The creators of tvN’s hilarious hit rom-com Marriage Not Dating are back with their sophomore project Introverted Boss, but don’t expect a pilot that’s light and fluffy from start to finish. While there’s hilarity to be had when a painfully shy guy has to deal with his polar opposite (and quite possibly his worst nightmare), there’s also a dark mystery propelling the story forward. Introverted and extroverted K-drama watchers, get ready for plenty of hijinks with a side of secrets.
EPISODE 1: “Phantom of the Opera”
The camera sweeps through bustling Seoul and onto the rooftop of a skyscraper where a woman gingerly steps out of her heels before standing on the ledge. Down below, people are out and about for Christmas.
Back to the woman (cameo by Han Chae-ah) up top. Tears fall as she leans forward and plunges onto a car below. The festive mood turns to fright as the crowds witness her bloody and gasping for air.
Cut to: KIM KYO-RI (Jeon Hyo-sung) frantically dashing up a series of dark steps. After removing her heels, she tiptoes toward a looming gate where she knocks and timidly calls for her boss. Downstairs, the office of PR agency, Brain, is abuzz with frenzied activity because it’s D-Day, aka the presentation/competition day for a grand-scale opera, Turandot.
Back upstairs, Kyo-ri peeks through a crack and spots EUN HWAN-KI (Yeon Woo-jin), a dark, hooded figure seated at his desk where he fastidiously sharpens a pencil using a boxcutter. Kyo-ri trembles, but raps on the gate once more and suggests he attend the last rehearsal for the presentation, since it’s for a major competition.
She’s just about given up when he wordlessly emerges. Back at the Brain office, co-CEO KANG WOO-IL (Yoon Park) arrives to cheery greetings; a colleague hands him the final presentation deck and informs him that their competitor hired a performance planner as their executive, but Woo-il is unfazed.
She says all PR agencies are sticking their necks out for this contest, which Woo-il finds obvious, since they’re the ones to beat. Cut to Woo-il confidently presenting Brain’s PR rollout plan for Turandot — the largest scale opera production to date — in front of his entire team for one last rehearsal. He declares that in three days, they need to generate an audience of 160,000, which they’ll achieve through TV ads, web banners, email, text messages, and celebrity endorsements.
Cut to a cameo of JYJ’s Junsu plugging the opera, leading to his sponsored selfie going viral. Another idea is to partner with cafes and create limited edition, opera-themed menus, along with hosting mini-guerilla concerts. In a booming voice, Woo-il concludes that their strategy will dispel the preconceived notion that operas are boring and unbearable.
The room erupts into cheers for their beloved CEO, but the hooded figure in the back merely shakes his head and beckons him over. Later, Woo-il waits his turn to present while rival agency YM Marketing pitches their plan. He finds out that YM’s plan is nearly identical to Brain’s, and YM’s cocky presenter snubs a handshake just to intimidate him.
It’s Woo-il’s turn to present Brain’s plan, but he stalls and shocks everyone by skipping through the presentation and tearing the deck apart. He says, “I have a very stubborn friend. He watches musicals, but never operas. But he saw ads for this opera everywhere. A lot of money was spent to advertise on various media outlets. But will he ultimately come to watch the opera?” Meanwhile, Hwan-ki arrives and watches closely from the side.
Woo-il flings his deck into the air as he answers, “No way. He’ll never come.” Referring to the opera-themed cafe idea, he asks the audience if a five dollar cup of coffee will convince someone to buy a two hundred dollar opera ticket. The answer is obvious to the captivated audience, and Woo-il continues saying that they shouldn’t expect the public to suddenly fall in love with a medium that has been stagnant for hundreds of years. Bottom line? The world can’t change, so there’s no use trying.
“Save [your money] for someone who’s seen operas before… Forget those lofty strategies.” Woo-il picks up what’s left of his deck and declares that only 20% of their marketing budget will suffice. He gets a standing ovation for his fervent spiel, but an audience member inquires about the mysterious person living on the top floor of Brain’s office, giving Woo-il pause as he spots Hwan-ki in the back.
