Because This Is My First Life as a series took on the daunting task of integrating realistic social concerns with the fantastical world of romantic comedy. People often turn to light-hearted dramas to escape the real world and live vicariously through stories you know will work out in the end. Because This Is My First Life takes many of the burdens of society and places them on the characters’ shoulders, episode after episode, much like real life but with significantly better lighting. The tough task is finding a way of getting to a happy ending despite the challenges set up in the season in a way that strikes a similar tone of realism as the rest of the show.
In a few of the past episodes, the romance felt unbelievable but when the inevitable turns of the final four episodes happened things started making sense again. The progression from the awkward dates and stilted interactions in Nam Se-hee’s apartment to the eventual open communication and emotional catharsis of the final episode felt earned. Seeing Se-hee particularly process years of emotional baggage and change the unhealthy coping mechanisms he had was a particularly well-executed character arc. The feelings of each character and their motivations are sensitively written and acted so they all seem well-rounded and fully human.
One of the feats achieved by the writing and acting in Because This Is My First Life is explaining the personal motivations behind some dramatic tropes in a way that feels true to life. For example, Yoo Ji-ho leaving Se-hee alone in his apartment with only an ambiguously written letter as an explanation is a dramatic decision that is common in fiction but in real life seems cruel and unnecessary. However, within the world of the drama, her leaving feels justified as the audience has witnessed how time after time she’s reached out and explained her feelings without receiving reciprocity from Se-hee. Ji-ho’s refusal to take on the emotional labour of excusing Se-hee’s distance from her is one of the many triumphant moments.
The moments of triumph sometimes feel abrupt, particularly towards the end of the series. The problems the characters have faced have been so painstakingly portrayed and given so much screentime that the subtle clues to their resolutions might have gone unnoticed. It was gratifying to watch problems be acknowledged as significant while overcoming them. Sexism isn’t suddenly solved with a conversation or a punch in the face. As satisfying as beating the man who hurt your girlfriend may be, it does not ultimately solve the problem of rape culture or sexual assault.
The overwhelming nature of institutional barriers is not shied away from and neither does the drama offer sweeping solutions. It’s important to note, all the societal obstacles faced by the characters were not faced alone and did not involve one-time giant gestures. That being said, they might have felt rushed or glossed over because the audience didn’t see them solved in detail. We saw some moments that might have made us feel good because the characters claimed their own agency and success but the larger problems still exist.
This approach was also applied to some of the emotional problems dealt with by the characters. Ji-ho and Se-hee acknowledge unfairness in family relations but deal with this problem by avoiding it to preserve their relationship in their own way. Kim Hyun-ja’s conversation with Ji-ho about how she saves positive memories to stand being married to her husband reveals the individualistic approach the drama takes.
All the characters seek individual happiness and are able to achieve some version of it, once they are granted permission to be happy and they adjust their expectations. There isn’t an effort to change any of the structures that may have put them in these positions in the first place. Soo-ji still had to leave her job, Ji-ho had to work for a different company, and Ho-rang had to live with her in-laws and take on the lion’s share of domestic tasks. It’s not a perfect ending but it passes for optimism in times when institutional barriers and societal norms threaten people’s dreams. It feels earned that each of them was able to find happiness in the places they made for themselves. Happiness in Because This Is My First Life will not change the world but it feels good enough to make it through.
(Images via TVN.)