Drinking Solo, the latest drama from one of the PDs of the Let’s Eat series, seems poised to continue in its predecessors’ footsteps when it comes to heart, connections, and appreciation of the finer things in life. A charming heroine and an arrogant hero clash in every way possible, never realizing that when it comes to their favorite activity, they share the exact same philosophy. Everyone raise a glass, and let’s dive in.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
In a nice restaurant, a man is served a tall frosty beer, and he sips it with a satisfied smile. He gulps down the rest in one go, then orders another, while other diners comment on his drinking alone. He puts his earbuds in and thinks to himself that he likes drinking alone — he talks all day at work, which makes him appreciate these moments of solitude that much more.
This is JIN SUNG-SEOK (Ha Suk-jin), who has some very important rules about drinking alone. First, the setting must be classy. Second, the beverages must be of high quality. And third, he strives to promote a mindful, high-quality drinking culture.
He checks his blood alcohol content with an app on his phone, never letting himself go over .o8o percent, the point at which he feels the most pleasantly tipsy. Another restaurant patron is stumbling drunk and his pretty female companion is embarrassed, and Jung-seok shakes his head. He thinks that those who lack self-discipline are the most pathetic of all.
Jung-seok responsibly calls himself a designated driver once he’s finished with his meal, and he watches while the drunk patron’s lady friend helps him into his car. He notes her Mickey Mouse watch, and sneers that she’s immature and too accommodating to her companion.
As it turns out, the woman is the drunk man’s employee, PARK HANA (Park Ha-sun). She sweetly offers to walk him up to his third floor apartment but he declines, apologizing and promising to pay her for the last three months of work as soon as possible.
He lives above the academy where Hana has taught for most of her adult life, but a sign on the door announces its imminent closing. Hana sighs heavily, feeling anxious about her life now.
But soon enough, Hana lands a job at another academy in Noryangjin, known for its academies and dorm-like student housing. Hana will be teaching students studying for the civil service exam, and she starts her new job with optimism. Her first task is to record a sample lecture, which students will watch to decide if they want to take her course.
Jung-seok drives to his first day of work at the very same academy, and he listens to a news report that enrollment is higher than ever, and some instructors have even reached near-celebrity status. These instructors are highly sought-after by the academies, and from Jung-seok’s fancy car and snazzy suit, it’s clear that he’s one of these prized instructors.
A female instructor, HWANG JIN-YI (Hwang Woo-seul-hye) crows excitedly when she spots a good parking space, only for Jung-seok to zip in and take up two spaces. Jin-yi jumps out to confront him, but he calmly explains that parking this way protects others, because if his precious imported car is scratched, it’s expensive for the other driver to fix. Well, that’s some pretty convoluted logic.
He leaves Jin-yi sputtering in his wake, then she seems to recognize him. She wonders if this is the guy known as “High-Quality Trash.”
Jung-seok watches a guy in the elevator dramatically copying a movie actor (Heh, it’s Yoo Ah-in in Veteran), and gives him a hefty helping of side-eye. The other guy recognizes him and introduces himself as MIN JIN-WOONG (Min Jin-woong), a fellow teacher.
Despite Jung-seok’s profound disinterest, Jin-woong seems a bit starstruck and chatters nervously at Jung-seok. Jung-seok shoves him out when the elevator door opens, stating that his ears are very sensitive, and tells Jin-woong to take the stairs. Pfft.
Jung-seok is led to his new fancy office, only to find Hana enjoying his brand-new massage chair, having been erroneously told it was her office. She’s pointed to her own desk and introduced to Jung-seok, and she fangirls a bit when she recognizes him from lectures she’s seen online.
Hana tells Jung-seok that she teaches Korean, and he quips that he’d never have guessed since she’s so slow on the uptake. Embarrassed, she quickly takes her leave, and runs into Jin-yi out in the office. The two are friends, and we learn that Jin-yi recommended Hana for this teaching position. Jin-yi introduces Jin-woong, who immediately pegs Hana as a nice person. Aw, I like him.
When she gets a break, Hana complains about Jung-seok and his rudeness… to her phone. Which talks back and tells her that he wasn’t that rude, ha.
