Why ‘The School Nurse Files’ Was Such An Oddball Success (and What It Means for Netflix)

On the surface, a show like The School Nurse Files probably shouldn’t be a success. After all, if you tried to explain to someone its plot — a once ostracised school nurse who can see jellies which reflect our desires, some with the potential to endanger life, teams up with a Chinese teacher who opens a forbidden door to eradicate these ectoplasmic mischief-makers from the school entirely — you’d most likely be met with a raised eyebrow and a dismissive hand wave. It sounds almost too bizarre, too absurd, and too delirious to actually work. Yet, perhaps in just as oddball a fashion as it really shouldn’t succeed, it somehow does.

For those who haven’t yet seen the breezy six-episode fantasy comedy, or indeed have a skeletal knowledge of Korean dramas, it may be challenging to have your arm twisted and dive headfirst into the outlandish world of these differing jellies. Maybe you don’t wish to see a middle-aged woman armed with a glow-in-the-dark toy sword as her primary weapon fight these intangible evil spirits amongst school grounds. That’s fair, and it’s unlikely anyone would try and tell you otherwise if you posed such comments back at them. But the truth is that The School Nurse Files doesn’t just thrive in its off-kilter, borderline silly worldview, but it’s also a complete departure from the usual K-drama formula.

The first, and most general shedding of the typical Korean TV formula, is its shorter episode format. On the whole, a prime-time, evening weekday show in South Korea is 16 episodes long, with some small deviations either side of that number allowed. These shows tend to last for one season. In that sole season, everything is expected to be wrapped up. In cases of a rare second season — for example, the crime thriller Stranger – the plot is generally completely different and the cast is shifted around slightly. That’s not to say shorter dramas don’t exist, but they are generally dubbed “specials”, and serve a completely different purpose.

Thus, The School Nurse Files, in all its six-episode glory, aligns more with the free form Netflix brand of TV. Episodes are allowed to be whatever length is desired, and there’s no pressure to suddenly stretch a storyline, or even an entire plot, across a bloated episode count which needlessly demands it.

For Lee Kyung-mi’s adaptation of Chung Serangs’s best-selling novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-Yong, it can even be argued that without the permitted brevity, the small-screen concept may have fallen flat on its face. Part of the charm comes from the endearing sense of confusion, and equally so the sharp, snappy world-building that would lose its shine if fleshed out over a longer span of content. For such an abstract, unorthodox conceptualisation to work, it relies on some of the uncertainty and disorder to stay fresh and consistent, with the goal being that nothing outstays its welcome or suddenly drags on the viewer. In six episodes, that expectation and consistency is a lot easier to uphold. This allows Lee free reign to flesh-out her concept as broadly, or intricately, as necessary. The “WTF” sense of idiosyncrasy is cemented as appealing, rather than worn out.

With that being said, it isn’t just the more liberating structure which benefits The School Nurse Files. The show needs to be more than just fleetingly entertaining, and offer something worth the attention. This is under the Netflix banner, meaning a potentially global audience. It’s here where the wacky tale of nurse Ahn Eun-yong thrives most vehemently, with the tropes and narrative holes rife within Korean dramas largely absent.

The script is entirely original, and occasionally seamlessly thought-provoking. Take, for example, when Hong In-pyo, who is expertly played by Nam Joo-hyuk, defends a lesbian couple at the school from smug teachers, a supportive act sadly still rare within this medium. It’s nothing earth-shattering, nor indeed ground-breaking, but it does show a willingness to break away from some of the more conservative outlooks which are still commonplace in the industry, even if other entries such as Itaewon Class and Be Melodramatic are illustrating a palpable growth in attitudes towards marginalised groups.

More broadly, though, the overriding uniqueness of The School Nurse Files helps aid its memorability, and stand out from a clustered pack of dramas that can often be categorised as being a tad “same-same.” Although there’ll always be exceptions, and mega-hits such as Reply 1988 — which show grounded family dynamics and a poignant reflection of youth capable of transcending any cultural minutia one may perceive as necessary — will always exist, the general K-drama has a resolute formula which it finds difficult to break away from.

