Here’s a quick pop quiz for you before we begin this review in earnest. Are you a drama watcher who:
1) enjoys goofy character studies that present wonderfully detailed universes but don’t necessary have much of an overarching plot, or
2) prefers shows that feature strong narrative throughlines and beginning-to-end, series-wide plots?
If you answered 1, you just might love Flower Boy Next Door. If you answered 2, you just might not.
This drama tells the story of Go Dok Mi (Park Shin Hye), a lonely, introverted young woman who has almost totally withdrawn into her apartment. Although she has lived there for years, Dok Mi feels like a total stranger to the other residents in her down-at-the-heels apartment complex, a group that seems to spend most of their time staging small-scale protests at the behest of their security guard. Her biggest interaction with the outside world is spying on the painfully handsome doctor who lives in a bigger, nicer apartment in a brand-new building across the street. She may not speak to Tae Joon—or even know his name—but through the lenses of her sunshine-yellow binoculars he looks like her closest friend. Dok Mi has built her day around his routines, and watches him avidly without ever really considering that she might someday meet him in person.
When Enrique Geum (Yoon Si Yoon), Tae Joon’s visiting cousin, catches her peering into his windows, everything changes for both Dok Mi and the other residents of her floor. Enrique is a high-energy puppy-boy, all silly antics and open-hearted delight. A renowned game designer who has spent most of his life in Spain, he understands how distanced Dok Mi feels from the world around her. Growing up in a foreign country, he was always aware that he was different, which made him work all the harder to forge human connections. His games were what he had to offer, and he made them with love and devotion.
Of course Dok Mi and and Enrique start off on the wrong foot, with a panda-hat-clad Enrique outraged to realize that the person across the way has been playing peeping tom. But from the very beginning the two feel drawn together, connected on an almost psychic level. (Really, it might be an actually psychic level—the show dabbles in magical realism during a number of scenes when Enrique can seemingly read Dok Mi’s mind.) Their budding friendship draws Dok Mi out into the world and encourages her to befriend the people she finds there.
It even turns out that Dok Mi has her own watcher—Jin Rak, the gruff cartoonist next door. He has spent so much of his time dreaming about his quiet neighbor that she even seeps into his professional life: along with his assistant, the hardworking Dong Hoon, he creates a new webtoon called Flower Boy Next Door. In it, he both recounts and imagines Dok Mi’s story.
Like all the dramas in tvN’s Oh Boy! series, this show features a large cast of supporting characters that shape its plot. The most important of them is probably Do Hwi—Dok Mi’s high school best friend turned mean-girl tormenter, who tries to use their former friendship to get close to Jin Rak, whom she believes to be the secret heir to a chaebol fortune. My favorite of the peripheral (but indispensable) characters is the nameless editor of Jin Rak’s webtoon, whose brash, brusque mannerisms hide an overworked girl desperate to succeed in her chosen field. The final ingredient in their coalescing community is Watanabe, the new guy from down the hall. He’s a wannabe chef from Japan who brings the rest of the cast together with weekly cooking lessons.
Its characters are Flower Boy Next Door’s greatest strength. Even though most of them are slightly exaggerated in the way of Korean comedies, they’re charming and wonderful and utterly sympathetic, and as the show progresses the viewer is completely drawn into their lives.
It also doesn’t hurt that they’re portrayed by a group of incredibly likable actors, led by the lovely, expressive Park Shin Hye. A longtime veteran of dramas like You’re Beautiful and Heartstrings, Shin Hye is able to convey with a single look what would require a thousand lines of dialogue to say. She takes a journey with Dok Mi—from the beginning of the drama to its end, her bashful, downward-staring attitude evolves into the straight-backed posture of someone who knows her own worth.
The ever-handsome Yoon Si Yoon as Enrique proves to be her perfect foil: his childlike candor and propensity toward panda suits is tempered with a powerful sense of empathy and tenderness. He’s an utter contrast to the typical male lead in Kdrama romcoms—instead of being distant and cold, he’s like a burst of sunshine in a dark room. He isn’t prickly and doesn’t withhold his emotions; he gladly shares his heart and his mind with everyone he meets. Yoon Si Yoon only has a few dramas to his name at this point, but he’s definitely an actor to watch. Like his contemporary Song Joong Ki of Nice Guy and A Werewolf Boy, Yoon Si Yoon disappears fully into his characters and embodies their emotional lives in an intense and convincing way.