Jin-yi shows up with coffee and tells Hana not to worry about Jung-seok — he’s known in this business as High-Quality Trash (she calls him Go-sseul, which is an abbreviation of the words “high-quality” and “trash”). He may be handsome and have a Seoul University education, but he acts like trash to everyone.
Jin-yi reveals Jung-seok’s sky-high salary, making Hana gasp, but she admits that he’s worth every penny. No matter where he teaches, that academy becomes first in student enrollment, as a good ninety percent of civil service exam-takers sign up for his classes.
Hana asks what Jung-seok’s secret is, and we see that he only teaches information that will be on the exam. His classes are so full that they have to set up TV screens for the students in the back, and his textbooks are bestsellers country-wide.
Jin-yi tells Hana that it’s thanks to Jung-seok and his sky-high salary that she was hired — after paying him, the academy fired a lot of their mediocre teachers. They needed to hire some low-cost teachers, so Jin-yi suggested Hana. Well, ouch.
Jin-yi instantly feels bad about blurting out that last bit, but Hana shakes off her disappointment and says that at least she got a job. She thanks Jin-yi for her support, having heard that newcomers aren’t welcomed in Noryangjin. Jin-yi offers to help as much as she can, and they hug.
Back inside, the ladies are surprised to find Jin-yi’s class posters being replaced with Hana’s, and Jin-yi slides her arm out of Hana’s. She spots the school director and chases him for an explanation, and he says that she’ll get plenty of students without advertising, while Hana is new and needs the exposure.
Jin-yi asks why Jin-woong’s posters weren’t removed since he never has many students anyway, but Jin-woong reminds her that his posters were taken down a long time ago. Awww. Jin-yi resorts to using aegyo on Director Kim, but he’s unmoved.
Once he leaves, Jin-yi pretends that this is no big deal to her, as if she wasn’t just pouting to her boss two seconds ago. Still, she stomps out when Jin-woong says she should help her friend, and Hana asks what she should do to smooth things over. Jin-woong advises her to hold her tongue, since she’s new and needs the advertising.
Nearby, a young student, JIN GONG-MYUNG (Gong Myung) tells his mother on the phone that he’s in Noryangjin, looking into this whole civil service deal like she wants. He hangs up and sneers at some posters of Jung-seok, calling him a show-off.
He’s joined by his friend KIM KI-BUM (Key), who’s inordinately proud of his new designer tracksuit. Ki-bum argues that the badly-dressed student image is a media construct — there’s no reason they can’t dress nicely.
Gong-myung wonders about their friend Dong-young, but Ki-bum says that he didn’t pass the recent exam, so he’s too depressed to join them. Ki-bum didn’t pass either, but he’s not really concerned, calling the civil service exam a marathon rather than a sprint. He’s only studied for three years, and plans to pass the exam in about another two years.
He asks if Gong-myung is going to join them in studying for the civil service exam, but Gong-myung is still thinking about it. He turns his attention to the famous cup rice at the street carts, and earns another lecture about stereotypes from Ki-bum. Instead, Ki-bum takes him to his favorite all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.
Gong-myung grabs enough food for four people, excited because he never gets to eat this much. Ki-bum complains that being a starving student is another unfair stereotype, and the idea of eating here all the time is nearly enough to convince Gong-myung to make the decision to come here to study.
Hana makes Jin-yi some coffee as a peace offering, but Jin-yi snaps that she’s not in the mood. Their loud conversation annoys Jung-seok, who frowns at them from his office, then notices Hana’s Mickey Mouse watch. He recognizes her from the restaurant, and grumbles to himself that it’s not just the watch that makes her so hapless.
Jin-yi ignores Hana’s efforts, until Hana says that she’ll ask for her posters to be taken down. Jin-yi perks up at that, though she gives lip service by saying it’s not necessary, while Jin-woong shakes his head. Jin-yi invites Hana to watch her record her sample lecture, because of course she’s there to support her friend. Riiight.
Jin-yi’s sample lecture seems to be more about her revealing clothing and sexy poses than any actual educational content, and Hana can barely watch. Jin-woong is up next, and he hilariously introduces himself as “the Yoo Ah-in of Public Administration.” I’m so embarrassed for him right now.
