Great contemporary romantic comedies are few and far between on American television these days. While every so often a sleeper hit like Love Life or Starstruck will steal our hearts, many romance fans find themselves turning to novels and other media to get a hilarious-yet-heartwarming tale of opposites attracting against the odds. Luckily for them, South Korean television has the rom-com down to a science, with several series centered on classic tropes like Rich Guy/Poor Girl, Fake Dating, and Enemies to Lovers.
Business Proposal, the latest K-drama to make its mark on stateside Netflix, takes the classic rom-com and supercharges it, packing its depiction of two couples’ love stories with nearly every trope in the book. Based on the webtoon of the same name, the show follows food researcher Shin Ha-ri (Kim Se-jeong of The Uncanny Counter and I.O.I) as she gets wrapped up in a fake dating scheme with the president of her company, Kang Tae-moo (Ahn Hyo-Seop). Both they and the show’s secondary couple, Ha-ri’s BFF Jin Young-seo (Seol In-ah) and Tae-moo’s secretary, Cha Sung-hoon (Kim Min-kyu), have great chemistry, swoon-worthy scenes, and steamy kisses (one of which you’ll rewatch again and again). Business Proposal’s commitment to including so many romance tropes in one drama, combined with its smart decisions about which to embrace and which subvert, is so impressive that it demands closer examination. Let’s dive in.
Spoilers follow for Business Proposal, season one.
Bad blind dates tend to be awkward and demoralizing in both rom-coms and real life, but Business Proposal takes the cringe to a new level. The show starts off with Ha-ri agreeing to sabotage a blind date for the wealthy Young-seo, who doesn’t believe in the chaebol tradition of arranged marriage to secure business leverage. Ha-ri has no idea that the man is the new president of her company until he gets there, but instead of running, she follows through, playing a rude, sex-crazed snob who has named her boobs (shout-out to Samantha and Rachel).
The trouble starts when Tae-moo goes along with her crazy character, acting nonchalant in the face of her outrageous lines. It turns out the chaebol heir’s grandfather has demanded he get married and plans to send him on dozens of blind dates until he chooses a wealthy bride. Tae-moo, who doesn’t care about love, plans to marry the first woman he sees no matter what, so he calls Ha-ri the next morning to propose.
Young-seo and Sung-hoon may be the second leads of the show, but their story is just as entertaining, although a bit less dramatic. The two BFFs of our main duo meet by chance, bumping into each other after getting drinks at the same convenience store. When Young-seo sees Sung-hoon for the first time, we see her perspective, as flower petals burst out from behind his frame and the concrete they’re standing on turns into a field of tulips while she thinks, I’ve found my love. She keeps herself from asking for his number because decorum or whatever, but this is a romance, so of course they’ll meet again.
Eventually, after Ha-ri rejects his proposal several times, Tae-moo discovers that she and Young-seo tricked him. Luckily, the women quickly come up with a secret identity for Ha-ri, with the researcher calling herself Geum-hui so Tae-moo doesn’t find out he’s her boss. Insulted and finally put off of marriage, the CEO switches gears, offering to pay “Geum-hui” enough money to clear all her debts in exchange for pretending to date him in front of his grandfather. The money’s too good to refuse, plus he throws in some light blackmail, so they enter a fake relationship, with Ha-ri claiming to be Tae-moo’s girlfriend from his time working in the U.S. In K-drama land, the arrangement is called a contract relationship — hence the literal contract they sign — and it’s a super-common trope, sometimes even encompassing short-term contract marriages (during which the couple usually ends up falling in love anyway).
After leaving their meet-cute without phone numbers, Sung-hoon and Young-seo were fated to run into each other again. Their first reunion happens when they nearly have a fender-bender in a parking lot; unfortunately, Tae-moo’s there too, and that’s how he finds out about the whole blind-date-sabotage plot. Following that incident, there’s a bunch of upheaval in Young-seo’s life; after she finally stands up to him on the arranged-marriage issue, her father cuts her off and she moves out. She uses her work salary to move into a new apartment, which just happens to be next door to Sung-hoon’s! They meet again on her move-in day, when she literally jumps into his arms while fleeing a cockroach.
