‘Extracurricular’ Exceptionally Subverts Expectations of High-School Dramas, Presenting a Twisted and Dark Reality in Its Place
A top student who runs an illegal business is caught by one of his classmates who starts blackmailing him.
Director: Kim Jin-min
Cast: Kim Dong-hee, Jung Da-bin, Park Joo-hyun, Nam Yoon-soo, Choi Min-soo
Country: South Korea
Korean dramas are generally known for their syrupy cliches and sometimes outlandish storylines. And people can’t seem to get enough of them. With Netflix releasing several new series almost every month, there’s certainly no shortage of options to choose from. Sometimes, though, we need a break from the usual K-drama theatrics. Netflix’s Extracurricular 인간수업 series is precisely the breath of fresh air we need once we’ve had a bit too much sugar.
Extracurricular subverts the conventional high school drama cliches, instead focusing on a darker, more disturbing reality. The series explores topics such as bullying, compensated dating and even sex-trafficking. These are heavy issues that can be difficult to handle, so I was deeply intrigued to see how they would pull this off. And from the very first episode, I was hooked. With such a strong and compelling start, it’s a bit unfortunate how the last few episodes unfold tenuously.
There’s no shortage of curious characters, many of whom are admittedly irritating at times. I particularly had a love-hate relationship with Gyu-ri (Park Joo-hyun), Ji-soo’s (Kim Dong-hee) partner in his illicit compensated dating business. She’s supposed to be Ji-soo’s equivalent, if not a foil. So this made for an interesting dynamic when they strike a partnership in the beginning – they need each other to succeed, yet they’re also a threat to the other in many ways.
There’s an element of “will they won’t they” between the two throughout, but I’m glad this isn’t fully realised given the complexity of their relationship. Reducing their partnership to a romantic one would have been unfortunate. Gyu-ri has a prickly personality, working surprisingly well given Ji-soo’s timidity. Regrettably, this feisty character just becomes simply annoying and thoughtless.
Min-hee (Jung Da-bin), another one of Ji-soo’s classmates, is also similar to Gyu-ri in that they’re both tiresome at times. Min-hee’s antagonism towards Ji-soo seemed to be for no apparent reason, which made her insufferable. However, her character does go through a kind of redemption arc, albeit a mediocre one.
Kim Dong-hee’s performance as Ji-soo is definitely one of the show’s strongest suits. Ji-soo’s character is full of complexities and contradictions – he’s timid in person, but runs an illegal and dangerous business virtually; he’s considerate to his peers, yet has so much anger in him. Kim Dong-hee pulls out all the stops and gives us an amazing layered performance.
Lee Whang-chul (Chou Min-soo) is perhaps the best part of the show in my personal opinion. Whang-chul works with Ji-soo to protect the sex workers, and he’s encountered a fair few of unsavoury characters. He has an air of mystery to him, keeping you thoroughly intrigued and fascinated. His enigmatic character also tends to ground the show, which can get a bit outlandish at times.
The premise of Extracurricular is fascinating, and can be tricky to pull off. After all, just how realistic is high-schoolers being involved in sex-trafficking activity? So I’m impressed and pleasantly surprised how such a seemingly absurd plot was delivered thoroughly. I actually binged the first six episodes back-to-back, because it was just that gripping. Unfortunately, though, plots became more and more unbelievable and convoluted as the episodes progressed.
Nevertheless, the series ends with an intensely action-packed conclusion. Ji-soo and Gyu-ri, the partners in crime, may have bitten off more than they can chew. The final episode kept me on the edge of my seat, and I couldn’t help but root for Gyu-ri even though she’s partly the reason why things have taken a darker turn for Ji-soo. Perhaps this is a testament of how well their relationship is developed – there’s an inexplicable, if not unhealthy, codependent dynamic between the two of them.
Extracurricular is a pleasant change of pace from the K-dramas that I’ve personally seen. It undermines the usual high-school drama tropes and stereotypes, where the model student is essentially a criminal, the main male and female character aren’t necessarily love interests but are the antithesis of each other and future for all the characters seem bleak. The show is a stark revelation that the dark underbelly of society can be found even in the most unlikely of places.
Extracurricular is available for streaming on Netflix.