how to close read film. There was never conflict on Na Jeong’s part. The PD said early on in the drama that there was NO love triangle!

Sidenote:  A “triangle”  requires a middle connection; a person that has romantic feelings for for the two other parties.  Two people having feelings for the middle person is NOT a romantic triangular relationship.   That is a romance between 2 people and someone else having a one sided love. If a viewer needs further validation besides the CAST LIST, again, the female lack of romantic interest in the second lead is often a big, huge, clue.  This leads me to a disturbing aspect of drama making and view behavior, ascribing control of the female character’s choices to MALE agency.

jinrak fbnd

It disturbing it is that drama makers AND viewers think it’s okay to objectify women as a chew toy between two men.  Or that viewers seem to think just because the second lead male is all about the female, she should automatically fall for him too. That is extremely disturbing.  Really, people need to think about some of the ways they perpetuate women as as objects and possessions.  Think about the phrase “get the girl.”  The “girl” has a name.  And the “girl” is an autonomous living human with agency.  A man does not “get” the “girl.”  A person makes a conscious choice, and more often than not in k drama, the second lead was never even a gleam in the first lead female’s eye. Dok-mi never looked twice at Jin-rak even though he “saw her first.”  Viewers ascribing the second lead male’s feelings importance over the lead female’s feelings is frightening.  Especially considering that the second lead female is regularly demonized for her one sided love of the male lead.  Yes, there are double standards in the 21rst century. Stop it.

Moving on.

And what about other confusing  or frustrating (to some) dramas, like Heirs, where Young-do had such a big personality? This was a case of complicated lead subversion. The writer was playing with tropes.  Kim Tan was  really written as the beta character, and Young-do was the jerk alpha character. Sort of. This drama technically gave viewers what they wanted, a second lead male character AS the first lead (Kim Tan), and many viewers STILL ‘shipped’ the actual second lead character (Young-do), whom they would have hated, IF he had been the first lead. Think about it.  Yes, I am saying the show makers punked viewers.   But, it’s actually a little more complicated  ( and even more of a punk) than even that. Kim Tan and Young-do were not foils for each other, or even two sides of the same coin. They are the SAME coin, exposed to different elements that changed them.   This is proved throughout, in the dialogue and plot.  Kim Tan, before leaving for the U.S.. was worse that Young-do, and Young-do the more sensitive mamas’ boy. It’s evident in the VISUAL twinning.  Isn’t that even more confusing? READ THE INSTRUCTION LIST. Problem solved! AND the same clues existed in Heirs as in Reply 1994. Eun-sang never once looked at Young-do.

heirstwins6 heirstwins2 heirstwinstwins3


Despite the exceptions and subversions, most dramas follow the 4 square or triangle formula and it’s really not rocket science.

I don’t know if we should chalk some of the shipping wars to just cluelessness, or what.  I blame some of it on Twilight “Team” stuff, which was done mostly for fun, because you know, most of the fans knew the end game from the books.  I also blame reality tv that has blurred generations of viewer perception.  I also blame Korean propensity for live shoot, and writing the drama off an outline as they go instead of any pre-production of the series that somehow makes viewers think that the outcome is not predetermined. The exceptions cause confusion but we are happy to have them that is for sure.  Incidences where re-writes do occur, such as Queen of Reversals and School 2013 probably do feed the delusions also.  I also chalk some of it up to human nature;  people want what is not going to happen, and people root for the underdog.  But there is this underlying entitlement I see in some viewer commenters that seem to feel ownership of the creations of showmakers and writers, or that their wishes and investment in fictional characters, or even worse, the actors, is paramount to the actual creators of the drama. The dark side of k drama?  It’s insidious and inflammatory, sparking ridiculous shipping and fan wars.

I think the wise words of the Viki commenter should provide guidance regarding the lead “question:”  Invest in the leads because 1 + 1 = OTP.  Watch, or watch not.

skks hahaAnd read the damn cast list before watching the drama!


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Caitlyn Burton
    Dec 30, 2014 @ 07:11:01

    Most people, even when they ship the second lead with the main girl, don’t actually think it’ll happen though. I think it’s just part of the fun. Well, for the sane people. I acknowledge that there were quite a few nutjobs in those fanwars. I’m generally always on the ship of the main guy so it’s not an issue for me but i know that some viewers of Reply 1994 shipped Chilbongie to their dying days, even though they didn’t actually think he’d end up with her. They just liked him so they shipped him. They were upset that he didn’t end up with her but not surprised. I give the Reply 94 viewers a lot of leeway because the writers designed the show to be like that, and the reactions of the viewers probably helped with promoting and ratings. I know that even though I knew that Oppa was the lead, at one point i was confused because Da Jung and Oppa got together earlier than I expected, so i thought they’d then break up and she’d get with CB. Feelings change, people change, she might see CB in a different light later on. Didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

    But for most other dramas, yes, if people do genuinely think second lead might get together with first lead, they’re idiots.


