Korean makeover of The Good Wife plays it safe and sort of cute

The American show about a wronged wife turned lawyer has been adapted for Korean TV

Stripped of a melodramatic score, leaning heavily on an American script and tackling a story of marital transgression head-on, The Good Wife isn't a standard K-drama. Well, it isn't, until it is.

Over seven seasons that ended just three months ago, the original CBS series, starring Julianna Margulies, told the tale of a figure familiar from media images, a political wife who stands by her unfaithful husband at a press conference during a scandal, and showed the private complicated woman behind the public role, who restarts her law career after her husband is sent to jail.

Adapting the show for conservative South Korean television is a bold decision for cable network tvN, and I was curious to know how far things would and could go in 16 episodes: How would the adaptation play the wife's endangered relationship with her husband and her ensuing affair with her boss? Would it even go there?

At the outset, the Korean Good Wife doesn't feel typically Korean. The soundtrack suggests international elevator music, not K-pop, and isn't as emotionally manipulative.

The show looks Korean, though, in the sense that it and its stars - Jeon Do Yeon (Secret Sunshine, 2007) as the wife and fledgling lawyer, Yoo Ji Tae (Oldboy, 2003) as the husband and embattled prosecutor, and Yoon Kye Sang as Jeon's boss and would-be boyfriend - are better-looking than they have to be.

Stay long enough and it also becomes clear that the adaptation takes place in a Korean moral universe.

Jeon Do Yeon (right) is a wronged wife turned lawyer in the Korean remake of The Good Wife.
Jeon Do Yeon is a wronged wife turned lawyer in the Korean remake of The Good Wife. PHOTO: STARHUB

Jeon is picking up the pieces after her husband is accused of accepting a sexual bribe and his enemies leak a sex tape of him. She joins Yoon's law firm, but the political intrigue follows her to her job.

Kim Hee Ae and Ji Jin Hee are a middle-aged would-be couple in Second To Last Love.
Kim Hee Ae and Ji Jin Hee are a middle-aged would-be couple in Second To Last Love. PHOTO: ONE

Here, the story of the love triangle deviates from the original - and in ways that manage to be safe and sort of cute.

Early on, the adaptation introduces Yoon's father, a cranky lawyer who lets Jeon in on his secrets and tries to pry into his son's feelings, presumably because few relationships in K-dramas can develop without a nosy elderly relative in the picture.


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Also, in a backstory that is hinted at and then detailed in flashbacks, there was a car accident years ago that changed the lives of Jeon, Yoo and Yoon. Yoo, who asked Jeon to take the rap for him that night, is established as a go-getter whose career has always come first, while Yoon, who was planning a romantic night with Jeon before the accident, is the one who has always loved her.

Although Yoon has a reputation for doing anything to win a lawsuit, he is a better man than Yoo, a point that Jeon goes to great pains to find out - before she lets Yoon kiss her in a vulnerable moment.

Because in the world of the show, apparently, romance happens only to good people.

In the K-drama Second To Last Love, romance is an accident that happens to two 40somethings, an upbeat TV producer (Kim Hee Ae) and a buttoned-down bureaucrat (Ji Jin Hee), who are too busy clashing with each other to realise how good they are together.

Alas, the show is as exhausting as the would-be couple. Although it is inspired by the 2012 J-drama of the same name, it couldn't be more different.

The Japanese show was wistful, quiet, yet frank and laugh-out-loud funny. It had the grace of age and the wonder of discovery, of two people who are still staying open to life, lust and love.

The Korean version is manic yet timid. Um, was it made by some 20somethings who don't know better?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'The Good Wife gets a Korean makeover'. Print Edition | Subscribe