The Temperature of Love is not a drama that attempts to tackle intense themes or leave its viewers mulling over its storylines. Yet what this show may lack in gravitas, it delivers in the depth of its poignant depiction of the characters’ interwoven narratives. While the promos that first piqued my interest presented a fairly generic love story, the drama held my attention through its focus on the separate ambitions of its two leads, with their romance tangible, but often secondary, to the pressures of maintaining work, family and friendships that drive the tension in each episode.

The story opens in medias res, as writer Lee Hyun-Soo (Seo Hyun-Jin) and chef On Jung-Sun (Yang Se-Jong) cross paths unexpectedly through work. Yet the scene does not focus on their reunion, but Hyun-Soo’s frustrations as the director of the cooking show Jung-Sun is starring in has botched her script. In this first scene, we are introduced to a female lead who is clearly driven by her career ambitions and is unafraid to speak her mind.

She demonstrates grit and tenacity by standing up to the director in front of the entire production crew. It is a credit to both the writers and the acting of Seo Hyun-Jin that these traits come to define Hyun-Soo as a character. K-dramas are littered with many a female protagonist who starts out spunky before succumbing to floundering incompetency once the male lead turns up. However, no matter how many knocks Hyun-Soo takes, whether it’s being kicked unceremoniously from her apartment or fired from her job, she sheds a few tears, then rallies and returns to the drawing board to plan her next move on the path to achieving her goals.

The career trajectories of the two protagonists become the lynchpin to the drama’s central plot. We witness Hyun-Soo painstakingly work her way up to debut as a writer, while Jung-Sun fulfills his ambition of studying in France before opening his own restaurant. The drama uses these storylines to paint a refreshingly relatable depiction of each character’s workplace, and their position within it. For example, in the first few episodes Hyun-Soo is stuck as one of several overworked, much-maligned assistants under the thumb of temperamental drama writer Park Eun-Sung (Hwang Suk-Jung). Hyun-Soo’s steady tolerance of her jibes and tantrums serves to demonstrate her strength of character.

In contrast to this, we see male lead Jung-Sun step up as the owner of his own restaurant, Good Soup, and the care he shows for his staff demonstrates his sense of integrity. Jung-Sun’s passion lies in cooking, but when Good Soup is struggling to make ends meet, he chooses to take roles on variety shows as a promotional tactic. The friendship shown between Hyun-Soo and fellow aspiring writers Ji Hong-A (Jo Bo-Ah) and Lee Hyun-Yi (Gil Eun-Hye) is paralleled by the camaraderie between Jung-Sun and his staff, and offers viewers an accurate portrayal of how relationships form through and are shaped by work and personal aspirations. The Temperature of Love is not the drama of a prince and a pauper, nor even a doctor and a soldier, but a grounded depiction of the ups and downs of people’s small lives, infused with a gentle, slow-burning love story.

This love story is also refreshing in the agency it gives its female lead. Hyun-Soo declines to wait for Jung-Sun to finish his training as a chef in France, and although she is heartbroken when he leaves, she demonstrates a clear sense of self-worth to not put her life on hold for a man she has known only a few weeks. Businessman Park Jung-Woo (Kim Jae-Wook), the charismatic CEO of a production company, becomes her new boss; a man who claims to always get what he wants. Yet after Hyun-Soo rejects his proposal, confessing she has feelings for another man, he takes a step back, and lets their relationship remain as that between co-workers, rather than forcing his affections on her. It is interesting to see this maturity in the presentation of the story’s romance, and the stereotypical handsome, older, wealthy man relegated to the role of second male lead. Nonetheless, with Jung-Woo a close friend of Jung-Sun, and the primary investor in his restaurant, the drama has set up potential for the love triangle to become more intertangled as the romantic tension between the three characters rises. For now, I am happy to see the two male leads step back and give Hyun-Soo the opportunity to fulfill her dreams as a writer.

Where The Temperature of Love’s realistic characterisation falls down, is in its portrayal of Hyun-Soo’s best friend Ji Hong-A, a beautiful, spoiled girl from a wealthy family. She is determined to win Jung-Sun’s heart, in spite of his clear cues that he sees her only as a friend. Hong-A is shown to play with the affections of other male characters to her advantage and to act petulantly when things don’t go her way, often directing her spite at sweet but hapless maknae writer Hyun-Yi. In latter episodes, the drama begins to frame her as an antagonist, as she lies to Jung-Sun, claiming that Hyun-Soo has a boyfriend. Her role is clearly set up as the foil to the central romance, but while second male lead Jung-Woo is given the opportunity to take his rejection gracefully, Hong-A is shown to be childish and jealous. This is a loss of potential for her character to be more than merely the jilted lover or the arrogant beauty. It is a shame that the drama presents two interesting, likeable male leads, while only allowing itself one well-rounded female protagonist.

The Temperature of Love has thus far set itself apart from other dramas by foregoing tense plot twists and dramatic romance in favour of a subtler, more realistic take on its protagonist’s journey to define herself through her career, friendships, and loves as she reaches the end of her twenties. It remains to be seen whether the show will build on its established love triangle to raise the stakes and bring new nuance to the typical love story, providing a sweet escapism for its viewers.

(Images via SBS)