Hana’s video is simple and straightforward, but she’s flustered when Jung-seok and Director Kim enter the room while she’s filming. They watch for a while then leave, and Jung-seok says that he can tell she taught in a small academy before. He chuckles nastily at her humble educational background, and says that it’s obvious from her sample lecture that she’s not up to snuff.
Hana sees Jin-yi’s poster being put back up, while hers is tossed in the garbage. She rescues it and sits in the empty stairwell, sighing that her education and her poster were both destroyed.
Hana narrates that her family was never well-off, but things got even worse once she got into college and her father guaranteed someone else’s debt. She began teaching to pay for her tuition, not intending for the academy to be a long-term job. But she was forced to stay by her father’s debt, and now she thinks of it as her vocation. She gives herself a little pep talk, reminding herself of what she’s gone through to get here.
Gong-myung and Ki-bum kill some time in an arcade, where Ki-bum earns the high score at one console. Gong-myung asks if this is how he’s been spending his time, but Ki-bum claims that he never plays games when in Noryangjin. Then Gong-myung points out that all the high scores in the game are Ki-bum’s. PFFT.
Next they head to a coffee shop, where Gong-myung frowns to see students dating instead of studying. Again Ki-bum calls that out as a false stereotype, saying that people can fall in love even on the battlefield like in Descended From the Sun, and Gong-myung pouts that he even makes time to watch dramas.
The boys spot their friend KIM DONG-YOUNG (Kim Dong-young) sitting at a nearby table, sobbing and being consoled by a pretty girl (cameo by Ha Yeon-soo). They beat him up a little for bailing on them to spend time with his girlfriend, and drag him out for drinks as he protests that he needs to study.
At the end of the day, Director Kim wants to take the new instructors out for drinks, and Hana enthusiastically agrees. Jung-seok says that he doesn’t drink with coworkers, nor is he interested in any friendly bonding, so the other four go without him.
Jung-seok does go out drinking, but alone with his earbuds in as is his preference. As the other professors down shot after shot, Jung-seok thinks that he prefers drinking alone because he can go at his own pace, doesn’t have to listen to boring stories from his coworkers, and waste his emotional energy. Hana performs a nifty drink-mixing trick, while Jung-seok leisurely enjoys his drinking time, unconcerned with entertaining anyone else.
Gong-myung decides over drinks and barbeque that Noryangjin life is pretty good — you live off allowance, but don’t have to deal with your mother’s nagging. Ki-bum encourages Gong-myung to join them, but Dong-young tells him not to do it, because it’s torture.
Ki-bum teases Dong-myung, since he’s got a girlfriend which means he gets to have sex regularly, though Dong-young complains that it’s not nearly enough, hee. He tells Gong-myung again not to do this, but Ki-bum reminds him that it’s a marathon and tells him to relax.
Dong-young spits that living off your parents is nothing to be proud of, which strikes a nerve with Ki-bum (who already bragged that he bought his fancy tracksuit with Mommy’s credit card). Ki-bum asks if he’s supposed to sit at home and do nothing like Gong-myung, and now all three friends are arguing.
Gong-myung yells that the others are unemployed, same as him, and a nearby customer yells back that they should be studying instead of drinking. Gong-myung argues that he’s not studying for the exam, and the man pokes back that at least his friends are trying to do something with their lives.
At ten o’clock Jin-woong’s alarm goes off, and he excuses himself to go home to his wife. Director Kim says that his wife is scary too, and Jin-woong literally has to run out. Jin-yi volunteers Hana to do Produce 101’s “Pick Me” dance for Director Kim to cheer him up.
Hana is clearly uncomfortable, but as the only newbie here, she’s forced to agree. She and Jin-yi do the dance, and Director Kim joins them, until the partition into the next room opens to reveal an annoyed customer (cameo by Kim Hee-won). The complainer also happens to be Jung-seok’s ex-boss, and he yells at Director Kim for stealing his best instructor.
Director Kim rebuts that he doesn’t only steal the best instructors, and points to Hana as an example of the fact that he also hires incompetent nobodies without a future. Dayum. He sends the rival director back to his room with insults, then asks Jin-yi if he won the argument.
