These days, K-dramas produced by Netflix are constantly part of the Top 10 most watched on the platform in many Latin American countries, thanks to the effect of the Hallyu Wave on this side of the world. Extraordinary Attorney Woo was no exception. The drama debuted in mid-2022, ranking as the sixth most popular non-English-speaking series on Netflix of all time. Furthermore, it remained in the Top 10 of the most-watched shows in the world for twenty weeks in a row. Like Squid Game, this K-drama was a success among the general public and not only among lovers of this type of series. So it is interesting to talk about why Extraordinary Attorney Woo was so successful, especially since this series deals with a topic that was considered taboo until recently in contemporary history.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is the story of Woo Young-woo, played by actress Park Eun-bin, a wise lawyer who comes to the Hanbada firm after six months of struggling to find a job because she is a person who is on the autism spectrum. Even though Woo Young-woo has a great memory and is very smart, which got her into one of the best universities in the country, she is not taken seriously in the professional world because of the stigma attached to autism. This is especially true in a country like Korea, where social “normality” prevails. Even once she joins Hanbada as a litigator for the firm, the protagonist continues to encounter people who look down on her abilities, despite the fact that she is the only lawyer who finds solutions to the most difficult legal problems.
While people on the autism spectrum may have strong intellectual abilities, which they develop by focusing on very specific interests, they frequently struggle with social interaction and may find it difficult to perform activities that others take for granted. Thus, the drama depicts how Woo Young-woo deals with everyday life as a neurodivergent person, as actions such as crossing a swinging door, eating something other than Kimbap, her favorite dish, or understanding sarcasm prove to be quite a challenge for the protagonist. Likewise, the drama addresses how a person with autism can perceive and show love differently, and how the people around them must adapt to new ways of saying “I love you”.
Although it is unrealistic to expect a series to fully capture the range of a disability, this K-drama focuses on showing autism spectrum disorder for what it is: a spectrum in which, while there may be some similarities, the neurological diversity of individuals is the main feature. In that sense, Woo Young-woo is not the only representation of autistic people in the series. In fact, the legal case discussed in Chapter 3 features a person on the opposite side of the spectrum, because, unlike Woo Young-woo, Kim Jeong-hoon’s autism completely prevents him from communicating, and his neurological development is like that of a young child.
Likewise, through the legal cases shown and the other main characters in the series, Extraordinary Attorney Woo addresses other types of issues that, like neurodiversity, remain taboo in today’s Korean society. These include divorce, domestic violence, suicide, and gender inequality. But, in particular, it draws attention to how this drama approaches and criticizes the “normal” pace of life in Korea. This is done through the character of Jung Myung-seok, played by actor Kang Ki-young, who lost his wife and suffers greatly from stress and the amount of work required to advance as a professional. This is an important point to emphasize because it demonstrates that Extraordinary Attorney Woo is not a show that uses taboo topics superficially. On the contrary, behind the comedy and romantic moments that are typical of any K-drama, there is an intention in this drama to make viewers take a reflective stance toward socially normalized issues such as discrimination and labor exploitation.
Another noteworthy aspect of this K-drama is how different narrative resources are used to immerse the viewer in Woo Young-woo’s mind and allow them to better understand how she sees things. In addition to Park Eun-bin’s outstanding performance, Extraordinary Attorney Woo relies on resources such as animation to represent what the protagonist thinks and how she perceives the world around her. This allows us to better understand Woo Young-woo’s way of acting and thinking because it shows how even the smallest detail can lead to a brilliant idea, even if it does not appear to be significant at first. At the same time, we can see that neurodiversity must be accepted as the fact that humans are individuals. As a result of our differences, there is a wide range of ways to think, and this is not to say that any of them are bad.
Despite the visibility that Extraordinary Attorney Woo has given to autism, the drama has come to be questioned as to whether or not it is a good representation of people on the autism spectrum. In addition, as with other productions featuring neurodiverse characters, Extraordinary Attorney Woo has been the subject of questions about why Woo Young-woo is not played by a person who is actually on the autism spectrum. Nonetheless, in a world where only 22% of autistic people have jobs and discrimination against all people with disabilities is pervasive, productions like Extraordinary Attorney Woo are essential to generate a reflection in collective thinking about how much understanding, respect, and value are given to people considered different.
In the same way, Extraordinary Attorney Woo not only invites us to have empathy for people on the autism spectrum but also for the people who are part of their surroundings, such as those who fall in love, are parents, friends, or even bosses of a person with autism. Because society can often come to unthinkingly question why someone chooses a person with a disability in any context (professional, romantic, or friendship). But these questions never take into account that, like all human beings, people who are neurodiverse or have a disability are much more than the label the world has given them.
Written and reviewed by: Luisa Quintero
Lee, J. y Lee, Y. (Executive Producers). (2022). Extraordinary Attorney Woo [series TV]. ENA y Netflix.
Bunting, G. (August 17, 2022). Extraordinary Attorney Woo is an autistic representation at its best and its worst. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/23308322/extraordinary-attorney-woo-netflix-autistic-representation-episode
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