Korean medical drama ‘Hospital Playlist’ beautifully illustrates the three-dimensional life of surgeons

Aug. 22, 2021, 7:31 p.m.

A man and a woman carefully creep through a dusty unoccupied house, only to find an electrician who was electrocuted moments before. The woman wastes no time, telling the man to call emergency services and beginning CPR, demonstrating proper technique.

Although having proper CPR technique seems to be a basic requirement for any certified medical personnel in real life, medical dramas often sacrifice accuracy for dramatic effect. What sets Netflix’s “Hospital Playlist” apart is how realistically its fictional world is portrayed. 

Produced by Korean broadcasting company tvN, “Hospital Playlist” first aired in March 2020. It gained overwhelming support from both Korean and international audiences. Many of my friends praised the show, some even calling it the greatest show they’ve watched. 

But as an avid watcher of staple American medical dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy,” I was skeptical. The first few episodes start slow compared to Shonda Rhimes’s fast-paced and unexpected plots, and attempts at the “show-don’t-tell” style made the initial plot rather confusing. 

However, after keeping an open mind and making an effort to understand each character’s backstory, I appreciated the director’s attempts at subtle details, which resulted in a three-dimensional, slice-of-life approach to depicting the lives of surgeons at Yulje hospital.

Following the suspenseful scene featuring the electrician, a flashback introduces us to five friends who met at the start of medical school. It’s been some 20 years since the beginning of their friendship. Through life’s highs and lows, the five friends stuck with each other and took on separate specialties at Yulje Hospital. All five became professors, a role similar to an American hospital’s attending surgeon.

The show then gives the audience a closer look at each professor’s life. For example, pediatric surgeon Ahn Jung-won (Yoo Yeon-seok) is a caring and sensitive doctor who decides to become a priest after suffering a tremendous loss. General surgeon Lee Ik-jun (Jo Jung-suk) is a single father with impeccable humor raising an adorable son. In fact, the general surgeon makes his first appearance with a Darth Vader helmet accidentally glued to his head.

The show also doesn’t forget to honor nurses and places an emphasis on the importance of their work, something that is often overlooked in other medical dramas. Watching the show, I feel like I am also a resident at Yulje Hospital — the scenes don’t just feature hospital staff who are the main characters. The audience also gets a better look at security guards, hospital management and custodial staff who help the hospital run smoothly.

Each of the professors has a realistic life filled with joys and occasional sorrows, an inevitable part of being a doctor. Together, they grow and teach their residents important lessons through each patient interaction. Residents learn to accommodate the wishes of patients’ families, grieve the loss of patients and realize the importance of explaining complicated medical jargon in simple terms. 

Some may still be skeptical because the show is not in English. Trust me when I say that I was once in a similar position. However, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and took heed of what Director Bong Joon-ho of “Parasite” said in his Academy Award acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more amazing films.”

Korean TV shows usually wrap up in one season, but “Hospital Playlist” is one of few that was renewed for a second season. The show updates one episode weekly and is currently approaching its ending. Neither tvN nor Director Shin Won-ho formally announced plans for the show’s future despite strong calls for a third. Regardless, I will be religiously rewatching seasons one and two while hoping for good news.

Karen Dong is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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