At first glance, Go Princess Go doesn’t seem like it has the potential to be a hit. Nor does it seem like the sort of controversial fare likely to be banned by China’s censors. But both have proven the case.
Go Princess Go is yet another costume drama, a genre that is hardly lacking on Chinese TV.
The 35-episode series was made by LeTV, China’s answer to Netflix, and was broadcast exclusively on its online video site. In spite of having a very low budget – it cost only Rmb20 million ($3 million) to produce and its cast is made up of new and unfamiliar faces – the show was watched 2.6 billion times before the censors ordered LeTV to pull it on Thursday.
So why was it so hot?
Critics say that it helps that each episode was no more than 30 minutes long, appealing to a young demographic with a shorter attention span. The fact that the series is broadcast on the online video site also allowed users to post comments and discuss the storyline with others, a move that makes watching it a lot more interactive.
Primarily, though, audiences seem drawn to the series for its storytelling. The show follows the escapades of a young man who swaps places with a princess in ancient China as he (or she) navigates the palace politics to become the Empress.
Despite what some have derided as a “ridiculous” concept, audiences have been hooked. “I have been up since 3am this morning and binge-watched 18 episodes in one go. I can’t stop myself,” admitted one netizen (with a longer attention span than most, admittedly).
“Even though the production values are very poor and the backdrop and costumes are so cheaply made, the show reminds me of stinky tofu [a popular fermented snack]: the smellier it is, the more delicious. If this historical drama is toxic, then I think I’m too addicted to be saved,” another fan gushed.
Aside from a good looking cast, the key to the show’s success is its humour. Even though Go Princess Go is a historical drama, it is at heart a comedy, while the language in the series is deliberately informal and colloquial.
Having a transgender angle also makes the series more topical. In fact, some commentators have argued that the show has broken down barriers in discussing gender change and homosexuality, subjects that don’t normally make it into mainstream Chinese drama.
How? Well, after the male protagonist becomes a princess, he finds himself falling in love with the crown prince. “We wanted to introduce something current and contemporary,” was how director Lü Haojiji described this plot device.
Needless to say, the show isn’t without its detractors. Jin Bo, a media commentator, calls it “lousy” , griping that it has managed to strike a chord with audiences because it appeals to “low-brow tastes”.
That seems to have been the verdict of media regulator SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) too. After the the season finale was aired last Saturday, rumours began circulating on weibo that SAPPRFT had demanded that the series be taken off air because it was “promoting indecency,” according to the Beijing Youth Daily. LeTV issued a statement denying the claim, but later in the week Xinhua indeed reported that the drama was no longer available as SAPPRFT had decided online sites’ content should be held to the same standards as that on mainstream television.
This verdict will upset not just fans of Go Princess Go but other viewers who have been flocking to watch online dramas precisely because SAPPRFT had ignored them, meaning they often enjoyed greater creative freedom than conventional TV shows.
It could be bad news for the cast too which was due to reassemble in mid-February to film a second season. That now looks in doubt, as does the rumoured proposal that a film version might be made for release in Chinese cinemas.
So a show that had a lot of go is now the latest in a long line of productions to suffer the censor’s no. Its fate indeed is similar to the popular time-travel drama Gong in 2011.
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