In 2011, The Legend of Zhen Huan premiered on Anhui and Dragon Satellite TV. Based on Liu Lianzi’s novel of the same title, the historical drama centred around the politics of the palace during the Qing Dynasty. Thanks to a deft script and widely-lauded performance by actress Sun Li (who plays the title character) the show was a success, helping the satellite stations take first and second place in China’s primetime ratings. The series was so popular it was later introduced to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Sun saw her popularity soar as a result, rendering her one of Chinese television’s highest-paid actresses (see WiC211).
The runaway success of the original show has inspired a second act. Last year the same crew were reunited – led by director Zheng Xiaolong – to release The Legend of Mi Yue. The 81-episode production tells the story of Mi Yue, the first empress dowager of the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).
Since its launch in late November, the series has again set viewership records. The two stations airing it topped the evening ratings, while The Legend of Mi Yue has also accumulated over 10 billion hits on LeTV and Tencent Video – the video streaming sites that have secured the online rights to the series.
However, much of the interest seems to have stemmed from the success of the previous series. And in many cases, viewer anticipation of a repeat experience soon led to disappointment. Former fans say the pace of Mi Yue is too slow and the script has too many inconsistencies. Others have taken issue with the historical accuracy. For instance, in one scene a character reads a letter written on paper, something that hadn’t been invented at the time.
Audiences have also complained that the production looks a tad cheap. Unlike the lavish costumes seen on Zhen Huan, outfits for Mi Yue seem poorly made and “look like they were purchased from Taobao [Alibaba’s e-commerce platform],” one netizen quipped.
On Douban, the hugely popular film and television review site, the series’ rating now hovers around 5 out of 10 stars. It started out much stronger, rating 9 when it premiered (for perspective, Zhen Huan has a rating of 8.9 on the same platform).
“I personally think this one is not as good as Zhen Huan. I watched Zhen Huan god knows how many times but I will only watch Mi Yue once,” another disillusioned fan wrote.
“I wish I could give the show a negative rating, but Douban wouldn’t allow that. The only reason I am still tuning in is because there is nothing else to watch,” another complained.
In response to the criticism, Sun told Tencent Entertainment: “To be honest, the reviews for Zhen Huan were even harsher than Mi Yue when it first aired. With so many people watching the show, it is bound to be very controversial… As I said before, I can’t say if Mi Yue will ever surpass Zhen Huan, but Mi Yue is definitely not a trashy show!”
Still, it didn’t go unnoticed that another palace drama Go Princess Go, an original programme produced by LeTV, has garnered more positive reviews. The series, which sees a young man swapping places with a princess in ancient China (a topical transformation with its transgender angle, certainly), has a rating of 8.1 on Douban. It was also one of the highest trending topics on Sina Weibo, accumulating almost 4 billion tweets in just two weeks.
So what’s the difference? For a start, Go Princess Go is less of a period drama than a comedy that takes place in a historical era. The language in the series is also deliberately informal and colloquial to appeal to younger viewers. Even the costumes in the show are meant to be modern: in one episode, the lead character wears an ear stud and platform sneakers.
“Unlike previous ‘time-travel’ shows, Go Princess Go primarily takes place in the protagonist’s dreams. So the character never really travels back in time, he merely travels in his own imagination,” the director of the series Lü Haojiji told Yangchang Evening News. “This is also why it is so appealing to young people. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
(His qualification about ‘travelling in the imagination’ is important: as WiC has reported previously, China’s regulator banned time-travel dramas after a large number of them clogged TV schedules a few years ago, and reportedly ‘confused’ the public about historical subjects.)
In addition to the strong competition from rival offerings, others argue that Mi Yue’s main problem is that its predecessor was simply too successful.
“If Zhen Huan never existed, perhaps the reviews for Mi Yue would have been more positive. The two shows are like the right and left hand of Zheng Xiaolong [the director]. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the left hand can’t beat the right hand,” says Beijing Times.
Zheng, meanwhile, is defiant. “TV shows shouldn’t only consider what young viewers want to see but also the middle-aged audiences,” he countered. “There are many viewers of the older demographic and they also have the right to watch TV. For us, we want to create a show that will appeal to everyone in the household.”
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