In recent years, tvN has been churning out hit over K-Drama hit, from the slice-of-life Reply series to the fantasy-romance Goblin. One of this cable network’s latest 2018 success stories comes in the form of What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? an adaptation of a novel and webcomic by the same name. With its workplace hijinks and feel-good fluff, the drama has cemented its spot in Korea’s highest rated cable dramas of all time. However, while there’s an obvious audience there for this kind of rom-com, the draw of watching a pair of 30-year old professionals act like infatuated teenagers didn’t quite deliver it for me.
Korean Name: 김비서가 왜 그럴까
Genre: Romantic Comedy, Melodrama
Number of Episodes: 16 episodes
Episode Length: 70 minutes
Recommended For: Someone looking for a mix of romance and low-stakes mystery, with an emphasis on the rom-com aspect of it
NOT Recommended For: People who can’t stomach gratuitous use of K-Drama tropes or thematic whiplash
Park Min Young as Kim Mi So / Secretary Kim
Park Seo Joon as Lee Young Joon
Lee Tae Hwan as Lee Seung Yeon / Morpheus
Kim Mi So, known by her colleagues at work as the dependable Secretary Kim, has worked tirelessly for the narcissistic yet highly capable corporation Vice President Lee Young Joon for the last nine years of her life. One day, seemingly unprovoked, she announces to her boss that she is resigning from her position as his secretary. With Young Joon thoroughly baffled by the news, the two must come to terms with the unspoken feelings between them in a relationship that is much older than Mi So even knows. As romance grows between them in the month before Mi So’s resignation, so do memories resurface from a terrible event from their past that left both physical and emotional scars on Young Joon.
I generally try to read the source material before watching an on-screen adaptation, but I simply didn’t get around to it this time and consequently went into this drama blind. My review is thus coming from the perspective of only a viewer of the televised adaptation, and I can’t speak about its faithfulness to the source material. In any case, the drama version didn’t really leave me with the burning urge to spend any longer with our main characters and read either the novel or webcomic. But I’ll explain why soon.
Secretary Kim suffers from a bad case of narrative identity crisis. If someone were to watch one of the first episodes versus the last few, they could probably believe it’s a different show entirely. It’s not a gradual development that makes for a growing conflict over the course of the series. Instead, the drama fleshes out a sort of mystery-thriller-romance during its first half that is ultimately resolved way too quickly for the latter half to even be even remotely as compelling. The stakes are so much lower, and every episode devolves into a generic rom-com one-off where each tiny new conflict is introduced and resolved over the course of 70 minutes. After the building intrigue of the first half, it’s underwhelming, and exactly the reason I sped through the first eight or so episodes and then was forcing myself to finish watching the drama by the last four.
Mi So and Young Joon’s childhood history, and consequent amnesia that makes for convenient reveals as the story progresses wasn’t anything new by way of plot devices. But the event that tied them together was something I didn’t anticipate, and I was genuinely invested in the rather disturbing backstory behind Young Joon’s trauma. The way this related to his antagonistic relationship with his older brother Seung Yeon was something that pushed the boundaries of my suspension of disbelief, unfortunately. And it didn’t help that Seung Yeon seemed to be only used as a prop to flesh out how “good” of a person Young Joon really was after we as the audience had been inundated with his narcissism at the beginning of the drama.
However, Seung Yeon’s other narrative purpose was to provide the third vertex of yes – you guessed it – a love triangle. Secretary Kim features a “proper” love triangle, rather than love square K-Dramas usually default to. However, it’s equally as trite with two brothers vying for the affection of a girl they both think is their childhood friend. All these dynamic lacks is another female lead to complicate things for the lovers to make it even more typical. Don’t worry though, Mi So still gets a chance to act like a jealous teenager later on in the story. And we’re supposed to believe this is a charming personality trait too, yahoo!
Another questionable aspect of Secretary Kim is its rather gratuitous use of K-Drama tropes. I initially found this entertaining given the nearly effortlessly way the writers seemed to work in an iconic trope into each episode, be it a wrist grab or a coat-umbrella as the couple runs through the rain. But it got old fast, especially when some of the romantic tension between the leads was resolved and we fell into the tedious cycle of a tiny sub-plot per episode. The use of these tropes felt a lot less self-aware at that point, and the writing devolved from enjoyably cheesy to just cliché.
All the best plots are inherently tied to their character growth, and seeing how characters develop and learn from their mistakes is a big part of what I believe makes a story carry any actual significance. The path of character development in Secretary Kim was a turbulent one, and sixteen episodes later, I’m not really sure we ended with a pair of lead characters better than the ones we started with. In fact, dare I say, they may actually be worse.
Mi So’s big revelation is the classic: “What I was looking for was right in front of me the whole time.” For nearly half the drama it seems like she was learning to seek independence away from Young Joon, but just ends up back by his side and doing her job as well as ever before. I can’t really fault her character for this, because she is actually a very capable career woman, but I do miss the poised and practical woman we started the drama with. My biggest qualm with her character is how she basically became a lovestruck teenage girl by the end of the series, complete with a full side of petty jealousy when she watches Young Joon’s platonic interactions with other women. It is so far from the high-heeled, level-headed Mi So that had enough agency to quit her job in search for personal fulfillment after years of sacrifice for her boss and her family that we started with. The fact that neither she nor Young Joon had ever dated anyone else in the decade they worked together is so unlikely I won’t even allow this fact to account for both characters’ lack of maturity in their romantic relationship. I suppose if you signed up for good ol’ rom-com fluff this is exactly what you’d be looking for, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way. I think I’m still bitter that the turbulent mystery-romance I thought I was watching at the beginning of the drama was not the story I ended up finishing the series with.
