Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Drama Review: I Need Romance

I Need Romance: A

One of the hardest things to get used to in watching Korean drama is the way the shows—to the American eye, anyway—almost always shy away from any sort of physical intimacy or sex. After decades of Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, and True Blood, we Americans barely bat an eyelash at sex on screen, however explicit or acrobatic it may be.

Based on the shows I’ve seen so far, this isn’t the case in Korea: I regularly kiss my cat with more passion than is mustered up in the standard Kdrama. But these shows bring something else to the mix: sweet sentimentality and courtly love of a sort that hasn’t been seen in American entertainment in a long, long, time—if it ever was.

I thought these two extremes would never meet … but then I saw I Need Romance, which aired this summer on the cable network tvNFrom the very beginning, it’s clear this show is a new breed: after opening with a jaunty, Sex and the City-inspired credit montage, it launches right into a steamy make-out session. Throughout, it takes a candid, no-holds-barred approach to modern urban love, featuring characters that do the unthinkable: they not only have sex with no intention of getting married, they openly discuss said sex.

As if this wasnt staggering enough, the sex is often on screen. It's amusing how carefully most Korean dramas dance around what little action its characters may get. As far as Im concerned, the best example is Goong: The will-they-or-won't-they consummation of the lead couples marriage is a major plot point in the show's early episodes, but the closest thing to resolution of this storyline is the eventual revelation of the female lead’s pregnancy. The only hint when consummation may have happened? The camera pans away from a kissing scene to focus on two teddy bears covering their eyes with their paws. (This—I guess—must be some strange Korean code for coitus?) On the other hand, I quickly came to realize that watching I Need Romance in my mechanics waiting room wasnt a good idea—the guy sitting next to me couldnt stop rubbernecking my iPad, presumably because he thought I was watching porn. Who would have thought a Korean drama would get that kind of response?

But whatever continent youre on, great kissing scenes don’t make a great show. What makes I Need Romance really special is its thoughtful storytelling, which mixes weighty-but-realistic relationship angst, light comedy, and heavy petting, all flavored with a uniquely Korean earnestness. It focuses on a trio of female best friends—one a longterm girlfriend, one a nervous virgin, and one an experienced and adventurous free agent. In spite of a bevy of delicious male characters, when it comes right down to it, their friendship is show’s most important relationship.

As in America, I Need Romance’s home on a cable channel seems to allow it leeway unimagined by the regular networks. Having watched MBC’s similarly themed The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, it’s easy to see the distinction. Woman skews toward the traditional and the safe—just like the title says, marriage is the plot’s main motivator, not love. The script ambiguously nods to the virginity of all its lead characters, even though one of them dated the same man for ten years and another has a reputation as a man-izer. And as far as Woman concerned, the height of liberated womanhood is going to a man’s hotel room without a chaperone and playing peek-a-boo. (As peek-a-boo goes, it’s pretty kinky, but still.) It’s nice to see a drama that revolves around savvy, urban career girls, but you’ll never actually believe these girls live on planet earth.

Although its characters are also in their early thirties, the younger, edgier I Need Romance presents a totally different vision of their lives: they can be happy on their own, and they can be happy with a boyfriend when the right man comes along. They even sleep with these boyfriends—just as any sensible earthling would. Marriage comes up, but it’s never a dangling carrot motivating the show’s entire plot. Instead, I Need Romance revolves around the decisions people make while trying to find happiness—some unaccountably wonderful, others some unspeakably stupid. 

One of these unspeakably stupid decisions is at the heart of the main couple’s love story, one of my favorites in all of Kdrama. Kim Sung Soo’s bad behavior seems unforgivable at first, but as the show journeys through his ten-year relationship with Sun Woo In Young, he becomes a layered, nuanced character that you can’t help rooting for.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Sung Soo is played by Goong sexbomb Kim Jung Hoon, clearly an expert at making the dastardly seem perfectly reasonable. Complete with a secret chaebol, a toothsome hotel resident, and a dreamy ping-pong player, it doesn’t get much better than I Need Romance’s male cast.

The drama itself, however, might have been slightly better. What starts off as a reasoned, realistic plot heads toward the inexplicable in the last few episodes, dashing through the resolution of the lead couple’s storyline and leaving a number of plot threads hanging.

