Thursday, March 20, 2014

Drama Review: I Need Romance 3 (2014)

Grade: C+

Workplace romance

What it’s about
This light melodrama revolves around a chilly, no-nonsense career woman who experiences an emotional awakening thanks to a younger man from her past. Sharing the spotlight are her two coworkers—one the office newbie, a wide-eyed innocent who’s uncertain about her romantic and professional future; the other a man-eating career woman who ends up with an unexpected personal life when a no-strings-attached relationship results in pregnancy.

First impression
Our relationships with dramas really are like romances. You can spend forever with someone but never feel anything for them, while other times just a glimpse of a stranger can make you swoon with the force of your attraction. These polar opposites pretty much sum up my response to The Prime Minster and this third installment in tvN’s I Need Romance series. The Prime Minister just isn’t my type—it’s a typical Kdrama with a painfully obvious plot and not even the vaguest correlation to any person, place, thing, or emotion in the real world. On the other hand, just two minutes of I Need Romance leave me giddy with love for its strong voice and naturalistic environs. (Also, its leads have totally amazing chemistry even before he has graduated from diapers.) I’ve always been a fan of the frank, realistic INR dramas, and I’m pretty sure this one will be no different. So you’re on hold for now, Prime Minister. See you in 8 weeks when my new boyfriend leaves town.

Final verdict
Downplaying the strong female friendships that anchored the first two installments in the I Need Romance series, this show turned out to be a slightly sexier version of the standard-issue Kdrama love triangle. There are some interesting things here, including an oblique challenge to prejudice against single mothers and an insanely cute male lead with all the emotional intelligence of a second lead. But beyond that, INR3 was a whole lot of meh.

It hits all the notes this series is known for, from cohabitation and recreational premarital sex to a cast of upwardly mobile career women who make their way in the world free from the guidance of older family members. But this third coming of I Need Romance also throws into the mix some of the less savory tropes Kdramas have to offer, including forced kisses and men who always know what’s best for the ladies in their lives. Also regrettable is its latter-day noona romance plot—the female lead may have been chronologically older than her lover, but her absolute ineptitude at everything ever made her seem more like a lost child than an adult capable of personal agency.

The real failing of this show is that it takes place in slick, glossy dramaland. There is nothing real about any of its characters or anything they experience. And how can you root for someone who’s a skin-deep mockery of the original thinking that made the first I Need Romance so special? That drama was also constructed from common building blocks, including a love triangle, a chaebol heir, and a can-do Candy girl. But the longterm romance at its heart was both deeply flawed and a breath of fresh air—through flashbacks, we followed it from its beginning through years of believably nuanced tribulations. Its participants knew and loved each other, failings and all, and their shared intimacy felt as real as any I’ve seen on Korean television. Ultimately, though, that show’s greatest love story was the one about its three female leads, friends who supported each other and had relationships that existed outside of their romantic lives.

Maybe I would have liked this show if I hadn’t spent the past three years watching the best that Kdrama has to offer. It’s light and easy, and there are some cute ship moments. If you’re a drama newbie, give this show a try. It’s a Cliffs Notes version of many of the common themes you’ll find on Korean television today. But if you’ve been around the block as many times as the show’s female lead, why not reward yourself with something a bit classier? For noona romance, check of What’s Up Fox. For workplace friendships (and noona romance!) watch Dal Ja’s Spring. For candid discussion of sex, try the original I Need Romance.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Part of what makes the shows in this series feel so contemporary and accessible to us Westerners is the fact that its leads are always young professionals who live in their own, without all the hierarchical relationships and loss of personal freedoms that come with living in a multigenerational household. This batch seems more upwardly mobile than the rest, even if they live in apartments rather than houses. Everything around them is gorgeous and glamorous, of which I heartily approve.

Episode 1. I can’t say that I’ve spent much time watching home shopping television lately (or ever), but my impression is that in America it exists for suburban retirees who don’t want to go an actual store because it might require removing their sweatpants with the pastel kitten appliqués. But every time a Kdrama character is involved with a home shopping network, they’re super fashionable and selling crazy chic items. Is the audience for these things so different in Korea, or is it all wishful thinking on the part of networks looking for upscale product placement opportunities?

Episode 1. Further proof this show and I are a love match? In the first five minutes of the first episode, a girl leans a boy up against a wall and kisses the heck out of him. Girls never get to be the ones on the outside of a Kdrama kiss.

