What do you think of this as a premise for a brand new TV series? A group of twenty-somethings live in adjacent apartments and spend a lot of time hanging out in coffee shops and talking about their lives.
Sounds vaguely familiar, i.e. as the idea for the classic sitcom Friends? It’s also the premise for China’s latest hit show iPartment, a comedy about seven city dwellers.
The series, produced by Shanghai Film Group, premiered in 2009 but only started winning bigger audiences (in its third season) after it was picked up by satellite channels.
While Friends had a struggling actor, a flaky masseuse and a paleontologist among its cast, iPartment has a radio DJ, a computer nerd and a university lecturer. Another difference is that the Chinese show is set in Shanghai, not New York.
But some scenes look like they have been lifted straight from the American series.
For example, in one episode, two characters go to a bridal store to try on dresses for fun. While in their wedding dresses, they pretend to throw flower bouquets at one other. Friends fans will remember the scene from an episode called ‘The One with All The Wedding Dresses’, where the on-screen action was almost identical.
For some viewers, this is little more than plagiarism: “iPartment is so disgusting, it’s an entire copy,” one wrote on Sina Weibo.
“Many lines and scenes have been completely ripped off from American shows. I thought it was shameful to do this. It is an insult to the American TV producers and an insult to the screenwriters and producers of original Chinese TV shows,” scowled another.
Others have even gone to the trouble of setting up cpartment.com, a website that juxtaposes scenes from the two sitcoms. Nor does it seem that Friends was the only inspiration for iPartment’s producers. Zhang Yang, a die-hard Friends fan, told the China Daily that material from other popular US series like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory also seems to feature.
In fact, he reckons that at least 16 of the Chinese sitcom’s 24 episodes have more than 70% of their plot directly copied from seven US series. Indeed, some of the dialogue seems to have been taken directly from the Chinese subtitles for these series.
But the show’s producers deny that they have borrowed the US originals. “We didn’t copy the American sitcom,” a spokesperson told Southern Metropolis Daily. “Comedies have stereotypes, like the handsome man, the gorgeous woman, the cheap man and so on… Our creation is not plagiarism but more a homage to the American sitcom.”
The show’s scriptwriter, Wang Yuan, also played down the scandal. “We are just learning [from American television]. Just like many Westerners look to Chinese martial arts films when they make action movies,” says Wang.
It is not the first time Chinese broadcasters have been accused of aping TV elsewhere. For instance, Ugly Betty became Ugly Wudi in China, and South Korea’s Temptation of Wife turned into Temptation of Home. Even the latest medical drama Xinshu (see WiC149) is said to draw heavily from House in the US, says China News Service.
But critics say that there is a fine line between paying homage and outright theft. Veteran scriptwriter Liu Hua also warned China Youth Daily that the copycat culture in Chinese television could “ruin the whole market”. That’s because it leaves little room for hardworking writers who spend years creating their own work. Instead producers opt for a fast turnaround style, with writers who can finish a script in a couple of months.
“To create a sustainable film and television industry, originality is very important. In reality, originality is exactly what’s missing in the Chinese film and TV industry,” Zhang Kuxing complained in a column in the Shenzhen Economic Daily.
“I have to say, I don’t know how the domestic industry would survive if there wasn’t a quota on Hollywood imports!”
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