Review by Michaele Jordan: Friends, let me tell you about one of my favorite TV shows. But I must admit to you up front that it’s not SF/F. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is, as I assume you’ve deduced from the title, a lawyer show. But it’s a KOREAN lawyer show, which should indicate that is NOT run of the mill. You’ve probably heard me mention before that I love Korean TV. Especially when kitsune are involved. There are no kitsune in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, but there are whales which is almost as good.
Remember Boston Legal from 2004? It wasn’t SF/F, but most of us watched it, if only for William Shatner and Rene Auberjonois. (Personally, I’d have watched paint dry, if it starred Rene Auberjonois. I miss him so.) You may recall that it also featured Christian Clemenson, as an autistic lawyer. (He also co-starred in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., but that’s another post.) More than one episode focused on the unjust stigma he faced, when his work and integrity were ignored and he was judged solely on a few mannerisms.
I mention all this because Extraordinary Attorney Woo is also about an autistic lawyer. One thing needs to be very plain: there is no known demonstrable link between autism and intellectual disability. (In fact there’s no verified cause for autism at all, although research has categorically disproved some ugly myths – including that nonsense about vaccines.) And yet the two conditions do sometimes overlap. Attorney Woo is NOT intellectually disabled—just the opposite. She’s brilliant. But some people assume she is.
Unlike Boston Legal, Extraordinary Attorney Woo confronts this element of the issue directly, by having Attorney Woo called into a case in which the accused is both autistic and intellectually disabled. All the other characters have assumed that she will have some common feeling with this troubled client, but Attorney Woo doesn’t generally deal in feeling, common or otherwise. Instead – knowing her client’s weaknesses, and tendencies – she manages to communicate with him, something which apparently no one else has actually accomplished.
Park Eun-bin stars as Woo Young-woo (The name is the same back to front as front to back, she earnestly informs everyone she meets.) Ms. Park may be one of the best actresses I’ve EVER seen – if this were an American show, she’d be a shoo-in for an Emmy. She’s on a par with Tatiana Maslany, whose performance(s) in Orphan Black thrilled us all. (Let us hope that She-Hulk will prove worthy of her!)
Ms. Park telegraphs Young-woo’s autism with broad physical moves, whether she’s bopping down the street with her headphones on, or taking an extra moment to prepare herself before going through doorways. Her performance reminds us that Young-woo dances to a different rhythm, constantly twisting her fingers, walking with clunky, hesitant caution through unfamiliar places, steadfastly dodging handshakes and eye contact.
She does not show emotion – rather she declines to respond to emotion, conveying in the process a strong internal response to emotional situations. Her face goes still, and her eyes look inward, trying to calculate the parameters and meaning of an occurrence. And yet she is charming. (Spoiler alert: You will fall in love with her.) The actress presents her with a guileless lack of pretension which I, for one, find riveting.
The stories are simple, involving clients with limited recourse to or understanding of the law, oftentimes finding themselves at odds with large and seemingly inhuman corporate legal teams. Or at least that’s how the series starts. My spies assure me that, as the show builds, its story lines grow more complex and sophisticated. I can hardly wait!I prefer an “ordinary people” approach to story-telling—grandiose stereotypes tend to shatter my suspension of disbelief. If you prefer more realistic characters, too, then I invite you to give this show a try. It’s on Netflix.
I wrote the above paragraphs ten days ago, thinking I should wait until after Chicon 8 to post them, rather than intruding on the upcoming Hugo Awards. But then, I saw an article about Extraordinary Attorney Woo on the front page of the New York Times! Granted, it was the Sunday edition; granted also, it was just a quick squib at the bottom of the page, directing the reader onward; but still – the front page of the New York Times!?! Furthermore, the squib did not just direct me to a review on the entertainment page. It sent me to a featured article in the International News section.
It seems that Extraordinary Attorney Woo has created quite a stir in South Korea. It’s very popular, but some consider it controversial. Both the government and the media in South Korea are currently trying to promote good mental health and provide assistance to those who need it, especially since the tragic suicide of musical star Jonghyun. But apparently some feel that the issues surrounding mental health are still being swept under the rug, and that the neurodivergent are still kept invisible.
With that in mind, some autistics and their advocates (I’m not saying how many – the numbers are still in dispute) were disturbed that such a feel-good program (and there’s no denying, Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a very feel-good program) presented a dishonestly rosy picture, and might encourage viewers to withhold much needed support and assistance.
And on the third hand, some say the New York Times is just indulging in clickbait, and that the Korean fan media reflects none of the above. I don’t pretend to know – I’m just gossiping.
Whatever the underlying politics, I can state as fact: Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a truly excellent show and you would be denying yourself a great pleasure if you didn’t give it a try! And maybe grab a plate of gimbap to snack on while you’re watching.