She stoops to conquer

Hit show succeeds by turning conventional wisdom on its head

Jiang Shuying w

Status question: Jiang Shuying chases an older, poorer man

Written in 1743 by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, The Servant of Two Masters tells the story of the title character Truffaldino who finds himself working for two bosses at the same time. Centuries later, the play’s central conceit is being adapted around the world. In 2012 English comedian James Corden brought it back to life with his own remake One Man, Two Guvnors and now the Chinese are having a go too.

Although it is less directly influenced by the Italian original, the Chinese TV series One Servant of Two Masters is one of the most talked-about shows of the moment. Broadcast in mid-March, it tells the tale of a middle-aged and beleaguered single father called Yang Shu, who has been chauffeuring the successful (but uptight) businesswoman Tang Hong for years. Yang’s job goes beyond driving as he slavishly attends to her many needs, even posing as her boyfriend at a wedding. Of course, the single-and-and-in-her-forties Tang soon finds herself falling for her driver. But the budding romance takes an unlikely turn when a much younger woman Gu Jingjing (played by starlet Jiang Shuying) also falls for him. Who should Yang choose?

An older man dating a younger woman is hardly a new story line – just last month WiC reviewed the popular Big Husband, which tells of the marital travails of an older husband and his pretty but much younger wife (see WiC231).

However, One Servant of Two Masters takes the conceit to another level (or as Xinhua puts it, suggesting that a sex goddess can fall in love with a poor uncle). The show also breaks the social convention that men prefer to be in relationships with women in subordinate jobs, and not girlfriends who hold senior positions.

“The gap in social status between a driver and his female boss is the biggest obstacle for Yang and Tang. The character Yang Shu fully understands his own situation, which explains why he has never considered his feelings for Tang. So when [spoiler alert] the show puts the two together in the end, in a way it has broken many boundaries,” Beijing Daily suggests.

Xinhua says the show is popular because it ploughs some fairly resonant themes.

“Why is the show so appealing for the audience?” it asks. “The reason is probably because deep down, everyone still wants to believe in the pursuit of true love, even if it only exists on television.”

Netizens appear to agree with that view: “After watching One Servant of Two Masters, I’m so touched by the ending. Even though I know it is only a TV show, I can’t help but envy that kind of love. True love is a luxury that is missing in our society today,” gushed one weibo user on Sina’s Twitter-like service.

“What I love about the show is that there are no bad guys in the story. It is a very happy and lively drama,” another commented.

Others needed more convincing. “These types of show are perfect for housewives and retirees to watch while they clean their houses during the day,” was one of the more dismissive responses.

The show can be entertaining to watch, with some sharp banter between the characters. In one episode Gu’s friend explains the need to play games in relationships: “Good women are like a time deposit – they are safe and stable. But men will never pay much attention to them because they don’t generate any emotions. But difficult women are like stocks. People pay attention to them because they don’t know when prices will go up or when they will come down. How many investors are like [Warren] Buffett that only buy and hold?”

In another episode Tang’s friend tells her: “I’m telling you, there are no ugly women in this world, only lazy women and also women who don’t love themselves”. Tang asks, “So I’m the lazy type?” Her friend snaps back: “You are both.”

The series was shown during primetime on four satellite stations (Shenzhen, Shanghai, Shandong and Shaanxi), as well as online on all the major internet video sites. It’s common for more than one satellite TV station to broadcast the same show simultaneously to share the costs of purchasing the series. Prices for some of the most popular series can reach Rmb5 million ($800,798) per episode.

But this cost-sharing tactic could be under pressure. That’s because regulators have announced new rules set to ban more than two channels from airing the same programme at the same time, as well as restricting them from showing more than two episodes of a series in a row. The bureaucrats say the adjustment is intended to enrich TV schedules and balance the type of content on offer. The new regulations will go into effect on January 1, 2015.

The current system, it is reckoned, leads to considerable wastage. Last year China produced 15,000 TV episodes, but over half went unaired, due to multiple channels all broadcasting the same popular shows, says CBN.

Still, the new regulations could handicap smaller satellite stations. That’s because popular channels like Hunan TV and Shanghai’s Dragon TV, which generate higher advertising revenue, can afford to bid higher for exclusive rights for potential hits. Smaller stations with less advertising revenue will likely be shunned in the process, says the Beijing Times.

“The adjustment will lead to rising prices for TV series with good quality, as only two stations will be entitled to broadcast them at once. This will be great news for TV stations with stronger economic capabilities,” Lu Di, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of Peking University told the Global Times.

On the other hand, TV regulators are hoping that more access to airtime will mean that lower budget but more creative gems will have more opportunity for screen time too. China may be looking at precedents abroad.

For example, the British sitcom The Office only got the BBC’s go-ahead because it was cheap to make and would show on the station’s less-watched channel BBC Two. The series went on to become a huge hit worldwide. But as its co-writer Stephen Merchant told The Guardian, very few BBC executives would have forecast its success at the outset.

“Various people championed the show within the BBC,” Merchant recalls. “But I don’t remember us sitting around worrying what the audience figures were going to be. We discovered much later that the BBC had tested it in front of an audience. It got the lowest score ever, apart from women’s bowls.”

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