Episode 1. The look on Sweet Potato’s face when he first sees Joo Yun is more inscrutable than Mona Lisa’s smile. It’s shock mixed with ravenous hunger mixed with awe mixed with calculation. The director doesn’t need to use special effects or camera tricks to tell us that the rest of the world disappeared for him at that moment—Sweet Potato’s rapt, blinding fixation is palpable as a touch. It’s sexy as hell, too.

Episode 1. I’m rewatching the first episode of this drama, which I hardly ever do. I’ve seen the first two seasons of the series, and here’s my prediction for how things will go from here. Sweet Potato moves in with the female lead and there’s lots cuteness, but at same time she starts dating Nam Goong Min’s character. They get incredibly serious—maybe to the point of marriage—before she accepts her true feelings for Sweet Potato in episode 13 or so. I don’t know why they’re bothering with the love triangle—the promotional materials gave away the endgame couple before the premiere aired. Still, I’m sure it will be a fun ride and can’t wait for more. [Finale note: Close, but not quite.]

Episode 2.When people kiss in Western movies and television, there are usually subtle sound effects involved. This is almost never the case in Korean dramas, though, and that’s one of the reasons why their kisses can feel so chaste and fleshless. But there was definitely some lip-smacking going on in one of this episode’s flashback kisses. That’s the kind of little detail the dramas in this series tend to get so right—they give love a body, not just a soul. Now if only they’d find a way to bring this pathbreaking spirit to their plots. I love where this show is going and all, but I would be happy to see an INR that didn’t cling to Korea’s first love trope. As the girl with a wine glass full of discarded couple’s rings knows, you usually have to kiss kiss if frogs before you find a prince.

Episode 2. There’s a little bit of Flower Boy Next Door’s Enrique in Sung Joon’s character. He’s a successful young man who has just returned home to Korea from a long stay abroad, only to meet a woman who intrigues him. She isn’t like other people and he wants to know why, and maybe to help her find a way to be happy in herself. He’s intuitive and genuine, and willing to both understand and challenge his female lead. But above all, he’s ready to devote himself to her cause, however difficult it may be. So yeah. I, for one, am in love.

Episode 2. So I’ve been thinking about the riddle of I Need Romance’s Joo Yun. She’s proud, willful, and not shy about speaking up for herself. Her strategy for dealing with the failings of other people is ditching them and never looking back. We saw her do it with her ex-friend Se Ryung and her ex-boyfriend Alex, both times never letting anyone see how much their losses hurt her. When we get Se Ryung’s side of the story, we hear her regret that Joo Yun wouldn’t even fight with her—instead, Joo Yun ended their friendship without so much as a flinch. It was only her job that prevented her from making a clean break with Alex. Joo Yun is incredibly dedicated to her career and will do anything to succeed. She opened up to him in an attempt to save their professional relationship, even though she never thought it was worth her time to do it for their personal one.

But then we have Sweet Potato. She’s known him forever, and once upon a time was his caretaker and supporter. But he’s also been cut out of her life, even if she doesn’t avoid him like the other people she’s done with. Joo Yun answers his calls, and then spends every conversation saying nasty things to him: He’s ugly. She spent her childhood slaving away to be sure he was healthy and happy and well, and she did it only because her mother needed money to support their family. Yoo Jun’s always careful to put a negative spin on her memories of him, when the other people she doesn’t want in her life are just abandoned with no explanation.

I hope that the show will interpret this the way I do: She’s so eager to push him away because losing him was so devastating to her. In all the years he spent in America, she never spoke to him or saw his picture. Did he never reach out to her? Is that way her earned her disgust? Or is she just afraid to admit how much he mattered to her, and how lovingly she herself raised him when her mother was supposed to be babysitting? Unlike her adult relationships, his wellbeing was a weight on her shoulders; she was responsible for someone else’s feelings.

Joo Yun is usually able to simply excise people from her life with a minimum of pain and suffering. When it comes to Sweet Potato, though, she needs to keep reminding herself that she doesn’t miss him, or need him, or want him.

Episode 2. In episode two, they added an entire, significant sequence to the nightclub scene that wasn’t shown in the premiere (and is, in fact, impossible in its time line). That’s cheating.

