By Ivan Shen; Edited by Kaitlin Zhong
Medical kdramas are notorious for all feeling the same despite their drastically different characters and set-ups. Our main characters are always neurosurgeons and are highly skilled but ethically controversial in their actions. There’s always some romantic development which develops within the surgical theatre and by episode 13 you start to forget that this is actually a medical kdrama and not a rom com. In fact even their titles are all similar, sometimes leading to confusion when friends recommend you these dramas (like Good Doctor, Doctor Stranger, Dr. Romantic and the aptly named Doctors).
For these reasons, when I do encounter a medical kdrama which not only meaningfully integrates its medical context to the plot and themes of the drama, but is also medically sound and surprisingly useful in the amount of information you learn, needless to say I get quite pleasantly surprised.
So are Western medical dramas just superior in their engagement, storytelling and themes with titles like Scrubs, House and The Good Doctor holding down the fort? Well, while watching previous medical kdramas has consisted mainly of enjoying the fantastical plot and the female leads, there have been two dramas recently which have really challenged my own opinions and ideas about life and working in the medical profession. The first drama I recommend to watch during quarantine is Doctor John (2019).
Doctor John is a story revolving around, well, Doctor John or Cha Yo Han who is a doctor of anaesthesiology and his resident Kang Si Young, and the fact that these characters are not neurosurgeons is already indicative that we might get something good.
Doctor John was highly praised within the kdrama community for its central themes revolving around pain management in patients and euthanasia. The drama uses its characters to embody arguments for and against the idea of euthanasia (which is currently banned in South Korea). Doctor John, who has served time in jail because he euthanised a terminal patient, advocates for the autonomy of the patient because as an anaesthesiologist, he tries to understand the unhappiness of living a life filled with pain and strongly believes patients should not be forced to endure immeasurable pain just to delay an inevitable death. This contrasts directly with prosecutor Son Seok Ki, who sentenced Doctor John to prison over his practice of euthanasia. He strongly resists the notion that doctors can end someone’s life without punishment and believes such privileges would allow doctors to decide other people’s fates. However, we also learn that such views are shaped by his grudge against Doctor John as he euthanised his son’s murderer, leading the prosecutor to believe that Doctor John spared the murderer of his rightful suffering.
Without spoiling major plot points of the drama, as we progress through the story, what makes Doctor John special is its ability to make every character’s backstory meaningful. Every important character’s strongly held opinions are based on their own past experiences and values which they have forged through trial and error. Patient cases and scenarios only help supplement the character building of the drama, as every doctor in the Department of Pain Management has an insightful or interesting interaction with a patient which either relates to their own past or promotes character growth.
Because it reveals many character’s stories in detail, it contributes to the ambiguity of the ideas the drama so carefully explores. It never feels like anyone in the drama is a villain and at the very end, you realise that every character has a believable and compelling reason for why they feel that way. While we may initially think the prosecutor is biased due to his personal grudge towards Doctor John and Doctor John is reasonable in his advocacy for euthanasia for terminal patients, the drama subverts our own feelings and opinions through revealing the prosecutor’s backstory while also highlighting at certain moments of the drama, Doctor John’s doubt in his own ideals. A portrayal of a figure who is seemingly always confident in their own ideals as fragile, really contextualises the most important fact of the drama: that everyone is human and all humans hurt and feel pain, whether it be physical or emotional.
While the romance does start to overshadow the medical elements of the drama which make it so enjoyable, it only becomes noticeable at the end of the drama and by then all the characters have already been thoroughly explored in terms of their beliefs and why they hold these beliefs so strongly.
What separates Doctor John from typical medical kdramas is its examination of how people’s ideas are forged by their own unique experiences and when it meaningfully integrates character development with its overarching theme of pain and suffering, it truly does leave you internally conflicted for a long time after you finish this drama.
Doctor John is a medical kdrama unlike its predecessors, as it creates genuine characters with believable motives which can draw comparison to well made Western medical shows such as House. Combined with other titles released around the same time such as Dr. Romantic and Hospital Playlist, Doctor John has highlighted a turning point in the medical kdrama genre. Hopefully, we can look forward to more works in the near future which will also utilise the medical genre to challenge our perspectives of life and its complex interplay with medical work.