The tvN drama It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (사이코지만 괜찮아/Psycho But It’s Okay) may appear to be a cliché and predictable romantic dramedy, but beneath the surface it puts a timely and much needed spotlight on mental health.
There is no denying that the series features a predictable central plot. A familiar and quite basic romantic story with two beautiful leads. Seo Ye Ji is popular children’s book author Ko Moon Young who becomes intrigued and very infatuated by Kim Soo Hyun’s Moon Gang Tae.
Gang Tae, a caregiver at a psychiatric hospital, cares for his brother Moon Sang Tae (Oh Jung Se) who is autistic and a huge fan of Moon Young.
All three grow up with difficult childhoods and unique situations that have left them with deep emotional wounds. As Moon Young and Gang Tae grow romantically closer, they uncover secrets from their past
But what the series does best is the insight it gives on mental health, the effect of mental health problems on the person and people around them and the care and connections that can help someone with mental health problems.
Because of that, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is a character-driven series at heart. And its wide array of characters, from the main leads to the large ensemble, are each interesting and intriguing in their own ways while contributing to the larger discussion opened up by the series.
There is careful attention paid to each character, big and small, that has mental health being dealt with in a significant way instead of it being used as a mere plot device.
This is a spotlight on mental health not usually seen on Korean drama. It is a compassionate look at mental health patients and those suffering from mental health issues through the eyes of a wide range of people.
Though not a deep dive, it presents different mental health conditions in a sort of accessible way. For a topic that can feel uncomfortable, this is a positive thing. By being accessible to the audience, it serves as an entry point to discussing such issues. And that is an important discussion to be had, especially in Korea.
When looking at the underlying plot, whether the romance or central mystery, it’s hard to ignore how both are essentially cookie cutter stories. Predictable and at times, contrived.
The series features very fan service-y plot points and developments, including those relating to the main romance between Moon Young and Gang Tae as well as the friendship between Moon Young and Sang Tae. But by having that familiar overall plot, it puts the important discussion in the mainstream.
The series touches upon certain prejudices even from people with the best of intentions. It shows the need for understanding and compassion.
As a character-driven series, there is a little element of slice of life. While following along with the relationships and connections between our main characters, we check in with a number of other characters and their own unique stories.
That allows the series to have a constant flow of engaging, personal stories that relate to each character rather than characters being at the mercy of a less-than-interesting plot.
Still, the main characters being charming, magnetic and most of all relatable allow that central plot to still be enjoyable. You are more invested in the characters rather than any twist or revelation that may come about.
The series is also accentuated by a fairy tale, storybook aura that is emphasized by the actual storybooks written by Moon Young. And true to traditional fairy tales (not the Disney-fied versions), there is a dark, ominous tone that is well-balanced with lighter, happier moments.
Make no mistake, there is a darker plot at hand. But the heavier aspects of the series are all related to the personal struggles of our characters. By the end of the series, we see the results of their growth by way of many different factors. But most of all their relationships and connections with each other.
The cast is also a major reason for the series being so appealing. They elevate the parts of the series that may be lacking while effortlessly delivering on the deeper and more emotionally affecting moments of the series.
I will go out on a limb and say this was Kim Soo Hyun’s best performance and most well-rounded character since his breakthrough in Dream High. Gang Tae is perhaps the most grounded character since that role and here he is able to remind everyone of his dramatic acting chops that first propelled him to stardom.
As Gang Tae, he is a caring and loving individual who also must stifle any of his own personal struggles. He tries to bury the burden on his own even when he himself may need the care he provides for others. Kim Soo Hyun has several excellent opportunities for knockout performances and he delivers every time.
He shares an undeniable chemistry with Seo Ye Ji who gives a captivating performance as Moon Young. While audiences may only be discovering her with this series, Seo Ye Ji has had several standout performances during her career.
Seo Ye Ji manages a performance that requires of her a wide range of emotions. Whether it’s being playfully seductive or strong and confident, ruthlessly cold or unexpectedly friendly. Her versatile performance sees her do everything from amusingly yelling at a deer to emotionally breaking down from painful memories.
It is at times a masterful performance that still allows for nuance and vulnerability. No question a showcase for her talent and skill.
Oh Jung Se, who drew acclaim and awards for his recent performances, gets the chance for another highlight in his career as Sang Tae. His gives a thoughtful and endearing performance as Sang Tae. As a man living with autism, Sang Tae presents a unique challenge for Oh Jung Se. But he also effortlessly brings the character to life. His chemistry with Kim Soo Hyun and Seo Ye Ji, separately and together, is also a highlight that helps bring everything together in a strong, heartfelt way.
The rest of the ensemble cast also make significant contributions to the success of the series. That includes Park Gyu Young as nurse Joo Ri who has feelings for Gang Tae. Kim Mi Kyung as Joo Ri’s caring mother Soon Duk. Kang Ki Doong balances comedy and drama as Gang Tae’s best friend Jae Soo. As does Kim Joo Hun as Moon Young’s publisher Lee Sang In. Park Jin Joo is a scene stealer as art director/Sang In’s de facto assistant Seung Jae. And Kim Chang Wan reunites with Kim Soo Hyun (My Love From The Star) as slightly eccentric hospital director Oh Ji Wang.
A special mention must be given to the Moon Woo Jin, Kim Soo In and Lee Kyu Sung as the younger versions of Gang Tae, Moon Young and Sang Tae, respectively. The flashback scenes featuring them provide a strong, emotional foundation that helps boost the present characters while again boosting what would otherwise be a very typical story.
Overall, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is a deep and meaningful character-driven series that uses a familiar overall plot to open an accessible entry point to difficult topics rarely seen on Korean drama. At times dark, many times colorful, the series is a charming and endearing adventure through many characters’ emotional growth and healing.