“I knew we had touched a nerve a few years ago when he said he’d have more time to watch Sex and the City if he lost his re-election.”
The actress Sarah Jessica Parker was recalling a conversation with former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak.
Barak – now Israel’s defence minister – cannot have been top-of-mind when the show’s writers sat down to craft an episode each week. But his mention of the series – which came to an end after six years in 2004 – pointed to its massive success.
For a generation of professional-women, Sex and the City offered a witty and enlightened view on working life and relationships. It also offered a feminine take on issues often considered too taboo for prime time, carrying it all off in an edgy and stylish way that even lured the occasional male viewer. Israeli prime ministers included, it seems.
So no surprise that a TV company in China seems to have had a commercial hit with its own Sex and the City spin-off.
But in a twist perhaps designed to keep the intellectual property lawyers at bay, the roles have been reversed.
No longer is it four female characters agonising over calorie counts and shoe collections. Instead, the Chinese series, Nanren Bang, or Men’s Club, offers a radical alternative, featuring three male friends.
There are some similarities with the American hit. Main character Gu Xiaobai, like Carrie Bradshaw, has a column in a magazine in which he offers his view on relationships. Gu is played by actor Sun Honglei, who earlier featured in popular TV show Lurk (see WiC13) and also in hit movie If Your Are the One 2 (see WiC91).
Similar to Sex and the City, each show also starts with a voiceover in which Gu mulls a topic for his column, albeit of more masculine design, such as why men prefer younger women, or whether they should show weakness in front of the woman they like.
Gu then discusses these ideas with his buddies, against a panorama of plush apartments and coffee shops in modern Shanghai (the script ensures plenty of chats at the wheel of a Toyota too, one of the show’s sponsors).
Gu’s friends are Luo Shuquan, who is representative of what the Chinese term the ‘economic type’ – he’s safe and dull and works in IT – and Zuo Yongbang, who is richer, in his forties and manages a public relations firm.
The finale was last Saturday and as a format it seems to have kept viewers interested.
Most of the top local networks showed it simultaneously over 15 consecutive days, with two episodes back-to-back per night, and it has since been watched on six different online video-sharing sites (including Tudou and Youku) over 500 million times.
That is a record for online viewing, in case you are wondering.
The appeal? Women, apparently, have been drawn to the dialogue, thinking it’s a way of getting inside the mind of the Chinese male.
A few men have even been claiming to be interested in some of the insight on offer (“why, when a woman cries do people show sympathy for her, while a man’s crying only brings contempt or condescension?”)
But no doubt the procession of actresses gracing each episode has helped to retain more of the male audience (see photo). It helps that in the course of the 30 episodes, the guys churn through a succession of shapely girlfriends.
That said, Gu is ultimately torn between two women (more of which later).
Men’s Club popularity also touches on themes that WiC has discussed frequently in previous editions. One is the new range of choices open to the higher-income, consumer class. In one episode Gu almost complains about it. Except our parents, we have to choose everything, he reflects: school, job, associates, computer, TV and car.
Another of those choices relates to women, and Gu ponders whether it is better to opt for “a pretty woman whose IQ is not that pretty” or “a smart one who is not that attractive”.
For a woman, the choice is a different one, Gu thinks, “between a good guy without money, or a rich guy without morality.”
One of Gu’s girlfriends in the series sees things differently, lamenting that, while women just want to meet one good man, most men seem to dream of meeting millions of good-looking women.
Both of these statements resonate with social trends often debated in China, like the challenges for career women ‘left on the shelf’ in their search for a suitable husband; or the apparent rise in infidelity (in WiC95 we reported that the former railway minister had 18 mistresses, for instance, which didn’t seem to shock many of his compatriots).
The male characters also display an often jaundiced view of the opposite sex.
“Women are born as gold diggers,” is one of Gu’s more chauvinistic conclusions in an episode in which he’s in a particularly misogynistic mood (although the dating show contestant who said she’d rather be weeping in the back of a BMW than happy on the back of a poor man’s bike might well agree with him; see WiC56)
Gu must wrestle with his own conscience, too, in choosing his own love interest. And the show plays on the tension. Last Saturday, the show’s final night, two separate endings were screened back-to-back – a first for drama on Chinese TV.
In each, Gu chooses a different woman (naturally).
In one case he ends up with a stunning but struggling actress who has a gentle personality but who is not very independent of spirit.
In the other, he opts for an older but successful businesswoman, who seeks much more to dominate him and steer his career.
Gu’s final selection must have proved a perfect subject for debate around the office water cooler last Monday morning…
Men’s Club marks the latest hit for Beijing Xinbaoyuan Film and TV investment corporation, a producer of other popular TV series including Struggle (see WiC18) and Naked Marriage (a romantic teen drama, rather than the latest in risque reality show).
And the company may benefit from a new regulation. In late October, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported that the TV regulator has ordered that fewer ‘entertainment’ shows are to be aired in 2012. Satellite TV stations have been told that no more than two entertainment shows can be shown in the prime-time slot between 7.30pm and 10pm.
So that will mean fewer reality shows, dating programmes and talent contests – leaving more space on the schedule for dramas like Men’s Club.
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