She Was Pretty: Episode 1
Surprisingly affecting for a madcap romantic comedy, She Was Pretty starts off strong with a first episode I really liked. But more than that, I absolutely LOVE the characters, and have a feeling they’ll be a winning combination. I’m relieved that the first-love story is more poignant than trite, but that’s nothing compared to the awesome girl bonding we get between our two leading ladies, which is sadly so rare in dramaland as to be a real anomaly. Ratings may have started off disappointingly low (4.8% for the premiere, against Assembly’s 5.4% and Yong-pal’s 21.5%), but I’m so encouraged by how much I responded to the first episode that I already don’t care.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We follow a man whose face remains unseen as he puts together a puzzle of a Renoir painting, which is missing one piece. Then he looks up someone online—the name is KIM HYE-JIN, and we can surmise from the stack of handwritten letters in his keepsake box that she was a childhood friend.
But those letters were all returned to sender, leaving him without a clue. He must be the sender, JI SUNG-JOON (Park Seo-joon), who’d mailed those letters to Hye-jin in Seoul while he’d lived in New York.
At a trendy pool-slash-nightclub, a party rages on around the leggy birthday girl. She’s MIN HA-RI (Go Jun-hee), and she calls her friend to complain about not being here yet. Her friend is busy working at a bar, though she lies that she’s on her way.
The friend is frizzy-haired and ruddy-faced (Hwang Jung-eum), and she serves popped corn to a table of disgruntled men who’d much rather be served by the pretty other waitress, which they request directly to her face. She’s got a positive attitude and admirable bounce-back, agreeing that the other girl’s nicer to look at; she assures them that the other girl will bring them their order.
This is the elusive Hye-jin, and she hurries to Ha-ri’s party afterward, finding her surrounded by rich oppas vying for her attention with pricey gifts. Ha-ri can hardly contain her boredom, but perks up considerably when Hye-jin arrives, squealing at “Wifey” to join her. Aw, they’re cute.
One oppa marvels that Ha-ri could have “that kind of” friend, which earns him a swift stiletto to the foot. Dig that sucker in, girl. Ha-ri returns the expensive necklace he gave her and tells him to get lost.
Ha-ri’s all set to ditch everyone to eat dinner with Hye-jin, but Hye-jin insists the birthday girl return to the party. As she eats by herself, Hye-jin gets a text reminding her of her upcoming student loan payment, and takes a wistful look around at all the free-spirited people here. But she only lets herself feel down for a moment, bucking up right away.
Ha-ri trips in her heels and falls into the pool, triggering a whole wave of rescue efforts by all the men. Hye-jin leaps up too, but when she gets knocked into the pool, nobody comes to her aid. As she sinks, she thinks, “One day, the thought occurred to me, that it wasn’t only in movies or dramas where protagonists existed.”
But when Hye-jin’s feet touch the bottom of the pool, her eyes pop open and she simply pushes herself back upward. Good girl.
As she surfaces, she continues, “Just as popped corn gets shoved aside for the main order at a bar, in reality, some people are treated like main characters while others live as supporting cast members. Then I might only be the heroine’s Friend 3, or an extra with no presence, who never receives or even suits the spotlight.”
All the attention centers on Ha-ri, and Hye-jin trudges home, soggy and glum.
In the morning, we find that the friends are also roommates. Ha-ri gets up in a mist of soft lighting and breakfasts on one apple, while Hye-jin jolts awake and scarfs down a full meal, to prepare for a big job interview today. She’s in the thick of employment-hunting, all of her energies focused on securing that holy grail of the full-time job.
Once at the office, Hye-jin gets on the elevator, only to be pressured into stepping off when the weight capacity buzzer sounds. Another woman boarded later, but she’s prettier, so off Hye-jin goes. Then to her surprise, the doors reopen as the pretty woman is instructed to leave, making room for Hye-jin instead. What, you’re not gonna show us the face of the guy responsible? Fine, be a tease.
The interview is for an intern spot at a magazine, and Hye-jin’s middling credentials earn smirks from the more qualified candidates. To rub salt in the wound, upon her exit she’s hit with loose trash flying in the wind and raindrops from a sudden storm.
Arriving in her neighborhood, she sees roommie Ha-ri making out in a convertible and scolds her for the public display of affection, and with a guy she isn’t even sure she wants to date yet. She asks if Ha-ri’s ever been in love with any of her guys, and Ha-ri asks what that true love is. I think that’s your answer. Hye-jin waxes poetic about romantic things, while Ha-ri scoffs at the idea, preferring to just date whomever interests her, for as long as he interests her.