    • randomsoju
      Dec 30, 2014 @ 11:23:25

      I understand loving the second lead, and Chilbong was extremely loveable. I think seeing the possibilities of what could be between a lead character and a second lead is normal, that’s part of the k drama experience: part of the tropes and themes include what if’s and choices, and that there is not always just one right person in life. I mean really, if looking specifically at R94, Haitai and Na Jeong were great together, so comfortable, way more so than Chilbong. But that is another discussion lol.

      I also get some of it is for fun and seemingly harmless, and tied to being fans of an actor, but that gets way out of hand also. Anti-fan stuff ties into it too.

      There just seem to be a LOT of viewers involved in that shipping stuff that is over the top that don’t get how plots work and are rather…aggressive about what they want to happen and actually think that matters. It’s happening on just about every drama that I watch and I’m just flabbergasted and the ridiculous comments or conflict over drama characters. Is it an Asian cultural thing, IDK? I know that Korean and Asian fans seem to assume an ownership of celebs and dramas that I have a difficult time processing or understanding.

      I saw some comments recently over a drama about a character ending up with another character, and the outrage over it—these were two second lead characters (I know these things even if I do not watch the drama, because, wait for it, I READ THE CAST LISTS), and it was an age gap thing, and the commenter took umbrage that the younger male actor was “forced” by the show-makers to act out a relationship with an older female actress. My question was this how they were cast for the roles to start with? This was a novel adaptation so I also asked if the drama plot deviated from the novel, and that was the issue? Basically my point was did you know going into this drama as the second leads they might end up paired together or was this a deviation from the novel that blind sided you? The response was that they did not agree with the casting. Really? But you watched the entire drama?

      This is the kind of stuff I am talking about too, I just do not get it.

      I can’t even chalk it up to youthfulness, because you know, I was a young fangurl once too and even as a young teen I got how plots and themes and tropes and casting order and character development worked.

      I just have got to stop reading comments altogether, my wtf toleration meter is beyond crit mass. I made the mistake of reading the DB editors picks and some of the comments, good gad. One person said Jo In Sung should have won break out role. (Okay that one was funny in it’s ignorance) and someone else said that Siwan was better at nuanced acting than Kim Soo Hyun. Trolling? (IDK but gees, I loved Siwan in Misaeng too and yes he’s got that nuanced eye thing that was perfect for the role, but Kim Soo Hyun has much more experience and acting chops, and is great with nuanced facial expressions.) Bottom line though absolutely no reason to compare the two actors, except to take a dig at KSH? I just don’t get the point of that kind of stuff. i guess my resolution for the year is just to say no to reading comments and work on my, er, tolerance.


      • DDee
        Dec 30, 2014 @ 22:46:35

        Mary, if it’s one like I’ve learned this year is to NEVER READ THE COMMENTS. Or rather, read selectively. It’s become too much for my blood pressure and I don’t have the time to invest in reading crap that doesn’t add any value to my life :D.

        For the life of me, I will never understand shipping wars, but my take on it is that the K-ent system and K celebrity culture is deliberately designed to stoke what you called feelings of ownership over celebs. It feeds off it, it’s its very lifeblood it seems to me. So it’s not an “Asian” cultural thing, though I suspect that confucian ideals of collectivity do feed into the herd mentality and of wanting to belong to certain camps. It’s the way a multi-billion dollar industry functions in order to sustain itself–make fans feel they have a real relationship to oppa, who will then aggressively defend him and everything he does until the day he dies on the internet because oppa is perfect, and most importantly, will go out and buy a gabillion DVDs and t-shirts and calenders,


        • randomsoju
          Dec 31, 2014 @ 19:40:25

          DDee, I totally agree with you I had to start stepping away from a lot of threads and stuff. and the K-ent, yes! i have read many articles bout that very topic, and also articles that refer to the collective culture that it feeds from, that is exactly what I was referring to but I did not explain it in detail well. I wish I had saved the references, but yes, I’ve read articles that state the Korean public feel they have some type of ownership of public figures, have a right to even comment on or censure them. Perfect crushes are normal for teen fans world wide, you know? But with K-Ent, it’s beyond the norm and the aggressiveness and mean girl/bully culture is frightening.

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