Episode 3. It looks as if the promo materials for this show weren’t a fluke after all. A strong central core of female friendships anchored the previous installments in this series. This was reflected in their posters, most of which focused on the lead actresses as a group. On the other hand, the posters for this show warned us something different was in store: they were couples shots suitable for the standard love-triangle based Kdrama, not a series about female relationships. Although its characters are buddies, I Need Romance 3 is proving itself to be a workplace drama. The female lead just yelled at youngest member her trio of “friends” until she cried, all for a few relatively small errors on the job. This is no Kumbaya-singing story about the value of female support systems; it’s a show about hooking up with a guy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing.

Episode 3. I think I need to accept the fact that no noona romance will ever be as perfect as What’s Up Fox. This show is great so far, but like so many others this year it’s not inverting the power dynamics in its mismatched couple.

Sweet Potato is holding every single one of the cards: he’s rich and famous and has hidden his identity from the female lead. He goes into her house without her permission and criticizes her flighty ways: she doesn’t make her bed or water her plants or cook at home. Her lack of capability when it comes to caring for herself makes her seem younger than she is, and puts the presumably perfect Sweet Potato in a position of power. In their face-to-face interactions, he’s usually the one who takes control. He drags her to get a bandage without explaining where they’re going, and then willfully misleads her about his hotel-related intentions. He wraps her up in a scarf without any indication that she wants him do so, and casually commands her to hold out her hand with no context or explanation.

On the phone things are different, though. When she’s aware of their relationship and not distracted by Sweet Potato’s false persona, she hangs up on him and plays the role of boss with aplomb. She leads him down a maze of streets to find a playground, and explains he doesn’t want to live with her because her sexy noises will make him feel awkward.

Will this balance change when she discovers his true identity? And if so, will it destroy her only place of advantage in their relationship?

Episode 3. One of the funnest things about franchise dramas are the crossovers between seasons. The second installment in this series had a number of them, and this installment’s first one just appeared: Kim Ji Suk, the second male lead of INR2012 is reprising his role as the owner of a swank bar.

Episode 3. In a lot of ways, the big kiss in this episode was perfect. It wasn’t a silly Kdrama lip bump—it was a full-on, open-mouthed, PG-13 physical act. In other ways, though, it wasn’t so perfect. In the whole conversation leading up to it, the female lead never expressed any sort of interest or willingness. Instead, she was all wide-eyed and uncertain, asking the mighty Allen Joo why he would like a girl like her. It wasn’t even that she wasn’t in control of the moment—she was so stunned she was barely even present in it. She even backed away from him initially, even though she was easily convinced in the end. But we all know what No means, yes?

Episode 4. This show-motion frolic on the beach was exactly what you needed to do to earn back my love, Show. All the cute and fluffy almost instantly washed the bad taste out of my mouth. Huzzah!

Episode 4. Somebody needs to gif this scene of the female lead waking up to frantically check her phone for messages, only to be crushed by the fact that she got none. Then I can tag it: Amanda checking for Tumblr likes every morning.

Episode 4. So instead of feeling bad about lying to the female lead and worrying that she’ll blow him off forever when she learns the truth, Sweet Potato is playing mind-games with her. That’s a relationship off to a great start. (If I had written this episode, I would have included a scene of him imagining their wedding day, when the female lead would finally meet his parents and realize his identity. Lots of hanboks would be involved.)

Episode 5. One of the good things about the INR series is that it so often takes an unidealized approach to love and romance. Its characters are flawed human beings and love doesn’t always overcome all obstacles. So far this season hasn’t done this as deftly as the others, but you can definitely see it in Sweet Potato. He’s really a clueless little boy who thinks he can win the female lead by making vaguely naughty comments and invading her personal space. I hope the show allows Shin Shin to continue to stand up to him—in a sexy stranger some of these traits may have been appealing, but in Sweet Potato they’re just annoying.

Episode 5.

Dear Sweet Potato:

Women may not immediately fall at your feet, legs spread with desire, the instant you show romantic interest in them. That does not make them “messed up”—like you, they are entitled to like anyone they choose. And if they don’t choose you, you should look quite close to home for the reason.


Episode 5. This show is going to miss my kink by a mile if Sweet Potato never gets around to admitting that he’s been in love with Shing Shing for his entire life, not just since he saw her being drunk and lonely. Once again, its screenwriter should watch and learn (or steal) from the ultimate noona romance: What’s Up, Fox.

Episode 5. So far we’ve seen practically every character in this drama in their pajamas, but not Sweet Potato. Show, why you taunt me so? Is he a wearer of low-slung flannel pj pants? Does he sleep in boxers? Or maybe he wears nothing to bed? That’s certainly a place no cohabitation drama has dared to visit…. Imagine Shing Shing running into him starkers on the way to the bathroom at 2 am. That’s the stuff of cable television, my friends. (And also inappropriate fanfic, which is of course my most favorite fanfic of all.)

