Note: I wasn’t watching K-dramas in 2011 (that was my anime and manga era), so my window to the “old days” has mostly been the archives at Drama Beans. Alas, that meant it took me a long time to discover “Protect the Boss.”
I think it’s possible DB didn’t pay “Protect the Boss” much attention because it came right on the heels of the massively satisfying thriller “City Hunter.” I wouldn’t be able to follow watching “City Hunter” with a light comedy either. But looking back now, “Protect the Boss” is a long sight better than most of the romantic comedies Drama Beans did recommend from 2011.
Or, possibly, as much as I love DB, we have differences of taste. It happens in all good relationships. A little disagreement will make us stronger. So while I look for a new drama to obsess about post-“Kill Me Heal Me,” I’ll share a few reviews of older things that remain interesting when, like me, you’re looking for good stuff in the “back catalog.”
“Protect the Boss” is fantastic comedy with a dash of unconventional romance.
Protect the Boss comes impressively close to capturing the true spirit of a screwball comedy—a balance of high and low humor, sarcasm and sweetness.
This 18-episode romantic comedy about a feisty secretary (Choi Kang-Hee) and her hilariously immature boss (Ji Sung) emphasizes comedy over romance. Viewers looking for melodrama will be disappointed. But it’s original and refreshing.
A screwball comedy (named after an erratic, unpredictable baseball pitch) takes an irreverent view of love. The great Hollywood screwball comedies of the nineteen-thirties like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday remain unsurpassed. Yet most romantic comedies contain screwball elements and the quirky, gender-bending style doesn’t feel stale when it’s done right.
As its title suggests, Protect the Boss starts with the quintessential screwball role reversal, pairing an incompetent hero with a take-charge heroine. The romance takes place through a battle of wits. The “weapons” of screwball comedy include clever verbal wordplay, but also an ample supply of goofy visual humor.
And the gorgeous main characters may look like sophisticated stars, but they act like kids. The screwball style suggests that the world is chaotic and absurd, but that ironically, silliness is a way to find joy in the confusion.
The humor in "Protect the Boss" includes lots of well-executed clowning around, screwball comedy-style
On the surface, the “boss” Cha Ji-Hun (Ji Sung) and his secretary No Eun-Seol (Choi Kang-Hee) are stock K-drama characters. He’s an arrogant, third-generation heir to a conglomerate, and she’s a hard-working and unsophisticated girl from a family without means. A familiar framework.
But from there on out, we’re in screwball territory. The hero, Cha Ji-Hun, secretly has an anxiety disorder that hampers his future in business. His overbearing CEO father (played to blustering perfection by Park Young-Gyu) wants the unambitious Ji-Hun to inherit the company. But Ji-Hun has other plans: avoid germs, public speaking and crowded places, and sleep as late as possible in the morning. His main activity at the office seems to be reading comic books.
The new candidate for secretary, No Eun-Seol, is a former juvenile delinquent with a knack for hand-to-hand combat. As an adult she’s cleaned up her act and graduated from college. But her search for a professional job is hampered by a lifetime of weak grades and badly-paid part-time jobs. When she finally gets her first real desk job working for the prickly Cha Ji-Hun, she’s willing to endure almost anything to hang onto that employee ID badge.
Keeping her job will require No Eun-Seol to “make a new man” out of the feckless Ji-Hun—a major project. Ji-Hun’s relatively mild anxiety disorder isn’t holding him back so much as his lack of motivation. Much of the humor in early episodes arises from Ji-Hun’s scatter-brained attempts to avoid addressing his problems. Ji Sung exaggerates Ji-Hun’s timidity to perfection: when he complains that he’s afraid of the dark, for example, it’s hilarious not because of his anxiety but because of the wistful self-pity in his voice.
A comedy, even more than a romance, lives and dies according to the talents of its stars. Ji Sung and Choi Kang-Hee are outstanding at this kind of broad comedy, both of them quick with a quip, snarl or double-take. Their romantic chemistry is good, but their excellent comic rapport matters even more here. And the script provides them with great lines, like Ji-Hun’s unforgettable neuroscientific declaration of love, “You’re stuck in my limbic system.”
Ji Sung and Choi Kang-Hee’s talents for romance and comedy come together well in the romantic scenes. In one early “confession” scene, Ji-Hun admits to liking Eun-Seol in a rapid dialogue so full of double negatives that neither of them can figure out what he said. Then Ji-Hun suddenly sags in defeat and whimpers, “I like you,” in a hilariously woebegone tone of voice. It’s a wry send-up of love confessions, but it also has sincere emotion behind it, as does Eun-Seol’s immediate and characteristically honest rejection.
Cha Ji-Hun is by turns arrogant, foolish, determined, sympathetic, ridiculous and totally adorable. Versatile actor Ji Sung mines these contradictions for comedy, but gives Ji-Hun enough emotional depth that he isn't a caricature
Curiously, Ji-Hun is endearing despite having the emotional maturity of a litter of golden retriever puppies. It helps that he’s as cute and exuberant as a puppy. But it also helps that Ji Sung plays the role with sympathy. Ji-Hun is a comic character, not an outright jerk. In the earliest episodes, he throws a few tantrums, but as the series progresses, he looks increasingly harmless. When he wears his earnest expression, he looks as vacant and well-meaning as a chaebol Derek Zoolander.
Thanks to Ji-Hun’s many weaknesses, this is one romantic comedy that doesn’t need to fall back on contrived misunderstandings. The story initially grows out of the young man’s problems and Eun-Seol’s need for a job. A coincidental, disastrous meeting between the two at a bar provides a “meet cute,” but their real conflict arises from socio-economic and personality differences. Ji-Hun’s boyish and stumbling attempts to understand Eun-Seol’s world and become a reliable adult provide great material for comedy, while also showing he has a romantic streak.
The plot does include a drawn-out love triangle, which causes a number of comic confrontations between Ji-Hun and his cousin Moo-Won (played by Jaejoong). And late episodes introduce a typical family conflict over whether Ji-Hun can marry someone from outside the elite. But Ji-Hun’s coming-of-age is at the center of everything, giving the goofiness a heart.
Eun-Seol is a K-drama heroine with moxie. Whether she’s going Michael Corleone on a sexual harasser or fixing a fallen skirt hem with an office stapler, this woman can take of herself. Choi Kang-Hee is superb with physical humor, producing a fantastic set of tough-girl facial expressions and postures. Even in a secretary’s high heels and skirt, Eun-Seol doesn’t really walk—she strides through the office like a gunslinger heading into a showdown.