The neighbors-falling-in-love trope is one of my personal favorites, since I think quality time and shared domestic habits are the heart of romance. Of course, Sung-hoon doesn’t make it easy. He’s still disappointed about the whole tricking-his-friend thing and draws a line between himself and Young-seo. But proximity breeds affection, and their lives soon intertwine in a big way.
Meanwhile, Ha-ri and Tae-moo’s fake relationship is going pretty well, with them tricking both his grandfather and themselves as they begin falling for each other. Ha-ri also keeps up her fake identity, hiding from Tae-moo as much as she can at work and covering her face when they do run into each other. But the ruse can’t last forever, and one night Ha-ri leaves her wallet in his car. When he finally learns the truth (after ignoring so many other hints) he’s pissed and comes up with ways to tortue her at work, forcing her to remake a white kimchi-ravioli dish over and over and even giving her an award so she’ll be forced to be both Ha-ri and Geum-hui at a companywide ceremony.
But something changes amid all Tae-moo’s scheming. He shows up to the test kitchen to try the latest version of Ha-ri’s dish and finds her nodding off from exhaustion as the ravioli heats in a pot. Freshly awoken and distracted, Ha-ri burns her hand on the pot and Tae-moo automatically goes to help her but then stops himself. Later at home, Tae-moo can’t stop wondering why he cares so much about her. On the same night, Ha-ri gets so drunk she needs help getting home, and when she drunk-dials Tae-moo, he immediately runs out to find her. All that uncharacteristic caring for a woman he’s supposed to be fake-dating makes the cold, stubborn man realize he’s in love with her. It’s a lovely realization that stems from everyday gestures and also keeps Tae-moo from exposing Ha-ri in public like a total asshole. And thanks to some well-placed fantasy scenes, we get to see how the whole scheme would’ve gone anyway.
Amid all the shenanigans, Business Proposal touches on a pertinent social issue affecting South Korean women. Young-seo has a male neighbor who is very friendly to her. He even gives her a lamp when she moves in. A couple of weeks later, Young-seo accidentally breaks the lamp and discovers that a camera hidden inside has been recording her in her home. She immediately heads to the police station with the lamp and camera as evidence, but the neighbor catches her and runs away with it. Sung-hoon, who’s just arriving home, chases the neighbor and subdues him with a flying kick to the face, but the creep has already thrown the camera into some bushes.
That’s where Tae-moo comes in. When he finds out about the incident right before a dinner with Ha-ri and his grandfather, he drops everything and takes Ha-ri to the police station — revealing in the process that he knows who she really is! Ha-ri was filmed in Young-seo’s apartment too, and Tae-moo’s pissed. He uses his influence to buy the company the creep works at and fire him, while also suing the creep with evidence (including the found camera) that he illegally recorded even more women. Both of the men get a hero moment that allows them to display the feelings they have for their matches before they’re actually dating. Plus the bad guy gets flying-kicked in the head. An overall win.
Though Young-seo’s shaken after the hidden-cam incident, she’s able to go on with her life, and she and Sung-hoon keep running into each other. They share a favorite neighborhood restaurant, and one night they’re seated next to each other. Young-seo, reeling from embarrassing herself in front of Sung-hoon, gets drunk off soju and loses her filter. He doesn’t mind at all, telling her there’s no reason to be embarrassed and to stop avoiding him. Young-seo, off her face and fearless, confesses that she fell for him at first sight, and they finally kiss. The next morning, after hooking up, Young-seo doesn’t remember anything, but after some brief confusion, Sung-hoon finally confesses his love and they start dating. We even get to see that he fell for her at first sight too — with a matching flower-explosion shot!