Young Joon on the other hand actually gets to tackle some of his emotional issues and showcase that to us as the audience. We are a bit cheated out of actual character development from Young Joon, however, because it is revealed he was actually in love with Mi So and knew she was his childhood friend even before he hired her as his secretary. That makes him learning to “love” and treat her with kindness actually just a reflection of his feelings at the start of the series. He isn’t really a better person by the end of the drama, but only because he wasn’t exactly a bad one, to begin with.
I will say at times this drama toes the dangerous line between Young Joon learning to be courteous to Mi So and Young Joon being a mild perpetrator of demeaning gender role stereotypes, like women should be cared for by men instead of working hard for their own benefit. Because his “chivalry” is played up for romance, the drama struggles to address this sticky business. But in the end, Mi So does continue her work in Young Joon’s office and remains the more practical of the two which I did very much enjoy.
I won’t talk too much about Young Joon’s brother and rival in love Seung Yeon because his character is just the two things I’ve mentioned. That’s it. In fact, after the childhood flashback reveals and brothers’ reconciliation in the middle of the drama, Seung Yeon virtually disappears from the series. We get a nice, “Hey brother, congrats on your wedding; I’m no longer bitter towards you,” at the very end of the drama to remind us he existed. But otherwise, I might have believed he was killed off by the writers entirely for all his presence in the second half of the drama.
On a side-note, I was surprised at how invested I became in the stories of the side characters running tangent to the main couple’s. The general dynamic of the group of executive secretaries that worked directly below Mi So was probably one of the most fun aspects of the drama. This is especially true with some of the office couples that developed amongst this group, particularly the flighty Secretary Bong and her “hero” Yang Cheol, or Secretary Yang. The fact that they tried so desperately to hide their relationship when everyone in the office nonchalantly knew about it was hilarious, as was Secretary Bong’s complete overreaction to every barely chivalrous thing Yang Cheol did. Secretary Yang was basically a human teddy bear and I’m so glad he got his happy ending because he deserves the world.
Park Min Young is just a delight to watch in all of her various roles, and her poise and elegance as Mi So was no exception. She did a fantastic job of conveying the professionalism of a career woman that still also had a rather naive side to her, and I did feel that she had a genuine chemistry onscreen with Park Seo Joon. This was a bit of a different role I’m used to seeing her in, as Park Min Young tends to take on more spunky, quirky characters. But I actually think I prefer her as this elegant, unshakable secretary type – which was a refreshing kind of female lead in any case.
I don’t even feel like I even need to explain how Park Seo Joon was both charming and convincing as a narcissistic Vice President. I’m glad his popularity has shot up in recent years to the point where he’s now heading major drama series as the male lead because his performance, even in a role as silly as Young Joon, is always nuanced. Down to every last eyebrow twitch. He made Young Joon’s more egotistical antics tolerable, and his softer side actually endearing. So our two mains leads were a definite “pro” on a longer list of “cons” this drama had going for it.
Lee Tae Hwan was one of the weakest members of the cast, despite being the second male lead, but his performance wasn’t distractingly bad. There would be certain moments where his tone was a bit flat or the way he stood was just awkward enough to be noticeable. To the best of my knowledge, he really shot to popularity last year after his role in My Golden Life, and certainly isn’t as accustomed to being in a lead role as his costars, so that may explain some of his stiltedness at times.
Secretary Kim delivers a fairly standard set of tracks in its OST – nothing I’ll probably remember after this year. My favorite of the bunch would have to be Jeong Sewoon’s “It’s You,” which is beautiful not out of any particularly interesting use of instrumental but rather for Sewoon’s voice.
On the other end of the spectrum, I found Lee Da Yeon’s track “Why am I Like This?” to be positively grating every time it popped up – either in the original form or its instrumental. It’s just a little too chipper and brassy for me to get behind. All the other OSTs were nice at best and forgettable at worst, which didn’t make for the most outstanding ensemble of tracks but provided a passable soundtrack for the events of the drama. I’ve been fairly unimpressed with most K-Drama OSTs released this year, and Secretary Kim didn’t deviate from the trend in this way.
I have some mixed feels about the way this drama was shot in that, like most other elements of Secretary Kim, it lacks consistency. I distinctly remember moments in the earlier episodes of the series where I was impressed by some of the skillfully crafted, more poignant moments between the leading couple. However, later episodes featured some rather bizarre transitions that stuck in my mind as awkward more than anything else. The editors also made gratuitous use of on-screen animations and quirky sound effects that removed a sense of realism from the drama but accentuated the comedic aspect of it. To some, I suppose this may have heightened the experience of the drama or made it a little more fun. I mostly found it annoying.
In a sense, I understand why this drama didn’t thrill me with sweeping cinematography or impressive, cleverly composed shots because there really wasn’t any place for them in a sickly sweet rom-com. The more dramatic, thriller-esque elements of the story that could have explored this were a little too minimal to get creative with, so I give the cinematography overall a passing score. Decent, but nothing to remember the drama by.
What's Wrong With Secretary Kim? is fun and theatrical, but loses steam after the mystery driving the story is resolved at the drama's halfway point. The rest of the drama is all fluff with no stakes, so I'd only recommend sticking it out if you're really interested in watching a predictable and saccharine romance play out in the latter half.