Another of Flower Boy Next Door’s primary charms is that it’s not afraid of emotion, much like Enrique. The best of its episodes spend more time on characters talking about their feelings than they do on things like narrative or plot development: emotions serve as the show’s spine and its unifying principle. Most dramas revolve around circumstances that change—Amnesia! Cancer! Birth secrets! Corporate jockeying for power!—but Flower Boy Next Door is so very rewarding to the receptive viewer because it revolves around people that change.
These changes are reflected just as much in the look of the show as in its script. Everything about Flower Boy Next Door is beautiful and striking, from its blue/grey/orange color palate to its perfectly chosen props and cadre of dreamy flower boy leads. Throughout, developments in the characters are reflected perfectly in their surroundings. Early on, the drapes in Dok Mi’s apartment are like another character in the show: they’re always present, dark and heavy and made for blocking out the world. But when we’re reintroduced to Dok Mi after the time jump in episode 16, we see that the forbidding drapes are no more. In their place are a set of sheer, floaty curtains that let the daylight stream into her apartment—and into her life. Most dramas overlook little opportunities for visual storytelling like this, but Flower Boy Next Door’s obsession with detail serves it well.
I suspect this drama’s greatest successes and greatest flaws can be traced to its source material—an actual webtoon called I Steal Peeks at Him Everyday. (For those keeping score at home, that’s also the title of this show’s first episode.) Flower Boy Next Door does an amazing job on the micro level: it creates lovely moments and its characters are lavished with development. From Dok Mi going against her frugal nature to turn up her apartment’s heat whenever Enrique visits, to the evolution of the dark circles under the webtoon editor’s eyes, its meticulous attention to detail and the building-blocks of atmosphere make the show a transporting delight.
But when it comes to tying all its many pieces together on the macro level, Flower Boy Next Door is somewhat less successful.
Posted in weekly installments, I Steal Peeks at Him Everyday is a serial intended for long-term viability. Contrary to the concise format of Korean dramas, stalling is one of this medium’s prime directives: like American television shows, it needs to last for as long as people are interested in it. The first volume of this comic was posted in late June 2011, and its most recent installment, volume 54, went up just last month. The way you fill that much space in an ongoing creative effort is by slowly doling out attention-grabbing scenes and crafting perfect, bite-sized moments that don’t so much move forward as they jog in place. An over-arching, endgame plot is something you can only hint at if you don’t want to run out of content before you run out of serial.
And this is exactly what Flower Boy Next Door does. When viewed with a microscope, as you would see a single installment in a multi-year webtoon, it’s perfect. But seen with binoculars, as you would watch a sixteen-episode drama, it’s a mess of story threads that are dropped, circular plotting, and never-ending evasion.
For me, this wasn’t really a problem. I loved the central characters and their relationships so much that I didn’t need an over-arching plot—I just wanted to see them living their lives, and rejoice in their small triumphs. But for other viewers, this drama was frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. As a whole, things just didn’t hold together: Several secondary characters were dropped midstream without a satisfying explanation of their motives. Whole scenes existed for no reason other than dressing Yoon Si Yoon up in a panda suit or an ascot, making them feel disconnected from the drama’s overall storyline.
Also unwelcome were the show’s many “cheat” cliffhangers. Time and again, episodes closed with shocking developments (Jin Rak caught the car! Enrique heard her confessing and is heartbroken!) that didn’t carry over into the next episode. The first few times this happened, it was amusing. But when episodes 14 and 15 rolled around it was impossible to take them seriously—the show had squandered its believability by reusing the same transparent tricks too many times.
So could Flower Boy Next Door has been a better drama? Probably.
Could I have loved it more? Probably not. It’s a humane, fairy-tale-tinted foray into the lives of some of the most indelible characters Kdrama has ever created.
For one last peek at the flower boys next door, keep an eye out for a special final episode airing next week in Korea.
Read more Kdrama commentary and reviews at Outside Seoul