I Need Romance isn’t perfect, but it is a breath of fresh air. With any luck, it's also where Korean drama is headed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Drama Review: Painter of the Wind


Painter of the Wind: A-

I sometimes revisit Coffee Prince’s online reviews just to vicariously relive the wonder of seeing this Kdrama for the first time. They tend to full of fawning adoration, but I recently found something unexpected: homophobia. “A fine romantic comedy,” the reviewer wrote, “with a backhanded endorsement of homosexual love.”

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans of my generation or younger don’t think that gayness is a big deal, the general consensus being that as long as consenting adults are involved, it’s not society’s business whom I—or anyone else—chooses to love. It seems that Korea’s views on homosexuality are more traditional, though, and that in Korea the show Coffee Prince really is notable for its approach to same-sex relationships.

As far as I’m concerned, Coffee Prince is not a show about homosexuality. It’s a show that references homosexuality, sure, and uses it as a convenient obstacle to draw out the romantic tension between its two leads. There isn’t one minute, however, when the viewer believes they’re watching two people of the same gender fall in love. We see Eun Chan as a girl from the very beginning, even if Han Gyul doesn’t.

It’s a whole different story in The Painter of the Wind, a similarly themed drama that aired in 2008. Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s less candy-coated and candy-colored cousin, it revolves around the misadventures of Shin Yoon Bok, a Joseon-era girl pretending to be a boy in order to attend the royal painting institute. Naturally, she falls in love with her dashing, nonconformist (male) teacher and the two work together to solve the mystery of her father’s murder.

Thoughtful, girl-centered sageuks are hard to find, but Painter of the Wind is both. Its speedy plotting and fully drawn characters are a pleasure to watch, making it hard to stop at just one (or five) episodes at a sitting. And, unexpectedly, its painting scenes are every bit as visceral and exhilarating as the most well-executed action sequences you can imagine.

What I find most noteworthy here isn’t the show's main relationship, though. The low-key, courtly love Yoon Bok shares with her mentor is sweet and touching, if unremarkable and vaguely incestuous (he’s much older and was close friends with her real father). It's Painter of the Wind's secondary couple that really caught my attention: Yoon Bok and Jeong Hyang, the gayageum-playing gisaeng. (Try saying that five times fast. Or once, even.) While disguised as a boy, Yoon Bok allows her powerful friendship with this girl to veer into love. Their relationship is so intense, in fact, that even after the big reveal of Yoon Bok's gender, the couple continues to call each other "beautiful beloved."

Yoon Bok’s family are the only ones who know that she’s a woman, and as that family begins to shatter she is left almost totally without a support system. The show stresses that in Jeong Hyang, Yoon Bok sees both herself—a young artist forced into servitude, her life not her own—and what Yoon Bok believes she could never be again, a mannerly, feminine woman.

As Jeong Hyang becomes Yoon Bok’s muse and their relationship deepens, they share a number of tender, loving scenes and enjoy some degree of physical intimacy. We’re not talking Boys Don’t Cry here, but at one point Jeong Hyang is clearly ready to go all the way with her dear painter, and Yoon Bok is just as clearly reluctant to stop the proceedings. 

When she’s near her male mentor Yoon Bok is nervous and jumpy, afraid to touch him and more than willing to stay in the role of subservient, malleable student. With Jeong Hyang, however, she isn’t a bit shy and thoughtlessly takes the lead, right down to convincing the gisaeng to pose half-naked for a painting.

The script doesn’t seem to take a stand on what these differences mean—maybe Yoon Bok’s easy comfort around Jeong Hyang is meant to show that Yoon Bok doesn’t view her in a romantic light. Or maybe the parallel relationships exist to show Yoon Bok’s duality. She has been living as a man for her whole adolescence, forced into the role by an adoptive father hungry for her skill as a painter, and has almost completely lost her female self. Half male, she takes the lead. Half female, she is led.

If you squint just right, it's even possible to find a happy ending for Yoon Bok and Jeong Hyang. As foreshadowed in the drama's first episode, the main couple don't end up together. But the show says goodbye to both girls in the same way—they're shown separately boarding what appears to be the very same ship, headed off into the very same horizon. 

In terms of OTP, Painter of the Wind has left me no choice: Yoon Bok’s mentor may be a father to her, but Jeong Hyang is her heart.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drama Review: Mad for Makjang

Winter Sonata: A-
Will It Snow at Christmas: B+
The Snow Queen: B+

I spent a good portion of my youth reading books by the notoriously trashy American author V.C. Andrews and watching As the World Turns. This means I understood makjang as a concept long before I realized such a handy word existed for the laughably over-the-top storylines these entertainments offered—often populated by evil amnesiac identical twins suffering from terminal diseases.