Ha-ri adds that all men are basically the same, so there’s no need to split hairs. She advises Hye-jin to abandon her old-fashioned ideals and just date. Hye-jin points out that nobody wants her, not that she doesn’t have her plate full with other concerns.
Hye-jin is pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Ji Sung-joon, which is full of questions about what she’s up to and ends with a request to meet when he arrives in Korea. Ha-ri remembers him as a chubby loser who’d moved into her house after her family moved to Japan, and was shocked when she later heard Sung-joon and Hye-jin had become best buddies.
But Hye-jin is thrilled at his request to meet, smiling to recall Sung-joon as a sweet, innocent boy.
On the day of their meeting, Ha-ri drives Hye-jin and lends her her cell phone (Hye-jin’s broke in the pool dunking), though she’s at a loss as to why her friend would be so eager to see Chubbo again. Hye-jin says he was her friend and first love, which Ha-ri can’t believe.
As Hye-jin arrives, we linger on two men also arriving in the same parking lot. One’s chic and sleek in a nice car, and the other’s a leather-clad bad boy on a motorcycle.
The chic one enters the museum first, just as a teacher explains a Renoir painting (the same one in the puzzle, “Dance in the Country”) to a group of schoolchildren. He’s our hero Sung-joon, and he interrupts to correct her assumption that the dancers in the foreground are the main characters, suggesting that there’s another way to read the scene.
Then Mr. Motorcycle arrives—he’s KIM SHIN-HYUK (Choi Siwon), and he introduces himself as a feature editor here to write about this exhibition.
Sung-joon smiles when Hye-jin texts that she’s arrived, while outside, she waits with nervous anticipation. She spies a fat man sitting alone eating a pastry and grabs his hands enthusiastically, squealing that it’s great to see him again, which of course doesn’t go over well when he huffs that he’s not Sung-joon.
Then Sung-joon calls to confirm that she’s near the fountain, and heads over waving in her direction.
She’s stunned at the transformation… and then he walks right past her to the pretty woman behind her. Hye-jin gasps in horror, remembering, “There’s one important fact I’d forgotten while I was so busy earning money! The Kim Hye-jin that Ji Sung-joon remembers looks like…”
Flashback to their school days, when Hye-jin was a gorgeous girl (Jung Da-bin) who’d cause fights between the boys who all wanted to sit next to her. But she was super nice, too, and when students would taunt Sung-joon, it was Hye-jin who shoved them away. (It’s Ding-Dong!)
Sung-joon realizes he’s approached the wrong woman just as Hye-jin hangs up on him. She runs out of sight and rejects his call, and a glimpse of her reflection causes all the recent painful slights to rush back to her. Snubbed for her looks, rejected for her specs.
She tells us that after Sung-joon immigrated to the U.S., her wealthy family was ruined, and the pretty looks she inherited from her mother were overpowered by her scraggly father’s genes.
So Hye-jin chokes back tears as she finds Ha-ri, telling her friend why she left. The beautiful Hye-jin in his memory had completely vanished, and she’d been afraid of looking even more pathetic in his eyes.
Ha-ri exclaims that Hye-jin’s totally fine and should meet him anyway, but Hye-jin counters that on top of the looks are her sad status as a 30-year-old unemployed loafer. She’d rather preserve the first-love fantasy.
She sighs that she wishes she could borrow Ha-ri’s appearance just for today… and that sparks an idea.
A short while later, it’s Ha-ri who shows up at the fountain where Sung-joon’s still waiting. He lights up while she awkwardly says hello, and then he pulls her into a hug. “I missed you, Kim Hye-jin,” he tells Ha-ri.
Flashback to Hye-jin and Sung-joon’s first meeting. She had dropped by his house soon after he’d moved in and introduced herself. He’d been so startled he’d run away, only to show up in her class.
The next time she dropped by, he was working on that Renoir puzzle, and Hye-jin had seen the small face in the background. Ah, that’s the missing piece from the first scene. Sung-joon had shared his opinion that the lady was looking at the man in the foreground, nursing a one-sided crush. Hye-jin had called the lady a hidden picture, easy to miss entirely if you’re not searching for it.
