When Seconds Become First
Ah, secondary male leads. There are two kinds that exist in the K-drama world; the “I want to strangle every time he is on screen” type and the “I will take you oppa if heroine doesn’t want you” type. While the former is usually a sniveling, selfish, self-important douche-bag, the latter tends to be the unrealistically kind and good “best friend” and the silent and stoic sufferer. Often this type of second lead is the better person out the two males vying for the heroine’s affection, and dramas with this type of second lead leave viewers scratching their heads in wonder at why the heroine is so dumb enough to friend-zone such a catch.
I’m sure everyone has suffered at least once from the Second Lead Syndrome (SLS). We fall for the second lead knowing our love for this character has only one ending- self-combustion in a fireball of pain and misery. While healthy fans are rejoicing in a happy end for their main couple, patients of SLS are off huddled in some dark corner like a cat, licking their wounds. I can hear their sad, pathetic, even vicious little meows now- “CURSE THE DRAMA HEAVENS!!!”
Kim Hyun-joong- Because I’m Stupid (Acoustic Version) (Boys Over Flowers OST)
My first case of SLS that I can remember is when I was watching the 1994 drama, Feelings, starring Song Ji-chang, Kim Min-jong, and Lee Jung-jae. The three male actors played brothers in a drama that focused on family as well as romance, so while it is hard to call Kim Min-jong the second lead, I think he was definitely less of a big name than Son Ji-chang was at that time. I actually don’t remember the story too well and whom Kim Min-jong ended up with, but I remember this feeling of sadness for his character who liked the main girl but was so sort of in the shadow. It’s the only impression I have left from the drama after all these years so you can imagine how strong that feeling must have been for me to remember.
My second case was in 1997 for the drama Star in My Heart but this time, I wasn’t the only one who suffered. Actually, the whole nation of South Korea suffered from SLS. This drama starred Choi Jin-shil, Cha In-pyo, and Ahn Jae-wook. Admittedly, the story started off giving both Cha In-pyo and Ahn Jae-wook equal ground but Cha In-pyo was the larger household name at that time and his character was given the back-story of previously having a lover that looked similar to Choi Jin-shil’s character. So for all intents and purposes, Cha In-pyo was the main male lead but the shipping ball eventually ended up in Ahn Jae-wook’s field, relegating Cha In-pyo to the role of the reliable friend. Quickly and thoroughly, Ahn Jae-wook’s character won the hearts of the female viewers, upgrading his status to full main lead and downgrading Cha In-pyo’s status to the dreaded second. This is probably a case of SLS turned on its head.
Another case of SLS triumph is the drama Beautiful Days of 2001. Starring Lee Byung-hun, Ryu Shi-won, and Choi Ji-woo, rumor has it that Choi Ji-woo was supposed to end up with Ryu Shi-won. But Lee Byung-hun and his character took over the drama and dominated the screen and people’s hearts, giving us another chase of SLS triumph.
Back track to the year 1997 again, and you have my third case of SLS; well, actually, Third Lead Syndrome. This drama starred Kim Hee-sun, Ryu Shi-won, and Lee Chang-hoon in a classic love triangle but I remember my attention being drawn to the small role of Won Bin as the reclusive and handsome writer neighbor of Kim Hee-sun. I mean, look at the way his hair falls so perfectly over his eye!
Speaking of Won Bin, I was very invested in the main couple of Song Seung-hun and Song Hye-gyo in the 2001 classic, Autumn in My Heart, but Won Bin’s character was more memorable to me than Song Seung-hun’s character in the end. I guess Song Seung-hun will never, ever win my heart thoroughly, no matter what his role. We’re just not meant to be, oppa!
My most severe case of SLS was for Damo but it wasn’t a case of shipping the second male lead with the heroine. I just loved his character so, so much. While most people were crying, “Hwang-bo Yoon! Hwang-bo Yoon!”, I was crying, “Jang Sung-baek!!!!!!!” Considering how much I have come to utterly love Hwang-bo Yoon after so many rewatches of Damo, in the beginning, all I saw was Jang Sung-baek. He was such a magnetic character and I was drawn to his charisma, intensity, and tragic story. In the days of 2003, there was no “teams” but “camps” in the Soompi forums and I was solidly in Camp Jang Sung-baek. But now, I am in Camp Yoon because I understand how deep his love for Chae-ok was a lot better. Back then, that kind of love wasn’t important to me; Jang Sung-baek’s heroic and worldly purpose to change society spoke to me more.
My most recent and full-on case of SLS was for Hana Yori Dango and Boys Over Flowers. I loved the character of Rui and wished dearly that Makino/Jandi chose him instead of that asshat Domyouji/Junpyo. So I watched the second half of BOF in utter fascination as the writer also seemed to shiip Ji-hoo with Jandi as much as I did. But still, that was just terrible writing. What did that writer do to the original Hano Yori Dango that at least made me believe Domyouji earned Makino’s love in the end? She gave it a thorough beating and stomped on it for good measure.
Here is my favorite fanvid for HYD. It’s an alternate-universe video with Domyouji as the third-wheel. *rubs hand in evil glee*
A BOF/Ji-hoo fanvid that encompasses everything about dear and tragic about the second lead role.
Long and hard experience has taught me to never second-ship again so in recent years, I have not suffered from any cases of SLS. But I do recognize the possibility for SLS in a drama and can name a few in which I saw the danger. For example, in Shining Inheritance with Bae Soo-bin‘s character, in You are Beautiful with Jung Yong-hwa‘s character, and in Sungkyunkwan Scandal with Yoo Ah-In‘s character. Talk about guys who worked so darn hard for their ladies’ love and got nothing. Poor, poor second leads. Poor Bae Soo-bin who ended up again doing the unrequited love thing for Han Hyo-joo in Dong-Yi. Will Bae Soo-bin ever get the girl??? As opposed to Jung Yong-hwa who got Park Shin-hye in another drama. Victory!
Tell me. When did you guys suffer for SLS?