Remember last week when I said Altered Carbon was one of the best Netflix originals I’ve watched? I have another one to recommend you this week. For this one, you’re gonna have to put your subtitle-bias aside again though. Foreign stuff is neat, y’all.
Extracurricular is a new drama (aired in April!) which tells the story of high school students who turn to crime to earn money.
I’ve eagerly waited for this drama since it was announced, although the premise itself didn’t really catch me completely from the get-go. Despite that, I decided to watch it and boy… consider this: I said I’d give episode 1 a try, and 7 hours later I had to stop because I got a headache. If this had been a book, I wouldn’t have been able to put it down.
I’ll cut straight to the chase here:
1. It’s incredibly dynamic! Episode 1 is a perfect pilot in my opinion, doing an exemplary job of teasing you initially, then bringing you back and showing you what happened to bring our main character to the extreme of the first few minutes. With this future-past-present technique, the show makes sure to rope you in from the get-go, and once you’re hooked you won’t be able to let go. The episode continues to up the stakes to the point where I got so involved in the action I wanted to scream, hand on my heart. It’s a dynamism it maintains all throughout the series, with the conflict growing more and more dangerous.
2. The story is somewhat relatable to the West, but incredibly real to South Korea. Reminiscent of the actual Nth room case happening in South Korea, the show’s creators wanted to use it as a platform to raise awareness and expose the issues it addresses to a wider audience. Extracurricular follows Oh Jisoo (Kim Dong Hee), a top student who has to result to crime to stay afloat after his mom left him and his dad blew all their money on gambling. He thus starts running a business where sex workers can ask for protection while working through an app called Doggo. In case a client goes “psycho”, the girls can ask for help using an electronic bracelet which alerts Jisoo (or “Uncle”, as his business moniker is known) to trouble, who then sends in Mister Lee, an army veteran, to protect the girls and sort things out (by beating the crap out of the johns, usually). What makes this more grim is that not only is Jisoo just a teenager, but one of the girls who uses Doggo is his classmate (Min Hee), and she’s not the only teen involved.
3. It’s heartbreaking in its character motivations. Jisoo’s dream is to graduate, go to a good university, and have a family, a dream most of us want to achieve at his age, and a dream that is still out of reach for many because of our financial situation. Money is the clear motif throughout the series, as Jisoo is obsessed with saving up enough for his dream, Min Hee continually gets herself into dangerous situations with johns just to finance her boyfriend’s lavish lifestyle, and Kyu Ri (Jisoo’s eventual partner) has been plagued by money her whole life. It’s all about earning money, losing money, getting it back. It all comes back to money, and truthfully, isn’t that real life too? All these kids ever wanted was a good life, but they subject themselves to crime in order to get it, as living normally would never get them where they want to go.
4. The show also addresses bullying and therapy. Although on the back-burner as ideas, each episode does end with a message addressed to the audience which urges you to ask for help if you are in a similar situation to what the drama shows. It’s quite upsetting in its progression because things get increasingly worse, both for Jisoo’s business and the teens’ lives in school and out. The bullying becomes more vicious, the business more dangerous, and the traumas more painful. Min Hee deals with PTSD, Jisoo is at wit’s end because of his father’s betrayal, and Kyu Ri reveals she’s tried to die before. The show doesn’t shy away from exploring teen conflict and issues, and makes a point of showing that the best idea is to confide in someone who knows how to help: a therapist, a teacher you trust, an adult who can give you a better perspective, give you the care you need, and help you heal. If only the characters would’ve taken that advice…
5. Although the characters are more antiheroes than heroes, and aren’t exactly role models, they still evoke a lot of empathy from the audience. Jisoo’s gotten himself into trouble (or well… Kyu Ri did), but the kid is so troubled and so well-meaning that you can’t help but root for him. Min Hee makes mistakes all throughout the series, but you’d be horrible if you can’t find yourself feeling for her. Extracurricular does a great job of making its characters easy to empathize with, while also maintaining other players you can comfortably root against (like Min Hee’s bully boyfriend Kwakki or the gangsters Jisoo finds himself tangled up with). It’s not a black or white world, which makes it so much more interesting when you look at it from drama-tinted glasses. Not a very common sight in kdramas to have characters this flawed.
6. Speaking of flawed, Kyu Ri (Park Joo Hyun) is awful, and I say this in a good way. Although I disliked her for all 10 episodes, she is the drive of the show without which nothing would ever happen. She’s fierce, she knows what she wants and how to get it, and she’s fearless when following through with her plans. Despite that, we’re made to feel for Jisoo from the get-go, so her constantly getting him into trouble ends up making the audience hate her. I say that’s a very good thing, because she still retains her individuality and her own color while serving as a love interest and main character. She’s a walking conflict, both for the action and as a character, and she makes quite an interesting type of character to watch.
7. All of the characters have their own thing going on while still contributing largely to the big picture. Notably, Min Hee’s developing friendship with Mister Lee was a heartwarming contrast to the darkness of the rest of the series. He cares deeply for her and wishes she’d live a normal life, while she finds comfort and safety when she’s around him. Their relationship and bond was lovely to watch, and was a great device to use for conflict in the main story. The latter half of the show would essentially not exist without this relationship, so the set-up in the first half is a really great seed to sow later.
8. The acting is incredible. Since the show focuses so much on teenagers, rookie actors were selected to portray the heroes of this story, but their performances are commendable. Kim Dong Hee has a track record for brilliant dramas (smash hit Sky Castle, smash hit Itaewon Class, this boy only does smash hits) and he doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. He portrays Jisoo in such a complex way, making him sensible, nerdy, and vulnerable, but also ruthless and violent. Park Joo Hyun is equally fascinating as the hard-hearted Kyu Ri, who maintains a strong, in-control outside, but suffers tremendously on the inside. You know acting is good when you forget you’re watching a show, and with Extracurricular I was fully immersed the entire time.
9. Although it might get tiring to see Jisoo just not catch a break ever, it takes this approach for a reason. The theme and the message of the show need to make it to the audience, so the character journeys lead to darkness specifically because a happy ending, given the circumstances, would feel completely out of place. Honestly, every time something horrible happened to Jisoo I kept wondering “will it ever stop? How far are they going to go?” and although I’d think there’s no way they’d hurt him even more, well… by the end I did feel like, despite being sad about it, he deserved to pay for all he’s done. This also ties into another theme the show explores: choices. Throughout the 10 episodes, the characters are put in situations where they must make life-changing choices, and unfortunately for them, they don't really ever get it right.
10. It feels short. You know when you watch something so good, no matter how long it is, it always feels like it’s only been like 2 minutes? Considering I devoured the first 7 episodes without realizing, it’s safe to say Extracurricular feels incredibly short. I need season 2.
I know this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s such a well-executed show! The characters are flawed but incredibly watchable, the cinematography is beautiful, the soundtrack is top notch and the story is dynamic as hell.
You can find all 10 episodes of Extracurricular on Netflix. Give episode 1 a try, and I guarantee you won’t be able to stop watching.
As always, thank you for reading, and see you next week!