7 K-Dramas that Give Us Major Second Lead Syndrome
If you’ve watched enough K-dramas, then you’ve no doubt stumbled into similar themes and tropes along the way. In the romance genre specifically, K-dramas tend to follow a few set tropes. This includes the love triangle—or love triangles in some cases because there can be multiple overlapping couples. But what we don’t always expect are the effects of these tropes if they’re executed correctly. One of the effects of a love triangle is second lead syndrome.
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What is Second Lead Syndrome?
Second lead syndrome, in a quick explanation, is essentially when the audience roots more for the second lead as opposed to the main lead. This means they care more about and sympathize with the second lead rather than the main lead. As most love triangles (but not all of them) tend to surround the female lead, second lead syndrome would entail the audience wishing the second lead would end up with the female lead.
Of course, this doesn’t typically happen, the two main leads most often end up together. And because of this, we’re all left with second lead syndrome.
How / Why Do We Get Second Lead Syndrome?
While the second lead is usually the exact opposite of the main lead, they’re also pretty nice and caring throughout most of the drama. So why don’t we experience second lead syndrome more often? Well, that’s because second lead syndrome depends a lot on the main character themselves.
Typically, we’re supposed to love and support the main lead—even if they’re a little rough around the edges in the first few episodes of the K-drama. However, if the main lead’s character arc isn’t enough for us to truly support them, then we fall more so for the second lead.
On one hand, second lead syndrome isn’t the worst thing a K-drama can have. But it can leave a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth as they watch the drama because 95% of the time the second lead won’t get the happy ending. When we’re left with second lead syndrome, the drama can feel rather disappointing at the end or can feel incomplete (though not all of the time). And even the best dramas can be ruined by it.
K-Dramas that Give Us Second Lead Syndrome
If you want to experience the taste of second lead syndrome and haven’t found the right drama yet, then we’ve got a list! These seven K-dramas are great in their own ways—some definitely still had endings worthy of our time—but each left us with the bitter taste of second lead syndrome by the time they were over.
One of the most popular K-dramas to sweep 2021 was Nevertheless. With the refreshing plot and the young and relatable characters, this K-drama was quite addicting to watch.
The two main leads were Yoo Na-bi (played by Han So-hee) and Park Jae-eon (played by Song Kang). The two were entwined in a friends with benefits situation for most of the drama, but there was no full commitment there. The second lead, Yang Do-hyeok (played by Chae Jong-hyeop), was a childhood friend of Na-bi. As expected, the three enter a love triangle.
Though Jae-eon is nice at times, a little confusing but not inherently out to destroy Na-bi’s heart, he’s very standoffish throughout the entire drama. Even at the end, he doesn’t seem to have figured out his own feelings enough to be honest about them with Na-bi. Because of this, Do-hyeok’s character seems like a knight in shining armor to viewers. He’s kind, really understanding of Na-bi, and doesn’t push her.
Comparing both personalities of Jae-eon and Do-hyeok, there’s no surprise that viewers rooted more for the second lead.
You can watch this drama on Netflix here and you can read more details about it with our blog post here.
Love Alarm (Season 1: 2019, Season 2: 2021)
Between the first and second seasons of Love Alarm, you’ll experience a whole rollercoaster of emotions. One of the biggest ones, of course, is the second lead syndrome.
In this drama, the lead characters are Kim Jo-jo (played by Kim So-hyun), Lee Hye-young (played by Jung Ga-Ram), and Hwang Sun-oh (played by Song Kang). The first season focused quite heavily on the relationship between Jo-jo and Sun-oh, unfolding their love story the further the season went. Because of a few instances, their relationship was torn apart, leaving the two grappling with their emotions at the end of the season.
The second season, however, focused on the blossoming relationship between Jo-jo and Hye-young. While equally as amazing, the second season did feel a bit disappointing. With how focused the first season had been on Jo-jo and Sun-oh, you couldn’t help but hold onto the idea of them possibly working out what went wrong and getting back together. But that didn’t happen.
Depending on how you look at it, this could be a special case of second lead syndrome. Since Sun-oh was the main lead in the first season, we might be able to consider Hye-young a second lead who actually won the girl in the end. But it’s also about how you view the characters. By the second season, Hye-young was much more involved than Sun-oh, perhaps taking over the main lead position. This would mean that our second lead syndrome came from Sun-oh’s misfortune.
True Beauty (2020/2021)
The next K-drama on our list is the ever-popular 2020-21 drama True Beauty. This drama not only filled the hearts of K-drama lovers but has been a favorite Webtoon for the past few years.
Main characters Im Ju-gyeong (played by Moon Ga-young), Lee Su-ho (played by Cha Eun-woo), and Han Seo-jun (played by Hwang In-yeop) spend the entirety of the drama running circles between their own emotions and the regular high school dramas. Though this K-drama has probably one of the best plots, there is a mild case of second lead syndrome.
