Over the past few years, dating reality shows in Korea have been gaining more and more popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with well-known programs like Heart Signal, I am Solo, and Single’s Inferno coming to mind. This year especially has seen an influx of dating shows with countless titles to choose from. With how saturated the market is, production companies are pushing past the typical framework for dating programs and creating shows with a variety of themes. Some, like Love Catcher, integrate a game to the overall show that raises the stakes for the contestants. Others have participants that we don’t usually see on these programs, such as Divorced Singles which featured divorcees looking for another chance at love, and His Man which starred single gay men and became Korea’s first LGBTQ+ dating program. EXchange, or Transit Love, also takes a unique approach with a format that is quite cruel from an emotional standpoint.

Bringing together ten single men and women to live together in a sharehouse for three weeks, the show provides opportunities for them to make friends, go on dates, and find love. What sets EXchange apart, though, is that each participant is also living under the same roof as their ex. Furthermore, the ex-couples must act like strangers and do their best to not let the others catch on to their past relationships. While there’s an abundance of cute, heart-fluttering moments as the housemates open up their hearts to those they’re interested in, having to watch their ex flirt and get closer to others brings about a complex mix of emotions for the participants. As the course of the show goes on, they must sort out the feelings and decide whether to pursue new love or get back together with their ex.

Though some might be skeptical about the concept, it’s proven to be a great success, particularly among Gen Z and millennial viewers, as the program’s second season became the largest contributor for the increase of paid TVING subscriptions and has topped Good Data Corporation’s topic surveys several times. Its popularity even induced a group viewing event at a movie theater where 120 lucky fans could watch the final episode, a rare occurrence for a reality show. Additionally, the audience was also able to see some of the program’s panel at the screening.

The show’s panelists, consisting of comedian Lee Yong-jin, Yura from Girl’s Day, hip hop artist Simon Dominic, actress Kim Ye-won, and BamBam from Got7, reflect many viewers’ reactions and give much insight as they share their own perspectives on love in relation to the ex-couples’ situations. Their great chemistry together also adds a lot to the overall watching experience.

Note: The following review contains spoilers.

EXchange 2 begins its first episode with an intriguing sequence that crosscuts all of the ex-couples’ prior meetings before moving into the sharehouse. Though the scenes are taken out of context, they’re stitched together in a way that sounds sensible, making it challenging for viewers to figure out who is talking to who. The identities of the participants’ exes are kept secret from the audience for the first few episodes which can make for a fun guessing game in addition to getting to know the cast members’ personalities.

Eight participants arrive at the sharehouse on the first day, and after settling in and having dinner together, they are each given an introduction letter that was written by their ex. This segment, while only giving brief impressions on the ex-couples’ relationships, sets the tone for the rest of the show as many of the cast tear up reading the letters.

From their words, most of them seem to be on good terms, which may be unexpected for some viewers. Only looking at the premise, one might expect an agitating program filled with resentment and animosity between the exes. However, the format of having the exes live together makes it difficult for pairs with bad blood between them to actually appear on the show. In fact, most applicants thought positively of their former partner. And it is because of this tricky combination of emotions, desire to start anew with someone else and yearning to return to the good old days with their ex, that EXchange 2 is so riveting to watch.

At the end of each day, the participants are sent a text message asking who made their heart flutter and are then given the chance to send an anonymous text to that person. On top of that, the cast receive another message informing them if their ex texted them or not. For those with lingering feelings, seeing confirmation of their ex texting them might stir their hearts even more. And even for those who are determined to start a new relationship, getting a message that reads “Your ex didn’t choose you” still feels strange and disheartening.

As the show was released online rather than on television, the production crew had more freedom in deciding episode lengths with the shortest being about an hour and the longest going over three hours. They utilize the runtime to the fullest, completely engrossing the audience into the participants’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. One of the most notable examples of this is Seong Hae-eun’s heart-rending moment in front of a mirror in episode 5. The camera captures Hae-eun’s attempt at putting on a bright smile while concealing the despair she feels from seeing her ex Jeong Gyu-min go out on a date with her roommate Lee Na-yeon. For nearly two minutes, there are no cuts, captions, or commentary. It’s simply one long take of Hae-eun’s raw emotions.

Another benefit of these long episodes is being able to give everyone a significant amount of screen time. Though some relationships are more interesting than others, each ex-couple gets the spotlight to tell their story from meeting, dating, and eventually parting ways. And it’s all the more gripping to watch how the pairs of exes interact with one another after knowing their past. The production team also adds in various segments in between the participants’ dates to prevent the content from feeling too mundane or repetitive.