A voice narrates, “He’s not a human being. He’s a ghost.” Cut to the boat scene from the Phantom of the Opera musical, followed by Hwan-ki ascending the steps to his penthouse. The narration warns against locking eyes with the co-CEO who hides like a ghost, unseen by his employees. The phantom removes his mask as Hwan-ki drops his hood, finally revealing his face.
But it turns out he hasn’t been hiding because of a horrible facial scar like the phantom. The narration continues: “Thanks to his father, he took over the best PR agency in the country. And luckily, he had a very capable friend. While the ‘dirt spoon’ slaved away, the ‘golden spoon’ counted money.” (Obviously, Woo-il is the dirt spoon, and Hwan-ki is the golden one.)
Flashback to one hour prior to the competition: Woo-il entered Hwan-ki’s office, frustrated that Hwan-ki didn’t approve of any of the ideas. Hwan-ki muttered that they shouldn’t be too ambitious with this, but Woo-il disagreed.
Hwan-ki said their employees were already overworked while Woo-il accused him of dismissing his employees’ efforts. Just as Woo-il was about to leave, Hwan-ki stated that they can’t change the world. We cut back to Woo-il’s presentation where he said the same thing; so it turns out those weren’t his words, but Hwan-ki’s.
Hwan-ki scribbles some calculations and determines that opera lovers will flock to Turandot even if there’s no promotion and that the marketing should focus on the cultured and opera-appreciating demographic.
Cut to CHAE RO-WOON (Park Hye-soo) in a sparkly dress and mask. We see her performing on stage as part of the chorus in a musical. Hwan-ki is in the audience in his usual dark getup as the narration continues: “There’s only one fact: He’s wearing a mask, and someone must remove it.”
After the show, Hwan-ki nervously enters the dressing room to give Ro-woon a bouquet, but an actor interrupts him. He notices all the actors eyeing him so he swiftly exits. Hwan-ki walks away dejectedly after failing to give Ro-woon flowers and shrouds himself from the people around him.
Meanwhile, Ro-woon wonders why her “Mr. Smith” didn’t come today. Her costar scoffs that Mr. Smith is a perverted stalker who always gives her flowers anonymously, which is even weirder due to the fact that she’s in a bit part. Just then, a deliveryman arrives and hands Ro-woon a basket of flowers sans name or number. She acknowledges the suspicious nature of the gifts, but since it’s the last gift she’ll receive from him, she happily accepts; it’s her last show before starting a new job.
Outside, Hwan-ki stares at the business card of the flower delivery service he just used. He crouches against a wall, and a woman nearby expresses disbelief that he failed yet again to do the simple task of handing the no-name actress flowers and saying four simple words: “I am your fan.” Hwan-ki sullenly hangs his head, and the woman advises that once he’s able to speak up, he’ll get a confidence boost that’ll impact all social interactions thereafter.
She likens the act of expressing one’s emotions to riding a bike; once you start pedaling, the bike keeps going without a hitch. But Hwan-ki mutters that he doesn’t ride bikes, so she tries a different comparison using constipation (lol): “Releasing that first drop is so hard, but once you get going, you can empty out your bowels with ease!”
Hwan-ki replies that he’s on the healthy side, heh, and the woman sighs that they’ve been having this same conversation for over three years now and that it’s about time they see some results. She wonders how long they have to converse like this, and we see that she and Hwan-ki are on opposite sides of the wall. Haha.
Hwan-ki plays a solitary game of racquetball, repeating the phrase “I am your fan” with every thwack. He proceeds to the pool and swims laps, saying “I am your fan” every time he comes up for air. But when he reaches the other end, bikini-clad ladies ask if he was talking about them, so he frantically swims away.
