Colleagues who start out hating each other before falling in love is one of the most common occurrences in fictional workplaces. But within that enemies-turned-lovers romance formula lies an even more specific cliche that K-dramas seem especially fond of – the “falling in love with your boss” storyline. Netflix’s latest Korean series attempts to combine all these classic tropes into one cute, star-studded package. King the Land is a light-hearted romantic comedy following Goo Won (2PM’s Junho), the potential heir to a business empire called King Group, and Cheon Sa-rang (Girls’ Generation’s YoonA), a cheerful employee at King Hotel.
Starting off in 2015, we first meet Sa-rang interviewing to be a trainee at the aforementioned luxury hotel. Despite lacking a bachelor’s degree, a prerequisite for the position, her bright disposition, confidence, intelligence and passion for the hotel industry wins over Goo Hwa-ran (Kim Seon-young), Won’s elder sister and the director of King Hotel. We follow her over the years as she works her way up from a lowly cleaner at the gym wiping up “butt sweat” to becoming King’s preeminent concierge in the present day. Despite her tough job, she keeps her spirits up by clubbing with her supportive girlfriends who also work in the service industry, flight attendant Oh Pyung-hwa (Go Won-hee) and retail worker Kang Da-eul (Kim Ga-eun).
On the flip side, Won is introduced in 2015 as a handsome, charming and privileged chaebol. He starts off as an intern at King Hotel, at the behest of his CEO father Goo Il-hoon (Son Byong-ho), who wants him to learn about the hospitality industry from the ground up. After his arrogance quickly gets him fired, Won goes to the UK to complete his MBA before finally returning to Korea in the present day as the new head manager of King Hotel. With his dad’s retirement looming, a Succession-esque story is set up with Il-hoon forcing his son and daughter to compete at work. Their merit will determine who gets to inherit his company. Naturally, Won has an antagonistic relationship with his resentful sibling and distant father, exacerbated by the fact that he may be an illegitimate child from a secret affair.
Even before Won and Sa-rang begin working together, a comedy of misunderstandings has already put them at odds. In 2015, Sa-rang initially mistakes Won for another hotel guest who sexually harassed her, leading to her angrily berating him in public. Years later, more mishaps occur which cause the good-looking pair to frequently get on each other’s nerves at work. To make matters worse, Won has an intense hatred for “fake smiles”, brought on by the lack of genuine affection he received from the nannies and helpers who raised him with disingenuous happy faces. This makes him instantly dislike the effervescent Sa-rang, whose signature sunny smile has made her the pride of King’s lobby.
The best thing King the Land has going for it, is undoubtedly the performances from its K-pop idol leads. Junho and YoonA’s innate likeability and palpable screen chemistry goes a long way towards making us invested in their cookie-cutter characters. Likewise, the series highlighting how toxic the hospitality industry can be is very welcome, as is its sympathy for its service staff heroes who have to put up with so much from demanding customers.
Unfortunately, King the Land does suffer from boilerplate plotting, sluggish pacing and hit-or-miss comedy that oscillates between genuinely gut-busting and sophomorically cringey. Nevertheless, this rom-com deserves a chance simply because it so proudly wears its tropes on its sleeves. Cliches become cliches because they work, and if King the Land continues to execute its cliches competently and lands the ending, this show could become a satisfying watch indeed.
New episodes of King the Land are available every Saturday and Sunday on Netflix, and also air on South Korean TV network JTBC