The Atypical Family‘s Finale Almost Rises Above Its Mean-Spirited Script

7 minute read

The first time we meet the Boks in Netflix’s The Atypical Family, they are perched on a literal precipice. Bok Dong-hee (Soo-hyun) stands on the edge of a cliff, willing herself to fly. Her brother, Gwi-ju (Jang Ki-young), downs a stiff drink while his mother, Man-heum (Ko Do-shim) simultaneously berates him for no longer being able to travel back in time and laments the insomnia that stops her dreaming of the future. It’s an unsubtle introduction to the series’ titular atypical family, now rendered ordinary by the loss of their superpowers and desperate to get them back. And it’s a lack of subtlety that haunts The Atypical Family right to its surprisingly watchable end.

That ending arrived this weekend, when the series' 12th and final episode aired on Netflix. The finale closed with a tight, almost-tragic climax that had the potential to salvage a sterile series that too often relied on mean-spirited jokes and tried to cram too much into its runtime. Yet, as The Atypical Family undermined its own grim final act with a typical K-drama happy ending, it failed to redeem its many shortcomings.

Read more: Queen of Tears Is Yet Another K-Drama That Doesn’t Stick the Landing

If the story of a matriarch fretting over her family’s loss of superpowers draws immediate comparisons to Disney’s Encanto, the similarities continue when it falls to a young, non-superpowered woman, Do Da-hae (Chun Woo-hee), to help the Boks rediscover their humanity. Da-hae enters the picture after Gwi-ju falls from the cliff and she drags him from the water, only to promptly disappear again.

The Atypical Family
Chun Woo-hee as Do Da-hae in The Atypical FamilyCourtesy of Netflix

In a moment of ostensible serendipity, Man-heum finds her working at a spa seemingly hours later, where she discovers Da-hae is the only person who can grant her the sleep she desperately needs. Da-hae is immediately ushered into the Bok family home and just as quickly thrust on Gwi-ju—who is still grieving the loss of his first wife by drinking and neglecting his daughter, I-na (Park So-yi). Yet, as Da-hae pretends to be receptive in furtherance of what will turn out to be not serendipity but in fact an elaborate scam, so too does she begin to discover the Boks’ superpowered secret.

As far as supernatural thrillers go, it’s an interesting setup. The Atypical Family founders, however, under the weight of its moving parts. The series is forever in a rush as it uses its superhero framework to explore familial conflict, school bullying, the many scams of Da-hae’s guardian Baek Il-hong (Kim Keum-soon), cheating scandals, and grief—to name only a few of its themes and storylines. Even in a South Korean TV landscape renowned for blending genres, it’s too much to balance. An uncharitable read may be that the show is simply trying to emulate the success of the 2023 Hulu series Moving. But while that superpowered show offered a compassionate glimpse into the fringes of South Korean society, The Atypical Family loses its way, more often than not, in a script from writer Joo Hwa-mi that brutally punches down on any character that falls outside the narrowly airbrushed ideals of the prototypical K-drama.

This cruelty, which eventually extends to insensitivity around poverty, abuse, and bullying, is exemplified in the characterization of Dong-hee. The decision to place a slender actress in a fat suit in 2024 is absurd on its face—though The Atypical Family is not the only recent series to do so. Joo, however, takes every opportunity to make Dong-hee as repellent as possible. Never far from a bag of chips, she screams when a snack is struck from her hands and scrabbles after it like Garfield pouncing on a lasagne. When an al fresco dinner is ruined by rain, she yells at her father (Oh Man-seok) to save the food. She even falls for someone solely based on how they deliver food to her—though Joo only allows this after she loses weight. That weight loss is achieved through a combination of starving herself and overexercising. These unhealthy methods are rarely, and only limply, challenged, and ultimately celebrated. It’s a strikingly cruel depiction, but it is only part of the unkindness at the core of The Atypical Family’s script.

Read more: The Netflix Korean Dramas to Look Out for in 2024

The script deals with addiction in several of the characters’ arcs, though it squanders any potential to do so thoughtfully and sensitively. Gwi-ju is an alcoholic addicted to revisiting the past; Dong-hee is addicted to food; Man-heum is addicted to power to the point of abuse. Yet, as Joo plays with complex and sensitive issues, her writing betrays such a poor understanding of addiction—and such a low opinion of addicts—that it ultimately revels in unkind and often dangerous depictions. Even as The Atypical Family performs compassion—through, for instance, momentary understanding of Gwi-ju’s grief or I-na receiving attention from her father (before he returns to neglecting her)—time and again these moments are undermined with shallow or insincere storytelling.

The Atypical Family
Da-hae and Gwi-ju, falling for each otherCourtesy of Netflix

So invested is the script in execrating the perceived weakness of its characters, that it leaves them bereft of development. This isn’t helped by the lack of chemistry between the two leads—and note should be made of how impressively uncharismatic Jang is as Gwi-ju. So, even as the series reaches its emotional climax, we still don’t understand why Gwi-ju and Da-hae would fall for each other beyond the script—and K-drama tradition—dictating that it be so.

Chun Woo-hee, as Da-hae, gives a determined performance, even if the material she’s working with ultimately renders it lackluster. She is responsible for some of The Atypical Family’s lighter moments, albeit unintentionally. Gwi-ju is invisible when he visits the past, forcing Chun to awkwardly lean while ostensibly in his arms or appear to be bickering with herself. The result is a secondhand embarrassment for Chun, whose early turns in The Wailing and Argon show she deserves better than these laughable scenes.

Which contributes to what is perhaps most jarring about The Atypical Family. Despite its many faults, The Atypical Family is surprisingly, even atypically, watchable. In spite of its script, The Atypical Family is a terrifically well-made series. In production, design, sound, editing—it’s excellent.

And there was certainly potential in its conception. Any one of its many plotlines could make for an excellent K-drama. A woman tries to scam a rich heir only for him to provide a way out of her own dreadful situation, someone traveling back in time but unable to avert a disaster (a plot that tows awfully close to this year’s Marry My Husband), a teen overcoming bullying through dance. The problem is that a show cannot survive on ideas and production alone—it demands solid writing.

Joo appears aware of the show’s overstuffed story when The Atypical Family shears most of its subplots to focus on Gwi-ju’s time-travel and its consequences in the series’ final few hours. But by then, it’s too late. Any emotional heft The Atypical Family wields in these last moments is unearned, these characters so undercooked, that it means nothing when Gwi-ju and Da-hae frolic in romantic bliss or when tragic reality filters in. There is no resolution of season-long plotlines, just new ones injected at the last minute as a tear-jerking cap on an otherwise impotent series.

While occasionally diverting, The Atypical Family is a dispiriting trudge through the worst elements of South Korean TV: lazy stereotypes, cookie-cutter plots, and a cruelty that clearly resonates with audiences who have kept The Atypical Family in Netflix’s Top 10 non-English series throughout its run. Though its tight production at times obscures its problematic writing, the series cannot outpace its mean-spirited script even at its most engaging—invariably its most quiet moments. It is apt, perhaps, as a series with nothing positive to say, that The Atypical Family is at its most watchable when nobody is talking.

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