The first season of tvN’s latest hit drama, Hospital Playlist, came to an end on 28 May, finishing strong with its best viewership ratings to date. Much like how it began, the last four episodes of the drama are hilariously heartwarming with their focus on the personal and professional struggles of Yulje Medical Center’s doctors. With some story arcs resolved and several others left open, the show is all prepared for a second season in 2021.

This review contains spoilers.

Hospital Playlist is a unique medical drama because of its slice of life nature. Without a dramatic overarching narrative plot, each episode follows our five main characters, Lee Ik-joon (played by Jo Jung-seok), a professor of general surgery, Ahn Jung-won (Yoo Yeon-seok), a pediatrics professor, Kim Joon-wan (Jung Kyung-ho), an obstetrics professor, Yang Seok-hyung (Kim Dae-myung) and a neurological professor, Chae Song-hwa (Jeon Mi-do), in their everyday lives. From the different patients they interact with to their blossoming relationships with their mentees, the drama successfully portrays a bustling hospital where life and death intersect daily.

Unfortunately, the directing style of the earlier episodes where the drama jumped from patient to patient continues to pose a problem to the cohesiveness of each episode, but the increased familiarity of the medical staff certainly helps to ground viewers. The sheer number of patients introduced in each episode might cause some to feel that their stories are very touch-and-go, but it accurately reflects the reality of medical professionals, where each patient is just one among many that they interact with every day. Even with their limited screentime, every patient (and their family members) brings depth to the drama, whether it’s by the relatable emotions they express or the tough moral decisions they have to make.

A significant episode that comes to mind is that of a woman who is unwilling to donate her liver to her ailing husband. While this case is initially presented as one highlighting the pressure society unduly places on spouses, it is revealed later that she did not want to risk going through surgery because of the couple’s deaf and mute son. It is devastating to witness her struggle because she is so desperate to save her husband by any means possible, but also has to consider the welfare of her son. While a miracle eventually occurs for the couple, the drama does force viewers to consider many others who might not be as fortunate.

For instance, in a standout moment of episode 12, an expecting mother lost her baby in her womb just one month before the baby was due. This scene plays out an interesting manner — after introducing several angry mothers who had spent a long time queuing at the gynecology clinic (a new issue that had never once come up in the drama), this mother finally gets her turn to meet Seok-hyung, only to be told that her baby no longer has a heartbeat. As her heart-wrenching cries resonate through the corridor, the mothers who initially were complaining about the long wait all become quiet, crying along with her as they clutch their own wombs. To lose a baby is the biggest fear any expectant mother would have, and that moment of understanding shared by all these mothers is beautifully expressed here. It takes patience, but the big picture of the writing and directing certainly pays off. This scene and many others are impactful moments that you could not witness in another setting, and Hospital Playlist excels at using these realistic situations to add gravitas to its plot.

In contrast, the drama is less skillful in the way the romances are handled, especially as relationship development is sacrificed for a greater shock factor. On the bright side, there are several heart-fluttering scenes in these final four episodes, especially on Ik-joon’s front. He has liked Song-hwa for 20 years, but circumstances pulled them apart and he is now rediscovering his feelings for her. It might be Chi-hong’s (Kim Jun-han) obvious attempts at wooing Song-hwa that is motivating Ik-joon again, but he struggles to balance his feelings with the comfortable friendship they already have. In the end, he finally makes an honest confession (after making several veiled ones earlier) so as not to live with regret for the rest of his life. After spending years living only for his son, it feels great to see Ik-joon finally doing something for himself. The development that led up to this moment is worth it, after seeing the couple enjoy each other’s company so thoroughly, and seeing how much Song-hwa cares for U-ju (played by the adorable Kim Jun). While we do not get to see Song-hwa’s response in this season, it would be nice to see this relationship continue to bloom, because they are just that perfect together.

That being said, the love triangle between Song-hwa and the two men is quite unpleasant to witness. In particular, Chi-hong’s continued forwardness despite Song-hwa’s constant rejections left an unsavoury taste in my mouth, which is especially disappointing considering that he had been one of the most interesting residents in the earlier episodes. Episode 11’s spin-the-bottle scene between the three of them is the most awkward scene of the drama to watch, and Song-hwa’s discomfort was so obvious, both during that dinner and in other personal interactions with him. It is wonderful to see how she had inspired him to become a diligent and caring neurological surgeon, but in his insensitive pursuit, he ends up treating her with much less respect than she deserves. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that such a disciplined and focused man, who overcame so much to become a doctor, would be willing to throw his medical career away to follow Song-hwa to Sokcho, just because of his unrequited love for her. Thankfully, he does not do so in the end, and I look forward to see how he will grow in future seasons as a new Chief Resident.

Another less than satisfactory romance would be that of the Winter Garden couple. Viewers have been privy to Jang Gyeo-ul’s (Shin Hyun-bin) emotions for a long time now, but Jung-won’s constant coldness makes this journey a painful one to watch. Gyeo-ul’s attempts to forget about Jung-won and move on are admirable, especially since she chooses to focus on her work rather than her affections, enabling her to grow immensely as a doctor through this first season. In a climactic finale for this couple, however, she finally confesses to Jung-won in a last bid to keep him from becoming a priest, and he kisses her back with an intensity that reveals the extent of his feelings for her.

