Middle-aged or not, you could see yourself in Doctor Cha

How to get a life—and how this series topped the ratings

Done with the weekend viewing of King the Land, that cheesy, fun and endearing rom-com that remains up in the ratings, and at a loss about what K-drama to binge-watch next?

Go back a bit and follow the saga of Doctor Cha, the plucky housewife who, at midlife, dared to turn her household upside down (leaving complacent family members perturbed), and to rethread a humdrum life by going back to where she left off two decades ago. Then, she was a competent medical resident but had to give up her career when she got pregnant with her son. She traded white coat and scrubs for an apron and endless days revolving around the unending needs of the family.

When Doctor Cha was streamed on Netflix (April to June 2023), it had viewers— not only middle-aged women but a younger audience as well— hanging on to every episode to see how she would navigate a work environment that was not only unheard of then but also had her dodging landmines at every turn.

On its first episode on April 15 Doctor Cha had a modest viewership rating of 4.9 percent, but by the second and third episodes, this went up to 7.8 percent, climbing up to 11.2 percent on the 4th, dipping a bit to 10.9 percent on 5th, then going up to 13.2 on 6th.

Then, this series, that adroitly used tropes or cliches that are the stuff of K-dramas, just kept getting more viewers until episode 16, its last, reached 18.5 percent on June 4. These numbers gave it the distinction of having the 7th highest viewership for a cable series. Industry records also showed it was the biggest Korean drama up to mid-year 2023.

For most of its run, Doctor Cha also stayed at No. 1 on Good Data Corporation’s weekly list of most buzzed about drama. Its lead actors, Uhm Jung Hwa (playing Cha Jeong Suk) and Kim Byung Chul (in the role of her husband Seo In Ho), were No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the list of most buzz-worthy actors.

In her 40s, Cha Jeong Suk (CJS) is managing, with an attitude of resignation, her upper middle-class household, its members oblivious to her needs. This is—until she decides to get a life.  Family consists of husband Seo In Ho, chief surgeon at Gusan University Hospital, older son Song Ji Ho, a second year resident there, daughter Seo I Rang in senior high school, and mother-in-law Kwak Ae Sim, who spends her days socializing and ordering CJS like she would the housekeeper.

But CJS has an epiphany and sees her life passing by as she remembers what it was like 20 years ago. What triggers her decision to leave the house and put on the back burner the ever growing demands of the household?

On the bus on her way to a shopping errand in the city, CJS witnesses a passenger collapse. Her doctor reflex kicks in and with another doctor-passenger, they hop on the ambulance with the patient. Later she herself faints in the department store, is rushed to the ER of Gusan Hospital where after a series of tests, she is told she would need a liver transplant.

Her situation is bleak; she calls her husband who is supposedly on the way to a medical conference but is actually with his secret lover. Her mother-in-law, busy with her social set, is indifferent. CJS does not want to burden her son who is in the middle of intern duties in the hospital; her daughter is in school and busy with upcoming exams. It is her mother who rushes to the hospital to be her guardian.

The next episodes present CJS’s lonely life in a loveless marriage. Her husband, whose liver is a match to hers,  initially refuses to be her donor. This scene is preceded by a screaming mother-in-law who won’t allow her son to do so. A cousin, whom her mother helped to get a start in life, makes the same decision. On the day of her transplant, husband Seo In Ho grudgingly agrees to do his part.

She makes a decision: she would pick up where she left off 20 years ago— This is where the drama hits its stride

While in recovery,  Cha Jeong Suk sees her life pass before her. She makes a decision: she would pick up where she left off 20 years ago as a medical resident at Gusan University Hospital.

This is where the drama hits its stride. It is the very same hospital where her husband is chief surgeon and her son a second year resident. It is also where persnickety and fastidious Seo In Ho lives a secret life.

Kim Dae Jin, the director of  Doctor Cha, and its writer, Jung Yeo Rang, succeed in weaving a drama that holds viewers’ attention to the end even as they mine every trope in the book. There is the screaming and bitchy social climber of a mother-in-law, the kind single mother who raised CJS who doesn’t hesitate to call out the former, the philandering husband who is so conscious about keeping his  reputation spotless he does not, for a long while, agree to a divorce, the son and daughter too busy with their own lives.

Director and writer spice up this mosaic of characters and throw them all together in one place—Gusan University Hospital. The tense situations are deftly handled so viewers witness a cauldron about to boil over but does not at the last second. The hospital is also staffed by a motley crew of doctors with their own secrets and dalliances, residents and interns grappling with life-and-death situations with barely a few hours of shut-eye. Hospital politics and its seamy side add to the volatile set-up.

