Written by Lee Ah-yeon & Seo Bo-ra
Directed by Lee Na-jung
Release Date: August 22nd 2019
Streaming Service: Netflix
Don’t let its quirky atmosphere and even quirkier use of colours and graphics fool you; Love Alarm has a dark centre to its story.
Make no mistake, Love Alarm is very entertaining, but it’s also a series unafraid to pile on the emotional angst and then some. The emotional core of its first season (and which one assumes will run into season two) is something that draws a lot of debate amongst its fans, and like the best love triangles in popular culture, so much of the debate and argument will come down to whose ‘team’ you are on. What makes the series even more fascinating viewing is the story by which is centres its love triangle around.
There has been a push with some series lately to explore the concept of what it means to meet your soul mate or the one person you are destined to be with. Love Alarm premiered a good two years before the more recent The One, a thriller with a similar story of discerning your one true match with the help of modern technology.
The trend doesn’t even finish with Netflix; AMC’s anthology series Soulmates also deals with the ramifications of what happens when matchmaking is distilled to an exact science and does so with a cast of familiar faces. Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of these narratives, and while Love Alarm at first glance appears to be a YA version of the tale, with its attractive cast, quirky use of music and colourful light effects in its credits, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s offering easier and lighter escapism.
Maybe it’s the high school setting but exploring this story in the hardened battle grounds where teens rule supreme and with it the inherent hopes and cruelties that go with growing up means that the angst factor is pushed considerably and the emotions, such as they are with teenagers, are multiplied ten-fold. As the story continues and develops, the weight of the world becomes more apparent on these characters’ shoulders.
Yes, Song Kang, Kim So-hyun and Jung Ga-ram make for a very typically photogenic trio of stars, and while romance is very much in the air, there is a threat of something terrible just hanging over the periphery of everything, some of which makes its presence clear at various points in devastating ways.
Where The One dealt with DNA matching the prospect that meeting your supposed soul mate can truly be love at first sight, Love Alarm frequently shows this to be a potentially more emotionally damaging possibility, and something with which nothing is genuinely certain. We see certain characters react truly badly, and with it some of the most intense sequences of bullying and victimization on television, which is saying something since K-dramas really know how to push some triggering buttons when it comes to sequences depicting sympathetic characters receiving some harsh treatment from their peers.
That even equates to our heroine, Kim Jo-jo, who finds herself in the almost Cinderella-like situation of having to deal with an aunt and cousin whose behaviour stretches into actual abuse at various points in the series. Kim So-hyun does an incredible job of getting the audience on to her side immediately, and you know the series is truly effective when it has you pleading with the series and its writers to have Jo-jo escape from her vicious life.
You might be forgiven for thinking that of the recent spate of series dealing with dating apps and the resulting social impact of the release of such a technology that the K-drama version might the lighter and frothier version, but it’s the one that has the deadliest emotional punch of them all, one that isn’t afraid to keep hitting harder and harder the longer it goes on.
Released in 2019, the series was an instant hit for Netflix, but it would take eighteen months for the second season to premiere. It says a lot about how dating and technology have become so intertwined (let’s face it, so much of the world has) that a series dealing with this narrative has become one that television writers are seemingly becoming very drawn to.
How could they not? It’s a great set up for a series, and yet typically in the west, Love Alarm has been ignored from most critics when talking about these series. The One gets talked about, as does Soulmates, or even ‘Hang the DJ’, the Black Mirror episode that, arguably, this sub-genre of science fiction drama owes a debt to, although the book that The One was based on was published a year before the premiere of the Black Mirror episode.
It might be because it’s an international series, or maybe it’s the YA element, although it the series does moves towards a present day where the characters are older for the later episodes, but Love Alarm shouldn’t be discounted because it appears to be the frothier and glossier concoction. Appearances can be deceptive, and books should never be judged from their covers.
A main character dies in the first season at his own hands admittedly and a lot of it due to the cruelties he frequently must contend with. That he is the creator of the technology itself gives the series even more heightened stakes from what could have so easily just been a soapy teen series, although as is the case with K-drama, it even does that in a way that is engrossing and might inspire a lot of fevered debate amongst its viewers (I’m going to save my thoughts on the central relationship(s) until my review of season two).
Even more darkly, the spectre of suicide haunts so much of the story. Users of the app who have not been partnered with their match become so depressed they take their own lives and a pivotal plot development centres of a mass suicide which gives the series one of its most startling and disturbing images. For a country that is famous for Samsung and the many, many updates that their phones and technology have, not to mention the commercial success of those products, it’s always fascinating when a K-drama takes the route of a cautionary technological parable of sorts, warning of the dangers of depending on tech like this to live by.
It gives Love Alarm considerable depth and intensity, not to mention thematic scope, that you might otherwise not have expected from its set-up of two friends in love with the same person. If you want to watch it for that, that’s fine; Seo Bo-ra and Lee Ah-yeon’s scripts do work on the level of brilliant YA drama and engage in a manner that all great teen dramas do, but the periphery of the main story, the social commentary and the explorations of how damaging society can be if we depend on apps and technology to not only drive our lives but also make pivotal emotional decisions for us, gives proceedings an increasingly fraught and suspenseful edge.
This first batch of eight episodes ends on a brilliant cliff-hanger, promising a potential shift in direction for season two and opening the story up to a more expansive scope. The present-day sequences hint that the technology and the app has become so powerful that its updates and launches of a new version of it have become a genuine seismic event, and perhaps clues us in to the subtly cynical nature of the series.
For all the fun that it has a love triangle drama, it’s exploration of just how much technology drives us and can even potentially hurt and destroys us is the thing that gives this teen drama the most devastating and deadliest cut of all.