They celebrate his victory with a shot, then the waitress brings them the bill — for the other table. HAHA. Director Kim orders Jin-yi and Hana to give chase, though only Hana obeys.
She follows the rival director and his group to a nearby fish market, slipping and falling on the wet floor. She eventually snags him while he hollers about having his instructor stolen, and Hana shrieks that he still has to pay for his own drinks.
The rival director flails at her, and Hana loses her balance again. She teeters for a long moment before tumbling backwards, right into a fish tank.
Hana shuffles home later, soaking wet and wearing a borrowed set of work overalls from the fish market. She catches her reflection in a shop window, and curls her lip to recall how happy she was to be working in Noryangjin.
She moves on, but stops when she sees Jung-seok in a restaurant, drinking by himself. She nearly leaves him to it, but changes her mind and decides to forgive his earlier derision of her background, and make friends with her enemy.
Jung-seok couldn’t look any more horrified to see a wet, bedraggled Hana in front of him, and she sits without being invited. She starts to explain her appearance, but he just instructs her to move along, saying that being seen with her could harm his reputation.
Hana asks what he means by that, and Jung-seok calls her an incompetent employee who kisses up to the boss. Hana says that he’s wrong about her, and admits that she overheard him commenting on her educational background. Jung-seok interrupts her and says that he’s not interested in her life story.
Hana grumbles that he could teach her to be better, and Jung-seok asks if she thinks she’s Jang Geu-rae in Misaeng. He says that since this is Noryangjin, maybe she’s “No Geu-rae,” and Hana can only splutter in disbelief at his horrible attitude.
Hana runs into a poster of Jung-seok at the bus stop, and tells it that now she knows why people call him “High-Quality Trash.” Gong-myung and Ki-bum (dragging a drunk and half-unconscious Dong-young) come upon Hana as she’s beating up the picture of Jung-seok, and assume she’s a student who took his class and failed the exam.
Gong-myung mutters that Jung-seok hasn’t changed — there are still a lot of people who hate him. But he smiles when Hana kicks the poster and hurts her foot.
The boys take Dong-young back to his tiny gosiwon room (a dorm-like residence for students), and Gong-myung notices that Dong-young’s belongings are all free items from promotional events. Dong-young drunkenly cries that he doesn’t want to live this cheap life anymore either.
The wall is so thin that one neighbor knocks on the wall to tell them to keep it down, and they can hear the other neighbor call his aunt to tell her that he passed the test. That makes Dong-young cry even harder, then the first neighbor yells about the noise again, and Ki-bum hollers at both neighbors while Gong-myung tries to keep him calm.
Gong-myung and Ki-bum go to the roof, where Ki-bum muses that whoever built these gosiwons intended to torture them, calling it both heaven and hell. Gong-myung thinks that’s pretty insightful, but Ki-bum deadpans that he got it from a webtoon, and Gong-myung shakes his head that Ki-bum has time to read webtoons.
He says that the students really do have it as hard as what he’s seen on television, and he asks Ki-bum if that’s an unfair media stereotype. Ki-bum just gives him a wry glance, then asks if Gong-myung has made up his mind to come to Noryangjin. Gong-myung isn’t sure, since it seems harder than he originally thought.
Ki-bum says that it’s not, but his sober expression seems to give lie to his words. Then Gong-myung follows Ki-bum’s line of sight down to a balcony below, where a girl has set her underwear out to dry. HAHA.
Hana arrives home to find an unexpected package at her front door. Aw, it’s from her mother, and the home-cooked food and sweet note make Hana tear up. She’s disappointed when she discovers that the food’s gone rotten, “just like my day.”
One container seems fine, and Hana realizes that it’s not all bad. She tells herself to keep her chin up, then treats herself to a beer, thinking that a good beer is soothing after a long hard day. “That’s why I’m drinking solo again tonight.”
She thinks that being pushed around during the day is what allows you to have peace while you’re drinking alone at night. As we see Jung-seok and Ki-bum both having a drink by themselves, Hana narrates that sometimes in order to forget the reality in front of you, to put down any worries, we drink solo. Gong-myung also has a beer while sitting outside the gosiwon, and watches students heading in for the night.
