Netflix’s K-drama roster has been on a roll with the international success of dramas Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, Squid Game, Hellbound, and The Silent Sea in 2021. Then came the new year and reality dating show, Single’s Inferno, which surprisingly makes it on the Top 10 list. It is the first time a Korean reality show made it on the most-watched list of the said streaming platform.
Single’s Inferno concept is nothing new: attractive single men and women stay on a deserted island (Inferno) together and try to find love. If they are mutually attracted to each other and decide to become a couple, then they escape the island and stay in a luxurious suite in Paradise. Not only are they able to spend exclusive time with one another but also they get to reveal their ages and occupations. The show shares similarities to Western dating reality shows such as Love Island and Too Hot to Handle, but Single’s Inferno attracts viewers with the cast’s personalities and slow-burn romance as seen in K-dramas.
The show also includes a delightful cast of commentators who mirror that of the viewers’ thoughts and feelings: actress Lee Da-hee, Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, singer and rapper Hanhae, and comedienne Hong Jin-kyung. In true Korean variety show fashion, they are big on reactions but without going overboard. They express disappointment when a likely single doesn’t get picked, frustration when someone fails to make a move, and surprise when someone makes an unexpected choice. Their comments and genuine reactions (especially Kyuhyun’s) add fun and relatability to the show.
The following review contains spoilers.
The stars, of course, are the nine singles composed of five men and four women selected according to beauty and physique—a typical element for reality dating shows. Upon introduction of the cast and their preferences in the first episode, we are already given hints on who the protagonists are: the fair and sweet Shin Ji-yeon, the headstrong Moon Se–hoon, and the chic and glamorous Song Ji-a. Both Ji-yeon and Ji-a represent archetypes of Korean beauty. Se-hoon admittedly was attracted to Ji-yeon for he likes girls who are “white and pure”. Choi Si-hun also gushed about Ji-yeon’s pale skin and that she was his type. She is a sweet “damsel in distress” who everyone, including the ladies, want to protect. Ji-a, who is also fair-skinned and shares a resemblance to Blackpink’s Jennie, is undeniably alluring. She’s the most popular in the show, having attracted three men already on episode one.
This fixation on white skin puts Ji-yeon and Ji-a at an advantage, securing a possible match. While Kang So-yeon and An Yea-won were able to leave Paradise with their respective partners, they only attracted a certain type compared to Ji-yeon and Ji-a. The female contestants didn’t have this preference with color, but only hinted at particular physical features such as a nice nose or arm veins.
Se-hoon, on the other hand, has been lauded for his persistence in pursuing Ji-yeon. Even after being rejected twice, he never gave up, and the show set him up for a good underdog story. In episode five, Se-hoon was confronted by Kang So-yeon for making Ji-yeon feel uncomfortable. Their talk almost turned into an argument because his pride was hurt. Persistence can be a problematic behavior if egos aren’t in check, and this is what makes Se-hoon unbearable to watch at first. Eventually, things changed for the better between Ji-yeon and Se-hoon in the last two episodes.
On the fifth to the sixth day of their stay on the island, three new singles were added to the show: Kim Su-min, Seong Min-ji, and Cha Hyun-seung. It’s common for dating shows to introduce new additions to create more friction, but the timing was already just off. While Su-min and Min-ji expressed their interest in Se-hoon, his mind was already set on Ji-yeon. Only Hyun-seung managed to spice things up, but things would probably be more interesting if the new cast members were introduced around the second or third day.
They say, “There are those who play the game and there are those who play the game well.” Ji-a, who confessed that none of the men were her type, managed to snag three dates in Paradise. With each of her dates, it’s amazing how she hypnotizes them to think that she actually likes them. While it may appear that she’s leading them on, it’s undeniable that it leaves viewers guessing who will she end up with.
Among the males, there’s Oh Jin-taek. While everyone swooned over his attraction to So-yeon, things took a surprising turn when he chose someone else to be in Paradise with. The move did made Jin-taek look like a player, but eventually, they got back together in the end.
Of course, in shows like these, there is always the case of evil editing. Out of the 12 contestants, Yea-won and Kim Jun-sik hardly had any notable screentime. While Jun-sik initially picked Ji-a, we later see him reciprocating Yea-won’s interest in him. Yea-won did flirt with Hyun-seung when he appeared on the show, but she didn’t come after him hard. Could it be because both Yea-won and Jun-sik are just too nice to be on TV? Nevertheless, it would have been nice to see how much they enjoyed each other’s company.
Though flirting and dating are the main things to do on the island, Single’s Inferno—despite the show’s name and misleading trailer—is surprisingly wholesome. (The show’s even rated 7+ on Netflix.) Some ideals in Korea may have changed, but they still are largely conservative in their approach to attraction and dating–as seen in your favorite K-dramas. Hence, the lingering looks and flirty remarks are the viewers’ only clues to see who likes who. It is highly contrary to Western dating shows when contestants normally express their sexual attraction to one another aggressively, initiating skinship on the first few days. Skinship is rare in Single’s Inferno and the only time we see it peak was already on the last day, and it was only a peck on the cheek.
It is this slow burn that makes the show binge-worthy. At a slower pace, primarily due to culture, we see the contestants more thoughtful and genuine. There could be a bunch of scripted scenarios, but the cast’s emotions are without a doubt real. It was also nice to see how everyone’s friends with one another. No pulling one’s hair out or badmouthing behind their backs—it is refreshing to see how everyone is polite to one another.
With the unexpected success of the first season, viewers can only hope that a second season will soon be in the works. Nine days is definitely not enough to find love on the island. It also would have been nice to see the cast members have equal opportunities to date. And since the show is catered to a global audience, it would be interesting to see a more diverse cast. There is room for improvement, but for now, Single’s Inferno is blazing a new trail for K-variety content.