'Extraordinary Attorney Woo' comes to an end, but the series has made a mark
ENA's hit television series "Extraordinary Attorney Woo," which aired its final episode last Thursday, stole Koreans' hearts, as well as those of Netflix viewers from all over the globe.
The show, during its 16-episode run, earned the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s 10 most-watched non-English series for most of July and until it ended in August. Though starting out with a viewership rating of 0.9 percent, it then surged to the 15-point range for later episodes.
CNN praised the show and its accomplishments, saying it has the potential to become the next “Squid Game.”
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” which first aired on June 29, centers around the quirky and lovable Woo Young-woo, a newbie lawyer who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), played by actor Park Eun-bin. Each episode of the series revolves around a different case Young-woo takes on through her job at a major law firm. She proceeds to resolve them using her unique thought process and crushes the prejudice of people who look down on her for her autism.
While the show generally received praise for featuring a protagonist with a developmental disability and topics that are not often dealt with in Korean media, the show was also subject to criticism regarding some aspects of the character and plot.
There's no question that "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" left its mark on the summer of 2022, but how will it be remembered?
One recurring argument was how actual people with ASD failed to relate to Young-woo’s character.
People with an autistic spectrum condition have said that although they appreciate society has started to take an interest in autism, someone like Young-woo is actually extremely rare in the autism community.
Kim Se-i, a person with autism, told news outlet News1 last month that what Young-woo has is savant syndrome, which is when a person has a developmental disorder but exhibits exceptional skills in a specific or limited field. Likewise, Young-woo graduated top of her class from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities and is a brilliant lawyer thanks to her ability to memorize every single thing she reads.
“The show depicts an imaginary story of someone with savant syndrome, one that is severely rare among people with autism, in a stimulating manner,” Kim said. “The fact that it portrays the protagonist as a genius just shows how this narrative serves as a device to make its plot more interesting. It’s one of the biggest misunderstandings in the autism community [...] This explains why many autistic people will think that this show does not fully represent them.”
“I feel like ASD has just become a form of entertainment [through the show],” a post reads on an online community for parents of children with developmental disorders. “Do you actually think that this will get rid of social prejudice? Will people become more open-minded? Just because of this eye-catching drama? I rather think that this encourages the thinking that someone with ASD is only capable of surviving in society when they’re as smart as Young-woo.”
YouTubers like Misunjjang and Wowcow came under fire for imitating the distinctive behavior and speech of Young-woo, with many pointing out that it “makes fun of the character” and “ridicules people with disabilities.” Students of Uijeongbu High School, which is famous for its yearbooks in which students do parodies of the latest trends, also revealed photographs of themselves dressed up as Young-woo.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” later became swept up in controversy after its twelfth episode aired. Many criticized that the episode was a “dedication” to the late former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon. Park died in 2020 from an apparent suicide after his secretary at the time filed a sexual harassment case against him.
In the episode Young-woo handles the case of Mir Life Insurance Company, which undergoes downsizing and persuades female employees who are married to “voluntarily resign” as they have more “relative stability.” The company orders that if a married employee does not quit, “her husband will be subjected to unpaid leave.”
The plaintiffs, along with activist attorney Ryu Jae-sook (played by Lee Bong-ryeon), take legal action citing gender discrimination, but it turned out that this very case was not in fact fictional; it was based on an actual case Park took on back in 1999 during his days as a lawyer.
Some also noted that Jae-sook highly resembles Park.
The argument is intensified by what comes in later scenes. Jae-sook recites a poem — the same one Park is reported to have recited while doing volunteer work in 2010. Jae-sook also has a vegetable garden on the rooftop of her office building and has a legion of post-it notes from her supporters inside her office. Park was known to have implemented a policy on turning the rooftops of Seoul into vegetable gardens as well as having lots of post-it notes on the walls of his office while he was mayor.
The production crew of the show denied the criticism, urging viewers to “refrain from excessive interpretations and speculations.”
Despite some backlash, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” continued to prove popular.
Earlier this month, the script books for "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" sold over 5,000 copies by advance order on local book retailer Yes24 in just one day.
Naver Webtoon released a web comic series of the series late last month that the platform says will consist of 60 episodes and include additional stories that are not in the show.
Unlike the television series, however, the webtoon is currently failing to live up to expectations.
Comments point out the webtoon’s shortfalls, like how there are limits in the portrayal of Young-woo’s character, as it is difficult for the 2-D illustrations to sufficiently depict ASD.
Like any other popular show or movie, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” led to a sharp rise in interest in a wide variety of topics related to it, whether it be the filming locations, whales (Young-woo’s favorite animal) or the hackberry tree from the eighth episode.
The filming location for “Woo Young-woo Gimbap,” a store run by Young-woo’s father that sells Young-woo’s favorite seaweed rice roll delicacy, located in Suwon, Gyeonggi, was reported to have a long line of fans waiting to take pictures outside. The actual store has the same sign hung at the entrance, and the owner told Yonhap News Agency earlier this month that the restaurant has seen a significant increase in customers since the show began airing.
“These days, the crowds don’t end until the store gets its final order at 8 p.m., so we try to prepare as much food as possible during our break time,” the owner said.
A whale-watching tour in Jangsaengpo, Ulsan, which runs twice per day for three hours, said that it has already surpassed 10,000 visitors this year.
“The weekends are packed up to the limit of 280 people, thanks to ‘Woo Young-woo,’” an employee of the tour told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We have more visitors these days than even before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 16,094 people that year.”
The hackberry tree from Episode 8, located in the village of Bukburi in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, is now undergoing evaluations by the Cultural Heritage Administration to see if it has value as a cultural asset.
The episode centered on saving the fictional neighborhood of Sodeok-dong. The 500-year-old, 16-meter-tall (52-foot-tall) hackberry tree (which is real) was what ultimately saved the town from being wiped out in favor of a road being constructed.
If all goes well, then the tree will make the list of Korea’s natural monuments. The number of visitors to the hackberry tree has also skyrocketed since its appearance in the series.
While the story of Young-woo might have faced some criticism, its influence on society as a whole appears to have been largely positive.
BY BAE JAE-SUNG,SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]