While Su-ho and Ju-gyeong are absolutely adorable together—both have a lot of similarities and the right personality for each other—there’s something about how sweetly Seo-jun treats Ju-gyeong that gets you falling for him as well. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he doesn’t take that out on Ju-gyeong. In fact, it seems like he starts changing for the better because of her.
However, both guys after Ju-gyeong’s heart are great in their own way—neither of them treats her poorly or does things that make us dislike their character. So, really, this second lead syndrome only comes about if you lean more towards Seo-jun.
You can watch True Beauty on Viki here—you just need a VikiPass Standard—and you read a bit more about the K-drama and Webtoon on the blog we wrote about it here.
My Roommate is a Gumiho (2021)
My Roommate is a Gumiho is a K-drama that received a lot of attention. For the interesting plot tied together with Korean folktales and the amazing cast, many watched this K-drama. Though not all enjoyed it the longer it went on.
The three main characters in the love triangle of this drama include Lee Dam (played by Hyeri), Shin Woo-yeo (played by Jang Ki-yong), and Gye Seon-woo (played by Bae In-hyuk). Woo-yeo is the nine-tailed-fox of this story and Dam is the university student who ends up swallowing his fox bead. Seon-woo is a character that’s introduced later on in the drama, intended to make the drama a bit more interesting with a love triangle.
Though Seon-woo did come in and swept the hearts of many viewers, there were some who felt the situation was a bit forced. Seon-woo was sweet, though, and had a gripping storyline that kept many wishing that he’d get his happy ending.
This drama is available to watch on Viki with a VikiPass Standard here. And if you want to read any more into Korean urban legends like the one of the nine-tailed-fox, then you can check out this post we’ve written about them here. This blog also talks about some K-dramas that include these kinds of urban legends, so you’ll be able to find more fascinating K-dramas to watch!
Compared to some of the other dramas, Start-Up had quite the impactful punch with the second lead syndrome. Viewers absolutely adored the second lead and were devastated when he didn’t get the girl in the end.
The main characters include Seo Dal-mi (played by Bae Suzy), Nam Do-san (played by Nam Joo-hyuk), and our unfortunate second lead Han Ji-pyeong (played by Kim Seon-ho). From the very beginning of the show, the audience was falling in love with Ji-pyeong’s character. He had the background, the hopes and dreams, and the passion many expected for the main lead. He suffers, though, from not admitting his feelings to Dal-mi and is left on the sidelines.
The love triangle between the three main characters is entwined with a lot of lies, drama, and broken hearts. The whole show is an up and down of emotions, a spinning confusion of feelings. Do-san wasn’t necessarily a bad character, he just wasn’t the one viewers were in love with since the beginning. Ji-pyeong had always put Dal-mi first and had the sweetest relationship with her grandmother… it shouldn’t be a surprise that many hoped he’d be the end goal.
Cheese in the Trap (2016)
Many have said that Cheese in the Trap brings the worst case of second lead syndrome with it. And if you’ve watched it, you’ll understand why.
Cheese in the Trap is a 2016 K-drama was based on a Webtoon of the same name. The main leads, Hong Seol (played by Kim Go-eun), Yoo Jung (played by Park Hae-jin), and Baek In-ho (played by Seo Kang-joon), broke the hearts of many viewers.
From the very beginning of the show, many had disliked the male lead Yoo Jung—there was something about him that didn’t settle quite right with viewers and many didn’t think he had a character arc throughout the drama worthy of giving him any sympathy. Baek In-ho, on the other hand, was someone who was continuously caring for the main lead Hong Seol. He was devoted and passionate, always honest and too easy to love when he was with her.
The two characters were essentially enemies, making it all that much more heartbreaking when Hong Seol ended up with Yoo Jung.
You can watch this K-drama on Viki here.
Love in the Moonlight (2016)
The last K-drama on our list is Love in the Moonlight, a historical drama that gives us just as much second lead syndrome as any other.
With the ever-loved actor Park Bo-gum playing as the main lead Prince Lee Yeong, it was hard to even look away from him. But Kim Yoon-sung (played by Jun Jinyoung) is so charismatic and dedicated to lead Hong Ra-on (played by Kim Yoo-jung) that it’s hard not to fall a little in love with him, too.
From a distance, Yoon-sung continued to show his love for Ra-on in the only way he could. Even his willingness to do anything for her was enough to root for him. Of course, Prince Yeong isn’t a bad character, so it turned into a battle for viewers much like that in True Beauty. Both characters are lovable in their own right, it’s all just a matter of taste as to who you ended up rooting for.
Which Second Lead Character has Stolen Your Heart?
Out of these seven K-dramas with second lead syndrome, have you fallen for the second leads as we have? Are there any other dramas that have you rooting for the second lead more than the main lead?
If you want to check out any other K-dramas—with or without second lead syndrome—you can scroll through the posts in our K-Drama Category. If you’d like to check out the K-dramas expected to come out throughout 2022, you can check out the blog post we have about them here (or check out the 2022 Webtoon to K-drama adaptations blog we have here).