While this couple had attracted avid shippers ever since she started crushing on him, there had been little to no clues about Jung-won’s true emotions till now. There had been hints that Jung-won did not want to be shaken by the distraction that was Gyeo-ul, with him intentionally lying to avoid going to dinner with her, or being less warm to her compared to everyone else, but there were no real signs of his love for her. Yoo Yeon-seok only had a few moments in the final episode to do so, but he really fleshed out some of the anguish and inner turmoil he had been facing during his “consultation” with Song-hwa. His dilemma about whether to stay at the hospital (and with Gyeo-ul) or pursue his dream of becoming a priest is a crucial one for his character, but the drama barely taps on this narrative richness, choosing to sacrifice his character’s depth for the sake of this last-minute Christmas miracle. The sudden development of this couple would have felt less out of the blue if viewers had been more clued into his honest feelings throughout the series, but as it stands, the confirmation of their mutual affection comes abruptly with just a quick montage showing his side of the story.

That being said, Gyeo-ul’s confession scene is a beautiful one. Normally stoic and emotionless, she does not hesitate to show her vulnerability here, alluding to the depth and sincerity of her feelings for Jung-won. She never oversteps her boundaries with him, as she repeatedly apologises for making a demand that she did not feel entitled to. All the emotions Jung-won had been repressing also flow out here, both through his tearful gaze and his affectionate touch, and it is really gratifying to watch Gyeo-ul finally have her love reciprocated, especially since viewers have come to realise that she is a really decent person. The formation of this couple is definitely abrupt, but I am really looking forward to their progress in the next season.

Speaking of boundaries, Choo Min-ha (Ahn Eun-jin) is an interesting case. In her pursuit of Seok-hyung, she pulls off a confession scene that is completely in line with her character — direct but not overbearing. The text message she sends inviting him for a Christmas dinner is also done in this manner, where she clearly expresses her desire for him to come, but gives him a way out if he does not want to (“I’ll eat with my friend”). While Seok-hyung rejects her and claims that he has no interest, the way he is softening towards her approaches tells a different story. As a firm introvert who enjoys his personal time, the befuddled yet amused look he gives Min-ha whenever she invades his office to eat ramen with him shows that there is something changing about him. It is as if he’s taking Ik-joon’s advice to heart, realising that the existence of another person could bring him comfort. Unfortunately, things may get stirred up with the reappearance of his first wife, but here’s hoping that Seok-hyung’s heart will open up again in the next few seasons. He carries a lot of guilt and burdens, understandably so with his difficult family situation and the loss of his younger sister, but with his supportive friends and a character like Min-ha by his side, his healing will surely happen.

One of Hospital Playlist‘s greatest strengths is its committed and talented cast. While it is a large one, each character has their moments to shine, and viewers become invested not just in the storylines of our five main doctors, but of all the side characters as well. Witnessing the growth of soft-hearted chief resident Do Jae-hak (Jung Moon-sung) is especially satisfying, considering the amount of personal adversity he has to go through and the ups and downs he experiences in this season alone. Regardless of his insecurities and perceived indecisiveness, his heart is fully with each patient he meets; he earnestly puts in his all to save them. While he spends the first half of the season courting the favour of his mentor Jun-wan, the sweet partnership between the two at the end feels especially well-earned, as each is able to learn from the other, and prove to be strong sources of support for each other.

The five main leads are also exceptional in their roles, which oftentimes feel custom-made for them, because of how naturally the actors portray these characters. In particular, Jeon Mi-do absolutely shines as Song-hwa, breathing life and character into Song-hwa’s quirky awesomeness and food fighter ways. Her experience as an established musical actress definitely comes into play here, and her comfortable chemistry with her cast members makes her character a very believable one. These five actors are not just good at acting, but at singing and playing musical instruments as well. The delightful band scenes are an anticipated fixture of each episode, and it is great to witness the true friendship and camaraderie that bloomed out of the actors’ real-life monthly band practices. Yoo Yeon-seok, in particular, really shines as he sings and plays the drums at the same time, a feat that is difficult even for professional singers.

While the OST for this drama is made up of remakes of old classics, its line-up is as star-studded as its cast, with esteemed singers like Super Junior‘s Kyuhyun and Red Velvet‘s Joy being part of the line-up. The OST achieved tremendous success overall, with Jo Jung-suk and Jeon Mi-do’s OSTs reaching the top of several music charts. Furthermore, the songs are not chosen randomly but are masterfully incorporated into the fabric of each episode. When the band was covering “Deep Night” by Crying Nut for instance, they sang the lyrics “Don’t leave me behind” just as Ik-joon and Seok-hyung received emergency calls and had to run back to the hospital, abandoning the band practice. Mido and Parasol singing “I want to be a beautiful memory to you, I hope you can always remember our radiant days” as a final send-off for the season also added special significance to the song, and it was absolutely lovely that the band eventually released an actual OST as well.

There will always be so much to say about this fantastic drama: its relatable take on issues of life and death, the captivating way it makes viewers both laugh and cry at the same time, and its emphasis on friendship and family. Along with the many unresolved story arcs that are left with the conclusion of Season One, I’m already looking forward to meeting this wonderful cast of characters again. It will be a long and hard wait, but see you again, Hospital Playlist.

(Images via tvN. Youtube)