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Netflix's Doctor Slump Is the Most Important K-Drama of 2024 So Far

Baek Seon-woo's series has a vital message about finding new life after hitting rock bottom.
  • Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik (Screenshot: Doctor Slump)
    Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik (Screenshot: Doctor Slump)

    Normally, it would be premature to anoint a show one of the year’s best just three months into 2024, but Netflix’s latest Korean series, Doctor Slump — which released its final episodes over the weekend — proves it is very much deserving of the honor.

    Simply calling it a romantic comedy, as it’s often been described, doesn’t do the series justice. More accurately billed as a comforting romantic dramedy, the main premise of Doctor Slump follows two former high school academic rivals, Yeo Jeong-woo (Strong Girl Bong-soon’s Park Hyung-sik) and Nam Ha-neul (Doctors’ Park Shin-hye), who reluctantly reunite 14 years later when they’re both at their lowest points. Now a successful plastic surgeon, Jeong-woo’s world comes crashing down after a high-profile surgery goes horribly wrong, leaving his career and reputation in tatters. For Ha-neul, a hard-working anesthesiologist at a university hospital, her misfortunes manifest after years of built-up trauma and workplace toxicity lead to burnout and diagnosed depression.

    Since their competitive school days, when they would vie for the top academic spot, both have been conditioned — through unrealistic parental expectations and unrelenting self-ambition — to operate at the highest level and sacrifice their well-being to achieve being the very best, a belief system that carries on well into their adult lives. So when they both have their dramatic falls from grace at the most inopportune time and are forced to take a step back, it’s understandably devastating for them. It marks the first period in their lives where they’ve really, truly experienced rock bottom with no clear solution on how to get out of it (no high school math genius can solve this equation) — most certainly a lonely and isolating feeling. Despite that fact, they eventually lean on each other as they try to overcome their ruts together, and yes, even fall in love along the way.

    The relatable nature in which the series taps into themes of mental wellness, resetting life’s priorities, and redefining happiness was the basis for why Park Hyung-sik was initially drawn to the project in the first place. “I really liked the script because it didn't just present the subject matter of slumps, burnout, and depression in a dark way but in a more normal, everyday-color way,” the 32-year-old actor tells Primetimer over email. “It was like having a friend by my side as if it’s no big deal, so I hoped that many people would laugh and cry at the same time with this series that brings smiles and tears.”

    Though he’s never personally experienced anything quite like the characters’ dire predicaments, Park Hyung-sik channeled his younger years as an idol singer and rising actor when things were a lot more difficult. “I was able to act out the pain and the desire to get back on my feet by recalling the struggles I had when I started working,” he explains, crediting screenwriter Baek Sun-woo (My Roommate Is a Gumiho) for creating a character in Jeong-woo that “felt familiar” and “resembled me.” “I’ve had experiences where everything felt tough and I wanted to let go, but it wasn’t too hard to break me. And I was able to get back up thanks to the people around me and my fans.”

    Significant time is spent in the early half of the series chronicling Jeong-woo and Ha-neul’s mutual lows. For the majority of their lives, their paths have been dictated by their successes and their constant strive for it. Once that defining motivation disappears, what’s left? A few of the series’s most vital scenes come when both characters are arguably at their darkest — Ha-neul is clinically depressed and Jeong-woo is in the throes of a massive lawsuit, developing PTSD as a result of the medical accident.

    In Episode 2, amidst the case, it dawns on Jeong-woo that the world has turned its back on him, including his absent parents and friends, and it’s Ha-neul, his archrival, who is the first to tell him she’s in his corner. In the third episode, Ha-neul receives the same treatment when Jeong-woo, sensing her deepening depression as she reflects on her perceived missteps in life, encourages her to be okay with not being okay, inviting her to take the necessary time and space to prioritize herself for the time being: “Let’s take a break while we’re at rock bottom.”

    In that same hour, when they take an impromptu early morning beach trip so they can see the sun rise, they agree to become friends instead of remaining classmates — a turning point in their relationship. Though they do not witness the sunrise like they originally hoped, it’s an optimistic reminder that whatever pain they’re enduring at the moment is meant to be temporary. “The sun didn’t rise today, but it will tomorrow,” Ha-neul hopes in a voiceover. “Despite not knowing our futures, we still waited for the sun to rise,” Jeong-woo says.

    It takes a while for it to happen, but eventually the clouds part and the sun does rise for the main Doctor Slump couple by the series’s final episode. To reach this point they overcome insurmountable hardships, including a near-fatal car accident, the death of a mentor figure, therapy sessions, and a heartbreaking breakup. When Jeong-woo and Ha-neul visit the beach again months after their first trip, their attitudes on life and what they want out of it have dramatically changed — a byproduct of the strides they’ve made in overcoming their mental health struggles.

    Case in point: An exciting work opportunity abroad is abruptly taken away from Ha-neul. Instead of suppressing her anger and disappointment, she voices it to her superior, which is proof of her own self-confidence and personal growth. By the same token, Jeong-woo reopens his plastic surgery clinic on a much smaller scale with a renewed focus on building rapport with his patients instead of reverting back to his flashy ways. The intentions they’ve set for themselves are healthier and far rosier this time as they watch the day break on the beach, a symbolic new beginning together as an engaged couple. The relief and joy on their faces in that moment is palpable; they realize that things did get better in the end. “We missed [the sunrise] last time, but we finally got to see it this time.”

    By no means do they have it all figured out, but they’re better equipped than they were in the beginning of the series to weather whatever storm will pass through in the future — as long as they do it together. And really that’s all you can ask for. “I want Doctor Slump to be the work where people can feel the love and value of family, the importance of friends, and how important and necessary it is to love and protect ourselves,” Park Hyung-sik says. Figuring out how to navigate difficult times, especially when the cards seem to be stacked against you, is ultimately what Doctor Slump is all about.

    Doctor Slump is streaming on Netflix.

    Philiana Ng is a Los Angeles-based writer covering TV, celebrity, culture and more. Her work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Entertainment Tonight, TV Guide, Yahoo Entertainment, and The Daily Beast, among others.

    TOPICS: Doctor Slump, Netflix, K-Dramas, Park Hyung-sik, Park Shin-hye, Romantic Dramas