Now in the present, Hye-jin watches her first love hugging her best friend, thinking, “On that day, in front of my first love, I became a hidden picture.”
The couple heads to a restaurant for dinner, while Hye-jin eavesdrops from a nearby table. Sung-joon is clearly bursting with curiosity but asks questions slowly, while Ha-ri fidgets uncomfortably, replying according to the instructions Hye-jin had issued. She sticks to vague comments, but missteps when asking after his mother, which causes Hye-jin to leap up and signal madly that Mom’s sleeping in the sky. Thankfully, Ha-ri smooths it over and he doesn’t think too strangely of it.
Sung-joon explains that he came across a box of their old letters recently, which made him want to see her again. He asks why she stopped writing, and she gives the pre-planned answer that her family moved to Japan and she lost his information.
Sung-joon says that he also found the puzzle, but Ha-ri doesn’t even know what a “puh-joo” is and stalls while Hye-jin scribbles a note. She has no idea what “hidden woman” means, but mentioning her makes Sung-joon happy.
Then Hye-jin imagines herself in Ha-ri’s seat as he says earnestly, “Before I met you, I thought being alone every day was obvious. But I realized for the first time after becoming friends with you… that if you have even one friend with you, the world isn’t lonely. It could be fun. And to have the friend with me be a cool girl like you—it was so fortunate. Thinking that, I suddenly felt grateful, and wanted to find you. Meeting you now, I’m glad I found you.”
Ha-ri forces a smile, and Hye-jin slumps a little, sighing, “I’m glad I hid.”
It’s clear that Sung-joon wants to meet again, but as the date winds down Ha-ri follows Hye-jin’s instructions and gives him her excuse. He’s floored when she says she’s leaving to study in England tomorrow, but he regroups and figures they can keep in touch and meet on his work trips to England, which happen several times a year.
But he can’t let things end just like that, and asks her to wait five minutes. He races to a shop and returns with a box, saying she can use it to avoid “the disliked thing.” He offers a handshake that he can’t quite let go of, and then hugs her goodbye.
Around the corner, Hye-jin blinks back tears.
The gift is an umbrella, which stirs a specific memory. Flashback to a school trip on a rainy day. Sung-joon suddenly gets up and asks the driver to open the doors, and Hye-jin watches in concern as he steps off the bus alone, shaking in the rain. Sung-joon whimpers about his mother and being scared of the rain, but suddenly Hye-jin is there with him, holding a shirt over their heads.
He’s still stuck in a bad spell as they sit there, so she sticks an earbud in his ear. Playing is the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” and it immediately calms him. Hye-jin promises, “I’ll be with you now. I’ll be your umbrella.”
When he’d left for the States, he’d given Hye-jin that puzzle piece of the hidden woman, so they can finish the puzzle when they meet again. Then he’d kissed her before running off to make his flight.
Now Hye-jin selects all of her emails from Sung-joon—there’s a whole page of them as they’d planned their reunion—and deletes them, thinking, “Goodbye, my first love.”
On the upside, Hye-jin gets hired as an intern at a magazine, and she shows up for her first day full of enthusiasm. Even when minor hiccups arise (like ripping her slacks on the way in), she brushes them aside with her eternal optimism.
Also heading inside is editor/bad boy Shin-hyuk, who looks cool, but is actually much less cool than he thinks. He tosses a piece of gum in the air and misses his mouth, and when he bends over to retrieve it, he trips Hye-jin, who faceplants on the pavement.
She wails in pain, thinking the gum is her front tooth. Shin-hyuk offers assistance, but she bolts up and dashes inside lest she be late on her first day.
The company has hired two interns in their management support department, and the other one is a fashionable young woman with a distinct air of snootiness about her. The internship will last three months, at the end of which they’ll be up for full-time employment. Hye-jin is given her first task and races around madly running errands, while the other intern sits around.
Still, Hye-jin tackles her work with alacrity, super excited to finally have a job. In the following days, she takes on every assignment efficiently and competently, and her boss crows that he was right to hire her… because it would have been a productivity-killer to only hire attractive women—they just make the men slow down and then quit to get married. He wanted someone who would never get texted by a man or resist working late because of dates. Barf, you stupid little man.
Then he gives Hye-jin the task of dropping off a box with another department within the company, The Most magazine’s editorial team. She heads to the flashy Most office and makes the delivery, only to be mistaken for someone else and given another errand.