Complicating Cha Jeong Suk’s rewind of her life at Gusan Hospital is her husband Seo In Ho’s secret life with his first love, the doctor who heads the internal medicine department where CJS is assigned.

SIH and CJS have been living in the same house but in separate bedrooms for 10 years. All this time, SIH has been carrying on that very clandestine affair with Choi Sung Hee (Myung Se Bin). His daughter with her is in the same school as his daughter with CJS. Seo In Ho and his lover do all they can to make resident Cha Jeong Suk’s life difficult and make her resign, but she doggedly pursues her goals and difficult as is to catch up with her much younger co-residents, she gets in her elements, performs well.

Eventually, everyone in her family except  Cha Jeong Suk gets wind of Seo In Ho’s secret, leaving the former livid. The doctors and staff in the hospital also eventually discover the affair and the familial relationships among the three doctors.

Cha Jeong Suk‘s life at Gusan University Hospital is a day-to-day challenge made more difficult with Seo In Ho decreeing that their familial relationship must be kept a secret. Her son, meanwhile, is in a steamy but carefully hidden affair with his senior, the third year resident who naturally is also in charge of CJS’s batch.

But, no matter how the odds are against CJS in the hospital, the viewers are increasingly drawn to her because she buckles down to tasks. There is also the younger, US-trained doctor Roy Kim (Min Woo Yuk) who performs CJS’ liver transplant (she has a second surgery in a later episode) and who develops a strong attraction to her, cheers her on, and shares her daring adventures off-duty. To Seo In Ho’s chagrin, hospital staff begins to take notice. Their son tells his father that he is no match to the younger Doctor Kim.

As the drama reaches its half-way mark, with CJS recovering from the transplant and picking up her career, she asks her husband for a divorce. He adamantly refuses at first, but agrees to it only when his daughters get into a confrontation and his lover, seeing how all these have affected their children, decides to end the affair.

It is at this halfway point when the drama falters with extraneous scenes. Ratings drop a bit, but thankfully they get back on track.

Risking spoilers, Seo In Ho does get that much sought-after promotion as hospital head, but in the end, it is an empty victory. Now divorced, he is alone with no one to share what could have been a happy moment in his life as a husband and doctor. Even his lover Choi Sung Hee, has left him.

Watch it for how its director turned what could have been a trite drama into a binge-worthy series

Why Doctor Cha is binge-worthy:

Watch it for the way the story was written and how its director turned what could have been a trite drama into a binge-worthy series that ably injected humor into scenes that are otherwise the stuff of common melodrama.

Watch it for how it showed the possibilities that are open to women even in midlife as long as they determinedly stay the course and not cave in to pressure.

Watch out for that wonderful and empowering scene where Doctor Cha in full leather gear, zooms away on a big bike with Doctor Roy Kim. Look out as well for that episode with Doctor Cha in the sports car of senior resident Sora, the girlfriend of her son. She revs up the topdown car as they barrel through the rain and laugh about their male colleagues.

Watch it for how it showed the mutually supportive friendship between Doctor Cha and her friend, another doctor who is single and happy in her private as well as professional life.

Watch it for the brilliant though understated performance of award-winning actress and topnotch singer, the beautiful Uhm Jung Hwa (Our Blues) who never seems to age. View it also for the very versatile actor Kim Byung Chul (Sky Castle, Mr. Sunshine, Goblin, among others), whose deadpan delivery and comic timing keep viewers from hating his character even when he is being such a jerk.

Watch it for Min Woo Hyuk as Doctor Roy Kim who screams ‘male lead’

Watch it for Min Woo Hyuk as Doctor Roy Kim who screams “male lead” in every scene he has with Uhm Jung Hwa as he cheers on her character while she goes through the hardships of a resident.

Watch it for Myung Se Bin as Choi Sung Hee, the secret lover you’d want to hate yet can relate to. Her breakdowns were simply heart-breaking.

Watch it for the fine support the leads get from a very able ensemble of actors who enrich every highly nuanced scene.

Finally, as reviewer Belle Yambao (Cosmopolitan) said: “Doctor Cha is a K-drama that’s got a lot of heart, and sometimes that’s all a hit show needs.”

About author


After saying goodbye to daily deadlines in 2009, WINNIE DOROTHEO VELASQUEZ worked from home editing manuscripts and writing on subjects close to her heart. She discovered the world of K-Drama in the early 2000s. Today, she cooks, does some gardening, and is training Cookie, da mutt-with-the-mostest.

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