Would Sex and the City have the same appeal without some of its more risqué scenes? When TBS, a cable network in the US, acquired the syndication rights to the HBO series, it took out all the explicit sex scenes and nudity to keep it family-friendly. “I don’t think anyone watched it for sex and nudity,” a TBS executive told the New York Times.
China is discovering that its own version of Sex and the City may not need the erotic stuff either. That’s lucky since the country’s censors have been taking their scissors in recent months to “irregular sexual behaviour” like one-night stands and other depictions of “sexual freedom” on TV.
Since its premiere in mid-April, Ode to Joy, which is based on a book of the same name, has dominated the ratings on two of the leading satellite TV networks and accumulated more than 3 billion views on the five online streaming sites that own the broadcasting rights to the show (the first season wrapped last week). It was also the most talked-about show online, generating almost 4 billion tweets on Sina Weibo.
Taking its cues from the American hit, the plot of Ode to Joy revolves around five fashionable women living in the same building in Shanghai who forge an unlikely friendship after an elevator accident.
The similarity with the US series ends there. The characters are distinctly Chinese: Qu Xiaoxiao comes from a wealthy family; An Di has worked on Wall Street; the other three, Fan Shengmei, Guan Sui’er and Qiu Yingying, are from humbler roots and share an apartment together (a typical living arrangement for less affluent, single Chinese urbanites). The show follows the five women as they navigate their way through relationships and careers while staying close friends.
The audience – mostly female – seems to identify with the characters on the screen: “Whether you are working hard in a big city, or just an ordinary person trying to get by, you’d have experienced the ups and downs in life,” one netizen wrote on weibo. “When I’m watching the show, I feel like I’m a combination between Sui’er and Yingying. But in the workplace, I resonate more with An Di [played by Liu Tao, who came to prominence in The Good Wife, see WiC185]. But I wish I were more like Xiaoxiao, who is such a free spirit.”
“Ode to Joy is close to the real life of urban women. Sometimes, I see my own experiences in the drama,” another netizen claims.
While the main themes of the series are independence and friendship, it also addresses some of the issues that single women in China are confronting in the dating scene today. “What do you do when you find yourself dating a man who is a loser? How do you feel about being intimate in a relationship? And then there’s the discussion about money, social status and China’s traditional gender preference for sons. All of these topics are played out in the show. So it’s no wonder that the series resonated with so many people,” says the Beijing News.
At its core, Ode to Joy can be deeply cynical. Some of the most biting lines go to the 31-and-still-single Fan, played by actress Jiang Xin. When her friend tells her to keep an open mind about an older suitor (who is largely unaccomplished), she counters: “A man in his forties can still be considered a growth stock? Then he must really be hiding his potential too well. At this rate, he might still be growing by the time he turns 50 or 60. If you don’t cut your losses quickly, you might find yourself being stuck as the controlling shareholder.”
In another episode, she lambasts her friend for being shallow: “He’s handsome? That’s great,” she says sarcastically. “So what if he’s 1.8 metres tall, it’s all legs below the waist anyway. Can his legs go out and make money? The only thing he can do is to impress young and simple-minded girls like you. If you marry him that is no different from committing suicide.”
Some find the humour too close to the bone, saying that the five women are “too real, too snobbish, too vain” (in one episode, after receiving a box of chocolates from a boyfriend, one of the women goes online to find out the value of the gift). Others say that the series exaggerates class difference in China, with the two characters from the upper class falling in love with men who are rich and handsome, while the three from poorer backgrounds are stuck with “losers”, says Qianlong Net, a Hunan-based news portal.
Yuan Zidan, the screenwriter of the show, says the criticisms do not bother him: “We are trying to avoid traditional plotlines. We didn’t cherry-pick, nor did we try to highlight or downplay certain characteristics of women. The five girls represent different types of women, and with that, five different types of families.”
Critiques aside, a hit’s a hit: producers have already announced that the second season of the series will start filming in September.
Keeping track: After billions of views online and on TV, Ode to Joy is now China’s most successful drama, vying with South Korean hits like My Love Who Came from the Stars and Descendants of the Sun. The second season of the drama has been scheduled for September and producers have told commercial sponsors that slots will cost Rmb.4.5 million each. Should the show – which stars Liu Tao – match the number of corporate partners in season one, that would imply sponsorship revenue of close to Rmb110 million ($16.77 million). Much of this income will come from product placement – local media has noted that in season one as many as 10 companies had their wares on display in a single scene. Sponsors have included Apple and Evian, although other local corporate supporters such as the nut firm Three Squirrels and Xiangpiaopiao Milk Tea may be less well known to WiC readers.
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