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When Seconds Become First

SKKS Yoo Ah In 2

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.

Feelings Kim Min-jong

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.

Star in My Heart

"Star in My Heart" Ahn Jae-Wook and Choi Jin-Shil

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.

Beautiful Days

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!

Propose 1Propose 2

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.

"Damo" starring Ha Ji-Won, Lee Suh-Jin, Kim Min-Joon

Damo vlcsnap-2012-11-23-19h19m28s129

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!

Shining Inheritance

SKKS Yoo Ah In

YAB Jung Yong Hwa

YAB vs heartstrings 2

Tell me. When did you guys suffer for SLS?

82 Comments Post a comment
  1. In my case its different. Actually its not second, third, fourth, of 5th, its more than that. I know its strange but i love Deokman character in Faith. He is cute, shy there. I hope i can see him in a better role.

    December 3, 2012
    • joonni #

      Me too!

      December 3, 2012
  2. sb #

    BOF was my first SLS – so bad that I continued to watch the drama even though it was a hot ridiculous mess and I HATED both male and female lead all b/c of JH’s character… watched the final two episodes AGAIN b/c I just kept hoping against all hope that the ending would change… but then again, I think he deserved better thant GJD character b/c I found her extremely annoying.

    My Name is Kim Sam Soon – there really wasn’t a 2nd lead, but I thought HB’s character was an a** and kept wishing that the blind date guy would work out.

    Protect the Boss – b/c frankly, I don’t find the male lead actor cute at all.

    Beethoven’s virus, FBRS – conflicted b/c the kiss like others mentioned was like watching something X-rated, but the 2nd lead was also SO CUTE… Best Love – ddin’t hate Dokko person, but again, the doctor is so much better – cuter, nic, less childish… why oh why? INR 2012 – I thought the OTP relationship was just unhealthy and she should have stayed with the 2nd lead. Ohlala Spouse – in real life, I really think a cheating a-hat really changes that much, but whatever dramaland.

    Finally, I’m watching CDDA and the ex-boyfriend character isn’t even a true 2nd lead but I’m shipping him. He’s so tragic and their chemistry is palpable whereas frankly I don’t see the chemistry between the PSH and MGY yet. Plus PSH’s character is another whacko male lead so far.

    December 4, 2012
    • joonni #

      By the final eps of BOF, any sort of rationality had left my body and I was just watching it for pure, pure entertainment. Seriously, just crack. It was utter, utter crack.

      I haven’t caught up on CDDA yet but I love Nam Goong-min and it sucks to know he is only a cameo.

      December 4, 2012
  3. RosesML #

    The first time I had SLS was in Secret Garden! Funnily enough, I don’t even like that drama, but I found myself falling for Philip Lee’s character. At that point I hadn’t watched many dramas, so I didn’t realize that his character was typical SL territory; I just knew that he actually cared for the main character, and he was just my kind of guy: gently protective and silently intuitive. Definitely felt the same about the SL in Sun. Scandal.

    December 4, 2012
    • joonni #

      I also felt the slight tingling of SLS in my body for the first episode watching Philip Lee’s character but Hyun Bin, despite his character, was just too magnetic for me to get a proper case of SLS. Thank the heavens.

      December 4, 2012
      • Conjie008 #

        SLS makes it more interesting..but it depends, if characters performs it the right way??!! Some are cheesy, adorable..but that’s what makes it more interesting!! If the chemistry is correct, then it will succeed..if not!! The drama falls flat.. It over shadows the ideal of the story line.

        December 4, 2012
        • Conjie008 #

          But in Secret made it captivating as a whole, cause it was carried out well…

          December 4, 2012
  4. ladida #

    My first and most severe case of SLS was for You’re Beautiful, and I actually had to stop watching the show because it was so infuriating for me. But after reading some posts about Shin Woo I’ve actually come to like him a lot less, maybe even not at all. Doesn’t keep my shipper heart from thinking Jung Yong Hwa and Park Shin Hye are super cute, though. 😀

    December 5, 2012
  5. miss dory #

    Damo’s Naeuri. I cried eight rivers just for him. And another eight for the whole story.

    December 5, 2012
  6. cacao #

    My first SLS ia AIMY, I felt doom and gloom that time … I worship Won Bin’s character a lot and I never really like Song Seung Hun ‘s roles not only in AIMY. I thought I’m going to feel the same when watching Beutiful Days but thanks God Lee Byung Hyun ended with Choi Ji Woo.
    But the SLS came again lately when I watched You are Beautiful with Jung Yong-hwa‘s character, and in Sungkyunkwan Scandal with Yoo Ah-In‘s character.
    I think I must have strong heart to make a deal with SLS in Kdrama.

    December 6, 2012
  7. zeTgi #

    Lovers in Paris. I really pity for the Lee Dong-gun’s character, i just hope that Tae-young could warm him. but i know Tae-young for Ki-joo

    December 9, 2012
  8. athena #

    mine was Goong, my first K drama ever .. ( Lee Yul ) Kim Jeong Hoon character against (Lee Shin ) Joo Jee Hoon..but I love Feast of the Gods..when Lee Sang Woo ( Do Yoon) character becomes the man for Sung Yuri (Joon Young) when it suppose to be with Joo Sang Wook. SLS character for BOF is of course was Ji Hoo (KJH) for me…

    November 3, 2013
  9. Ahhhhh. Hands down SLS singlehandedly stopped my love for Shut Up Flower Boy Band in its tracks. To be honest not just SLS but Byun Hee’s character in general. When I first saw Byun Hee there was no room for contest, no room for second guessing he was PERFECT. For the 2 episodes I don’t think you could remove the hearts shooting from my eyes infinitely everywhere. I shipped him with the girl because of the way he just grew on her. Calling her his muse and being so cute. Biased in a way since Byun Hee could have been the only reason I ever watched another tvN oh boy flower boy show ever again(bad experience with flower boy ramyun shop which coincidentally I suffered SLS from too. That man was……)

    When he died……..I don’t think my sister had anticipated the tears. I cried for a full five minutes after pausing the drama and just cried. I couldn’t go on. I did try to persevere and then the best friend and the girl started to get it on and it was just too much for me to take.

    Not necessarily SLS but Yang Do from heirs I mean can I just say amen. Whenever cold cherry’s growing pains came on the only drive in my mind was Kim Woo Bin. I could have seen cha eun sang with him.

    March 12, 2014

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