Most people talk about makjang as if it’s a bad thing. (For an actual definition of the word, see the ever-helpful Electric Ground.) But while burning through fifteen years worth of Korean dramas online, it has become clear that my background in the absurd has tainted me—the crazier and more makjangy a plotline is, the more I love it. Faux-cest? Spontaneous blindness? Vicious stepmothers and false friends who secretly work against the lead characters every chance they get? Bring it on! Well-executed moments of nutty impossibility can make a melodrama all the more fun, as far as I’m concerned.

The apparent granddaddy of makjang is Winter Sonata, a show so influential that it’s still being mocked (and copied) a decade after it first aired in Korea. Even a total Kdrama newbie like me understood the reference when the central love triangle of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho found themselves at the alter of a fancy church exclaiming, “But we’re all siblings?”

Many older Korean dramas don’t stand up to viewing today—their low budgets, questionable acting, and deeply traditional gender roles make them feel even older than they are. Winter Sonata isn’t totally without this sort of problem: a microphone is visible hanging above the actors’ heads at least once in every one of its twenty episodes. The male lead’s wardrobe seems to consist entirely of cast-offs from the set of Golden Girls. And the female lead allows herself to be dragged around by all and sundry, so passive she barely puts up a fight when the guy who tried to rape her three episodes earlier drags her away from her boyfriend and into his car. But to my eye the show’s swoony love story, beautiful scenery, and did-that-actually-just-happen? plotting more than make up for these shortcomings and its slower, old-school pacing.

Weirdly, when it comes to drama titles any reference to winter themes seems to be code for makjang madness. Witness The Snow Queen and Will It Snow at Christmas, two of the most wonderfully loony Kdramas I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.

The Snow Queen is a lovely, quiet drama focusing on the tortured Hyun Bin as he comes to terms with his (supposed) culpability for his best friend's suicide, while tastefully putting the moves on said best friend’s little sister—who, wouldn’t you know it, is terminally ill. It’s a combo platter heaped with one unlikely misery after another, and I happily ate every bite.

Will It Snow at Christmas takes things a step further: its breaks its 16-episode run into three distinct storylines featuring the same characters over the course of a decade, with each storyline more insane than the last. By the time the final segment roles around you practically need a scorecard to keep track of the characters' histories, full as they are with near-miss marriages, impersonation of tragically dead brothers, and brief episodes of intense rivalry that magically disappear from one storyline to the next.

America loves makjang, too—after all, what was the critically lauded show Lost but the world’s single most sprawling, out-of-control makjang drama? And yet, we haven’t adopted this handy term. More’s the pity, I say.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Drama Review: City Hunter & Secret Garden


City Hunter: C
Secret Garden: D

I have a horrible confession: two of last year’s most beloved shows are dramas I didn't like. Yes, City Hunter and Secret Garden, I’m talking about you.

My dislike may have as much to do with my expectations as it does with the actual quality of these shows, though. I usually watch only things that have already completed their run rather than watching as each new episode airs and is subbed, so I tend to be pretty spoiled from the get go. And so before watching either of these shows I’d already read any number of glowing reviews, many written by people I admire and respect.

City Hunter, in particular, is much loved by most people who aren’t me.

Billed as an action show, it’s a step outside my comfort zone—I’m more of a watcher of cozy romances, as embarrassing as that may be to admit. I expected City Hunter to be something dramatically different from the Korean dramas I’d already seen, as there tends to be a real dichotomy between the romance and action genres in American entertainment: Romance gets away with shallow, fluffy, and fun, while action is grittier and more nuanced.

Instead, City Hunter felt like last week’s leftovers, warmed up and served as filet mignon. It included all of the standard Kdrama tropes: cancer, birth secrets, romantic leads sharing living quarters, a Cinderella romance, and so on and so forth, all mixed in with a standard-issue revenge drama. It tried to be all things to all people, I think, and ended up looking like somebody who had gotten dressed blindfolded in a pitch black room: all the key pieces were there, but none of them matched or made sense as part of the greater whole.

The villains were one of the show’s biggest problems. They were largely bumbling fools, and because the show was so overstuffed each of them was far too easily dispatched. There was no subtlety here—see bad guy, thwart bad guy, move on to next bad guy.

Buried amid all the other junk, it is possible to find greatness in City Hunter: Lee Min Ho has star quality to spare. Bad Daddy is an amazing, ambiguous character, and his role in the final showdown is poignant and spot on. And even I’m not heartless enough to have disliked the comic relief provided by City Hunter’s live-in buddy, Bae Shik Joong.

