Review | Netflix K-drama review: Extraordinary Attorney Woo – heartwarming autism saga takes a few missteps before recovering with uplifting finale
- After hitting all the right notes to begin with, the series about an autistic genius lawyer ran out of steam, its plot languishing and full of K-drama clichés
- Thankfully the show returned to form with a heartwarming finale, tying up loose ends for protagonist Young-woo in life and love. Plans are afoot for season two
This article contains spoilers.
Having launched with relatively low viewing figures on the little-known Korean cable channel ENA, Extraordinary Attorney Woo lived up to its title and then some, exploding after its debut to quickly become the most beloved K-drama series of the year so far.
It clinched the year’s highest ratings for a drama series in its fifth week, then once again did something unexpected: its ratings in Korea fell. Meanwhile, on Netflix, which is streaming it around the world, viewership continued to grow, albeit slowly.
After 10 episodes of getting to know the delightful rookie attorney Woo Young-woo (Park Eun-bin), who has autism spectrum disorder, and her colourful cohorts at the Hanbada law firm as they dealt with heart-warming legal cases and office romances, something went wrong.
Fans often point to the closed-loop narrative style of Korean drama series as one of their strong points. Shows are designed to run for a single season – renewals are still rare – and their stories offer a sense of completeness and closure that most Western dramas, which are always trying to avoid cancellation, can seldom achieve.
Normally running for 16 episodes, each of which lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, Korean dramas can occasionally be guilty of padding, which happens through repetition or just stretching things out.
In episode 11, a case involving a dispute between friends concerning lottery winnings takes us on an uncomfortable path through illegal gambling dens, suggestions of bribes, adultery and domestic violence, only to brush them all under the rug with a convenient car crash.
Women’s solidarity provides the focus for the next case, as Hanbada’s legal team finds itself on the wrong side of a case of discriminatory employment termination. Young-woo’s legal loop-the-loops fall flat here, as she repeats some of the more prosaic tricks she performed earlier in the season, such as noticing a secret relationship in court and recognising a logo carried by someone involved in the case.
Confirmation hearings for Tae Su-mi (Jin Kyung) to become justice minister and the revelation that Young-woo may be her daughter born out of wedlock continue to loom without really moving forward. Meanwhile, the romance between Young-woo and Jun-ho (Kang Tae-oh) loses its pep following its heart-pounding courtship stage.
Hard-working but soft-hearted senior attorney Jung Myeong-seok (Kang Ki-young) suddenly develops stomach cancer; Young-woo and Jun-ho take an obligatory, but unnecessary, timeout; and the whole gang – which inexplicably includes Young-woo’s buddies Dong Geurami (Joo Hyun-young) and Kim Min-sik (Im Sung-jae) – head off for a two-episode case down on Jeju Island.
When characters in K-dramas abscond to Jeju (or occasionally another tourist spot, Gangneung on Korea’s east coast) it sometimes feels like the shows they are in are taking a break.
In Extraordinary Attorney Woo, the case in question involves a cranky old man who wants to sue a Buddhist temple on the island over a 3,000 won (US$2.30) admission charge he felt was unfair, hardly the stage for an epic legal showdown.
With this lacklustre legal squabble stretching itself in leisurely fashion across the two episodes, a lot of time is left over for the characters, who spend most of these episodes not working.
Myeong-seok, fresh from his cancer diagnosis, has changed his married-to-the-job outlook entirely, while Young-woo’s formerly antagonistic colleague Kwon Min-woo (Joo Jong-hyuk) also seems to be mellowing in front of his colleagues, especially Choi Soo-yeon (Ha Yoon-kyoung), who is grappling with her own unexpected feelings towards him.
In its last week, Extraordinary Attorney Woo offers a third double episode, this time involving an e-commerce giant, Raon, which inadvertently leaks the data of its 40 million users.
Young-woo is in unfamiliar waters here, as she is forced to work under attorney Jang Seung-jun (Choi Dae-hoon) while Myeong-seok recovers from his cancer surgery.
Since Young-woo is unable to perform her legal gymnastics owing to the recalcitrant Seung-jun, and the case itself is bogged down in a mix of technobabble and legalese, the court scenes don’t offer us the same pleasures we have grown accustomed to.
Thankfully, Extraordinary Attorney Woo roars back into form with a terrific final episode that suddenly jump-starts all the threads we cared about which had been languishing in the previous couple of weeks.
The show offers suitably misty-eyed conclusions to both of Young-woo’s emotional battles: she gets through to her estranged mother with a beautiful plea, and manages to express her feelings to Jun-ho after his own impassioned appeal to get back together, during which he charmingly equates their relationship to that between a cat and its doting owner.
For those shedding a tear as they say goodbye to Korea’s most intrepid and delightful TV lawyer, fear not. On the eve of chalking up record ratings for its finale that made it the seventh highest rated show in Korean cable television history, the makers of Extraordinary Attorney Woo announced plans for a second season.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is streaming on Netflix.