Since he realized he was in love with Ha-ri, Tae-moo has revealed his sweet and caring nature around her without actually asking her out. At first Ha-ri’s terrified that he’s going to fire her for the deception, but, of course, he’s over that. Then he invites her on a “business trip” date, where he tries sweet gestures to make her fall for him (like buying out a famous food truck for a day). He even helps her save face by pretending again to be her devoted boyfriend when they run into her unrequited crush and the crush’s horrible girlfriend. That’s when he finally confesses, but she turns him down, fearing the rich guy–poor girl relationship would never work out.
Of course, Ha-ri does actually like him, though she won’t admit it. When Tae-moo says he’ll never give up on her, she loses her resolve for a minute and kisses him. Tae-moo’s confused, but he uses some weird eye-for-an-eye reasoning to assert that she owes him a couple of dates for the kiss. He charms her, they discuss their childhoods, and Ha-ri falls even more for him. Then the grandfather sets up another blind date for Tae-moo. When Ha-ri learns about the date from office gossip, she hails a cab to race to the date, and also calls Tae-moo to urge him not to go. But he wasn’t going already. He’s sitting in his car by her house to ask her out again. Fighting through traffic to get to each other, they meet in the middle, and have their first kiss as a couple on a gorgeously lit bridge in the middle of Seoul.
The classic rom-com structure typically includes a dilemma to challenge the couple between their getting together and their happily-ever-after. Both of our Business Proposal couples meet the same challenge, with the rich partner’s parent/grandparent refusing to accept the match and demanding that they break up. It’s the reaction Ha-ri was afraid of, and it is informed more by societal pressure than any concern for the couples’ actual happiness. Each pair handles it in a way that reflects the nature of the relationship.
In Young-seo’s case, her father pretends to be okay with the relationship to her face, then calls Sung-hoon later to tell him to leave her. She’s there to hear the call, and her response is to assert the independence she has been building since she first moved out. She resigns from her father’s company, cutting off her last tie to him, and starts her own company with Sung-hoon as an investor.
The demand is way more dramatic for Ha-ri (as per usual). As he rushes to stop his grandfather from messing with Ha-ri, Tae-moo gets into a car crash. Brave Ha-ri refuses to leave Tae-moo, staying at the hospital in the face of his grandfather’s anger. Even though the old man steps it up a notch, threatening to fire Ha-ri or send her to work at a faraway branch, the couple refuse to be swayed. Chief Kang, just as stubborn as his grandson, fakes a collapse and admits himself to the hospital, but his ruse is immediately found out when his secretary forgets to end the call, stopping an annoying plot in its tracks (and saving us from the melodrama).
The ending flash-forward is a common K-drama trope, giving viewers a chance to see how their faves’ lives have moved forward. Business Proposal uses the time jump to give a post-happily-ever after update for one couple and to test the other’s resolve. For Sung-hoon and Young-seo, things look great a year after her father’s ultimatum, with Young-seo working on her new company and Sung-hoon helping her out as she takes a year off work. It’s a short scene, but it’s nice to know that they’ve settled into domestic life.
Life isn’t as easy for Ha-ri and Tae-moo (because nothing’s ever easy for them). Turns out Grandpa Kang’s trip to the hospital wasn’t for nothing. The man’s actually sick with a heart issue that isn’t treatable in Korea. Tae-moo, dedicated to the man who raised him after his parents died, decides to take his grandfather to the U.S. for treatment. He offers to bring Ha-ri along, but she’s not going to leave her own family. Instead, the couple stay together long-distance.
A year later, Ha-ri hasn’t seen Tae-moo since he left, and she hasn’t been able to talk to him as much since he’s so busy. The morning after the couple end a video call early since Tae-moo’s busy, Ha-ri reads an article claiming that he’s secretly dating a rich cellist. Ha-ri freaks out, books a plane ticket to the U.S., and hails a taxi … only for Tae-moo to emerge from said taxi. The crisis is averted, with Tae-moo saying the story’s fake and that he and his grandfather are ready to move back to Korea. That day, in the last scene of the show, Tae-moo proposes, Ha-ri says yes, and they kiss as cherry blossoms fall around them. How’s that for a happily ever after?