Then there’s the prosecutor, who was actually more interesting than City Hunter himself: he was torn by his allegiance to law and order, and his growing realization that law and order sometimes isn’t the best way to get things done. But what could have been an exploration of this character’s conflicting emotions and existential angst was generally passed over in favor of City Hunter, a guy nice enough to punish bad guys without killing them, but not nice enough to feel guilty about his lavish lifestyle being funded with drug money.

To keep the womenfolk happy, the show also included romance, which was awkwardly shoehorned between the offing of bad guys. Park Min Young is thirty kittens worth of cute, but seeing her slight approach to Bear Na Na I wouldn’t feel comfortable with her protecting my ham sandwich, say nothing about the president’s daughter. (I do hope she and Lee Min Ho get married and have lots of adorable babies, though.)

To me City Hunter felt like a mildly entertaining show lacking in depth that was full of missed opportunities.

And on the topic of missed opportunities! Secret Garden, why did you break my heart so? I’m all about supernatural romance, so I thought I’d love this show. But after about three episodes I couldn’t believe what it expected to get away with.

If its characters hadn’t been paper-thin and indifferently acted, it might have had a fighting chance. As it was, though, it became clear that everybody involved knew the body-switch plotline was a complete failure when the actors stepped back into their original roles for key scenes, even in the middle of the switch storyline.

I’ve since watched Who Are You, another Kdrama body-switch show, and seen proof that this plot device can be handled brilliantly. During Who Are You the male lead’s body is taken over by the ghost of another man, who is sometimes also visible in his own body.

Who Are You's male lead always made it crystal clear who was inhabiting his body, unlike Hyun Bin's Pee-Wee Herman-esque turn in Secret Garden. (It’s hard to tell affectless wooden blocks apart, after all.) I would argue that this is partially the result of better writing, but what really made Who Are You more compelling was the actors it showcased. The male lead and the ghost brought their characters to life—they spoke in specific ways, moved in specific ways, and made certain character-specific facial expressions. This gave the actor playing the male lead something to work with when he body-switched with the ghost.

To my eye, it didn’t matter which character the Secret Garden actors were playing—it all looked the same, except for a sneer here and there and that painfully obvious toe kick thing the female lead was prone to do.

Secret Garden also committed one of the cardinal sins of Kdramas, as far as I’m concerned: it kept the lead couple apart too much. This might have been okay if their individual stories had been stronger, or if the secondary characters had been more interesting (or, in the case of Oska, less reminiscent of Jar-Jar Binks). As it was the viewer was forced to go from the not-terribly-interesting main leads to the outright dull second leads far too often.

And then there’s the plot, such as it is. Why were their bodies switched? Who knows. The show didn’t bother to tell us, because once it moved beyond this cutesy plot device it essentially ignored the whole thing.

Exactly what makes a show work for someone and not for someone else is a mystery. What's not a mystery is that neither of these shows worked for me.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lost in Translation

I took three years of French and two years of Latin in high school. Here’s the sum total of what I learned during that miserable time:

1. If a menu item includes the word “fromage,” I should order it immediately.

2. Togas look like they’d be kind of drafty.

3. I could never create subtitles for a television show.

Being obsessed with Korean drama when you don’t speak Korean turns you into connoisseur of subtitles in short order. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, but it’s always amazing that they even exist in the first place. A number of the dramas I’ve watched on official sites use subtitles provided by the show’s television network, but most of the subs out there seem to be created by fans, working for no personal benefit. How is it that the world is full of people who are both smart and motivated enough to make this happen for us poor suckers who speak only one language?

Keeping this in mind, I try not to get too critical about subtitles. I’m absolutely willing to overlook the fact that the “defected” construction discussed in Prosecutor Princess should actually have been “defective.” (Or maybe I misunderstood and the buildings had moved to North Korea?) As long as the subtitles are clear enough for me to follow what’s going on, I’m a happy girl.

There are, however, some things subbers do that make me crazy. And weirdly, most of them are probably done specifically for the benefit of people like me.

Reversing Asian names to follow Western standards. By virtue of watching Korean drama, we Westerners have proven ourselves to be open-minded and interested in the world around us. So why do subbers think we can’t figure out that speakers of Asian languages put family names first and given names second? I promise you it’s just as affecting for us to watch Choi Han Gyul and Ko Eun Chan fall in love as it would be for us to watch Han Gyul Choi and Eun Chan Ko do the same.

