Portraying someone with a disability as the leading character in a TV show or movie is always a difficult task. The biggest challenge is balancing the needs of representing people with a disability fairly and realistically without turning them into caricatures, while also entertaining the general public.
“Rain Man” was the first movie that portrayed a lead character with autism. It was credited for bringing international awareness of autism and having opened “the flood gate of medical research and funding” for it. Still, some criticize the movie for being “a poor representation and a stereotype” of autism.
The South Korean drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” streaming on Netflix, is the latest bold attempt to portray a person with autism as the lead character. The show is about Woo Young-woo (played by Park Eun Bin), a brilliant young lawyer with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Woo was born out of wedlock when her parents were law school students. Woo’s mother initially planned to get an abortion. But she didn’t go through with it after Woo’s dad Gwang-ho vowed that he would raise the child alone. After giving birth to Woo Young Woo, the mother abandoned both father and daughter. Gwang-ho kept his promise by raising their daughter by himself. He quit studying law and made a living by running a gimbap (similar to sushi) shop.
Woo Young-woo has autism savant syndrome, meaning that while she has a developmental disorder due to autism, she exhibits exceptional skills in a specific field. She has an IQ of 164 and graduated top of her class from one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities with a law degree. But upon graduation, Woo struggled to find employment because no law firm wanted to hire an autistic lawyer. Fate made an exciting twist suddenly when she got a job offer from Hanbada, a major law firm in South Korea. Unknown to Woo, the CEO of Hanbada, Han Seon-young, had an ulterior motive for hiring Woo.
Socially awkward, Woo could talk about whales and dolphins nonstop to anyone, regardless of whether they wanted to hear. She takes what other people say literally. For example, when one senior attorney asked Woo “to lower herself” — be more humble to get along with another senior attorney — Woo actually tried to lower herself. Subtlety is not Woo’s strength. She would say things as it is without considering other people’s feelings or the social setting. After she finished saying what she wanted to say or is done with what she needed to do, she would walk away without waiting for other people’s responses.
A Unique and Lovable Person
Meanwhile, Woo has an eidetic memory and can easily pick up the most obscure details no one else paid attention to. Throughout the series, she often devises the most creative solutions and helps Hanbada win case after case. Eventually, her talents and success win her colleagues’ respect and acceptance.
One of the show’s strengths is to present both Woo’s struggles and her talents through good-natured humor. For example, when Woo confesses to her best friend Dong Geu-rami that she wasn’t sure if she liked her coworker, the handsome Joon-ho (played by Kang Tae-oh), Geu-rami asked if Woo’s heart races when she touches Joon-ho. Taking Geu-rami’s advice literally, Woo asks Joon-ho out of the blue if she can touch him. She explained to Joon-ho that she needed to see if her heart raced after touching him to decide whether she liked him. A spoiler alert: Woo learned she likes Joon-ho without touching him, and he likes her too. Humor like this helps the audience understand the challenges people with autism face without being overbearing and makes Woo’s character adorable in such a unique way that you can’t help but root for her.
Another strength of the show is that it lets Woo’s humanity shine by showing her growth and development both professionally and personally, like any other young person starting out in life. For example, Woo wanted to win a case against a fellow lawyer who sabotaged her. She coaches a witness on how to sound convincing on the witness stand, even though, deep down, she suspects the witness isn’t telling the whole truth. She later comes to regret her action. Not avoiding presenting Woo’s flaw makes her character more relatable.
Woo started the series as self-centered, primarily due to her disability making it difficult for her to decipher other people’s verbal and nonverbal cues. She also got used to being taken care of most of her life. However, as the show continues, Woo learns to be considerate of her father by bringing him dinner. She also learns to converse with Joon-ho rather than hanging up the phone as soon as she’s done talking. Woo gradually understands that a good relationship is about giving and taking. She goes out of her way to show how much she cares for Joon-ho, including opening the car door for him or trying to do his work for him, all because she wanted Joon-ho to be happy. The series is a testament to the saying that “life is journey.” We become better persons by learning from our mistakes.
The show confronts several social and cultural issues in South Korea, such as discrimination against people with disabilities and a conservative culture that still regards pre-marital sex and out-of-wedlock births as something shameful. The show’s success will hopefully bring more public awareness to these issues.
A Few Flaws
The show is not without a few shortcomings. A typical K-drama series contains 16 episodes and is designed to run for a single season. K-dramas follow a time-honored formula: the leading man and woman will confess their love and have a kiss scene, usually around episode 9 or 10. But shortly after, something unexpected will happen to jeopardize their relationship. Then in the final episode, there will be a happy ending. Unfortunately, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” doesn’t escape this tired formula. Some of the conflicts it created in later episodes seemed to come out of nowhere and almost made me feel that the show’s creators had tried too hard.
Some people with autism criticize the show for not giving people with autism a fair representation because Woo has savant syndrome, which is rare among people with autism. By portraying Woo as a genius, critics insist that the show has reinforced a typical misunderstanding of the autism community.
I’m afraid I have to disagree. Chris Bonnello, an autism advocate and an adviser for the movie “Rain Man,” once explained that “no representation of autism is ever going to satisfy everyone, because it’s such a wide spectrum and the people within it are so enormously different to each other, including in how their autism affects them.” Thus, it would be unfair to demand the creators of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” to produce an entertaining show for the general public while covering every aspect of autism.
Despite the criticisms, the show has been a smashing success. Its heartwarming storyline and unique leading character have won over audiences worldwide. It was the No. 1 most-watched drama in South Korea for six weeks since its premiere. According to Flixpatrol’s Aug. 22 ranking, the show is the fifth-most popular TV series on Netflix. The show is a reminder that every life is precious, beautiful, and has value. Everyone we encounter enriches our lives.