The next day, he enters the elevator shrouded in his cap and hoodie. Woo-il joins him and brings up the fact that he missed yesterday’s company dinner again, even though he had promised to be there. But a flashback reveals that Hwan-ki was present.
He stood outside the restaurant and watched his employees feasting through the window, heh. He removed his hood and was about to join them when an employee drunkenly wondered what he’d ever done for his company. “Nothing!” the others answered, and they agreed that the company stayed afloat all because of Woo-il. Hwan-ki overheard the whole exchange while hiding behind a post, and Woo-il stood up to ask that they not talk about his friend behind his back. And with that, Hwan-ki had left.
Back in the present, Hwan-ki mentions none of this and merely apologizes to Woo-il, who says he took the credit for the presentation concept since Hwan-ki never attended any of their meetings; he thought the employees wouldn’t appreciate their original plan getting scrapped at the last minute.
The two find Kyo-ri standing outside Hwan-ki’s door holding out her resignation letter like a terrified bunny. Hwan-ki asks her why she wants to leave, but she’s so frightened by him that Woo-il decides to handle this instead. Hwan-ki heads inside, and Kyo-ri divulges that she feels like a gatekeeper instead of a secretary and that she can barely breathe at work. Woo-il comforts her and asks that she hang in there just for him.
Hwan-ki thinks of his mentor’s advice about speaking up and gaining the confidence to socialize. He faces a mirror and utters “I’m your fan” before arriving at a hair salon, where he’s greeted by an arsenal of overly friendly workers. They happily prep him for his perm, and though he’s clearly uncomfortable, he thinks of his mentor’s words: “Anxiety stems from the unfamiliar.”
With his hair freshly styled and a bouquet on the seat next to him, Hwan-ki drives while practicing “I am your fan” over and over again, since his mentor advised him to familiarize himself with the words until they rolled out naturally. He fantasizes about giving Ro-woon the bouquet on stage as flower petals flutter around them, but he’s so distracted that he crashes into the car in front of him.
The driver steps out, and it’s Ro-woon! She approaches him, and he recalls his mentor’s advice about avoiding unexpected mishaps, so he locks his car and pulls his hood over his head. She asks him to step out in a sympathetic tone, and he panics, wondering if now is the time to say those four words. He tries to calm his nerves, but she grows impatient and yells at him to stop hiding behind the bouquet, because the accident is entirely his fault.
She bangs on his windows and his anxiety rises. He rolls down the window a crack to pay her off, but this only stirs her up more, because he didn’t apologize yet. Ro-woon orders him to get out of his car and smacks the bills out of his hand. Unable to take this situation any longer, Hwan-ki hightails it out of there, but Ro-woon hops inside her car to follow him after collecting the fallen bills on the ground.
As Hwan-ki’s driving, he spots her tailing him and accelerates, but she follows suit and doesn’t ease up until she hits a red light at an intersection. She’s bummed that she lost him, but looks up and sees Brain headquarters up ahead. She finds his car parked outside, and a guard warns her not to touch the CEO’s car. It happens to be her first day of work, and she’s surprised to learn that the guy she was tailing is a higher-up at her new workplace.
Hwan-ki’s safely inside his office, but his coiffed hair is now drenched in sweat, and he failed his mission again. Meanwhile, Kyo-ri gets the runs and leaves her desk just as Ro-woon arrives on the floor. She glares at the sign denoting the CEO’s office and enters, surprised by what she sees.
Frumpy employee DANG YOO-HEE (Yeh Ji-won) takes attendance for the new recruits, and she takes note of Ro-woon’s absence/tardiness. She orders the new employees to never press the top floor button in the elevator before pulling her turtleneck over her face and making strangling noises to illustrate what’ll happen if they do.
Ro-woon explores Hwan-ki’s luxurious penthouse while Hwan-ki’s showering and unaware of the intruder. She comes across a locked desk drawer and is about to leave when she runs into Hwan-ki, who’s half-naked post-shower. They both freeze, and Hwan-ki frantically dresses himself while Ro-woon’s turned away. She explains that he gave her too much money for the car damage, but he barely listens as he tries desperately to avoid her.
