‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’ review: a simple but heartwarming representation of autism

The K-drama breeds acceptance and empathy for those who live with ASD, and that itself is cause for celebration

“My name is Woo Young-woo, whether it’s read straight or flipped. Kayak, deed, rotator, noon, racecar, Woo Young-woo. Yeoksam Station (station is translated to yeok in Korean).” Our titular protagonist lists out other palindromes, similar to that of her name, to introduce herself. The first impression is crucial to know who someone is as a person – and for Young-woo (Park Eun-bin), a 27-year-old rookie attorney with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it tells us almost everything we need to know about her, as she puts herself: “I’m not an ordinary attorney.”

Her passion for the law began at the mere age of five, the same day she was first diagnosed with ASD. She grew up as the only child to a single father named Woo Gwang-ho (Jeon Bae-su), who had been pursuing a law degree at Seoul National University at the time. Despite not being able to communicate on a level that was on par with the rest of her peers, Young-woo had read and memorised every single line in her father’s law textbooks, unbeknownst to him until he had gotten into a physical altercation with his landlord over a misunderstanding.

Young-woo, growing increasingly overstimulated and panicked, began regurgitating the criminal laws against inflicting bodily injury upon others, complete with the legal penalties if the aggressor were to ever be found guilty of such an offence. All Gwang-ho could do was stare at his daughter in shock – not only did she just recite the laws applicable to their situation verbatim, it was also her first time speaking at all.

Fast forward to two decades later, and we bear witness to how Young-woo has learned to adapt to the world around her, following her meticulously structured routine on the morning of her first day as a rookie attorney at Hanbada Law Firm. Aside from her passion for law, to say that she loves whales might be a severe understatement. Everything from her room slippers to framed pictures are imbued with imagery of these aquatic mammals, and she’s a repository of obscure whale knowledge personified. She also likes her food prepared a specific way; for example, her father makes a special “Woo Young-woo kimbap”, where all the ingredients are carefully wrapped between layers of rice and seaweed, which allow her to see exactly what’s been put inside in order to prevent surprise from unfamiliar flavours or textures.

Unfortunately for Young-woo, life isn’t always as unexacting as whales and kimbap. She bears the brunt of all sorts of ableism in her day-to-day life as an adult. But perhaps the most jarring of all is from her new supervisor, lawyer Jung Myeong-seok (Kang Ki-young), who ostracises her as soon as she shows signs of her neurodivergence. In spite of her unmistakable credentials and aptitude for the role, he is apprehensive enough to call for a meeting with the law firm’s chief executive, going so far as to question CEO Han’s (Baek Ji-won) judgement, stating that “she’s different from me”.

Of course, Young-woo manages to continuously rise against the odds. Despite Myung-seok’s oversight of her ability as a lawyer, she steps up to the plate with her flawless memory of both the law and case materials to bridge gaps in her first-ever case as a Hanbada attorney, areas where even her superiors had overlooked. Not only was she awarded the chance to prove both Myung-seok and her peers at the firm wrong about her capacity as an attorney, she also managed to alleviate her elderly client of a false murder charge.

As a legal procedural, Extraordinary Attorney Woo’s approach to this usually uninspired genre is distinctive. While many legal K-drama forebears have dabbled in dramatic, unyielding explorations of ferocity in the courtroom, this series chooses to shine a buoyant light on the matters of the law instead, as told through the innocent eyes of Young-woo.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo spurs an overarching storyline to allow for the characterisation of Young-woo’s adaptability to each episodic case and client of various circumstances to take centre stage. The obstacles stacked against her, be it jealous colleagues or a disrespectful opposing counsel, all fail to sway her unadulterated passion for and focus on her job. Park Eun-bin’s performance as Young-woo is a remarkable indicator of her acting chops as she steps into the shoes of an autistic character, the representation of which is rare within the stratosphere of Korean entertainment itself.

Media depictions of autism spectrum disorder have always been a toss-up – they’re either glorified as socially awkward yet misunderstood geniuses with savant-like abilities, or written off as flat side characters written in to showcase the uglier, undesirable sides to ASD – but if there is anything to be said about Extraordinary Attorney Woo, it’s that Young-woo’s characterisation tends to lean towards the former.

Two episodes in, the series is already sending the message that there is an expectation for neurodivergent people to be able to compensate for their undesirable traits by being natural-born prodigies – not entirely dissimilar to what many underrepresented minorities have to go through both in fictional works and in real life. It might be too early to predict the depths writer Moon Ji-won is willing to explore in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, but there remains ample space to do so; all we can do as the audience is to hold out hope that this space will be well-utilised.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a witty, light watch that rarely demands an understanding of the law nor ASD for viewers to appreciate. It holds up the mirror for those of us, like the people Young-woo crosses paths with, to reflect on our own behaviours and misconceptions about neurodivergence. The show – while not entirely flawless in its depictions so far – breeds acceptance and empathy for those who live with ASD, and that itself is cause for celebration.

New episodes of Extraordinary Attorney Woo are available every Wednesday and Thursday on South Korean streaming platform ENA, as well as on Netflix in select regions.

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