She leaves that box with a Most editor outside, hurrying away before recognizing him as motorcycle-riding Shin-hyuk. He recognizes her vaguely, but can’t quite place her.
Somehow Hye-jin gets roped into even more work for Most—ha, they mistake her for the new freelance copy editor, and she’s given stacks of papers to proof. Hye-jin attempts to ask why she’s being assigned this work, but everyone at Most just cuts her short and issues directives, so Hye-jin finds herself making coffee runs to a fashion shoot on top of everything.
She’s exhausted by the time she finally makes it out, and then the Most team realizes the mixup when the real freelancer shows up. The editors wonder who Hye-jin was, noting that she did all her work perfectly.
The next day, Hye-jin is transferred to Most on a temporary, three-month assignment. She isn’t keen to return there, but Most has the most pull within the company, and what they want, they get.
So off she goes, where she’s shown her seat and once again eyed by Shin-hyuk, who continues trying to figure out where he’s seen her. Heh, if he can’t think back two days, I fear he may never know.
Hye-jin’s voiceover cuts in to tell us, “Reality is when suddenly one day, without any warning, it escapes our expectation.” That’s when Sung-joon arrives at the office building, and a passing employee recognizes him as the guy who kicked her off the elevator. (Aw, I knew it.)
“That’s why in life, you can’t let your guard down,” Hye-jin continues. “Expectations don’t work.”
Sung-joon enters Most’s office, and the editor-in-chief introduces him as their New York transfer, now their deputy editor.
Hye-jin gasps in shock just as Shin-hyuk remembers where they met. Hye-jin narrates, “None of us expected this.” Sung-joon joins the voiceover to say, “This is the beginning of our hidden picture search.”
These characters! I luff them! It’s very early to be loving anything without qualification, but they really won me over with this foursome. I’d expected to like Hwang Jung-eum and Park Seo-joon together, having seen them acting together before, and I expected to like Siwon since he’s the best cocky doofball around, but Go Jun-hee was a surprise. Which speaks to the writing of her character, since she’s normally got a cooler, less friendly vibe. I did like her as the little sister in What’s Up Fox, but that doesn’t compare with Ha-ri here, who makes a great counter for the bubbly heroine.
Hwang Jung-eum’s brand of indefatigable pep really works to the character’s advantage here, and that’s not something I can say of all her characters. (I think she’s a good actress, but I dearly wish she would sometimes turn her energy dial down a notch. Not everything has to be emoted at 11!) But because Hye-jin’s energy is put on, it comes off as a bravado meant to protect, to cover up how much it hurts that people treat her like crap because she doesn’t fit their idea of pretty.
As to the whole prettiness point—that was the part that had me the most worried about this drama going in, especially when it was promoted using the words “ugly gene” and calling her “bomb woman” (slang akin to eyesore). It’s a potentially tricky premise to base a show around someone being valued for their looks, but the show’s approach is to focus on the effects of her ugliness. We’re not making value judgments about the ugliness itself, but portraying how less attractive people are disregarded by the entire social order, and that’s something that resonates.
Also, Hye-jin’s fear of being a disappointment rings very true; I thought that entire exchange around their reunion was played in a lovely, heart-tugging way. I appreciate that Hye-jin’s not so down on her looks that she ties up her self-worth in it; it seems like she’s largely disregarded it and rolls with the punches as gracefully as she can. But combined with insecurity over not becoming anything in her life yet and the potency of a first love fantasy—well, I totally get her. I loved her as a child for being sweet to Sung-joon and not thinking anything of his appearance, but you grow up and can’t expect the same open mind of the world, sadly.
(This is why, as much as I hate Hwang Jung-eum’s hair—always the hair with her!—I really don’t want the show prettying her up, because the answer to the conflict can’t be that she overcomes it by becoming conventionally pretty. I… don’t actually know if the show will accomplish this. But I’ll go into it with optimism.)
As for Park Seo-joon… omg why is he so hot? I’ve thought he was hot before, but man does he really do it for me as Sung-joon. It was almost painful watching him with Ha-ri, knowing what he didn’t, but that’s the kind of angst I always think hurts in a good way. He already feels something’s off about Ha-ri, but we’ll have to see how long the fantasy can hold up to the reality in front of him… and how long it’ll take him to recognize the real Hye-jin. I simultaneously want him to figure it out immediately and very very slowly, and can’t decide which is better. But at least the anticipation is a good thing.