A few weeks ago, I had a crisis: Terrace House had become too stressful. The show’s routines of cooking, working, and low-key gossiping had become consumed by the romantic drama, and I kept getting too upset over who was pursuing whom. I needed a show with the soothing domestic rhythms of Terrace House, but with even lower stakes. Improbably, I found it: The Korean reality show Hyori’s Bed and Breakfast, which revolves around one of the original K-pop stars and her musician husband, who host guests in their rescue-dog-overrun home.
The first episode of Hyori’s Bed and Breakfast doesn’t explain much. Lee Hyori goes swimming in the waters of Jeju Island, a volcanic island off the south coast of Korea, and then putters around her home there with her husband, Lee Sangsoon, as they prepare puer tea and awkwardly discuss the fact that there are now cameras on in every part of their house. From there, they go shopping for extra comforters and a hoard of groceries to prepare their home — their actual, real home, not a producer-rented location — to become a bed and breakfast.
Starting the show cold, with no K-pop knowledge, I could tell Lee Hyori was quite famous, and really not much more. Turns out, she’s one of the most famous people in Korea — a member of one of the original idol groups Fin.K.L., and then one of K-pop’s most successful solo artists ever; her star image leans strong and sexy, heavy on black eyeliner. Eater’s social media manager James Park, a K-pop expert and superfan of the show, explains Lee Hyori like this: “You’re looking at her as not just an artist — whatever she did, it changed everything about Korean culture. She was dating around, but when she finally announced she was getting married to her husband, who was not particularly well known and not super handsome, everyone was like, ‘Lee Hyori was getting married to this nobody guy from a band?’ On top of that, Lee Hyori, who used to be the definition of luxury and lifestyle, got rid of everything she had, moved to Jeju Do with a humble-looking husband, and adopted a bunch of animals, with no connection to the spotlight she used to get. I was devastated to think Lee Hyori was going to become a middle of nowhere island housewife.”
Hyori’s Bed and Breakfast, which was released in Korea in 2017 then on Netflix in 2018, marked Hyori’s triumphant return to public life after a years-long hiatus holed up on Jeju (the show makes clear the decision to disconnect was all Hyori’s, who took up yoga and sought a simpler life). The show is first and foremost a portrait of the couple’s marriage, which it turns out is pretty fantastic. Hyori and Sangsoon are joking and affectionate, cranky and forbearing, but always a team, and seem genuinely in love with each other. Sangsoon comes off as a rock for Hyori — both as a musical collaborator and as someone who feeds the dogs every morning and happily folds laundry. After the first season, Sangsoon went from national mystery to “national husband,” as wives admonished their own husbands to be more like Sangsoon and help out around the house. Guests on the show frequently remark to each other that Sangsoon is much more handsome in person. (I think he’s perfectly good looking!)
The show’s real charms emerge once the guests start to arrive. Hyori and Sangsoon know nothing about who guests are or when they are coming; the producers frequently overload their house, so there’s always a scramble for space.
While their home sits on a large property and has its own attached music studio, it is hardly a Calabasas mansion. The first floor consists of a common area, a little study nook, and a small kitchen and dining area; the top floor is a large lofted bedroom. The kitchen they cook every meal from is cramped, with a coffee maker teetering on the edge of a counter, a rice maker crammed in next to the fridge, and a small prep area between the sink and battered induction stovetop. The fridge, only seen in glimpses, is unspeakably chaotic; the condiments and spices are jumbled in an open cabinet above the stove. In other words, this is not a Nancy Meyers fantasy — it’s a real kitchen, messy and homey.
The food is also homey, and all of it is incredible-looking. Hyori and Sangsoon tell guests that only breakfast is provided, but they prepare dinner for whoever is around. Breakfast might be potato soup or pine nut porridge (jatjuk); dinner is knife-cut noodle soup with seafood (kalguksu) Hyori makes herself (they get a little clumped) or a mille-feuille nabe that Park says immediately went viral in Korea after the episode aired. Hyori spends a decent chunk of the series chopping and sauteing and cooking with confidence, teasing whoever is in the kitchen alongside her, wearing her uniform of yoga pants or robes or loose-fitting dresses, with messy hair and little visible makeup, often bothering Sangsoon to bring her another ingredient. It’s charming as hell. Guests can use the kitchen, too, and everyone seems to return from their day of exploring lava caves or walking along beaches or visiting art museums with sashimi or ramyun or the makings for kimbap.
