‘Doctor Slump’ K-Drama review: Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik shine in a show about friendship, love, and healing

‘Doctor Slump’ K-Drama review: Park Shin-hye and Park Hyung-sik shine in a show about friendship, love, and healing

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In a teary confrontation with her mother after she finds out about her mental health diagnosis, Nam Ha-neul (Park Shin-hye) tells her she has pushed herself too hard, and that this has led to an illness of the mind. Her mother (Jang Hye-jin) , though, is anything but understanding. She brings up her own sacrifices, and says that she raised her daughter the best she could. 

The recently concluded K-drama Doctor Slump chooses not to look too far to make valid points about mental health, the pressures of everyday life, and a subsequent healing journey. The show limits its worldview to protagonists Ha-neul and Yeo Jeong-woo(Park Hyung-sik), high school academic rivals and overachievers who are reunited years later.

A highly successful plastic surgeon, Jeong-woo has to face the world crumbling around him after being suspected of medical negligence. Slapped with a huge lawsuit and facing a public trial, Jeong-woo moves into a small, cramped room on the terrace of a building owned by the family of his high school nemesis Ha-neul. Ha-neul, meanwhile, is a diligent anesthesiologist who is constantly humiliated at work, is severely burnt out, and has no time for anything apart from work. When it gets to a point where her physical health deteriorates and she finds herself unable to function, a mental health diagnosis follows. Ha-neul is in disbelief when she learns she has depression, and initially disregards her doctor’s advice to take a break. Her family doesn’t make things any easier. 

Ha-Neul’s family rally around her, and play a major part in her healing journey

Ha-Neul’s family rally around her, and play a major part in her healing journey

The show’s strongest writing comes when it focuses on Ha-neul’s family. Her mother, who brings up how they shifted base from Busan to Seoul so that the daughter could pursue medicine, is shattered and simply refuses to believe her daughter is going through something. Ha-neul is frustrated, and points out how since she has lived life according to her mother’s wishes, she can’t be sick as well according to her. Her warm-hearted uncle is largely clueless, and her young, loafer brother is blissfully oblivious. 

How Ha-neul’s family first reacts to her diagnosis is only too familiar in a society with an all-pervasive stigma against mental health conditions. While they flail at first, the family is also quick to realise their folly, even as they stumble and greatly overcompensate along the way. “I want a healthy daughter instead of a successful one,” Ha-neul’s mother tells her via a text message, diligently researching foods best for her health, and ensuring her room has ample sunshine and plants. 

In stark contrast to Ha-neul’s overbearing family, Jeong-woo is left to fend for himself, and realises that his former high school nemesis might just be the rock solid support he needs as he comes to terms with his own trauma.

Ha Neul and Jeong Woo set off on a path of healing and self-discovery

Ha Neul and Jeong Woo set off on a path of healing and self-discovery

A staggering majority of K-dramas cannot do without the quintessential high school meet-cute that paves the way for a romance decades later. If the narration isn’t linear, there definitely are flashbacks. In Doctor Slump, the throwback to Jeong-woo and Ha-neul’s high school rivalry is largely contained to the first half of the show. We do go back to see some inconsequential fluff with their peers, but these are thankfully kept to the minimum as the show progresses.  Even in the present, their initial hiccups thankfully give way quickly to burgeoning warmth and friendship. They drive off to see a sunrise, put their heads together to address Jeong-woo’s lawsuit, and prove to be great company for each other–be it for therapy or medication. When the romance finally happens, it feels earned and genuine thanks to the steady build up. 

Doctor Slump (Korean)

Director: Oh Hyung-jong

Episodes: 16

Runtime: One hour (per episode)

Cast: Park Hyung-sik, Park Shin-hye, Yoon Park, Gong Seong-ha

Synopsis: A pair of former high school academic rivals reunite in the present day, and navigate life, love, and healing

The shadowy presence of Min Kyung-min (Oh Dong-min), Jeong-woo’s friend, and his sinister intentions are a big stumbling block towards the characters’ healing journeys – even resulting in the proverbial mid-show breakup. The roadblocks in Doctor Slump however disappear rapidly, and we are left with little to no stakes after a point. This would have worked if the show purely focussed on being a romantic comedy or a healing drama, but the writing doesn’t seem to land anywhere certain.

Among the subplots, however, there’s a rather heartwarming romance between Jeong-woo’s senior Bin Dae-young (a very wholesome Yoon Park) and Ha-neul’s friend Lee Ho-ran (Gong Seong-ha), which strikes a chord and leaves you wishing the pair got a lot more screen time from the start instead of being relegated to the latter half of the show. 

Dr Bin and Dr Lee play supportive friends, who are also navigating life and relationships as single parents

Dr Bin and Dr Lee play supportive friends, who are also navigating life and relationships as single parents

In a show that manages to address mental health sensitively for the most part, Ha-neul’s final visit to her psychiatrist feels baffling. There was no need for an odd, final pronouncement about her health when Doctor Slump otherwise looks at healing as a slow but steady journey, and the lives of the protagonists as a work-in-progress. 

Despite a dip in pace post episode 10, the lead actors — Park Hyung-sik and Park Shin-hye — are reason enough to stay with the show. Both actors are in fine form, as high schoolers and as present-day doctors navigating life’s many curveballs. After his rather sober, calm presence in the survival thriller Happiness, Hyung-sik switches it up here and is charming and effortlessly funny, much like his slapstick ‘Min min’ self in Strong Girl Bong Soon. He’s equally competent when the show gets heavy, and is matched by Shin-hye who owns a role that only she could have pulled off. There’s a certain melancholy, and a spark about Ha-neul that she brings alive on screen – whether it is her eyes that shine when talking about reading dissertations all night, or breaking down and trying to get through to her family. 

For many who delved into the world of K-Dramas a few years ago, The Inheritors, a show about a group of dramatic high schoolers battling relationship and family strife, was a rite of passage. To see two actors from that show reunite in Doctor Slump as the leads feels almost nostalgic, and is oddly comforting. No surprises here that they bring their best in a show that has lots to like, despite its pacing issues. 

All episodes of Doctor Slump are streaming on Netflix 

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