But she merely follows him wherever he runs, even to his bedroom. She identifies him as Brain CEO Eun Hwan-ki and tries to yank the hood concealing his face away. Kyo-ri spots the two grappling and immediately drags Ro-woon out, though she doesn’t get what the big deal is about entering the CEO’s place. Meanwhile, Hwan-ki wonders why she came all the way here.
Cut to a bar, where Ro-woon and the new recruits perform in front of their new coworkers. Ro-woon’s the life of the party, and her coworkers are loving her outfit changes, dance moves, and vocal skills. Woo-il watches her with amusement; he requested an extroverted employee, and she fits the bill.
He strikes up a conversation with tipsy Ro-woon and asks about her musical theater background and her most famous work. She answers that she doesn’t have any since she’s only played minor roles, and adds that she was attracted to Brain because the company welcomes minor characters.
Ro-woon points out that even Woo-il plays a supporting role, calling him the Alfred to Batman/the main character living upstairs. Woo-il laughs at her boldness, and Ro-woon continues, saying that they’re both playing the same roles and standing outside the door; they’re the ones that have to knock in order to get inside while the haves on the other side guard their goods. “You never know whether it’s a prince or monster waiting behind the door, but I can’t afford to be afraid because that’s the only way to survive,” she says.
She asks Woo-il if he’ll open the door for her like he did for himself, and he says yes, remembering that he saw her ten years ago in the mirror — in other words, he sees himself in her. Meanwhile, Hwan-ki drinks by himself at home, reassuring himself that the car accident and home intrusion were purely accidental and that Ro-woon will never reappear again.
The next morning, Ro-woon offers coffee to the guard at work in exchange for intel regarding Hwan-ki. He recounts a story wherein a package came for him, and out slipped a sharp knife. The cleaning lady tells her that Hwan-ki’s obsessed with keeping things tidy and clean. Based on her findings (all of which she recorded on her phone), Ro-woon diagnoses Hwan-ki as an obsessive compulsive neat freak.
She visits Kyo-ri on the top floor and properly introduces herself as a new hire while handing Kyo-ri a cup of tea. Kyo-ri admits that she feels on edge working here because she has no idea what goes on inside the CEO’s office, adding that whatever goes inside never leaves. She once saw him drag a large bundle inside, and even suitcases large enough to hold bodies.
With this new information, Ro-woon frightfully wonders if he’s a psychopath. Cut to Hwan-ki hacking away at whatever was in the sack using a scary-looking cleaver. Thin white slices soar through the air, and we learn that he’s finely chopping radishes and not bodies. He thinks back to Kyo-ri’s statement about feeling stifled at work and asks her to hold off on lunch for a bit. Aw, he’s cooking for her! But Kyo-ri thinks he’s trying to starve her.
Hwan-ki sets the table with his homemade radish dishes and makes sure each plate is arranged perfectly. Just as he’s about to invite Kyo-ri in, he balks, wondering if she even likes radish; he went all the way to Dangjin early in the morning to buy fresh autumn radish.
He tells himself that she’ll fall in love with the fresh radish flavor and goes to open the door when another concern strikes: “But what makes a good meal is not decided by what you eat, but whom you eat with.” Oy, here we go again. And that thought leads to another, and he figures she’ll get indigestion from eating with him and will regret having dined with him until her indigestion clears.
While he’s waffling inside, Kyo-ri’s stomach’s growling. He finally pokes his head out and asks if she’s had lunch, but Kyo-ri answers that she has no appetite because she’s not feeling well. Hwan-ki ends up eating his delicious radish meal by himself, and Kyo-ri moans about how hungry she is. Ugh.
