Soon after I discovered K-drama, I watched Boys Before Flowers. This classic introduced me to the Kdrama tropes I was only just starting to recognize. The second male lead syndrome. The dead fish kiss. The chaebol jerk. The insane mother-in-law. The wealthy asshole male lead won over by impoverished-but-good-hearted female lead. The wealthy asshole male lead fixed by impoverished-but-good-hearted female lead.
And, of course, the OTP. The great, fated romance this month’s theme is all about.
As much as I love the vast landscape of new television opened to me by Kdrama, I have to admit I very quickly tired of many of these tropes. I’m not sure what my limit is for watching a Fated and Destined couple overcome obstacles to fulfill their ordained romantic pairing — all the while shipping the female lead with the second male lead and hating the second female lead on account of her being batshit crazy — but that limit was reached within a year.
I have a K-drama list devoted entirely to shows ruined by an over-emphasis on romance. Black was genius until they awkwardly plastered a weird nonsensical “happy” ending on it. Big was a morally complex gem until the Hong sisters threw their central conceit out the window and made everybody happy — offscreen. Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, which admittedly has one of the best OTPs in dramaland, was struggling with difficult themes of female strength, misogyny, and paternalism only to discard them at the halfway point in lieu of romance.
Was every K-drama just a Boys Before Flowers redux? Were we really just watching the same show over and over again? Was romance going to be the entire point of every drama I watched?
Looking at the most critically-acclaimed shows from recent years, I’m going to answer this question with a resounding “no.” Ask people what they think are the best shows from the last few years and chances are high their answer will include Forest of Secrets, Circle, and Signal.
And what sets these shows apart? Little romance and no OTP.
Goblin may have been the most-watched show of 2017 but Forest of Secrets had far greater critical acclaim and regularly tops viewers’ Top Drama of 2017 lists. In fact, Dramabeans Editors voted Forest of Secrets the best drama of 2017 and Circle the best action or thriller, while Signal got the Editor’s Pick for Best Drama in 2016.
What sets Forest of Secrets apart from other shows is its lack of a romance plotline. Not that it didn’t have a female lead; it did. Bae Doo-na did an amazing job portraying the smart, quirky, kind Han Yeo-jin and her strong personal and professional relationship with prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok. But their relationship was built on mutual respect, trust and a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company.
You could argue that there was romantic possibility in both Circle and Signal. But while that may be the case, there was definitely no defined OTP plotline.
So it seems that K-drama audiences don’t need an epic One True Pairing to appreciate a television show. In fact, they regularly choose shows without an overt romance plotline to top their best drama lists.
Why were these shows without a romance plotline more acclaimed than ones with the obligatory will-they-won’t-they, destined OTP? Is it because the writers spent more time on plotting? Is it because the relationships portrayed felt more organic than ones that emphasize the fairy-tale concept of “finding the one”? Or could it be as simple as wanting to watch something fresh and original? Is the OTP trope simply too tropey?
One of my favorite underrated little dramas is the 2015 Seo In-gook drama I Remember You. Ratings-wise, this show barely made 5% but it is a surprisingly gripping psychological thriller. Or most of it is. There is a halfhearted romance plotline in this show: It even ends with an OTP kiss. But while the rest of the show is fascinating and original, every time the show opted for romance it became a mess of clichés and bad K-pop.
So maybe the problem is not romance, per se. Maybe the problem is not an OTP. Maybe the problem is that K-drama writers are still writing the same romance over and over again.
Whatever the reason, for now it seems the best OTP is the NOTP.