Doctor John: Episodes 1-4 (Review)
SBS’s new medical drama Doctor John has arrived in dramaland! The Friday-Saturday show premiered with an entertaining first four episodes, and a strong focus on setting up our lead characters: a talented young resident who lost her confidence, and a fearless doctor with nothing but.
Generally, I’m not much of a medical drama person. I find the focus on a new patient/story arc every few episodes a little boring, because what I really want is an overarching well-developed story about people, whether they’re doctors or janitors.
But every so often dramaland churns out a medical drama that’s more than quick-thinking people solving medical puzzles, and more about the people behind the puzzles. Doctor John, after putting so much effort into building its two leading characters, just might become one of those.
EPISODES 1-4 REVIEW
Doctor John opens with a no-nonsense introduction to its hero and his surroundings: prison. There’s a convulsing patient in the medical bay, a runaway doctor, and while the guards are running around in a panic, a mysterious individual enters the room.
After a quick assessment, he douses the patient with alcohol and performs a quick life-saving medical procedure before slipping back into the shadows. Who is this medical Robin Hood in a blue jumpsuit? Why it’s the eponymous hero Doctor CHA YO-HAN (Ji Sung, Yo-han is the Korean version of John) himself — better known in his current digs as Inmate 6238.
Simultaneously, we meet our young heroine, KANG SHI-YOUNG (Lee Se-young). She’s both packing her bags for Madagascar, and taking a job at the very same prison that has Yo-han sneaking in and out of the medical office.
It turns out her uncle OH JEONG-NAM (Jung In-gi) is the warden there, and he asks her to fill in part-time until they find a new doctor. Sending a gorgeous and emotionally scarred girl doc into a men’s prison doesn’t sound like the greatest idea to me, but no one else seems to be bothered by this.
Above all other cautions, Shi-young’s uncle warns her about a lunatic in the prison and tells her not to speak to him, look at him, or acknowledge his existence in any way. While we’re hearing about this “lunatic” we get some quick cuts to Yo-han in the prison acting like a, well, lunatic. There’s no question he’s the one her uncle is talking about.
Yo-han’s everyday duties at the prison seem to have him relegated to janitor status, and he’s forever found pushing around a garbage can (and yet never shown in an actual cell?). However, we quickly get the feeling his garbage duty is almost like him making his rounds. With a quick squirt of the hand sanitizer hanging off the garbage can, he expertly checks in on prisoners he knows are ill and examines them. The drama actually did a great job capturing how being a doctor is such a reflex for him, and regardless of his situation or environment, that’s how he’s hardwired.
Because two scenes of Yo-han’s awesome swagger + medical skills is not enough, there is yet another life-threatening event that day when a prisoner collapses in the yard. Shi-young does her best, but it’s Yo-han watching from the sidelines that quickly puts all the clues together. Following his coaching, she saves the man’s life. But when she turns to talk to Yo-han, he’s vanished. Into a metaphorical cloud of awesomeness.
Of course, despite her uncle’s warning, Shi-young and Inmate 6238 interact with each other quite frequently. With his sharp observation and deduction skills, Yo-han figures out pretty much everything about her: she’s a second-year resident, and she’s trying to escape something by fleeing to Madagascar.
Yo-han pretty deftly sums up her, and draws out her insecurities every time they meet. It’s not exactly fair that she’s an open book — he remains aloof and infallible — but his seeing through her does have a positive affect. “Do you really think running away will give you freedom?” he asks her.
The past that’s haunting Shi-young is slowly teased out, and we learn that she was involved in a medical malpractice case that deeply traumatized her. She not only dropped out of her residency, but has decided to give up being a doctor all together — not because she doesn’t want to go back to it, but because she is punishing herself. Ah, masochism.
Yo-han, whether intentionally or not, says all the right things to Shi-young. Over the course of the first four episodes, it’s his words and actions, however harsh, that bring her to some important realizations.
