As mysteriously as it was yanked from the television schedules in the first place, White Deer Plain made its way back to the small screen last week. There was no explanation for its initial disappearance, but there were clues in what remains of the series. It is being reported that the censors have cut so much material out of the show that it has gone from 85 episodes to 76 (see WiC364).
The backers of White Deer Plain must be thankful that it’s got to see the light of day. Previously there was – as it turns out now, incorrect – speculation that it was the show’s producers that pulled it to avoid direct competition with In the Name of the People, the biggest hit so far this year. But the timing of its rerelease means it will face even more competition for viewers, as it is now up against the second season of Ode to Joy, one of the breakout dramas of last year.
Ode to Joy, which is sometimes referred to as China’s Sex and the City, features starlets Liu Tao and Jiang Xin and follows the stories of five women who form a strong but unlikely friendship in Shanghai. Yuan Zidan, the show’s writer, has promised that the second series will tackle more sensitive topics, including society’s focus on female (pre-marital) virginity and (of course) the country’s obsession with home ownership.
The first episode was broadcast last Friday and some of the response has been sharp, with viewers already complaining about the pace of the plot and the unwieldy storylines. More conservative viewers have complained about all the talk about female virginity, calling it a low point in Chinese television. On Douban, the film and TV review platform, the series has started out with a poor rating of just 5.2 stars out of 10.
Meanwhile, White Deer Plain, which is based on the book of the same name, has dropped to fifth and tenth place in the key ratings (there are separate rankings as the series is broadcast simultaneously on Jiangsu Satellite TV and Anhui Satellite TV).
The story follows the struggles of two rural families in an impoverished part of Shaanxi province between the end of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, tackling weighty historical and social issues across the generations.
Its reviewers on Douban have been far more positive, with contributors saying that the drama has managed to capture the spirit of the original novel (a tough ask: the previous movie version of the book was the most delayed in Chinese cinematic history, see WiC165).
In fact, for some people, the series is even more engrossing than the book. “For a film or TV series to work, it needs to use the littlest amount of footage, the smallest amount of time and the most concise screenplay to convey the maximum amount of information. So a scriptwriter needs to decide which details are best to leave out and what are best to include together,” says ThePaper.cn. “Just from the first three episodes, we can see that White Deer Plain has accomplished that. It manages to maintain the essence and spirit of the original work while making the story more dramatic and fascinating.”
Beijing News also reckons that the series is one of the best produced on television. “The TV version of White Deer Plain shows all the charms that are in the novel, from the costumes to the props. Even though it has made some deviation from the original plot, the changes are understandable and they don’t affect the story as a whole. If anything, it shows that the writers are diligent about adapting the screenplay,” it applauds.
Reviewers blame the heavier subject matter for the relatively disappointing viewer numbers. “Period dramas are different from costume dramas: they don’t have the fancy lavish outfits and the story is generally too serious. And besides, this one is about the countryside, so you can’t help but assume that the drama is going to be really dull,” one rather peeved netizen admits.
Financially, it will also be difficult for the series to break even, says China Financial Observer. In contrast, the second season of Ode to Joy has already recouped its initial investment from advertising and product placement. Entertainment Capital, an industry blog, says the least prominent placement on the show was priced at more than Rmb4.5 million ($653,205).
“While ‘dramas of conscience’ are beautiful titles, in today’s market, most of them simply do not generate good returns,” it says. “Look at White Deer Plain, the harsh censorship is only one of the obstacles it confronts. On the other hand, while audiences complain about the writing from Ode to Joy being morally loose, the reality is that they continue to tune in day after day.”
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