Episode 6. The most improbable thing I’ve ever seen in a Kdrama? No, it’s not Daniel Henney happening to have a princess dress in exactly the female lead’s size in his trunk in Spring Waltz. And no, it’s not the parents just ditching the girl they raised as a daughter in favor of a stranger who happens to share their blood in Autumn in My Heart. It’s also not the time traveling Joseon scholar in…well…everything. It’s this show’s second lead pulling out grays and wondering aloud if she should dye her hair. I can only suspend disbelief so much, people—her hair is already a color never before seen in nature.

Episode 6. I know people in east Asia have insane work ethics, but does anyone really work as hard as drama characters? It’s not a Kdrama if somebody doesn’t spent 23.75 hours a day at the office. Once upon a time, we Americans were known for our hard work. After another generation or two of stability and prosperity, will people in Korea spend as much time sitting on their butts as I do? On the rare occasion I work more than 50 hours a week, it makes me utterly miserable.

Episode 6. When Sweet Potato acts like himself and is genuine but low-key about his feelings—like during the restaurant scene in this episode—I love him with Shing Shing. But the instant everyone is sober, he turns into a blustery, posturing jerk in the style of Kim Tan from Heirs. Why so macho, drama men? Did my boyfriend Enrique teach you nothing?

Episode 7. I know we’ve mostly seen her through Sweet Potato’s biased eyes, but young Shing Shing seemed so much more thoughtful than the shallow, one-dimensional career woman she is as an adult. People change when they grow up, but not this much. She used to sit around quizzing a little boy about how particular songs made him feel, but now she can’t even drum up any kind of emotional response to the music he’s playing for her? This feels like a failure of characterization, not a real evolution.

Episode 7. This episode had some A+ domesticity and cuddling, but I think the best ship moments were when Shing Shing shared all the details of her life with Sweet Potato, as if telling him about something is required to make it feel real. Now that’s some cute love business right there. (I can’t wait for some of his emotional intelligence to rub off on her. Who leaves someone sobbing alone after they’ve confessed a life-alerting secret the way she just did?)
Episode 8. Dramafever must have decided that INR3 is a second tier show—it’s always subbed a day after it airs, unlike The Prime Minister and My Love from Another Star. And that’s why I’m defecting to Viki for the new episode, even if it’s a hassle to stream from my computer to the tv.

Episode 8. What are you making me watch, Viki? Six minutes of George Takei explaining how to handle trolls in an ad for AARP and Urban Dictionary? There’s a whole section on Rick Rolling, for the love of God. I don’t remember consuming any hallucinogens today, and yet…. (On the other hand, the Korean commercials that were left in this episode are awesome.)

Episode 8. Although this show’s central romance is actually very traditional Kdrama—he’s a physical aggressor, she reacts to him as a wide-eyed innocent—it does have some edgier leanings. Sweet Potato is very much the keeper of hearth and home. He cooks and cleans and keeps the plants watered, working hard to build a stable life for the breadwinner of his provisional family. Yoo Jun, in contrast, takes on the typically male role of hard-charging go-getter, working until she drops and unflinchingly driving the people around her to do the same. The things she can’t manage are exactly the “female” interests that Sweet Potato excels at, things like emotions and being a nurturing force for others—and for herself. I think we all know how this is going to play out, but I sure do wish that the writer would allow Yoo Jun the dignity of keeping her iron backbone even after she’s healed by the love of a Potato. (And that said Potato stays home to take care of the kids while she becomes president if her company.)

Episode 9. How many episodes did it take me to realize that the opening credits include someone saying “I need romance” in French? Somewhere, my high school French teacher is weeping.

Episode 9. Where do I sign up for one of these breakfast making, pad buying, dress unbuttoning, I Need Romance-style men? I could sure use one. (Although I shouldn’t complain too much. My kind father let some repair people into my house while I was at work today, and while he was at it vacuumed the whole place and shoveled the deck. All that, and he even speaks English!)

Episode 9. I’ve heard people that Kim Tan in Heirs was meant to be an example of a second-lead type getting the girl. I don’t really buy that—the whole point of second male leads is they’re not jackasses. This show, on the other hand, is headed in that direction with two couples. Later-day Sweet Potato is thoughtful, supportive, and kind, and he’d happily do anything at all for Shing Shing, even if it meant giving her up to another man. That’s some crazy Ji Hoo action right there. Pad-buying office boy isn’t far behind, either. He can detail his love interest’s menstrual cycle before they even start dating? How attentive!