Hana considers a drink at the end of the day as a gift for making it through the day, and a way to prepare for tomorrow. She finishes her beer and tells herself that she’ll become a first-class instructor just like Jung-seok, and settles in to do some internet research on her new enemy.
On one site dedicated to Jung-seok, Hana gasps at the high number of members. But then she spots a comment that states that Jung-seok forged his academic credentials, and her eyes go wide.
Jung-seok makes his way to his swanky home and chooses a bottle of wine, then gets a message on his phone. It’s an alert regarding the same claim that Hana saw on the website, that there’s evidence that he forged his academic records. Jung-seok deletes the message, but he seems shaken. Could it be true?
As a big fan of both seasons of Let’s Eat, I went into Drinking Solo cautiously optimistic — cautious because it’s bound be a bit trickier to portray drinking the same way food was glorified by Gu Dae-young and company, and optimistic because the concept could be really fun if done correctly. Nearly the entire cast are new to me, but I found that made it easier to jump into their world right away, since I didn’t have any previous memories of these actors as other characters. This first episode did a great job of introducing both the characters and the basic world setup, and I found myself almost immediately engaged and interested in learning more.
Speaking of, the main thing this drama does seem to share with the Let’s Eat franchise is its endearing characters, who always seem so odd and quirky while still being approachable and likable. I particularly like Hana, who seems to be stuck in a career she never expected, but is determined to make the best of it. She’s outwardly a pretty typical Candy, the way she left her own dreams by the wayside to help her family pay off debt. But Hana shows these glimpses of defiance that make me think that she’s just two steps away from blowing up and telling everyone to get along without her. I dearly hope she gets that chance, before even her “friend” Jin-yi betrays her. Jin-yi definitely seems like a fair-weather friend — there for Hana as long as she has the upper hand, but completely shutting off if Hana seems to have an advantage. I sense an epic showdown between these two in the making.
At the outset, our anti-hero Jung-seok looks like the typical arrogant, entitled jerk, so I hope that there’s more to him than just self-interest and ego. I do appreciate that he’s gotten where he is because of his skill at his job and not because he comes from a rich family, but he’s definitely got the nose-in-the-air attitude of a chaebol. I mean let’s be honest, he’s a total prissypants. I’m hoping that his appreciation of the finer things in life is a hint that he’s more than just a mean, judgmental ass, though I’d also like to see him stoop to Hana’s level and just let loose once in a while. But for now, I like how Jung-seok does make drinking alone look like a borderline religious experience, and even though I’m not much of a drinker myself, watching him enjoy himself so much makes even me want to go enjoy a nice drink.
I find the three young friends all adorable in their own ways, and I like how they’re all so different, yet they seem to fit together so well. It will be nice to see the Noryangjin life from the students’ perspective as well as the instructors’, and I like that the show addresses the dissonance that comes with being an adult who’s still dependent on family for support. Ki-bum seems happy to coast on that, while Dong-young finds it a source of shame and motivation to study hard and get himself out on his own. I’ll be interested to see how Gong-myung adjusts to the student life after doing his army duty and living at home, unemployed, for a solid year.
I had wondered how this show would making watching people drink as interesting as watching people eat, and I’m pleased that they didn’t attempt to show drinking in the same way. It’s less about the alcohol itself and more about how people approach drinking in different ways and for different reasons — for companionship, for professional advancement, or for personal enrichment. I really enjoy how this writer and PD take a simple concept such as food, or alcohol, and make it into more than it seems. It’s about getting out into the world, learning to enjoy those around you, and making connections where you never thought any could be found.
I do like that this show feels like its own entity, and not “Let’s Eat with alcohol,” which was a fear of mine. I adored both of the Let’s Eat dramas, but I wanted to see something a bit different. I feel that Drinking Solo has kept all the quirky workplace situations and varied, lovable characters, while still making itself stand out as something new and unique. Perhaps the lack of food porn is a big contributor to that, though I do love Ki-bum’s rants about media stereotyping, which vaguely remind me of Gu Dae-young’s lectures on the proper way to appreciate food. A slight homage, without being too much of a copycat — it’s exactly what I was hoping to see in this new series. So far so good, and if the show keeps going as it’s begun, then count me in.