Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) First Impressions
It’s very rare and I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I was equally captivated by two ongoing dramas that I’ve put the rest of my viewing list on standby. But that day seem to have arrived and I’m completely smitten. Both are hugely entertaining and peppered with plenty of warmth. And it’s not so coincidental either that both have become worldwide sensations.
The very versatile Park Eun-bin is the titular lawyer in one of Netflix’s current offerings. Our journey with her begins on her first day at work when she wakes up to a bedroom full of whale memorabilia. Woo Young-woo is obsessed with whales writ large to the point that there’s a whale analogy for everything. (Just as some of us think that there’s a Bible or Princess Bride quote for every occasion) In a flashback we discover that this newly minted lawyer is a Hollywood-style autistic savant who has shown a bent for the law from a young age. Despite graduating with top honours from the prestigious SNU, she’s had a hard time getting employment until an old university friend of her dad’s comes knocking. She happens also to be the CEO of Hanbada, one of the country’s top legal firms and she wants to bring Young-woo into the fold when no one else seems willing to chance it. Her seemingly altruistic intentions are unclear at this point but it seems that she knows something of the history of the father, the daughter and the noticeably absent mother.
When Young-woo arrives at the building’s entrance, she is confronted by her first obstacle to legal success — the revolving doors. In fact she is discombobulated by its mechanism of action. Who can blame her? I barely survived my first experience. Luckily a kind soul comes to her rescue — A fellow colleague at Hanbada as it turns out — and accompanies her on this harrowing first-time event. It doesn’t hurt too that he’s easy on the eyes. When he politely asks her where she needs to go, as luck would have it, he’s going the same way.
It’s the meet-cute moment to defy all others.
As they navigate the labyrinth that is Hanbada, she notes that this male colleague is friendly and immensely popular with everyone. He takes her to Attorney Jung’s doorstep and leaves after ensuring that she can look after herself. This begins her foray into the cut throat world of legal eagles except that for the most part, people are surprisingly inclusive. I say “surprising” because I’ve seen the original The Good Doctor from all those years ago and of course there’s the more recent It’s Okay Not to be Okay where people aren’t so welcoming. It cannot be taken for granted that people know what to do with special needs co-workers even when there’s a plethora of information available.
Dramas that feature special needs individuals are always going to be tricky to navigate and I’m certainly not writing from the perspective someone who lives with someone 24/7 that fits the profile so I can’t confidently state how accurate the show portrays someone who is autistic although I can certainly recognize aspects of her behaviour in those I’ve known to be diagnosed as such. ASD is a spectrum of conditions and it’s best to think of Woo Young-woo as someone uniquely her own self trying to navigate in a world of so-called neural normatives. It is often hilariously and unabashedly a fish out of water … or should I say… whale out of water whimsical exploration of how someone with special needs sees the world.
Later Young-woo bumps into the attractive young man again at the entryway to the building. He is the affable Lee Jun-ho, played by Kang Tae-oh, a paralegal or legal assistant who has been tasked to accompany her when she meets clients and witnesses. Unlike everyone who finds her strange and difficult, he comes completely packaged with the toolkit to deal with her idiosyncrasies. She is immediately astounded that there’s another human being who is capable of having similar thoughts to her. Already on her first day, he breaks the mould. What’s even more shocking is that he indulges her whale talk while everyone else barely tolerates it.
This sets the stage very early on for a romance between the two. I should hasten to add that romance is a small part of the show but it is guaranteed to send many hearts aflutter. For an office romance, it’s fairly unique as it doesn’t fall into supervisor-subordinate category. He’s not her boss, neither is she his. Although a more experienced professional in the legal field he’s not an accredited lawyer either. She’s, on the other hand, a new recruit with a brilliant capacity to recall the penal code and make application. They work in concert to deal with cases and so the power dynamics don’t work in the usual ways that rom coms do. As someone who eats stale grumpy CEO romances for breakfast, this one can be considered an offering of fresh bread. (Although as a rule I don’t eat bread)
Extraordinary Attorney Woo unfolds like a coming of age story rather than a romance-centred tale and each case that Young-woo tackles attempts to be a poignant comment on some of the social issues that hover uncomfortably around the local landscape. These cases also end up being seminal learning experiences for the young lawyer as she navigates the rough seas of human emotions in the court of life. The focus here is on the technical application of laws to a variety of situations and to prosecute chosen arguments as convincing as possible. Rather than finding the truth behind something (there is an element of that), it’s really about using the law to benefit one’s client. It’s much more procedural and probably more grounded than some of the more popular courtroom dramas that we’ve seen. Still there’s more than enough tension and build-up for those who want a bit more thrills before the jurors arrive at the verdict.
Around Young-woo is also a wide assortment of helpful types ranging from her dad who runs a gimbap business to her direct supervisor, Jung Myeong-seok (Jang Ki-young). In between are fellow graduate Choi Su-yeon (Ha Yoon-kyeong) and the ambitious Kwon Min-woo (Joo Jong-hyuk). Young-woo also has a friend from high school, Geurami, that she hangs out with routinely after work. The two are as alike as chalk and cheese and their friendship forge in the flames of high school bullying. Then there’s the lovely Jun-ho of course.
Each episode sees Young-woo being assigned a case by Jung Myeong-seok who decides what her role in it is. In recent days she has been seen partnering with Min-woo and Su-yeon with varying degrees of success. I’m not entirely clear if Min-woo harbours prejudice against people with disability in general or if he’s just a general all-round unpleasant human being for whom life is just one continuous battleground. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter because I just don’t think Young-woo features much in his thinking except as a potential obstacle to success. As Su-yeon notes, he also has a reputation for being ill-mannered. Apart from that case where they were co-counsel, he doesn’t appear to be actively working against her behind the scenes. He’s never been seen during his waking hours plotting against her out ideological necessity but it’s clear that he’s not in favour of what he perceives to be “special treatment” for the “difficult” new colleague.
Min-woo is not a particularly likeable character and we’re invited to see him as a foil for Young-woo in the sense that he is also a social misfit in his own right. There are all kinds of people in the workplace and some of them are clearly not team players. They have a skill set but they drive everyone batty with their arrogance and competitiveness. Their goal like Hangman from Top Gun: Maverick is to display their prowess and not necessarily to work together with others to get any job done. Some might even call him a narcissist. For people like that the workplace is a warzone and they will fight tooth and nail to the top even it means walking over corpses to do so. All throughout the drama he is seen to demonstrate poor social skills despite being “neural normative”. He’s learnt to function in the real world by bootlicking and it is rather surprising that he and Jun-ho are even friends. But then Jun-ho is the most popular guy at work for a reason.
Speaking of Jun-ho. it is somewhat odd that for someone who is billed as the male lead that there’s so little of him in the show up to this point although things might change in the upcoming episodes. On the other hand this is Young-woo’s story to a large extent and it’s her adventures that are being told. As a result of the paucity of Jun-ho scenes there’s been a call for more backstory. Frankly I don’t need a backstory for Jun-ho if it means that he’s saddled with some kind of childhood trauma or family dysfunction which seems to be the flavour of the month these days. (Maybe it makes him a much more pitiful figure in the sight of the female lead.) What I do need is some clarification about where he stands with Young-woo.
My understanding of his predicament is that he genuinely likes her as a woman but he also respects her professionally. So far despite certain limitations, she's done stellar work fighting for her positions in and out of court. He clearly has nothing but admiration for her intelligence and courage because he has been witness to the way she approaches each case. The fact of the matter is he's not her boyfriend. Yet. He doesn't have any certainty that he'll ever be. Because he couldn’t confess to her that time so he might feel that he has no right to intervene on her behalf at any level which could potentially undermine her confidence which shattered to pieces after a case. It's also on his mind that she might construe his feelings... as some have already... as pity... when it's the opposite. Furthermore would the people around them think that it's about pity because he's never expressed interest in any female colleague who has approached him? His desk drawer at work definitely holds a clue to his personality — gifts from the people at work that he couldn’t say no to for one reason or another.
If the previews are to be believed, exciting times are ahead for the “whale” couple — a sobriquet I picked up from my travels around the interweb. The fact that Jun-ho is suffering from a bad case of paralysis by analysis shows that there will in all likelihood be some rocky times ahead for them. But with the way things are set up that seems to be some kind of suggestion that loving the Attorney Woo is a vocation, or a calling because it’s not something just anybody can do.
Overall the cast is very good. Park Eun-bin, as expected, is spectacular as Young-woo but the rest of the cast do a better-than-decent job responding to her character. Despite all the deserved accolades for Park Eun-bin, this isn’t a one-person show. The interactions have to be on point and the dynamics have to be believable and relatable as they are here — whether it be friendlies like Jung Myeong-seok, Su-yeon and Geurami or openly antagonistic types like Min-woo.
The production values for this show is terrific for a television show. Special mention must be made of the CGI whales that are not obtrusive but blend in so well with the rest of the storytelling. This aspect of the show certainly enhances that fairytale-like magical quality that is capturing hearts all over the place.