It turns out they have a lot in common. Not only are they both anesthesiologists, but they both have an event in their own medical practice that’s impeded their pursuits of doctoring. While for Shi-young it’s a crippling lack of confidence and trust in herself because of the accident, for Yo-han, the impediment seems merely geographical (i.e., he’s imprisoned).
Interestingly, while we learn a heck of a lot about Shi-young’s story in our premiere episodes, we don’t really learn a whole lot about Yo-han’s story yet. We learn what he’s like, and that he’s in prison for murder, but we only get a glimpse at the case in his past. There’s an equally brief look at the prosecutor (Lee Kyu-hyung) who seems to have it out for him — even after putting him behind bars — but even that is only a hint.
I find I don’t mind the mystery that still lurks around Yo-han at this point. Since we know Shi-young so well, it seems like we will team up with her as she gets to know more about Doctor John and his story.
We mainly saw Shi-young in one huge drawn out emotion battle with herself and Lee Se-young was quite strong in these leading episodes. Rather than being a flat character with a token damaged past, Lee Se-young did a nice job drawing out the internal tensions her character was facing.
But really, it’s the swagger from Ji Sung that seals this drama. It’s funny — I always say that I’m not a huge fan of his, and then I’ll watch him in a drama like Secret and Kill Me, Heal Me and just get completely sucked in by his charisma. So in case you were wondering, yes, it’s possible to push around a garbage can on wheels with brooms sticking out every which way and still be a total badass.
By the time Episode 4 ends, we’re in the middle of a setting shift. Shi-young has decided to return (and has been allowed back) to her residency at the top Seoul hospital. We’re quickly introduced to her colleagues, the frenemy who seems to have petulant gizibe written all over her, and the complicated relationship with her mother (Kim Hye-eun), who also happens to be the chief of the Anesthesiology Department. Because why not.
And let’s not forget the fact that the closing shots of Episode 4 are Shi-young following a mysterious man in the hospital who is walking carrying his white coat with an all-too-familiar swagger. The drama cuts as Shi-young and Yo-han come face-to-face again.
As problematic as the prison setting was (meaning: unrealistic and far too warm and welcoming), I’m kind of sorry it was just the introduction to the story. As the drama moves into the hospital setting, I hope it keeps its character-centric story, and doesn’t get too comfortable with recycling the same overused medical drama tropes.
Also, when we leave behind the prison we leave behind the wonderful uncle/warden (I hope he’s still a part of the story!). We also seemingly leave behind the adorable doctor LEE YOO-JOON (Hwang Hee) who works at the local hospital near the prison and is a great addition to the first few episodes.
I’m not sure what lies in store for this drama now that the plot and setting are both transitioning — will it be hospital politics, esoteric medical mysteries, more digging into her scars, a complicated romance, or all of the above? Only time will tell. But we’ve had enough set-up to know our heroine, and thanks to Doctor John, we know how strong she will be in her comeback.
While Doctor John isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, it feels like a pretty solid K-drama set up. Just the right amount of emotional angst, arrogant hero, earnest heroine, romantic chemistry, and family issues — in other words, the promise of sweet, sweet drama.
It’s a bit on the cheesy side if you stack it next to Justice, a legal thriller that also premiered this week, but it’s also more fun. But from the director that brought us Thirty But Seventeen and the web drama Gogh’s Starry Night, I do expect a good amount of K-drama good times. I actually really enjoy stories about larger-than-life heroes with “groundless confidence” and a little bit of snark — and I could watch Ji Sung stare people down and make sarcastic faces all day. Sure, Doctor John requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, but I’m okay with that. This is dramaland, after all.
- Premiere Watch: Justice, Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung, Doctor Detective, Class of Lies, Doctor John, Golden Garden
- Prisoners and protests in new teaser for SBS medical drama Doctor John
- A dramatic transformation in store for Ji Sung’s Doctor John
- Ji Sung and Lee Se-young will get to the bottom of your pain in SBS’s Doctor John
- Straddling the line between life and death, pain and peace in Doctor John