American network television, cable, and on demand all have varying representations of coffee culture, but none quite strike the balance between good storytelling and good coffee. I’ve struggled to find a television show that does it all; turns out all I had to do was get out of America to find it.
Buried deep within the labyrinth of your Hulu Plus account lays a treasure trove of Korean dramas. These limited series usually run uninterrupted for less than 20 episodes, so getting involved with them doesn’t involve a massive time commitment leaving you burned by that one clunky season or the terrible ending that was years in the making. They also have the best titles. Current shows include The Suspicious Housekeeper and Marry Him If You Dare. Within the genre, I’ve found a show that has everything I could possibly want: a strong female lead, an excellent balance of K-pop and 90s American hits, lots of homoeroticism, and varied brewing apparati. Coffee Prince is, thus far, my favorite coffee show and I have no doubt it will be yours, too.
Originally broadcast in the summer of 2007, Coffee Prince largely focuses on the relationship between Eun-chan (Yoon Eun-hye), a tomboyish jill-of-all-trades who is trying to support her mother and younger sister, and Han-gyul (Gong Yoo), the playboy heir to a hospitality empire who has no business interests or wife as he approaches 30. Han-gyul mistakes Eun-chan for a boy and hires her to pose as his boyfriend to stop his family from setting him up with girls. When Han-gyul is forced to run a failing coffee shop within the empire, he hires Eun-chan and starts to grapple with his romantic feelings toward her even though he believes she’s a man. Complicating things further, Han-seong (Lee Sun-kyun), Han-gyul’s cousin may also have a thing for Eun-chan, but he also can’t get past his feelings for his girlfriend, Yoo-joo (Chae Jung-an), who also used to be Han Gyul’s girlfriend. Try sorting that one out. The love rhombus can be a bit tiresome as all the heat is in the core relationship between Eun-chan and Han-gyul.
The plot setup paves the way for classic Shakespearean gags about mistaken gender identity, but also makes for some compelling drama. Han-gyul and Eun-chan have a brotherly relationship at the beginning as they fake their romance to throw off Han-gyul’s family, but they quickly start to develop bewildering stronger feelings for each other. Han-gyul repeatedly fires Eun-chan for small infractions, but he is unable to push her away for long and always rehires her. The buildup to Eun-chan’s big reveal over halfway into the series is agonizing as we see hunky, hetero Han-gyul try to suppress his growing attachment to Eun-chan. When Eun-chan’s secret comes out, the fallout is one of the most heartbreaking and gripping moments I’ve seen on television.
As for the coffee, what more could you want than a shop where hunks make pour-overs and waffles? Business starts off slow, but the shop increases in popularity when a video profiling the hunky staff goes viral. Even Eun-chan’s perceived hunkiness wins her adoring female fans. Team building retreats and a Coffee Prince rock concert follow as the shop becomes a beautiful wonderland of coffee community and geekery. The show truly legitimizes its representation of specialty coffee when Eun-chan decides that she wants to be a great barista. Han-gyul encourages her to always be reading about coffee and the final episodes show Eun-chan expressing a desire to go to barista training in Italy. Naturally, this development made my heart explode as it stood in contrast to the depiction of American baristas as poor, angry, hipster snobs. Eun-chan has become my coffee role model.
Watching Coffee Prince made me realize that this positive depiction of coffee professionals, in which an overworked young adult finds success and self-worth as a barista, could only happen in a society that values the service industry and its workers. Audiences in Korea clearly found the show as wonderful as I did, as it commanded 25% of the national television viewing population. I yearn for an American equivalent, but even if it came about, I can’t imagine it would be as quirky, sexy, and absorbing as Coffee Prince. I’m determined to spread its joy. Now that the best meth television show of all time is off the air, I implore you to devote your time to the best coffee show of all time.