Netflix's Doctor Slump embodies one of K-drama's most frustrating tropes
Netflix’s latest South Korean series is watchable, if unoriginal. But you have to get past its rough first episode to get to it.
Doctor Slump, Netflix's latest K-drama, gets off to a rough start. The much-anticipated series, which sees Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik reunite for the first time since 2013's The Heirs, has a tough act to follow as it takes over from Welcome to Samdal-ri. But while it comes in hot in terms of expectation, does it live up to its potential?
The South Korean romance centres on overworked doctor Nam Ha-neul (Park Shin-hye) and superstar plastic surgeon Yeo Jeong-woo (Park Hyung-sik). Having jostled through high school over the billing of top student, now their lives have diverged.
Ha-neul is fighting the physical and psychological cost of working towards professorship under an abusive and incompetent mentor. Meanwhile, things are going well for Jeong-woo until a patient dies on the table in a seemingly freak accident – an incident that robs him of his reputation and almost bankrupts him through compensation payments.
As he downsizes to pay off his debts, the only place he can find to live is the rooftop apartment owned by Ha-neul’s mother (played by Jang Hye-jin). It brings the erstwhile foes into each other's orbit once more. Though they reignite their rivalry almost immediately, as Ha-neul tries to find a healthier life and Yeong-woo attempts to prove his innocence, they slowly find solace in each other.
It's not an original setup for a drama. There's room for surprises, but in spite of the series's surprisingly sincere exploration of depression and burnout, four episodes in we know where this is going.
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That's not a bad thing. Many South Korean series thrive on clichés and making only incremental changes to established formulae. Indeed, Doctor Slump is watchable and, at times, even endearing. There's enough here to keep audiences who aren't just here for Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik entertained.
The problem is, to get to Doctor Slump's more interesting elements, one has to make it through the exposition-heavy and mostly directionless first episode. An episode that is the K-drama equivalent to a meeting that could have been an email.
Whiplash shifting from past to present and back again, meaningless earlier storylines, and inconsistent pacing combine to make the first episode of Doctor Slump one of the worst episodes of television in recent memory. Only for the second episode to pick up, mostly through settling into a vastly decelerated pace. A change of rhythm that makes Doctor Slump not just watchable but, albeit seldomly, brilliant when it centres on Ha-neul's depression diagnosis. But how many viewers will make it to that second episode when the first feels so disposable?
It's part of a curious trend in South Korean television. Many series don't just start slow, they front episodes that not only don't reflect the quality of what's to come but are often removed from the overall tone and pacing of the series as a whole.
Doctor Slump follows on the heels of Gyeongseong Creature, which took this to extremes. It was reputed online to improve after its third episode, more than three hours into its run (it did not, by the way). Better series in recent memory have started just as shakily. The otherwise excellent Live, Goblin, and Strong Girl Bong-soon fail to engage initially. Even Marry My Husband, which is remarkable for its tight storytelling, rushes through unnecessary exposition before getting to the core of its series.
Perhaps it's a symptom of South Korea's tendency towards lengthy, single season series – something which is overwhelmingly positive but may inspire in writers a perceived need to dump as much context as possible upfront.
In a landscape of diminishing media literacy, some of us need that hand-holding through what may sometimes appear basic ideas. It's inescapable, however, that it's starting to feel that many writers simply don't trust their audiences to understand the simplest of nuance in backstory. Or, perhaps, some writers lack the insight to weave those elements into their stories in a natural and compelling way.
Whatever the case, it's a big ask to make an audience sit through at least an hour of exposition before getting to the meat of a story. This is especially true as we grow more time-starved, and often exhausted, as viewers. With so many great series releasing every week – January alone saw Like Flowers in Sand and the aforementioned Marry My Husband rake in viewers – it's difficult to stick with a series that begins with a roadblock as opposed to watching the many other, more accessible, series.
There is, naturally, a subjective element to this. Many highly-regarded K-dramas start in media res but won't engage certain audiences. Reply 1988 throws us straight into its familial drama but some viewers might wonder why everyone's so agitated without the context that comes later. Similarly, first-time viewers of My Mister might not comprehend who is truly contemptible among its cast of characters, and who is simply reacting to circumstance.
Much of this depends on the viewer. Doctor Slump's immediate predecessor, Welcome to Samdal-ri, is a perfect example of the opposite issue: a drama bogged down in too many flashbacks throughout.
It remains, however, that this habit K-dramas have of making first episodes dense and unnavigable with exposition tends to make one think of the other series we could watch instead. If a series and its writers won't trust us to pick up on simple context clues dusted throughout, can we trust it to deliver a compelling story? That remains to be seen in Doctor Slump. But as a lover of South Korean TV, it's sad to think of how many great K-dramas go unwatched because of uneven and inaccessible beginnings. When all that's needed to improve things is a bit of trust.