I haven’t followed a legal TV drama since the heydays of The Practice and Ally McBeal, but recently I got sucked into watching this endearing, warm-hearted K-drama about a rookie attorney with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
My name is Woo Young-woo, whether it’s read straight or flipped. Kayak, deed, rotator, noon, racecar, Woo Young-woo.
There are not many people who introduce themselves with a list of random palindromes, but then Young-woo (Park Eun-bin) is not an ordinary attorney. An only child of a single father, her passion for law begins at the age of five, when she memorises every single line in the books belonging to her Dad, himself a former law student. Her astonishing photographic memory serves Young-woo well at the university, where she graduates with top honours, but her autism prejudices most employers against her, until she gets an offer from a high-flying law firm, Hanbada.
In the first episode, on the morning of her first day at Hanbada, we see how Young-woo has adapted to the world around her. She has a meticulously structured routine, and likes her preferred meal of kimbap prepared just so, to prevent surprise from unfamiliar flavours and textures. She has a habit of closing her eyes and counting on her fingers before entering a space. Oh and she has a passion for the marine mammals that makes other people’s passions feel like a mere passing interest, with images of whales and dolphins covering everything in her room, and her brain a repository of obscure whale facts.
(Whales and dolphins give the show the kind of quirky surreal touch Ally McBeal was famous for: every time Young-woo has a lightbulb moment, it manifests onscreen with the imagery of sea animals gallivanting in the water. It just stays on the right side of overplayed, but it did make me smile every time. As did the moments when life-sized whales suddenly appear floating in the air, among the skyscrapers.)
I find that it’s not always necessary to love the main character in order to love the show, but this series is absolutely anchored by its heroine and Eun-bin’s superlative work in the lead role. She knocks it out of the park, playing Young-woo with sincerity and shedding light on her challenges and unique view of the world without turning her into some kind of quirky caricature. Young-woo is also, thankfully, not infallible despite being a genius. There are times when she fumbles, either because of her youth and inexperience or her difficulties with the social interactions. In some episodes, Young-woo finds herself on the side of not-quite-angels, and is torn between doing the morally right thing and being a good attorney. A few poignant scenes reveal that she’s very well aware of how different she is from most people, and how this complicates her personal relationships.
At Hanbada, Young-woo finds a friend, a scheming nemesis and a love interest, who all make for an engaging, well-developed, likeable group of supporting characters. My personal MVP award goes to Young-woo’s immaculately composed boss Jung Myeong-seok, who very quickly gets over his initial prejudice and becomes the sort of supportive mentor anyone would wish for in a new workplace. The budding romance between Young-woo and her sweet, boy band-handsome colleague Lee Jun-Ho may have a few super-cheesy moments, but it’s undoubtedly one of the storylines that take Young-woo out of her comfort zone the most.
The show mostly follows the conventional format of one legal case per episode, some more lighthearted and others more hard-hitting. Earlier on, Young-woo is tasked with defending an autistic client charged with killing his older brother, in an episode that humanely portrays the range of the autistic spectrum. In another intense episode, she finds herself defending a young man accused of taking advantage of a woman with a disability. To balance out the heaviness of the more serious storylines, the show sneaks in plenty of humour and laughs, many courtesy of Young-woo’s eccentric childhood friend, Dong Geu-Rami.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo was also my first foray into K-drama outside of Squid Game, and so I found it an interesting window into the Korean culture, exaggerated in places for the dramatic and comedic purposes maybe but a window nonetheless. I enjoyed observing all the small everyday details and peculiarities.
If I had to make a criticism, the show stumbles somewhat when it comes to the more soapy season-long arcs, and overall lags a bit in its second half. The mystery of Young-woo’s parentage runs out of steam well before the end, and a couple of other storylines and conflicts are either hurriedly resolved or inserted way too abruptly near the finale, which maybe tries to tie everything up in a little bow too hard. These flaws however don’t detract too much from what’s been a charming and wholesome comfort watch, with intriguing legal cases, thoughtful and sensitive writing, a healthy dash of quirky humour and an utterly adorable main character. And lots of whales.