In Extraordinary Attorney Woo, there’s a scene when Park Eun-bin’s Woo has a meltdown after witnessing a gory accident on the street. Kang Tae-oh’s Lee Jun-ho rushes to hug and comfort her, which calms her down. Later, she explains the concept of a back-hug cushion, and he promises to be one for her.
At its heart, Extraordinary Attorney Woo feels exactly like a comforting hug cushion, and means well—though it has some problems that seep through the cracks. The first ten episodes don’t give much reason for complaint as far as storytelling goes—as we are taken through exciting legal cases, with South Korea’s first autistic attorney Woo at the centre. Park Eun-bin’s portrayal of Woo is enjoyable—-she brings alive a character full of quirks, and yet is also sensitive to people’s feelings.
The most defining characteristic of Woo is that she’s obsessed with whales and has to keep reminding herself to not keep bringing up fish trivia. But just like the people around her, you also find yourself getting used to random whale analogies mixed with legal jargon. It’s endearing, really, and just like her close friends, you can’t help but chuckle slightly at her explanations. She’s part of a team that includes a boss who indulges the whale talk and believes in her, a close friend Soo-yeon who tells her to be aggressive when push comes to shove, and a trademark jealous rival who wants to bring her down. Of course, apart from legal woes, there’s also the absentee mother drama and a delightful romantic storyline that steers away from common K-drama tropes—for the most part.
The best part about Extraordinary Attorney Woo is that while the romance is particularly heartwarming, it’s not at the centre of the show. It just looms innocently in the background—like the way Woo watches Jun-ho awkwardly from her office. For once, the man’s backstory doesn’t overshadow everything else, and a woman gets to hold her ground and steer the story forward. Kang Tae-oh’s Lee Jun-ho destroys all the toxic K-drama leads with his boy-next-door behaviour—a man who is genuine, sincere and loving. He’s always ready to support Woo, and even listen to her endless whale talk. The ‘whale couple’, as fans have termed them, is definitely a winner for the year, as they’re just so joyously refreshing—from the 57-second handholding, to their first kiss in flickering lights.
The first 10 episodes are what sets the show apart from other legal and romantic K-dramas, as the show treads on very tricky, unusual territory and yet does not disappoint the viewers. Nothing is as it seems, and even a bride’s wardrobe malfunction leads to a case filled with emotional baggage, parental control and party politics. Woo is not always completely successful with her assessment of cases, but learns along the way as she wavers between being a humanitarian and a lawyer. The most complicated case that the show brings forth is a quasi-rape situation, where a man insists he is in love with an autistic woman, who says she loves him too, but no one is convinced. His attempt at sexual intercourse leaves her so rattled that her mother pursues a case against him. The episode is full of greys and so deliriously tricky that I was afraid that the show was treading very precarious ground and ignoring the concept of consent. Nevertheless, the episode handled the case with much sensitivity and care, and has you guessing till the last minute.
After Episode 11, the show loses some of its uniqueness and resorts to K-drama tropes that Hallyu lovers are altogether too familiar with. There’s the trademark break-up in Episode 14 (Us K-drama lovers always dread Episode 14 because we know a fight and separation is due)—but thankfully a sweet reconciliation occurs in Episode 16, in the most Woo way possible. Lee Jun-ho reassures her of his love, and she awkwardly shares a cat analogy, saying that cats love their owners too, contrary to popular perception. That’s a winner of a confession— everyone else can go home.
Nevertheless, the cases become less riveting and more predictable as the characters’ personal lives begin to take centrestage. The particularly despicable Min-woo, who has been abrasive to Woo throughout and trying to bring her down, suddenly turns over a new leaf, and there’s a contrived romance with Yoon-kyeong Ha’s sassy Soo-yeon, who clearly deserves so much better. This feels particularly rushed and jarring, because why am I being forced to like a smarmy and unlikeable character, who has been so horrible to our protagonist throughout?
However, the main point is whether Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a fair attempt at representation of a person with disability, and the answer isn’t so easy. The show attempts to emphasise the disconcerting discrimination towards disabled individuals through the lens of a law firm, but doesn’t really challenge a system that encourages these realities. It’s even more frustrating that her ableist colleague Min-woo somehow gets away with putting her down throughout the show, and then has it easy by being redeemed miraculously, without even an apology to Woo.
Attorney Woo, despite topping her law college, is unable to find a job for six months. When she finally does, her boss doesn’t believe in her at first, till she shows that she has a powerful memory. This is perhaps the upsetting aspect of the show, because it feels as if people with disabilities are not valued unless they prove themselves, and make contributions to the workforce that are considered worthwhile. And then they receive grudging validation.
Moreover, the show also reinforces common misconceptions about autism in television and cinema, where autistic characters are portrayed to be always gifted with some sort of superpower like photographic memory. Nevertheless, the efforts for representation haven’t gone in vain. As autism is so heavily stigmatized in South Korea and only a marginal number are actually employed in the country, according to the Employment Development Institute of Korea—the show does excel in bringing out some of the harsh realities, and strips away some of the stigma and shame surrounding autism.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo has many, many flaws—but it’s also warm, loving and wholesome, just like the lead protagonist. It’s not groundbreaking, but does serve as a particularly enjoyable watch. If nothing else, watch it for the romance.