‘Doctor Lawyer’ review: sublime performances are sullied by an uninspired script

So Ji-sub is a consummate professional and masterful actor, but he can only do so much with mediocre material

Neither medical nor legal dramas have been particularly groundbreaking within the contemporary purview of Korean dramas, though credit should be given where credit’s due – they have markedly produced a number of fan favourites over the years; K-dramas like Hospital Playlist and Dr. Romantic, to Juvenile Justice and The Devil Judge have all thrived against the odds of prosaic premises.

Enter Doctor Lawyer, MBC and Disney+’s arguably precarious attempt at fusing both genres together. From the outset, a title as appallingly straightforward as this feels like it’s predestined to elicit at least some scepticism, and sure enough, the beginning notes of the series are almost as uninspiring. Han Yi-han (Oh My Venus’ So Ji-sub) is immediately set up as the star cardiothoracic surgeon at the Banseok Foundation & Hospital.

We are introduced to him as he completes what was meant to be a four-hour surgery in a record time of only two. Meanwhile, his fiancé Geum Seok-yeong (Im Soo-hyang) is a prosecutor, whose brother Seok-ju (Han Seung-bin) is being treated as an in-patient at the hospital for a chronic heart condition. After saving a botched surgery conducted by Dr. Gu Hyun-seong – the son of the foundation’s own chief executive, Gu Jin-ki – he’s even appointed as the new head of cardiothoracic surgery, in the face of protests from the former.

Things are starting to look up for Seok-yeong and Seok-ju, too; they are told that Seok-ju will be able to receive a heart transplant soon, with Yi-han at the front lines of his surgery. Of course, he ends up nailing the procedure, though his victory wasn’t without its occasional snags. That same night, Yi-han is called back to perform another emergency heart transplant on a mysterious VIP, car crash victim, despite the hospital having already used the only available heart for Seok-ju’s surgery. He’s immediately wary of the circumstances: where was the heart to be transplanted in this patient obtained from exactly?

The next morning, though, news reaches Yi-han that Seok-ju had suddenly stopped responding due to purported post-surgery complications, and in spite of Yi-han’s best efforts, he passes on while Seok-yeong watches on. A grieving Yi-han is then informed, following an autopsy, that Seok-ju’s death was the result of a mishap that occurred mid-surgery, which he vehemently denies was the case. Yi-han quickly pieces everything together – he rushes his way through the hospital in fruitless search of the unidentified VIP patient, and is arrested for Seok-ju’s death and medical malpractice.

Jin-ki pays a demoralised Yi-han a clandestine visit in jail amid his ongoing trial, only to blackmail him into admitting to the charges wrongfully pitted against him, cruelly threatening to have both Yi-han and his elderly mother murdered if he ever attempted to expose the truth of what happened in the operating theatre that fateful night. Wishing not to risk the lives of those closest to him, he agonisingly breaks off his engagement with an aggrieved Seok-yeong, has the medical licence he so painfully worked towards revoked and spends the next two years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Once he’s out, however, Yi-han is overcome with a resolve for justice. He enters the legal sector, building up a newfound expertise as a public prosecutor specialising in medical litigation. But always on his mind is the goal of uncovering the truth of what really happened to Seok-ju and bringing the culprits to justice.

In its first two episodes, Doctor Lawyer sets the stage for what could be a surprisingly gripping portrayal of corruption within a capitalist healthcare system, and infuses that with a lot of heart (pun intended). Its script is an apt, if sometimes mediocre and over-dramatised, reflection of what happens when someone is being forced in opposition to corrupt institutions, with wealthy but morally deplorable magnates calling the shots.

Yet, much of the flesh to its bones manifests in the form of prodigious performances by its lead actors, So Ji-sub and Im Soo-hyang, both of whom manage to imbue deep emotional layers to their characters. The way Seok-yeong completely and utterly falls apart at the seams following the death of her only family is deeply arresting; emotions of all-consuming anguish and pure grief run high, and emanate in great volume through the screen.

On the other hand, So’s masterful interpretation of Yi-han should come as no surprise to the veteran K-drama viewer – as his fabled return to the small screen after four years, he certainly delivered. He seamlessly flits between the stoic, no-nonsense caricature of a seasoned, self-assured surgeon/lawyer and a downtrodden man stripped bare of his dignity. Though he’s established as a lone wolf of sorts, the handful of scenes he shares with Im are heartfelt for the most part.

Regrettably, Doctor Lawyer is not safe from the all-too-familiar tune of hackneyed tropes; a trap that countless of its predecessors have fallen prey to. In a sea of K-dramas conceivably oversaturated with banal medical and legal procedurals, Doctor Lawyer is miles away from being a stand-out in comparison to its peers. In fact, it even brings to mind other shows with suspiciously similar premises – think 2019’s Doctor Prisoner (weirdly, down to its uninventive title too), which also weaves an eerily analogous tale of a medical practitioner wrongfully accused of malpractice seeking revenge.

It is a bitter pill to swallow when you realise the phenomenal on-screen performances of its cast run the immense risk of being sullied by what is so far corporealising to be a largely mediocre script. You could argue that there remains plenty of space for the series to make considerable headway with its storytelling, but that’s only if you’re willing to take that chance and stick around long enough to witness it.

New episodes of Doctor Lawyer are air on South Korean TV network MBC every Friday and Saturday, and will also be available on Disney+ in select regions.

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