Another genius element of the show is the introduction of a “staff” for the B&B, a wildly famous younger K-pop star who represents the generation rising and displacing Hyori’s. The first season features IU, one of the most successful and innovative modern K-pop stars, who during the show goes by her given name of Lee Ji-eun. In contrast to her polished music video persona, Ji-eun is charmingly inept in the kitchen, as well as painfully shy. She’s fond of staring into space daydreaming and eating chocolate. When she starts to bond with guests, there’s a genuine sense of her opening up and taking a risk. The second season’s staff, Im Yoon Ah, known as Yoona, is the lead of the girl group juggernaut Girls’ Generation; she has genuine cooking skills and arrives with several key tools, including a waffle maker, which also sold out the moment after it appeared on the show.
The show’s stakes are both incredibly low and sneakily high. The actual problems faced by Hyori, Sangsoon, and whichever beautiful younger K-pop star is acting as their staff includes scrambling to rent a camper van for guest overflow; keeping the incredibly fat calico cat, Sam-Sik, from eating too much; scrubbing off milk that boiled over while making tea; trying and failing to impress guests while splitting firewood; mild colds; keeping people from bumping their heads ducking into the yurt; and failing to understand why Ji-eun is so fond of gigantic vintage teeshirts. A sneaky water leak slowly flooding the kitchen takes up either two or three episodes of Season 1. Season 2’s major plumbing conflict revolves around the outdoor bath they installed for winter, and what to do if the tap freezes.
But the show’s larger emotional stakes are what make it truly compelling. Hyori reflects often on what her fame gave her, what it took away, and what it will look like as a new generation takes over. On one hand, Hyori seems utterly unconcerned with maintaining her image: her house is messy; she’s a big goof; she dresses up exactly once; she snores with dogs; she annoys her loving husband. On the other, she often describes herself as moody, and her darker moments peek through in the show, too, in a way that she’s undoubtedly aware of as a performer, but lends the show its depth. At one point in the first season, a fan breaks down crying when meeting Ji-eun and doesn’t recognize Hyori at all; afterwards she and Ji-eun have a long conversation about holding onto and losing fame. The loneliness of stardom is a persistent theme — when Hyori and Sangsoon host a group of friends in their mid-twenties, Hyori confesses she envies their closeness, because at their age she was wrapped up in performing and utterly by herself. Ji-eun and Yoona also confide in Hyori their own loneliness and insecurities, and Hyori serves as a mentor figure to both. There’s a sense that the B&B is not so much a chance for guests to spend time with celebrities, as it is a place for celebrities to escape the strictures of fame, even as they participate in a show that would only happen because they’re famous.
The tension between glitzy fame and comforting domesticity makes Hyori and Sangsoon’s home the heart of the show. The loose, long rhythm of the episodes (each clocks in well over an hour) means that every episode depicts the day’s mopping, vacuuming, and laundry, as well as the inevitable naps that are required afterward. There are many, many trips to the grocery store, done with a casualness that borders on pornographic in our current lockdown moment. Hyori shops frequently at the local “five day” market, a warren of stalls selling fresh vegetables and seafood, and then grills, say, fresh conch over an open flame. Hyori, Sangsoon, and their “staff” don’t just briefly prepare meals; the cameras follow the whole cooking process, and everyone eats on camera, heartily and happily. Afterwards, guests and the staff battle over who will do the dishes. When is the last time a cooking personality or reality show star on American television did the dishes?
James Park has started re-watching the show for the third time while quarantined in his New York apartment. “It is the best peaceful background show for me. There’s no drama, it’s very mundane, but in the best special way.” I found the show comforting before shelter in place began, but now it feels like a window to another, better way of living. It’s a life I need to remember exists and believe will exist again, with carefree supermarket trips, sunsets enjoyed from the beach, mild colds that are just mild colds, and strangers crowded around a shared meal, eating and drinking and laughing, rapidly on their way to becoming friends.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent