I always feel like a K-drama takes four episodes to put all its cards on the table. Most of the time, that’s the sweet spot where the show settles into its groove and lets you know what kind of journey you’re about to go on. Are there exceptions? Yes, and sometimes it gets truly messy. But in general, four episodes get you through the info-dump of exposition—or beyond the razzle-dazzle of an expensive premiere week—and give you a taste of the meat of the show. (Or the tofu of it, if you prefer.) Occasionally, giving a drama two weeks to make its case can take me from on-the-fence to emphatically on board.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo needed no such grace period. Like My Liberation Notes before it, I was hooked in less than ten minutes. In fact, Woo had me at hello with its gorgeous, addictive opening sequence. (I feel like watching this on loop might be a form of self care? 🐋 How dare you suggest I SKIP INTRO, Netflix.)
I love Woo Young-woo, backwards and forwards Woo Young-woo. I love how gentle this show is with its characters and viewers, while also managing not to pull any punches about the darker side of life. Park Eun-bin is a virtuoso as expected, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the writing is delicate, smart, funny and nuanced in a way that’s especially essential for a drama with the premise of Autistic Savant Lawyer Starts as Rookie at Top Law Firm.
I was hesitant to start this, given K-drama’s track record of dealing with neurodiverse characters. And although I have autistic people in my life, I wouldn’t begin to be able to judge whether Woo Young-woo is an accurate portrayal. But there are two things that the show does that makes me feel good about its approach:
I’ve read overwhelmingly positive reactions from autistic viewers of the show. From the comments I’ve seen, the consensus is that Young-woo is realistic to how some people on the spectrum present, and they appreciate the detail that has gone into all the little behaviours that others notice about Young-woo. I must recognize here that we do have a (as far as we know) neurotypical actress playing Young-woo, and also that autistic people are unique individuals and I have no intention of portraying them as a monolith. For example, I remember some people absolutely loved Oh Jung-se as Moon Sang-tae in It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, but I’ve seen comments from other autistic viewers who found that portrayal stereotypical and offensive. So as with all things, our mileages vary.
The way this show portrays difference/disability is probably the best I’ve seen in K-drama. As someone who has had my own complex relationship with the word/status “disabled”, I don’t know if this is the best word to use here—there’s certainly a discussion to be had and I’d welcome feedback about this. My understanding is that autism can and often is categorized as a disability, but that autistic people are diverse and individual, and so this word doesn’t always apply, not to mention that there is a legal/functional aspect to disability, and an identity aspect. The drama itself reflects this murkiness: sometimes autism is referred to as a disability, sometimes not.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo does so many things here that I rarely, if ever, see in K-drama—or media of any kind, really. We get an autistic woman protagonist, for the first time in a K-drama! In fact, we meet two autistic people who are on different parts of the spectrum, unique from each other and yet each met with heartbreakingly ubiquitous ableism, which is exacerbated when they’re together. The show skillfully explores the humor of Young-woo’s interactions with others in a way that doesn’t make her the butt of the joke. Young-woo is a genius, which gave me pause because how often have we seen the autistic savant, but she’s not invincible: she can be stubborn, sometimes a little bratty, occasionally insecure.
Young-woo is allowed to be a full human. And the drama isn’t about her autism—it’s about her development as a lawyer, and her coming of age as a grown-up. Her autism is simply a part of her, one thing among many that shape her unique journey.
I love how the drama teaches us how to read Young-woo, along with her law firm colleagues who meet her at the same time we do—so that when we have some serious emotional moments in Episodes 3 and 4, we’ve learned her language, and don’t need typical K-drama cues to know what Young-woo is feeling. Autistic people are so often described as cold, or distant, or incapable of love, or burdens to the people who love them. This drama debunks all of those stereotypes, without giving us an idealized world where discrimination doesn’t exist—it’s dogged Young-woo all her life, and as gentle and beautiful as the show is, it also forces us to look that ugliness full in its face.
There are other things the show gets so right which aren’t unique only to autism: The pressure and scrutiny of being the first and/or only (Young-woo is the first autistic lawyer in Korea, but how many of us have been the first woman in our field, the first Black person or hijabi, etc.?). The microaggressions Young-woo faces at work, from both malicious and well-meaning people. The way her difference is seen as a burden, or a distraction, when in reality her perspective only makes the law firm stronger and more effective. The humiliation of having your disability called out in front of a group as something that sets you apart, regardless of whether the person’s intention was good or bad. I honestly felt so upset and almost triggered by Episode 3 that I had to take a break—not because it was bad, but because it was too real.
The prejudice in this drama is not cartoonish and relegated to villains. Nearly every person in Young-woo’s life has to deal with their own preconceived notions about autistic people, and Jung Myung-seok (Kang Ki-young) is probably the best example. He immediately dismisses Young-woo because of her autism, but denies that he’s being prejudiced, claiming she simply can’t do the job. Yet, although he’s forced to give her a chance by his boss, in no time at all, he himself becomes a low-key but committed champion for her. Not because she’s a special autistic savant, but because she’s Woo Young-woo, backwards and forwards Woo Young-woo.
Can we talk for a second about how good Kang Ki-young is here? I always die for him, but it gives me great joy to see him as a main lead (finally!!), in a role where he can both flex his genius-level dry humour, and be quietly decent in a way he never gets the chance to. I’m so happy that he gets to be a character with layers, after so many excellent performances as the comic relief. He certainly has the talent—and honestly, I feel like he’d have a lead role before now if he’d had conventional leading man looks. And omae, this man can really wear a suit.
Speaking of leading men, the other leg of this triangle of affection (will there be romance? I don’t care, I just want more of these people) is Lee Jun-ho. Jun-ho is lovely as a paralegal (?) who works closely with Young-woo and immediately forms a connection with her. This is a perfect role for the eternally sweet Kang Tae-oh, and even though this haircut makes it a little difficult to differentiate him from his Run On character, Jun-ho won me over instantly with his joyful and unselfconscious eagerness to enter Young-woo’s world.
He delights in everything she shares with him; he easily shifts his worldview to see things from her angle, because he already has an unconventional approach to life, as seen from the revolving door dance he teaches Young-woo. He’s empathetic to her struggles without pitying her; he helps her but never condescends; he always treats her with the respect she deserves, both as his colleague and as a human being. And his heart-eyes for her are the cutest thing ever. (I am also endlessly tickled at how oblivious she is to his crush. Again, an example of how Young-woo’s autism contributes to the funny situation but is never the joke itself. If anything, the joke is on Jun-ho for trying to subtly hint at his affections when he should know that’ll never work.)
I have nothing more to say, or rather I have plenty to say, like:
how interesting and well-done the legal stuff is—these petty civil cases had me on the edge of my seat?
how much I love Young-woo's dad
how wonderful her relationship with best friend Geurami is (that bestie origin story!!)
how much that off-beat humour, both visual and verbal, works for me
the art direction is absolutely gorgeous 😍
...but then you’ll be reading all night and I won’t get to watch Episode 5. Suffice to say, this drama is everything, and if you aren’t watching it yet, go go!! 🐳