The Guys Next Door

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With two shows under the group’s belt – 2013’s “EXO’s Showtime”, a reality show centered around various group activities, and last year’s “EXO 90:2014”, a moderated talk show featuring individual members’ recreations of seminal K-pop music videos, it became quite clear that doing variety shows does not come naturally to EXO. Having all the members in a single frame without choreography became a directorial challenge with a group as large as theirs. Some were bound to draw more attention than the others. Baekhyun and Chanyeol, who are confident spouting adlibs and shedding inhibitions on-cam have considerable variety skills. The rest of the group seem to fall a little short when it comes to showing their charm through unscripted series.

Last year, D.O did well as an actor on both the small and the big screen. He debuted in the K-drama, “It’s Okay, It’s Love” for SBS, in a role that won him a couple of “Best New Actor” awards. Then he landed a small part in the critically acclaimed film, “Cart”, which screened in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Chanyeol was cast in “Roommate”, a Big Brother-type reality show, and also landed a movie role in “Jangsoo Shop.” Baekhyun completed his run in the musical “Singin’ In the Rain” onstage also last year. So far, three members have been given a good start in acting.

How will the rest of the group fare with “EXO Next Door”, their first scripted web drama?

My excitement for “EXO Next Door” is two-pronged. As an EXO-L, I couldn’t wait to see the boys acting together. Based on previews for the web series, it was shaping up to be focused on four members: the usual suspects Chanyeol, D.O., Baekhyun held no surprises. However, Oh Sehun was poised to have a meaty role in the series, and it was his involvement I was most curious about. My other reason for being excited about “EXO Next Door” is a little more nerdy. I’m interested to know what other original digital content LINE will be coming up with this year, and how their business will be expanding as a digital media company. But let’s get back to the first reason, because that is more important! 

“EXO Next Door” is a romantic comedy/fantasy. In other words, this whole show is a fan fic come to life. What could be more perfect? Maybe if the show featured all the major pairings and would ship them hard. KaiSoo, ChanBaek, SuChen, SeTao, XiuHarem…the list goes on. There are ten boys in the group and a hundred possible combinations. Unfortunately, an overt boy-on-boy (-on-boy-on-boy) story arc is never going to happen in the foreseeable future of Korean mainstream media, and certainly not one paid for by LINE. We would have to settle for a het fan fic come to life. That means bringing in an OC – an “original character”, the onscreen embodiment and physical stand-in for all female EXO-L’s. The Girl. Back in the days before “Twilight” fan fic, we called those OC’s “Mary Sue.”

The Girl is played by actress Moon Ga-young. Also, The Girl has a name – Ji Yeonhee. Yeonhee is an “average” twenty-three year old who still lives with mom and her brother and has little to no motivation to fix her life. It’s all very New Adult. I find the fact that she is a slacker who still lives at home believable, but not her embarrassment at having to buy sanitary pads in the middle of the night and the fact that she blushes on every closeup. Perhaps it is a euphemism for being horny all the time. If EXO-L’s were profiled for Yeonhee’s character, I’d wager that this was part of the character outline.

So anyway – EXO move in next door to Yeonhee. This sets us up for a major “meet-cute” scene. Yeonhee is made to deliver a box of rice cakes to welcome the new neighbors. Having brushed off these people as “ugly-ass” – a totally unfair assumption she has made upon meeting a couple of manager-type hyungs earlier (poor IRL manager hyungs), Yeonhee carries out the unique burden of rolling out the welcome wagon to a bunch of unattractive strangers.

Most of Episode 1 is character establishment from Yeonhee’s perspective. As a rom-com lead, she is the spawn of the Bridget Jones trope – messy, awkward, forever alone. Too high-strung and self-conscious to be Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the fantasy here seems to be that behaving like a whiny twelve year old can be attractive to boys, and not just ordinary boys – we’re talking about EXO. I might have gobbled this up had I actually been twelve, but I doubt that the more intelligent EXO-L from the show’s target demographic would actually share the same sentiment. At least, I fervently hope not.

Episode 2 is when things get interesting as we get a lot more EXO face time onscreen. Actual acting from the boys! It becomes clear that Chanyeol is the romantic lead in this fan fic. I’m glad LINE didn’t force all ten members to be crammed into the storyline, choosing instead to focus on one lead, one “second lead” (Kyungsoo), and two supporting actors (Sehun and Baekhun) who may or may not have their own story arcs. The rest of the group share a single billing in the credits, which hint at minor appearances on select episodes purely for fan service.

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Chanyeol ‘s character in the series is a little more serious than his normal public persona. He hardly shows any teeth, and is full of glowering, broody charm. I do think that his “EXO Next Door” character is closer to who Chanyeol is when he’s not being forced to be The Happy Virus for the benefit of the camera. If this was a John Hughes movie, he would be the Jake Ryan. Serious-faced Channie is always sexy.

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The “meet-cute” in Episode 2  takes its cue from the “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” school of romantic comedy . When Yeonhee lets herself inside EXO’s house, and finds it empty, she is tempted to taste the rice cakes she has brought over. The boys are drawn to the scent of fresh baked goods and the intruder is discovered, promptly spitting water in Chanyeol’s face. Yes, this is the “meet-cute” and as horrifically cliche as the scene is, it works, thanks to the dramatic steady-cam shot, and Baekhyun’s reaction shot.

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I do think Baek nailed this in one take. Two at most, the other being a safety shot.

Having realized that HOLYSHITEXOHASMOVEDINNEXTDOOR, Yeonhee locks herself up in her room and proceeds to spy on her next door neighbors. This is completely believable and I’m sure it’s what we would all do.

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It gets a little too close for comfort, because ya know – they’re on to us.

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Yes, EXO-L. This is how we are.

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Except we’d be mentioning “bulges” and things like that.

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Sehun catches his next door neighbor going sasaeng on them, then the little shit that Baekhyun is gets a brainstorm. Then this happens:

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This is the entire point of the episode, guys. In a recent interview, Baekhyun said that for him and Sehun, messing around like they do on the show is what they would normally do off-cam, practically validating entire SeBaek fic communities.

And Ohhhhhhhh Sehun! If “EXO’s Showtime” revealed the variety prowess of Kris, “EXO Next Door” reveals a capable comedic actor in Sehun. By Episode 3, he’d be moonwalking across the frame and getting his own story arc in the web series. He’s watchable because he breaks the contrived rom-com arc for a bit, and it’s a relief to leave that for a short while. Playing opposite him in a pivotal sequence is Jang Yoo Sung, who plays Yeonhee’s younger brother. I have yet to see supporters of this particular ship, but they have a good comedic chemistry that I hope will pay off in future episodes.

Episode 4 is the dullest so far in that it contains one full minute of concert footage from The Lost Planet. One or two shots from the concert would have sufficed to establish the time frame, but the sequence was inserted as filler, and the overextended exposure was unnecessary, especially for a show only twelve minutes in total length. Episode 4 is also mostly expository, but it does feature a glimpse of Suho in a flashback “Overdose” practice room sequence. The flashback to one year ago “when things started to fall apart” feels disingenuous for omitting the main reason why, the IRL reason why i.e., a member suddenly leaving the group. In this case, fact is far more interesting than this particular fan fic where “falling apart” means day-to-day mishaps. They’re hardly the stuff of earthshaking, cosmically driven disasters attributed to a broken talisman.

Also – not a critique of how on T.V or web dramas, everyone has to be a prettier version of their IRL selves, but compare and contrast Drama Version Young Chanyeol (top) versus IRL Young Chanyeol (bottom):

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Drama Version Young Chanyeol looks more IRL Current Chanyeol than actual IRL Young Chanyeol, but IRL Young Chanyeol is one of my favorite things ever in K-pop because of how adorable and dorky the kid is. (If you have never read translations of his Daum posts about losing his pet ferret, you are seriously missing out on a lot.)

If the web series does well, I hope that LINE will produce more original content featuring EXO in the future. It would be interesting to see other K-pop groups in their own original LINE web series, come to think of it – why stop at one single group? However, if LINE does consider making another EXO series, I hope the other members who were not given big roles in this series would be given the chance to show-off their acting skills in the next one. Perhaps LINE could explore themes outside of romantic comedies. I would tune into a sci-fi or mystery series with a touch of comedy next time. Something less predictable, with a lot less blushing.

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