Review: tvN’s I Need Romance 2012 – Sexy, Smart, Brave, Honest and Refreshing… A Winner

Some spoilers

With Korean romantic dramas or comedies, you can be sure they’ll either be emotional rollercoasters or aegyo-fests and cuteness overload. There are rare opportunities when they are both with an added bonus of actually being realistic, grounded and structurally sound enough to be a worthwhile experience.

tvN’s I Need Romance 2012 is one of those rare opportunities. It is sexy, sweet and smart. A well-written, wonderfully acted series that goes beyond what the usual network dramas care to deliver and a romance that fully engages even the most cynical of hearts.

For simple American comparisons (and probably an injustice to the series), I Need Romance 2012 and its predecessor are a cross between Sex and the City and Friends. But for what it was and how it related to typical Korean drama, I Need Romance 2012 was a great success.

This series serves as the sequel/second season of last year’s also successful I Need Romance. While I haven’t watched the first series, both feature similar storylines, though with a different cast and different characters.

In I Need Romance 2012, you’ve got a group of four friends, Seuk Hoon, Yeul Mae, Jae Kyung and Ji Hee. Seuk Hoon and Yeul Mae are childhood friends and Yeul Mae, Jae Kyung and Ji Hee became best girlfriends in middle school with the four of them being inseparable since.

The series chronicles the four of them navigating love, career, relationships… and sex. That certainly sets it apart from most Korean dramas already. But at the heart of the series is Seuk Hoon (Lee Jin Wook) and Yeul Mae (Jung Yoo Mi). Not only are they childhood friends, but they’re also childhood sweethearts. That doesn’t mean they’ve had a happy, flowers and butterflies ride since then though.

There is no doubt Seuk Hoon and Yeul Mae care about each other. They live in a sort-of duplex built by their mothers who were best friends, in an effort to have them be together always. They’ve grown up together and fallen for each other and have become official several times. But they’ve broken up several times too.

From personal demons to misunderstandings to just not being ready or even knowing how to love the other, the rollercoaster and the back and forth relationship between Yeul Mae and Seuk Hoon would be exactly what helps them grow throughout the series.

They love each other, yet don’t know how to. When one’s ready to make a go at it, the other isn’t. It just never seems like the right time. And Yeul Mae meeting prince charming Ji Hoon (Kim Ji Suk) further complicates things.

It’s an emotional journey for both of them and the viewer. I Need Romance 2012 does what few Korean dramas can do, make the viewer actually care. Being invested in both Yeul Mae and Seuk Hoon through their stubbornness, their missteps, their endearing realizations and their honest emotions really takes the series to another level.

And despite Yeul Mae and Seuk Hoon being the main attraction, the stories of Jae Kyung (Kim Ji Woo) with her cheating newsanchor husband and Ji Hee’s (Kang Ye Sol) own search for love are just as interesting. Neither subplot ever takes away from the main story and never feels like forced additions just to fill time. Both characters having their own stories actually helps make their foursome that more real and relatable.

Lee Jin Wook, Jung Yoo Mi, Kim Ji Woo and Kang Ye Sol share a great and natural chemistry and you never doubt that they’ve been friends since they were kids. Kim Ji Suk in his first post-military role does well as Ji Hoon. You know he isn’t going to end up with the girl, but the excellent writing avoids making him the typical, poor second lead. Both him and Kim Ye Won (Romance Town/Operation Proposal) as Seok Hoon’s writing apprentice Na Hyun serve almost as Seok Hoon and Yeul Mae’s guides and mentors, while still establishing the possibility that Seok Hoon and Yeol Mae might actually not end up together.

Personally, Lee Jin Wook has been my favorite Korean actor alongside Kim Jung Eun (Lovers in Paris) since I saw him in the OCN drama Someday. His own post-military project, KBS’ Myungwol the Spy was a trip, to put it in slightly positive terms. While he tried to make something out of the poor material given to him, the role was merely another addition to his resume. But I Need Romance 2012 is the complete opposite. In his first genuine lead role, Lee Jin Wook shows what makes him one of Korea’s most underrated actors. Showing off his wide range, from immature kid to moody romantic to best friend to older brother to wounded hero, his role as Seok Hoon was a showcase.

The same could be said for Jung Yoo Mi, with whom Lee Jin Wook shares excellent chemistry with. As Yeul Mae, Jung Yoo Mi had to portray a woman growing up and maturing, going from being slightly selfish and needy to someone who finally considers other people’s feelings, especially Seok Hoon’s. Whether it’s hanging out with her girlfriends, finding a way to move on with Ji Hoon or riding that rollercoaster of emotions with her oppa, Seok Hoon, Jung Yoo Mi did it well and did it believably.

I Need Romance 2012 successfully navigates through both fun and heartbreak. brightness and sadness. It’s a refreshingly brave and honest look at the lives of single thirtysomethings, a story told unfiltered through their careers, friendships, and yes, their loves. The series doesn’t shy away from sex. It is confident, yet down to earth; a more honest depiction of today’s men and women than many other romantic melodramas or cute comedies. And most importantly, it featured an ending that didn’t feel tired and contrived. It was a satisfying and worthy conclusion to a full, worthwhile and engaging story.

For taking some familiar scenarios and making them engaging and fresh, the series is already an accomplishment. But couple that with excellent writing and a wonderful cast, I Need Romance 2012 is a real winner.

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