Replacing relationship terms or honorifics with names. Ajusshi, oppa, and sunbae may take a little getting used to, but that’s no reason to ditch them altogether in favor of someone’s full name or something like “Mr. Choi.” This isn’t true to the source material and actually works against our understanding of the character speaking—even the greenest of kdrama newbies knows it’s a different thing to call a man “oppa” than it is to say his name.

Translating basic relationship names. One of the boys in the drama Heartstrings is always referring to girls he goes to school with as “unni,” which the Dramafever subtitles helpfully translates as “sis.” It is absolutely unthinkable that an Western boy would say this word to someone he’s unrelated to, so why not just leave “unni” untranslated? I think it’s safe to say anyone watching this show wouldn’t be put off by the use of Korean—it’s a better option than the English, and the definition is a quick Google search away, after all. (If you do Google it, you’ll even find explanations for why he’s saying unni, a term normally used by girls when talking to other girls. Per the geniuses at Dramabeans, it’s slang for boys to say unni, and probably intended to make the character seem cute and approachable.)

Not translating written things. I understand that it’s impossible to translate everything, but some subbers really kill me by not bothering to sub text messages, signs, and letters (or, in the case of Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, numerous elaborate diagrams that seem guaranteed to be packed with sources of amusement).

After about six months of watching Kdrama to the exclusion of all else, I could probably carry on a decent drama-level conversation in Korean. (As long as that conversation involved apologizing, confessing my love, and begging someone not to leave, anyway.) But this old dog is unlikely to ever really learn the new trick of speaking Korean, which much to my dismay means that I’ll never be able to fully appreciate the shows I’m watching.

The subtleties of formal versus informal speech in particular seem important when it comes to understanding drama relationships. (See, for example, Dramabeans’ basic discussion of jondaemal and banmal and Electric Ground’s fascinating-but-terrifying explanation of the 7[!] levels of Korean speech.) It's hard to imagine how much intensive study would be needed to even begin to understand the complexities of Korean hierarchical language, especially for a native speaker of English like me. Sure, I don't use the word "dickhead" around my boss (no matter how much I may want to), but beyond that my native tongue doesn't distinguish between individuals by their rank.

So what to do? For now I think I’ll stop complaining borrow a line from the standard plucky Kdrama girl: Please take care of me, subbers!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Drama Review: Dream High

Sadly, my winter break has just come to an end. This means updates will be much less frequent from now on—working full time barely allows time to watch Kdrama, let alone dwell on it the way I've been able to for the past two weeks. I'll try to post at least once a week, though, likely on Tuesdays.

And speaking of dwelling on Korean television, I just wrapped up watching last year's Dream High. Comments below the cut, as they're of a spoilery nature and this is a fairly recent show.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Drama Review: Coffee Prince

Grade: A+++

My initial viewing of Coffee Prince was like a first kiss with someone I really, really liked: there were bells and rose petals and choruses of angels. (Seriously.) And this is the reason I’m completely incapable of objectively evaluating this drama—I just love it too damn much.

Originally airing in 2007, this Kdrama classic is the story of Ko Eun Chan, a tomboyish girl who passes herself off as a actual boy when a moneymaking opportunity presents itself—being pretend "boyfriend" to the dreamy, spoiled Choi Han Gyul. Throughout 17 episodes worth of trials and tribulations, family and food, the two slowly realize they're meant to be together.

Purportedly there are pacing problems toward the end of this series, likely due to a mid-run episode extension, but this letup in narrative tension didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show even one tiny bit. In fact, I would gladly watch a hundred completely narrativeless episodes of Coffee Prince, just to spend more time with its cast of characters: Grandma plays card games (while miraculously recovering from caner)! Han Gyul attends a business meeting! Eun Chan stubs her toe!

As far as I’m concerned, there are pretty much endless reasons to like this show. But an aborted viewing of Triple, the follow-up effort of Coffee Prince’s creative team, drove one thing home: without the outlandishly charming Yoon Eun Hye, Coffee Prince probably wouldn’t have been as fun to watch. Triple’s lead comes off as shrill, shallow, and obnoxious; yet playing a similar character, Yoon Eun Hye manages to be high energy and goofy while still giving Eun Chan depth and texture, making her someone you’d like to know.