Much like the BBC’s fascination with period dramas, or ITV’s with the courtroom, networks like JTBC love a classic romance tale, one with gloss and polish, and little stress despite the frustrations of watching failed confessions and audiences developing the dreaded “second-lead syndrome.” Similarly, networks such as OCN love a gritty crime drama, with plots centring around corruption, politics and just generally unpleasant members of society. The School Nurse Files is none of that, or at least not really. The show is unshackled from any temptation to throw in a needless love story and is instead being fundamentally implored by Netflix to embrace its weird side and be completely unapologetic about it. There’s certainly a time and a place for romance (Netflix realised that with the fluffy, two-part series My First First Love), but in a world full of jellies and forbidden doors, it’s probably best to shelve it.

Yet, and perhaps rather intriguingly so, there are still some key ingredients, some remnants of what makes a Korean drama so different from any other, sprinkled in. There is still the polish, even amongst the octopus-shaped creatures being destroyed by something which looks like it belongs at Toys ‘R’ Us, which makes the series so cinematically engaging and breezy. There is still the optimism, the triumph of two ostracised members of society — one for having a chronic limp, the other for seeing these otherworldly jellies — team-up to make things better for others. Even in the face of their lack of acceptance, and their judgemental eyes. There is still the comedy, the unique brand of humour which comes in the form of exaggerated visual gags (there is literally a laughing class at this school), smart one-liners and self-aware deprecation. All of that is still ever-present amidst this outlandish worldscape, proving that you can push the envelope on structures, narratives and even societal constructs itself, without compromising what makes an entire brand of television so fascinating to millions.

It’s not the first time Netflix has been praised for departing from norms, either. Extracurricular, a sort of teen drama on steroids, burst onto the scene in April with its raw plot centred around a model student’s second life in the underworld of prostitution. The synopsis alone is striking, and the slim 10-episode run pulls no punches in highlighting just how dark such a manifestation of the concept can be. You’re more likely to hear shrieks of “fuck” and “shit” here than you are a wholesome confession, with the only hints of romance shown being self-centred attempts of leveraging oneself in the high-school patriarchy. It’s all the more arresting with the enthused young cast chosen to drive the narrative, with Kim Dong-hee particularly shining as Oh Ji-soo, the young adult who ends up completely trapped in his pseudo-pimp lifestyle.

However, this piece isn’t intended to hail Netflix as saviours or herald them as innovators of Korean content that needed revitalising (it didn’t). There are still genuine, deservedly concerned reservations about the streaming giants getting more tangibly involved with the Hallyu Wave. As reported in this piece by The Hankyoreh, Netflix may spend generously on certain productions, but it pockets the profits and doesn’t allow those working on a show to earn as much as they would if suddenly things blossom, and a flaccid middle-of-the-road series becomes a mega-hit. It may offer a fantastic entry-point into the global arena for shows, showrunners and production companies bored with dwindling TV ratings, but the streaming giants can operate as they please, and rest easy knowing that there will most likely always be some demand for their services.

With that in mind, such worries don’t necessarily take away from the successes of original productions such as The School Nurse Files, Extracurricular, or even Kingdom, a zombie period-piece which will begin its third instalment in early 2021. The giants of streaming are continuing to push the boundaries of Korean entertainment, and are allowing people to tell their own stories in ways not available through linear TV. That, despite concerns, is an arbitrarily good thing, until the financial matters come into play. Those, unfortunately, will always be an issue until the likes of HBO and Disney come into the market, offering genuine second options for those looking to license, rather than work directly with someone like Netflix.

For now, though, the company is the benchmark for those looking to push their products globally, and consequently, it allows Netflix to be capable of throwing its weight around. But, traction over their original productions is only growing, and it does mean more eyes on this brand of entertainment, And, for something like The School Nurse Files, and similarly unique, not yet realised shows which probably would flounder in the shuffle of a weekly TV schedule, that’s a positive.

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