Though Netflix series Extracurricular might sound like a typical high school K-drama, it’s anything but. Instead, it’s an intense take on serious issues like compensated dating and bullying—a bit like the popular drama School, but with more darkness and less romance. While Extracurricular starts strong and has a novel concept, it becomes less appealing as you move further through its 10 episodes. In its quest to move away from high school drama cliches, the show loses focus while trying to straddle numerous social issues.
Model Student Gone Bad
Extracurricular features four main teenage characters. There’s awkward loner Oh Ji-soo, headstrong female lead Bae Gyu-ri, pretty girl Seo Min-hee, and class bully Kwak Ki-tae. For each of these characters, there’s something more than meets the eye.
Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee), is the series’ main character. With perfect grades and attendance, he seems on track to attend one of South Korea’s top three “SKY” universities. Even though he has high academic potential, Jisoo lacks ambition and simply sees college as a prerequisite for a quiet, normal life.
Unfortunately, achieving that normalcy is easier said than done. Ji-soo’s parents are absent from his life, and he has to support himself financially. To attend college, he needs nine million won for fees and living expenses. Enter his “extracurricular” side hustle: outwardly mild-mannered Ji-soo secretly manages a group of girls participating in compensated dating. After Ji-soo has an unfortunate encounter with Bae Gyu-ri, his side hustle starts unraveling, with ripple effects that ensnare the other two teenage leads.
Core to Extracurricular is the concept of compensated dating, where typically older men, and sometimes women, pay younger individuals for companionship. Sometimes that companionship only involves activities like eating together or karaoke, but sexual activities are not uncommon. Many women who participate in compensated dating aren’t from low-income backgrounds trying to survive, but rather from middle-class backgrounds trying to purchase luxury goods.
Compensated dating exists in numerous Asian societies. Japan calls the practice “enjo kosai” or the “JK business,” while Hong Kong has its own variety. In South Korea, compensated dating is considered a form of prostitution, and the phenomenon exposes some of the challenges Korea faces around the objectification and exploitation of women.
Led actor Kim Dong-hee mentioned that Extracurricular reminded him of the Nth room case, in which women were blackmailed into performing sexual acts on videos that later circulated in Telegram chat groups between 2018 and 2020. There’s also the Burning Sun scandal, where top Korean celebrities hired prostitutes, committed rape, and filmed women without their consent. Burning Sun’s perpetrators read like a who’s who of Korean entertainment, including Choi Jong-hoon of F.T. Island and Jung Jong-young of Drug Restaurant.
Extracurricular primarily tries to explore the traumas of compensated dating through Min-hee, who does compensated dating in order to pay for expensive items and her boyfriend Ki-tae’s gaming habit. After a traumatic encounter with a client, Min-hee experiences a PTSD-instigated panic attack and can’t continue working. However, this portrayal feels shallow. While the series shows Min-hee experiencing generalized angst, it doesn’t thoroughly depict other PTSD symptoms like hypervigilance nor portray the devastating dehumanization and disorientation that many survivors of trauma experience. This means audiences can’t fully empathize with Min-hee, and fully understand the devastating consequences of a society that treats women like disposable objects.
Sprinkles of Social Commentary
Beyond compensated dating, Extracurricular touches upon a number of social issues relevant to today’s South Korean youth. These include bullying, academic pressure, and parental pressure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer anything new on these fronts compared to other run of the mill teenage dramas.
For example, Ki-tae (Nam Yoon-soo) bullies Ji-soo. However, Extracurricular provides only cursory insight into why Ki-tae targeted Ji-soo in the first place. It never meaningfully explores Ki-tae’s personal background or moral compass, and thus misses an opportunity to shed deeper insight into the psychology of bullies and bullying. This is quite disappointing given the serious consequences of school bullying in South Korea.
Extracurricular also touches on the tough education system that South Korean students go through. Ji-soo studies all the time—even when running his side business. He uses his earnings not for luxury goods, but for his regular school expenses, cram schools, and eventually college. However, the fact that Ji-soo magically earns good grades and still has time for a side hustle belies the challenges that young South Koreans from low-income backgrounds must face to achieve academic success. We never see an instance where an exhausted Ji-soo must ditch an 11pm cram school session to arrange a compensated date, for instance.
Gyu-ri’s parents also exemplify the high, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations that Korean and other East Asian parents place on their offspring. As bigshots in the entertainment industry, Gyu-ri’s parents are grooming her to take over the family business—as is common among South Korea’s chaebol families. Gyu-ri feels little agency over her life, and joins Ji-soo’s business as a way to break free from her parents. Here too Extracurricular falls short. While some sparks do fly between Gyu-ri and her parents, she’s still able to sneak out with ease and take taxis alone to wherever she pleases. That doesn’t seem like a particularly accurate portrayal of a child who has no freedom.
Not Your Typical Heroes
Still, Extracurricular has its redeeming qualities.
One of the show’s strongest points is that it doesn’t portray characters as inherently good or evil. All the main characters have moral failings; Ji-soo arranges criminal activity, Gyu-ri blackmails Ji-soo, Min-hee engages in what Korea considers prostitution, and Ki-tae is a bully. The drama avoids condemning these people purely for their actions, and instead showcases situations where the audience can make their own judgments.
Fans of Itaewon Class and Sky Castle will also relish how Kim Dong-hee shines as Ji-soo, and depicts the character in an emotionally complex manner. Park Joo-hyun also performs well as she dabbles with Gyu-ri’s tendencies to switch between an innocent personality and downright crazy. Surprisingly, Park only has one drama to her name before Extracurricular, though we’re confident she’s well on her way to establishing herself in the South Korean entertainment scene.
Extracurricular is a solid departure from the cliched high school drama genre, as it introduces novel social issues. However, what was supposed to be a dark and intense show divides its attention among too many social issues, and doesn’t properly explore enough of them. Nevertheless, this K-drama has its redeeming qualities, and at least fans of Kim Dong-hee or Park Joo-hyun will enjoy seeing their idols shine on screen.
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Extracurricular (Korean: 인간수업). Dialog in Korean. Directed by Kang Jin-min. Starring Kim Dong-hee, Park Joo-hyun, Jung Da-bin, and Nam Yoon-soo.