I’d seen Princess Hours before watching Coffee Prince and had some difficulty imaging how the same actress could be in both: she seemed far too pretty and feminine for someone who passes as a boy. Was I ever wrong—with the right outfit and haircut, Yoon Eun Hye really did look like a guy. And unlike many other gender-bending Korean actresses, she didn’t stop there. The way she walked, the way she sat, the way she moved, all were suddenly replaced with the loose-limbed, slouching mannerisms of a teenaged boy.

As Han Gyul, Gong Yoo was another marvel. His magnetism and easy charisma were a perfect fit for the character, a chaebol playboy who approached the world around him with winking, open-hearted delight. Whether he was wooing his grandmother or pointing out Eun Chan's gender to random strangers on the street, it was impossible to take your eyes off him.

And when the show’s melodramatic plot threads heated up—“How will I ever win his heart looking like I do?” “But I’m a man and I love another man!”—both actors were more than capable of handling the situation.

Usually, crying in Korean dramas involves a few tears gracefully tracing a path down an actor’s cheek. But when faced with confessing her character’s true gender to Han Gyul, Yoon Eun Hye took the complete lack of vanity she showed in Coffee Prince one step further, and cried like a real person with a broken heart, gasping and shaking and snotty and in general looking like a hot mess.

The scenes of longing scattered throughout the show are tender and lovely, but Coffee Prince’s plot hit on another aspect of love often overlooked in television shows—Eun Chan and Han Gyul genuinely enjoyed spending time together. Their relationship wasn’t all confessions of undying love and insurmountable obstacles: it was playing with Legos, brushing their teeth together, and goofing off at work, all while talking about anything and everything that came to mind.

This sense of genuine respect and friendship between romantic partners doesn’t appear all that often in Korean drama, but when it does gender shenanigans are often in the offing. The wonderful Sungkyunkwan Scandal is another example: while spending time together as “boys,” its leads fall in love as fully-drawn and complete people, not as genders. Pretending to be a boy allows these girls to step outside the expectations of their society and be appreciated for who they actually are, not what their gender defines them as.

In a similar vein, I love that Eun Chan is a little feminist (whether she realizes it or not). She doesn’t want to rely on a man for the rest of her life, and even after Han Gyul has made it clear he’d be happy to support her family, she works hard to provide for them with her own abilities. Even when she marries Han Gyul, it’s clear that Eun Chan is going to be more than just his wife: she’s going to be his partner.

As a westerner, I also appreciate that the characters in Coffee Prince actually touch: playful shoves at a shoulder, tying other people’s ponytails, and even falling asleep in your cousin’s girlfriend’s lap. (However uncool that may be, whatever continent you’re on.) These things make the relationships seem more relatable and casual—nobody in this show is afraid of being near anybody else in this show.

This also comes to the forefront in the big love scene toward the end of the series. In the few dramas I’ve seen that actually acknowledge that their characters are having sex, the girl seems to be only grudgingly involved. (See, for example, the final episode of Sungkyunkwan Scandal.) She consents actively but usually looks more terrified about what’s going to happen than excited. This is not at all the case in Coffee Prince. Eun Chan might be nervous, but the look on Yoon Eun Hye’s face as Gong Yoo backs her up against the door and sweeps her into his arms tells the whole story: she wants to be with him just as much as he wants to be with her.

So for my money, Eun Chan and Han Gyul share the single most sublime love in all of Korean drama. But there’s more! The second leads are also great, and their tumultuous relationship only adds to the show’s contemporary, grown-up feel: Their lives have been entangled for ten years and they’re casual and comfortable companions, just like the leads. Their storyline is compelling and perfectly handled, overlapping and complementing the show’s primary plot.

Even beyond the two lead couples, Coffee Prince’s supporting cast is invaluable to its cracktacular appeal. The coffee princes are economically but thoughtfully drawn, each with his own motivations and desires. It’s a pleasure to watch their friendships build as they interact, especially when dim-bulb Min Yeop decides to protect Eun Chan’s honor in assorted silly ways.

Add to this embarrassment of riches the earthy air of sensuality that runs throughout the show, along with its naturalistic styling, beautiful settings, and amazing, globe-spanning soundtrack (which I’m listening to right now), and the result just might be my favorite television show of all time.

Fundamentally, Coffee Prince is made of the same old Korean drama building blocks: it includes chaebol–Cinderella romance, birth secrets, and a family’s attempt to break up the lead couple. But what it does with these building blocks is something altogether different: It creates a window into a warm, cozy world of blue skies and bright sunshine, a world that feels like our own, but ever so slightly better.