Navigating the complexities of love and self-worth is a tale as old as time. Love, with its inevitable mistakes and broken hearts, is not the happily-ever-after of classic Disney movies. A completely picture-perfect soulmate simply doesn’t exist – rather, love takes time, patience and a good amount of introspection to get right.
But what if you were presented with a chance to skip all the hard parts, to completely avoid the trauma and fully revel in the highs of romance? As new TVING original series Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me tells us: even if that were possible, there is no doubt a hefty price to pay.
Meet Seo Hee-soo (Han Ji-hyo), a college student with a penchant for lyric writing. She’s mostly characterised by her low self-esteem – she often chooses to withdraw to the sidelines when interacting with her peers, develops fantasies of unattainable crushes and has a small social circle of friends. She’s often accompanied by her best friend, Jung Si-ho (NCT’s Doyoung), who silently pines for an oblivious Hee-soo.
Hee-soo’s life changes drastically after she chances on a curious journal tucked away on a bookshelf in her father’s office. It begins ominously wobbling in place before it abruptly flies off the shelf and onto the floor in front of her, showing her name scrawled on the cover. All the other books begin trembling, too, and are thrown towards her by an invisible force. She suddenly wakes up in her bed, writing the strange incident off as a bad dream – until her gaze comes to rest on the same journal placed neatly on her desk.
She opens the notebook intending to use it to experiment with new lyrics, but there’s something otherworldly about the way the pages call for Hee-soo to write on them – almost as if the journal is promising to grant whatever wish she puts down. In typical naïve protagonist fashion, Hee-soo ignores the red flags and begins workshopping the lyrics of her next song, which turns out to be a confessional for her college senior, Gang-wook (Son Hyun-woo).
The next day, Gang-wook suddenly admits his feelings for her in front of their peers at university, and they begin a month-long romantic escapade that feels nearly too good to be true for Hee-soo. She understandably relishes the feeling of being loved – after feeling undesirable due to her lack of dating experience, getting to experience the honeymoon phase with the guy she’s been daydreaming about is a high she never wants to crash from. But here’s the catch: the notebook only allows for a person to fall for Hee-soo for a month.
A vicious cycle ensues. After each month, Hee-soo turns to her magical journal to write new lyrics that script her next romantic encounter. After four weeks, the new beau dumps her, each telling her a different version of how they “[had] no idea why I fell for you in the first place”. Hee-soo never truly develops feelings for any of these men, and her monthly exploits do not go unnoticed by Si-ho, who makes his concern for her clear in their conversations – only to be promptly shot down.
To the casual eye, Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me seems primed to lean into the magic and mystery of Hee-soo’s notebook; the show’s premise sounds too similar to that of Death Note to do anything else. But the journal’s sole purpose in the series is a plot device to drive Hee-soo’s self-discovery. Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me might employ some fantastical story elements, but nothing about Hee-soo’s circumstances is unrealistic: A substantial lack of self-worth can lead to self-sabotaging and hurtful behaviours, and the only way to remedy this is to accept that love is not without its ugly moments. There is no such thing as a perfect romance with only ups and no downs – there are only people who endeavour to be the best versions of themselves for themselves and each other.
Being able to witness Hee-soo’s character development over the course of 10 episodes is easily one the best parts of the story. From her strained relationship with her father and the lack of a mother growing up to a hollowed heart from cycling through dozens of men just to feel something only to be exploited, women’s shared experiences are vividly reflected in Hee-soo, who is fundamentally just a young woman learning to grow into herself.
Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me reflects on what it actually means to love, but unfortunately succumbs to age-old stereotypes and clichés. Insecure female protagonist who ends up falling in love with the guy best friend who has always been there? Check. A love triangle that drives a jealous mutual female friend towards becoming the antagonist? Check. The list goes on. One could argue that there is so much you can do when pursuing a romance-driven story, but the overuse of such typical plot progressions sullies the series’ appeal.
Plot aside, the success of a romance series also depends heavily on the chemistry of its love interests. If Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me sinks, this is the likely reason why: there is a palpable lack of synergy between Doyoung and Han Ji-hyo, even when their characters are just platonic friends. Their on-screen presence as a duo feels awkward in some moments and uncomfortable in others; most of their scenes together either consist of Si-ho nagging Hee-soo or of the pair trying to make each other jealous with whatever romantic partner they’re toying with at the moment.
When the foundation of their relationship is laid so haphazardly – on top of the show’s erratic pacing and a substantial lack of exploration into Si-ho’s motivations (or any of the other secondary characters’, for that matter) – Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me’s portrayal of a smooth transition from friends to lovers is hardly convincing.
With a premise that dives into the complexities of emotions and relationships, Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me allows viewers the space and time to re-evaluate their own personal perceptions of what love should look like. Films and television shows have long been guilty of perpetuating far-fetched ideals of perfect partners and blissfully easy romances, but this series moves away from this trope to highlight the fact that love is a choice more than anything. It’s a shame its execution leaves much to be desired.
All episodes of Dear X Who Doesn’t Love Me are now available to stream on South Korean streaming service TVING and on Viu in some countries