Courtroom dramas 'Extraordinary Attorney Woo' and 'Why Her?' receive differing sentences from viewers
Two, one-of-the-kind courtroom drama series are competing for the hearts of viewers: ENA’s global hit “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” and SBS’s “Why Her?”
Although both are similar in the sense that they feature a female lawyer with extraordinary abilities, the overall atmosphere of each are on the opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is the bright, animated and bubbly story of an autistic attorney while the latter is a story full of spite and plotted revenge. But the viewers' favorite at this point seems pretty apparent.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” which started with a viewership rate of 0.9 percent in Episode 1, skyrocketed to 13 percent four weeks later. The series' popularity spread worldwide as it climbed to No. 1 in the Global Top 10 chart of Netflix in the category of non-English-language dramas, with talk of a possible U.S. remake.
Similarly, “Good Doctor” (2013), which aired on KBS and revolves around a surgeon with autism, portrayed by Joo Won, was successfully remade into the American drama series “The Good Doctor” starring Freddie Highmore as the main protagonist Shaun Murphy. With a successful precedent, the future of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is looking bright.
The global popularity of the series also proves the diversity of “K-content” previously dominated by death games and zombie horrors.
“Why Her?,” which started airing a month early than "Woo," was initially the talk of the town as it surpassed 10 percent viewership in two weeks. That number rose and eventually started dropping off as the episodes went on to wrap up its last episode at 10.7 percent.
Although the narrative was not unheard of — the toppling of a triangular power cartel of a presidential candidate, CEO of a big-name law firm and chaebol leader — what was original and initially led the series' popularity was the protagonist Oh Soo-jae herself. Tenaciously strong-willed, Soo-jae aims for the stars and does not look back once her mind is set: Although she did not go to college, she makes it in the law firm with determination to break the glass ceiling and climb to the top. Her specialty lies in “cleaning out” the corrupted evils of the powerful to get them to be on her side. The character of Soo-jae, portrayed by Seo Hyun-jin, was the mouthpiece of the desire of women nowadays as she dominates over her male peers and bosses with her abilities.
Local viewers once were largely attracted to these types of genres where characters' infinite desires to get to the top clashed. As displayed by Han Seo-jin, portrayed by Yum Jung-ah in JTBC’s “SKY Castle” (2018-19), and Chun Seo-jin, portrayed by Kim So-yeon in SBS’s “Penthouse” (2020-21), all sorts of makjang storylines — sporting narratives so insanely suspenseful and immoral that they are considered ridiculous — derived from these women as they hid their innate complexities and struggled to have it all.
Crime detective stories such as tvN’s “Stranger” (2017) and JTBC’s “Law School” (2021), in which the protagonists delve into crime scenes that were swept under the rug to uncover what the corrupted attempted to hide, were also welcomed with open arms as the viewers felt catharsis from watching the evil characters get condemned.
“Why Her?” is the perfect mix of both of these genres — a viciously potent female lawyer on the verge of clawing her way to the top gets swept up in the swirl of crime by the powerful elites. From mysterious murders and corrupt politics to a secret hidden behind one’s birth, all sorts of provocative elements are revealed one by one in “Why Her?”
On the other hand, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is a fairytale fantasy without an ounce of shade. The series revolves around the brilliant rookie attorney Woo Young-woo, portrayed by Park Eun-bin, who has autism spectrum disorder. Each episode centers around different cases and the people she encounters while working at big-name law firm Hanbada. She resolves each case in her own unique way and crushes the stereotypes of the people who look down on her.
The story is unrealistically hopeful in the sense that Young-woo’s peers and her bosses support her and she gets to develop into a competent lawyer. What makes the narrative original is, in part, Park Eun-bin’s superb performance that transforms her character's disability into her character’s charm, but also the cases and the clients that she takes on: An elderly wife who momentarily uses violence on her husband suffering from Alzheimer’s, a lesbian torn between her true love and marriage for immense wealth, an autistic client who was on the verge of becoming a criminal because of his parent’s pride, a North Korean defector who wields violence to get her money back for her livelihood, and the residents of a small town as they attempt to save their town from destruction due to a construction of a highway. Instead of focusing on the eradication of the evil elites, the classic take by courtroom dramas, the series instead zoomed its lens on the social minorities and the bourgeois.
So why are the viewers fawning over Young-woo instead of Soo-jae? Both are certainly equipped with a deep and vast understanding of the law, but most chose to delve into Young-woo instead of Soo-jae. According to culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun, this change stems from “the difference of sincerity in each character.”
“At the beginning, Soo-jae also had that,” Jeong said. “She was a representation of a problematic character in today’s generation, but that got somewhat toned down as romance and the secrets behind her birth entered the mix. On the other hand, ‘Extraordinary’ continues to push forward with what it aimed to do: to highlight social minorities and expand on their narratives through Young-woo.”
Another element behind the popularity of “Extraordinary” lies in the change of trends as people veer towards individual stories of those surrounding the protagonist instead of focusing only on one character.
“People got tired of seeing revenge stories from a victim of a crime committed by the powerful elites,” culture critic Lee Young-mi said. “To them, ‘Extraordinary’ may be more appealing as Woo Young-woo tackles more ordinary cases and stories behind the clients.”
“People are tired of seeing their protagonists turn evil and get their revenge to the extent of breaking the law in courtrooms,” Jeong said. “'Extraordinary' is also the representation of satisfying people’s desires to see the ‘good’ winning.”
What differentiates “Why Her?” from other legal dramas is that the female protagonist does not represent the just. Drunk on the idea of achieving her purpose, the sole justice for the protagonist lies in her ultimately coming out on top, trampling the corrupted evils beneath her. The problem with that scenario is that it does not leave viewers craning their heads for the next episode.
On the other hand, “Extraordinary” is unpredictable: The twist began as the sole villain Kwon Min-woo, portrayed by Joo Jong-hyuk, one of Young-woo’s colleagues, was outlined in recent episodes.
The character of Min-woo is the embodiment of a backstabber to his competitor, Young-woo.
According to Yoon Seok-jin, professor of Korean literature at Chungnam National University, Min-woo is “a realistic character fitting the times of contemporary society and [makes viewers think about] what the word ‘just’ means.”
In one of the episodes, Min-woo tells his peers, “The game isn’t fair. Woo Young-woo always wins over us, but we cannot be aggressive towards her. Woo Young-woo isn’t the underdog, she’s the victor here.”
Viewers point fingers at Min-woo for his words and actions toward Young-woo, but Prof. Yoon says it's a different story when the reality hits.
“As the public response over the recent subway protests by people with disabilities speaking out on their mobility rights has been negative, even the most generous people may become enraged by words such as fairness and justice when it hurts their own interests […] In the past, drama series showed that reality. There may have been times when the series changed people’s perspective and impacted the resolving of social issues, but at some point in time, people began to completely separate the drama with reality. After the airing of ‘Good Doctor,’ autism was not brought into social awareness: It remains unclear as to whether this ogling over Woo Young-woo may lead to change in society.”
BY YU JOO-HYUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]