Extracurricular: A Non-traditional High School K-Drama (Drama Review)

I never intended to watch Extracurricular let alone review it. I did so at the behest of a friend, and I am glad I did. I enjoyed it for being different. I am not a fan of high school K-dramas, but Extracurricular is anything but a typical high school drama. On the contrary, it's dark with an intense take on some serious issues in compensated dating, paid protection services, peer and parental bullying, academic pressure to name a few. Despite its many characters, Extracurricular centers around four teenagers, the main one being the awkward loner Oh Ji Soo (Kim Dong Hee), the headstrong yet selfish female lead Bae Gyu-Ri (Park Joo Hyun), pretty girl Seo Min-Hee (Jung Da Bin), and class bully Kwak Ki Tae (Nam Yoon Su).

At first glance, Ji Soo is a lonely, parentless timid teenager, and with his perfect grades, he seems on track to attend any of the top three universities in South Korea. But despite his academic achievements, he lacks motivations and views ambition or dreaming of a future as an expensive financial burden, which he hustles to support by secretly managing an illegal protection service provider for a group of teenage girls who participate in compensated dating. It's this stark contrast between the mild-mannered Ji Soo and the hustler that makes Extracurricular an exciting watch.

Unlike Ji Soo, Bae Gyu-Ri (Park Joo Hyun) comes from a wealthy family who bullies her into taking over the family business at such a young age, yet she also runs her hustle on the side. She comes off as confident and strong-minded, if not crude, but the more I learned of her, the less appealing she became, and even more so after she discovered Ji Soo's truth and started blackmailing him. I could never get back to appreciating her for turning Ji Soo's life hell. And in a blink of an eye, his well-managed hustle starts to unravel for letting his guard down and trusting the one person he shouldn't have trusted, with ripple effects that ensnare not just him but everybody else involved.

Extracurricular primarily explores the traumas of compensated dating through Min-Hee, who mainly engaged in the service to pay for expensive items and support her boyfriend Ki Tae's gaming habit. But stops participating after a traumatic encounter with an abusive client leaves her anxious to the extent she cannot continue but also because she attracts the attention of the police. The drama is particularly excellent in how it shows the destructive effects of the service itself, but as events unfold, the lack of complete portrayal of the dehumanization that many survivors of trauma experience in Min-Hee made it hard for me to empathize with her or even understand the devastating consequences of a society that treats women and young girls in particular who undergo traumatic sexual encounters as disposable objects.

As important an issue as bullying is, especially in South Korea. Beyond compensated dating, Extracurricular touches upon peer and parent bullying. It mainly showcases peer bullying through Ki Tae, who bullies Ji Soo and others he deems weaker than himself. I felt the show doesn't provide good insight into why Ki Tae bullies since we never really get to know him personally; we only see superficial aspects of him, not what drives him.

As for parent bullying, Gyu-Ri's parents exemplified the high, and most times, unrealistic expectations parents place on their children at such a young in that part of the world perfectly. I had a hard time believing they were her birth parents. They were deplorable in how they were pimping their daughter, for lack of a better word. In that sense, the drama touches on the consequences of parental bullying in general; it doesn't directly address Gyu-Ri's situation with her parents or the repercussions. And as admirable as I found studious and focused Ji Soo as unrealistic. I found the depiction of him as a parentless teenager who can balance the rigid South Korean educational system while at the same time running a demanding side business without anyone in the system noticing a bit far-fetched. He does so much, but he never gets caught until Gyu-Ri enters his life and makes a massive mess of it.

Still, one of the Extracurricular strongest points is that it doesn't portray characters as inherently good or evil. All the main characters have moral failings; Ji Soo arranges criminal activity, Gyu-Ri blackmails Ji-soo, Min-hee engages in what Korea considers prostitution, and Ki Tae is a bully; furthermore, the drama doesn't condemn for their actions and instead showcases situations where we as viewers can make our own judgments. Unequivocally Kim Dong Hee shines as Ji Soo and depicts the character in an emotionally complex manner. Park Joo-Hyun performs well as the finicky Gyu-Ri, who constantly switches between an innocent and downright crazy person.

The show is a definite departure from the cliched high school drama genre, and I commend it for the in-your-face method it uses to bring the issue to the forefront. I, for one, didn't even know that compensated dating existed before watching the drama, let alone a real transactional relationship between older men and young girls from all background statues looking to make extra cash in exchange for sexual favors.

Extracurricular starts strong and tackles some pretty heavy issues. Still, I felt it lost its focus as it moved further into its development because it took on too many such issues simultaneously and failed to address them fully in its quest to be different than the cliched high school dramas, but that does not take away from the great performances from the cast and, in particular, Ji Soo's muscleman Choi Min Soo (Choi Min Soo) and Homeroom teacher Jo Jin Woo (Park Hyuk Kwon). Most importantly, the show paints a vivid picture in its narrative that just because someone may appear to be okay on the outside, it doesn't mean they are okay on the inside, and pretending otherwise may have detrimental consequences, as clearly depicted in this drama.