Ro-woon can’t believe Kyo-ri starved just so she could guard the CEO’s door. Kyo-ri assumes that he wants her glued to his desk ever since Ro-woon entered his space, and Ro-woon is surprised to hear that he doesn’t like people staring at him, which is why Kyo-ri looks at the floor. She’s about to recount an incident that took place three years ago when she suddenly drops to the floor from excruciating stomach pain. Ro-woon’s phone died (presumably from all the secret recordings), so she bangs on Hwan-ki’s door and shouts for him to call 911, but he’s not inside.
He’s at his parents’ place, and it’s his first visit in two months. Dad admonishes him for still being so timid around his own parents and for making his employees feel uncomfortable. “That’s why that incident took place three years ago,” he starts to say, until his wife cuts him off.
Dad warns him to stay out of trouble since the Seoul mayoral election is just around the corner. He’s embarrassed that an accomplished and influential man like him has a son like Hwan-ki, but Mom is quick to remind him that he achieved everything through his network, and will continue to succeed based on that same network.
Little sister EUN YI-SOO (Gong Seung-yeon) is so happy to see Hwan-ki, and it’s clear the feeling’s mutual. He’s at ease while she trims his hair, since she understands that salons with eager ladies are probably his worst nightmare. He apologizes for the hassle and gets up to leave, but Yi-soo doesn’t let him until she’s finished.
She’s surprised that he’s been seeing a therapist regularly since he was averse to counseling the last time Dad forced it on him, and asks if he’s had a change of heart because there’s someone he’s interested in. Hwan-ki denies it and answers a call from Woo-il, who updates him on Kyo-ri. Woo-il’s at the hospital where Kyo-ri’s hospitalized, and he assures Hwan-ki that he’ll sort everything out.
Ro-woon grows emotional at the sight of Kyo-ri’s pale face, and we flash back to three years ago. Ro-woon had bawled beside the dead body of her older sister, the woman who jumped off the building at the opening. Ooh. At her wake, Ro-woon angrily wondered why there were no reports on her sister’s suicide, since all articles seemed to focus on her supposed depression.
That night, Ro-woon grabs drinks with her friend, REPORTER WOO (Lee Kyu-han), and tells him about how Kyo-ri had chronic enteritis accompanied by acid reflux and stomach cramps, and that Hwan-ki goes through secretaries like tissues, much like he did three years ago. Ro-woon insists they expose the rumors about Hwan-ki, but Reporter Woo shuts off the “evidence” she recorded and instructs her not to jump the gun. But Ro-woon is convinced Hwan-ki is more dangerous than they thought — even as someone was dying outside his door, he didn’t blink an eye.
She thinks back to her sister’s suicide and is certain the psychopath killed her sister. Meanwhile, Hwan-ki unlocks a drawer, revealing a pair of high heels. Flashback: Hwan-ki sprinted to his office and found his windows ajar and those heels on the ledge. In the present, he thinks to himself, “I never knew her face or name. I kept my distance because of my selfishness.”
After drinks, Ro-woon talks to her actor friend on the phone and drunkenly laments that Mr. Smith doesn’t know she quit. She asks him to keep the flowers for her in case he sends them again.
Meanwhile, Hwan-ki’s back at the theater with a bouquet in his hands. He thinks to himself, “I wanted to comfort her, but I’m the one who was comforted.”
Worried that Mr. Smith will think she rejected him, Ro-woon hops into a cab and heads for the theater to see him one last time. Hwan-ki enters the dressing room and locates the actress in the familiar mask and costume, hoping to finally give her the bouquet in person, but he doesn’t yet realize that she’s not Ro-woon. He removes his hood and extends the bouquet to her, and the actress accepts it after removing her mask. Upon seeing that she’s not Ro-woon, Hwan-ki takes the flowers back and wonders where she is.
Ro-woon’s actor friend informs him that she quit because she found a job, and he tells him to relay a message to the sender of the flowers that the perverted stalking ends now. Hwan-ki’s at a loss for words and feels all eyes on him as he scrambles to leave. He walks away from another failed mission and regrets not having mustered the courage sooner, since he lost his chance.