Episode 10. Does everyone think their nation’s flag is tacky? Because I can’t see the American flag without wanting to roll my eyes, and yet the crisp, clean lines of the Union Jack make me a little woozy with admiration. The female lead’s house is full of them, and every time I see one I’m distracted from the narrative by its minimalist beauty.

Episode 10. Sweet Potato and his “I love you” are really killing me. He says it without pride or ownership, and he obviously never expects it to be reciprocated. But he says it anyway, just because it’s true. He doesn’t calculate—he just feels.

Episode 10. Autumn in My Heart gave us the piggyback of death, and now this show has given us the piggyback of Ratatouille-style red sauce. I know which I’d prefer.

Episode 12. Just when I was going to forgive Sweet Potato after he apologized for being a jerk at the end of the last episode, he goes and does something even jerkier. The female lead isn’t his child (even though she sometimes acts like it), yet what she drinks is apparently his prerogative. On the bright side, the restaurant ajumma definitely knows who’s boss and will certainly ignore his demand to sell the female lead only one bottle of soju.

Episode 12. Imaginary skinship is definitely a budding trend of 2014—it spread from My Love from Another Star over to this show, which has used its borrowed toy to excellent effect. It was almost painful to wake up from this episode’s steamy snugglefest. That Sung Joon really knows how to fog up a girl’s glasses.

Episode 13. Episodes like this one really highlight how different Korea is from America when it comes to reproductive freedom. A manager is threatening the job of single woman who decided to keep the baby she’s carrying, saying that she needs to fake a wedding to stay employed. That would break all sorts of American laws, thank God. (Although I’m not naive enough to believe that women don’t come under similar pressure here. But at least they would have legal recourse.)

Episode 14. The Kdrama obsession with dreams is so strange. Or I guess it could be the American lack of dreams that’s strange, really—The whole concept is too earnest and starry-eyed for most of us. Instead we have goals and ambitions, the dream equivalent of tax accountants or weight-loss drill sergeants. And who wants them?

Episode 14. This show has been disappointingly meh for most of its run, but there is still time to make amends. I might be convinced to change my opinion by two solid episodes of Shing Shing and Sweet potato cuddling and bickering over whose bed to sleep in. (Thank God this isn’t a twenty-episode drama, because if it was this would be just when Sweet Potato’s American ex-girlfriend would show up to intensify the love triangle wank. I don’t think I could take that.)

Episode 16. Sorry, Show. It’s too late for a little dirty girl talk to make up for the way you abandoned the central premise of this series—female friendships are important, and might just last long after the man of the week is gone. Props for all the kissing in this episode, though. (The giraffe fan service was also welcome.)


  1. Wow! This was a great read. You are a very thoughtful writer. Thank you for posting this. I agree with 99% of what you wrote. I laughed aloud several times while reading. hough I enjoyed seeing the female friendships developing I wish it had happened sooner in the serious and that it held a larger portion of the screen time. Of the series it will go down as my least favorite.

  2. I think I'm dropping this drama. To me it quickly lost its charm by the 4th episode. Afterwards I really can't swallow it down. I mean I basically forced myself to watch up till episode 8. Coming in the show I though this will be an edgy drama that will tell stories we haven't before, but ends up being the same old same old. The characters were charming at some level but not enough to pull me through the end. I guess I'll try watching the first installment now since you recommend it being better.

  3. Great review. It’s good to see someone else thought this drama was meh. Quite honestly, I really only made it through because I’ve been in love with Kim So-Yeon’s cheekbones since I saw her in Prosecutor Princess. Nonetheless, my main complaint with INR3 was that Sweet Potato thoroughly insisted--on EVERY level imaginable--that Shing-Shing belonged to him. Like, the lady just was NOT allowed to find love through her own mistakes. It’s one thing to support her as a friend wishing she would fall in love with you, but luring her in by becoming a staple figure to her life then throwing her ultimatums just rubbed me the wrong way.

  4. Hello. This is A.K.I.A. Talking…
    Thanks for the great review of I Need Romance 3! I enjoyed it a lot.
    I added it to my collection of reviews for the show. The show has now an average score of 70.4%.
    Here is a link to the page if you would like to give it a look:
    Thanks again for the review.

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