Just over three months into 2023, Crash Course in Romance has already established itself as one of the more memorable romance comedies of the year. Written by Yang Hee-seung and directed by Yoo Je-won (Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha), the drama follows the romance between Nam Haeng-son (Jeon Do-yeon), a former national handball player-turned-owner of a banchan (side dish) store and Choi Chi-yeol (Jung Kyung-ho), a talented and popular math instructor at a hagwon, a private educational institute. Though it juggles many characters, genres, and plots on its plate, Crash Course is buoyed by its crew of charming characters.
Note: This review contains spoilers.
As a romantic comedy, Crash Course includes familiar tropes like sentimental childhood connections and initial misunderstandings. Indeed, Haeng-son and Chi-yeol seem like polar opposites at the outset. Chi-yeol is a math instructor who is successful to the point that he is a minor celebrity; he has a manager, Ji Dong-hui (Shin Jae-ha), and adoring fans–his students and their parents. Despite his money and fame, however, he is lonely and buries himself in his work. On the other hand, Haeng-son is the owner of a small banchan store who is much less well off financially. But her ability to easily build relationships with those around her, along with her talent for cooking, makes sure that her store stays busy.
The main characters’ ways of making a living touch on aspects of Korean culture; Chi-yeol works in the widespread private education industry while Haeng-son deals in banchan, which is imperative to most Korean meals. They both provide services to those who can afford it. Taking extra classes at a hagwon is understood to be necessary to get ahead in school for students whose families can afford it, and Haeng-son’s store caters to those who can afford to regularly buy prepared banchan.
Their similarities extend beyond their jobs, as they eventually bond over standing up to injustices that they or their friends and family face. When Nam Hae-e (Roh Yoon-seo), is unfairly booted from an elite program that Chi-yeol teaches at, Haeng-son and Chi-yeol respond with contrasting tactics, but are eventually able to reach an agreement. The drama does a great job at mirroring the subtle ways that they start to fall in love as they spend more time together. For example, Chi-yeol picks up Haeng-son’s habit of saying “Anyway” and changing the conversation topic when she becomes embarrassed or put on the spot. As a couple, they get through arguments with good and honest communication and they also encourage each other to go for their goals. As individuals and as a couple, the two characters are incredibly likeable and easy to root for.
Aside from the romance, the relationship between Haeng-son and Hae-e is one of the most sincere in the series. As mother and daughter, their love and affection for each other is demonstrated through the sacrifices that they make and are willing to make for each other. Hae-e often feels that she is a burden to her mom; she is actually Haeng-son’s niece, and the latter adopted her when her mom–Haeng-son’s sister–dropped her off and left without a word.
When Hae-e’s biological mom, Nam Haeng-ja (Bae Hae-sun) suddenly reappears, Hae-e’s short-lived plan to go back to Japan with Haeng-ja is driven by the desire to set Haeng-son free from the burden of raising her. Hae-e’s decision wonderfully illustrates that despite her usual maturity, she is still a child, and it also indicates how Hae-e has absorbed Haeng-son’s selflessness. Haeng-son is rightfully upset by Hae-e’s decision but believes that she could be overstepping and being selfish by questioning her. Like mother, like daughter.
Though a single mom is at the core of the drama, the other moms featured in the drama are represented as perpetual villains. Indeed, they are constant antagonists to Haeng-son and Chi-yeol, as well as to to their own children. Jo Su-hui (Kim Sun-young), is a homemaker and mom of Bang Su-a (Kang Na-eon), who considers her classmate Hae-e an academic rival. Su-hui actively dislikes but continues to collude with Jang Seo-jin (Jang Young-nam), a lawyer and mom of Lee Sun-jae (Lee Chae-min), who is Hae-e’s best friend and classmate. Su-hui is selfish and lacks any sort of empathy for anybody other than her own daughter, and Young-nam is manipulative and not above threatening her own sons to get them to study more and do better in school.
Both characters also do not hesitate to deploy their array of financial and social resources to make sure that their kids stay ahead of everybody else, especially Hae-e. Such representations reinforce patriarchal gender ideals that women should be the primary caregivers of children, and they also blame the resulting mental health issues in their children and unhealthy family dynamics solely on mothers. While Su-hui and Young-nam could be kinder, more empathetic individuals and mothers–which they do become towards the end of the drama–it seems unfair for them to shoulder the entirety of the blame for their family’s misgivings, given that they are fighting to give their children an edge in an already competitive educational system.
The scenes featuring Hae-e often lighten up the mood and tension. While Hae-e and Sun-jae do often get caught up in the politics of exams and academic rankings their friendship stays strong, which is a nice contrast to the fluctuating relationships of the adults in the drama. Even the love triangle that Hae-e is in, with Sun-jae and Seo Geon-hu (Lee Min-jae), does not detract from the supportive dynamics between the teens as Geon-hu is slowly absorbed into their circle of friends.
Crash Course in Romance is grounded throughout its run by the chemistry between the two leads as well as the rest of the supporting cast. The drama, despite the intense backdrop of the education system of Korea, stays sweet and funny throughout the drama and is kept buoyant by the charming cast of characters. Crash Course comes to a close with a happy ending and growth for Haeng-son and Chi-yeol and the rest of their crew, and sets the bar high for the dramas yet to come this year.
(YouTube. Images via tvN)