Ro-woon runs right past him, and neither notice each other. She asks her friend if Mr. Smith came, and he tells her that she just missed him. Hwan-ki’s about to throw out the bouquet when Ro-woon suddenly grabs it and asks, “Mr. Smith?” Hwan-ki can only desperately hide behind the bouquet as Ro-woon tells him her name.
I certainly wasn’t expecting this romantic comedy to open with a chilling suicide, but it did, and I think it’ll serve as an unexpectedly dark undercurrent throughout this otherwise light-hearted series. Perhaps it’ll ground the show with a sensitive depiction of mental health issues? Even if I’m wrong, I do think there’s a perceptible intention to not make Introverted Boss a rom-com of the fluff variety, which I can appreciate. Fluff is fine and fun, but it’s not exactly the most resonant.
This was a long pilot with a runtime of seventy-five minutes, and while it wasn’t a plodding watch by any means, I did feel the extended duration and occasionally stole glances at the clock. Notwithstanding tvN’s inability to adhere to sixty minutes of programming, I thought this episode was plenty watchable, mainly due to Yeon Woo-jin’s portrayal of the brilliant, albeit awkwardly shy Hwan-ki. I already feel for and empathize with him as a fellow introvert, but I think everyone can identify with how frustrating it is when you’re dying to get something off your chest, but you just can’t for one reason or another. Or when someone steals your thunder and takes credit for something that originated from you, in addition to the knowledge that others perceive you in an inaccurate and unflattering light. When is it ever fun to be misunderstood?
Even though Hwan-ki’s introverted nature is severe and keeps him from showing his full potential as a person and as a CEO, he’s completely relatable, and that’s what I love about him as a character. He may come across as cold and aloof, but he’s actually very considerate; he just has trouble expressing that side of himself, and it doesn’t help that he overthinks and second-guesses himself. He cares too much! I get it though — people are so tricky and complex. It’s great that Yeon Woo-jin’s facial expressions and body language aren’t too over the top, because the point isn’t to make Hwan-ki the butt of the joke. Sure, there’s humor to be found in his flaws, but social anxiety is quite serious.
Admittedly, I’m struggling with the casting of Park Hye-soo in the role of Ro-woon. I think she looks far too young to be the female lead opposite Yeon Woo-jin. So far, she comes across as a pesky little sister instead of the ultimate love interest, so I’m not entirely sold on her, but I hope that changes. I know she can act, but she strikes me as slightly green in her first lead role. Hopefully, this show will be an opportunity for her to grow and change.
I don’t know what to make of Ro-woon yet, and I was alarmed that she’d be so quick to blame the “psychopath” for her sister’s suicide, which is a serious accusation that’s based on random clues she’s strung together. At this stage, I don’t believe Hwan-ki had anything to do with her suicide, but I think he became more focused on the welfare of his employees after her tragic death.
Woo-il strikes me as the guy who claims to have his best friend’s interests at heart, but is instead confusing assistance with using his friend and is reaping all the benefits of their relationship. I’m sure he could’ve dispelled the silly rumors about Hwan-ki much sooner, but then everyone would find out that his brilliant ideas aren’t his own. Hwan-ki’s extreme introverted nature is probably the best thing to have ever happened to Woo-il’s career, so he’d want the silent monster to stay cooped up in his penthouse for as long as possible.
The pilot was promising, but if they were going to make it a longer affair, I wish that they would have used all that extra time to introduce the rest of the characters, specifically the other Brain employees that we’ve seen in the teasers and posters. They really doubled down on how weird and mysterious Hwan-ki is, comparing him to the phantom in Phantom of the Opera, including exaggerated rumors that would only ring true for supernatural beings, like, “Look into his eyes and your heart will freeze.” But all in all, I’m ready to see more, and for the silent monster’s shell to start crackin’.