Near the end of day one, the housemates enter a separate space called the ‘chatting room’ where they can chat online with their exes alone. Later on, the cast members enter the chatting room again before their first official dates and are given the opportunity to ask advice from their date partner’s ex. Similarly, the female participants could also have a conversation with their date’s ex-girlfriend in the ‘talking room.’ Instead of chatting online, though, they were able to talk anonymously with a voice changer distorting their real voices.

The most noteworthy of these special rooms, though, is the ‘ex room.’ Here, the ex-couples’ memories are displayed elaborately as if it were an art museum. All sorts of items are exhibited such as letters, photos, couple clothes, and even handmade Valentine’s Day cookies. Despite some having broken up years ago, they still kept such gifts from their exes.

Like many other dating programs, EXchange 2 brings new members into the original cast to change up the group dynamic. When this happens, there is usually a bit of concern about whether the newcomers will be able to adapt to the atmosphere and form connections with others as they enter later than everyone else. In EXchange 2, not only do the new participants add more excitement, they also change the overall direction for the rest of the episodes.

Hae-eun entered the sharehouse on day four, and Nam Hee-doo was introduced on day five. As the exes of Gyu-min and Na-yeon respectively, their arrival disrupted the latter pair’s budding romance. The relationships of these ex-couples are also probably the most compelling for viewers.

In Gyu-min’s and Hae-eun’s case, the two were each other’s first love and started dating in their early 20s for six to seven years. As the ex-couple with the longest history, their story is also the most heart-wrenching. Throughout most of the show, Hae-eun wishes to reunite with Gyu-min but is constantly in misery as she watches him develop feelings for Na-yeon. While Hae-eun’s view of the situation was the main focus, with Gyu-min appearing cold-hearted and distancing himself from Hae-eun, we see a different perspective in episode 19 where the two go on their first and last date of the show. Although their date was brief, the two’s deep bond and chemistry is undeniable. Their time together was so enjoyable that when the date suddenly finishes, Gyu-min’s indifferent facade finally cracks.

The date’s abrupt conclusion feels like a breakup and a harsh wake-up call that this really is the end of their first love. If Gyu-min had been honest with his feelings to Hae-eun earlier, the two may have found closure much sooner, and their parting would likely not have been so tear-inducing.

With Na-yeon and Hee-doo, their circumstances are slightly more frustrating to watch, having dated and broken up three times over the course of four years. In spite of Na-yeon becoming close to Gyu-min and Hee-doo spending a lot of time with Lee Ji-yeon, it’s clear that the two still have feelings for one another. Regrettably, many of their conversations end in heated arguments with neither willing to give in to the other. It’s somewhat strange because when they’re not fighting, Na-yeon and Hee-doo are actually very affectionate with each other. The frequent shifts in their relationship might cause many viewers to ponder about the two’s final choices.

Interestingly, two more participants joined the cast during the second half of the program. On day 12, the ‘talking room’ makes another appearance where Park Na-eon is introduced. She gets the chance to choose her date only based on her conversations with the male participants in the separate space. Finding herself attracted to Kim Tae-i, they become closer and closer throughout several dates. This is a welcome surprise for Tae-i who had trouble forming romantic connections with the other participants prior to Na-eon’s entrance.

On day 14, after the cast fly to Jeju Island where the remaining episodes were filmed, our last latecomer Jeong Hyun-gyu arrives. Hae-eun immediately catches his eye, and Hyun-gyu wastes no time in pursuing her. This was an enthralling change of events as his sweet words and thoughtful actions caused Hae-eun to have a change of heart.

All in all, EXchange 2 is a touching journey that evokes several emotions from excitement, frustration, and sorrow. Even the participants that did not leave the show with anyone were able to take something away from the experience. For Park Won-bin and Kim Ji-soo, they cleared up past misunderstandings and finally found closure years after their breakup. The show also prompts viewers to reflect on their own relationships and possibly help them have a better understanding of their exes. It’s a program with a surprising amount of insight, appreciation, and relatability. Amongst the sea of dating reality shows, the great emotional depth of EXchange 2 makes it stand out. With the cast’s overflowing chemistry, it will be quite difficult to find another dating program that delves as deep into emotions and relationship dynamics as EXchange 2 does.

(The Chosun Ilbo. Hankook Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo. Starnews Korea. YouTube. Images via TVING.)