K-DRAMA “EXTRAORDINARY YOU” IS UNFORTUNATE
We almost had it but, not quite.
Our obsession with classifying women as weak, passive, and infantile is odd. The disdain for women and their power runs so firmly that it seeps into every area of our modern lives. It limits creatives when developing female characters with agency and autonomy in TV. This sexism is strong and subtle. It’s sprinkled even in intimate scenes in many romance narratives as if it were sugar or a seasoning. A few seem to be able to imagine a proper characterization of a heroin but many can’t or fail to try. This absurdity and stain in our culture is ironically made a central point of criticism in ‘Extraordinary You’, a satirical show based on a fictional universe where comic-book characters are actually made aware of their circumstance.
The 2019 show is centered on Eun Dah Oh (Kim Hye Yoon) an 18-year-old high school girl with a heart condition, who’s setup to be an instigator in the romance between the true primary characters in her comic world, Oh Nam Joo (Kim Young Dae) and Yeo Joo-Da (Lee Na-eun). Yet, despite the supporting role of her character by an omniscient writer who already decided their fate, Eun Dah Oh becomes self-aware and along with this change, her personality shifts. At first, she’s confused, as to why she changes from being assertive to forcibly saying and doing things that she would never dream of doing, but the school cook Jinmichae (Lee Tae-ri) notices the change almost immediately and fills her in. He explains that they are in the world of a comic called Secret starring Yeo Joo-Da and Oh Nam Joo and along with other characters in “Extraordinary You,” she exists to help in uniting the two.
During certain moments when they have to be in role, they are “on-stage”, but during their down periods, when the comic pages hasn’t been turned, they get to enjoy their freedom in the “shadow.” But there’s one caveat, her character is destined to die after completing her job of helping the love story along. For Eun Dah Oh, this news is both positive and troubling because despite hating how docile and impressionable her on-stage role is, her true self is spunky and strong so, she endeavours to change her fate so that she can live both in the “shadow” and “on-stage”. With that motivation, she discovers a nameless extra (Kim Seok-woo) who happens to be able to change her fate. They incite a beginning together; she gives him the name Haru and he gives her hope.
“Extraordinary You” is quite hilarious in the beginning and refreshing in its almost accidental feminist premise. Eun Dah Oh is the voice of everybody who watches sappy romance shows with vapid and ill-developed female characters by people with an absurd imagine of women and girls. When she is on stage and her character is being agreeably even to her own detriment, in an aside she thinks about how ridiculous the situation is. She even becomes rightfully frustrated at how often her character has to placate her love interest, Baek Kyung (Lee Jae-Wook) an abusive and entitled popular boy, who is steadily angry about being on the receiving end of her character’s love, when all the while, she has no interest in him. Her command is unnerving even to other characters like Lee Do-hwa (Jung Gun-Joo), who later becomes conscientious. But at the root, “Extraordinary You” ends up being part of the problem it aims to mock.
Repeatedly all female characters, even in the shadow, are ultimately archetypes of the model woman or girl; existing to propel the narratives of their male counterparts. We see this with Eun Dah Oh’s relationship with Haru, when he continuously takes ownership of her safety, thereby infantilizing her even when it’s clear she’s safe and able to protect herself. We see it again with Eun’s relationship with Baek when he aggressively grabs at her body, either her arm or shoulder to demonstrate his ownership of her and to control her. We even see it with Yeo Joo-Da’s relationship with Nam Joo both on stage and in the shadow where in, after she slowly begins to assert her dominance and rejection of his need to constantly use his money to control her affection and her, her development is repositioned so that her new goal is changed to be, making Nam Joo a better man.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with caring for someone so much that you want to make them better, but why can’t we imagine a world where a woman can do this and also be strong? Yet this is done so well with Nam Joo a character who maintains his power while learning the skill of being considerate and tactful with others. In fact, quite a lot of the narrative is hypocritical and questionable. Why is Haru the only barrier to protect Eun from Baek?
The quintessential feminist quality about “Extraordinary You” that made it so entertaining and refreshing wanes as the plot progresses. That primary characters were able to recognize and mock the stereotypical female characters forced on them, while internally remaining strong was intriguing then troublesome since often the roles of female characters like Yeo and Eun were depicted as weak and passive, marked by moments where they had to quietly acquiesce when they really wanted to scream. Save for the brief moments early on in the shadow where they were able to be self-interested and be themselves, the story is swayed to make them the backbone of the boys. It’s this shift that actually ends up making the show feel long-winded, draining, and boring. In the end the story feels as if it’s being stretched when it could have likely been contained in 14 to 16 episodes instead of 32. The other factors that make the show slightly likable, like the music or the beautiful set all seem inconsequential compared to its failures.
“Extraordinary You” had potential to be great but it fell short. Eun’s humour which really carried the show early on, wasn’t enough. Neither was the notably convincing acting of, Kim Hye-yoon, Kim Seok-woo or Lee Jae-wook. Ultimately, the ending was predictable and stale, the story direction past the 20th episode was dreary to watch, and even the background characters who were so entertaining throughout couldn’t revive any real interest. As Eun’s will and assertiveness is less pronounced, engagement leaves along with it which is a lesson on how the simple act of creating a strong female character confident and endowed with the ability to speak up for herself (and who doesn’t loose this spark as the story progresses) is enough to actually make a show better. After all, if every character is well developed, a story has space to flourish and being that often women and girls make up a substantial amount of the characters in pretty much any good story, it would be in the interests of creatives to represent them better. Imagine what TV would be like if they did.