The kids ain’t alright

Why has a new 12-episode drama from iQiyi won acclaim?


The three child stars of The Bad Kids

Less has turned out to be more for audiences of the biggest breakout drama on online video-streaming platform iQiyi this year.

The Bad Kids, which was adapted from a popular novel, follows the story of three children (Xiao Bai, Xiao Hei and Pu Pu) after they accidentally film a man (played by actor Qin Hao) pushing his parents-in-law off a cliff to their deaths.

Their lives become more complicated when they try to extort money out of the murderer (to help pay the medical bills of Pu Pu’s sick brother). As the story unfolds, the children reveal that they are not so innocent after all…

On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the show received a stellar rating of 8.9 out of 10, rendering it the most highly rated show on television this year.

Actress Zhang Ziyi is also a fan. “After watching so many American and British dramas for so many years, I finally found a Chinese drama that can compete against them. The Bad Kids, as a whole, is very well-produced. From the young actors to the trained ones, they all delivered… At 12 episodes in length, it’s just right, worth a watch,” she gushed on her personal weibo.

It is rather unusual for a drama series to be this short in China. Many are notoriously long, often stretching to more than 50 episodes a season. The reason for this often has to do with how online streaming platforms pay the production studios. In general, studios are compensated by episode. As a result, many have stretched their storylines (or ‘watered-down’ in Chinese parlance) in pursuit of bigger payouts.

“At a time when celebrities’ salaries have skyrocketed, the only way for studios to make money is to stretch the length of the show. That’s why a lot of TV dramas in China are so long. Short-suspense dramas don’t make any money,” Ran Caijing explains.

But netizens say they find The Bad Kids so compelling because it is short. “The producers certainly have a conscience. The rhythm of the show is well-paced, keeping it at just 12 episodes. I am sick of watching more than 50 or 60-episode TV dramas with all the unnecessary plot twists and product placements,” one critic wrote.

The plot of The Bad Kids also dwells on social issues: Xiao Bai’s parents are divorced, which led to his mother putting intense pressure on her son to excel in school. His father prefers to spend time with his new wife and daughter. Meanwhile, Xiao Hei’s father is a convicted criminal with a mental illness, who is locked in prison. In fact, the three children become friends because they are lonely and neglected.

“The title The Bad Kids clearly points to Zhu Chaoyang (Xiao Bai). Even the killer couldn’t beat this little kid in the end… But what destroys him is the divorce of his parents. His mother is clearly not a good educator. But then again, no parent is a saint. If society was more caring, more tolerant, more helpful towards single mothers, perhaps she would have been a different person? And perhaps Zhu Chaoyang’s life would also be different?”, ThePaper.cn mused.

Critics reckon that despite the enduring success of idol dramas – frothy soap operas with heart-throb actors – the strong word-of-mouth about this series gives hope that audiences want weightier fare. “The fact that the popularity of The Bad Kids has exploded suggests that the market has always cared about the quality of TV shows,” says 36Kr. “The problem is, audiences receive a lot of information every day and it is difficult to sniff out good wine in a crowded alley. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a nose for it. If the wine is placed in a well-ventilated area, giving everyone a chance to smell it, I think we will all follow the fragrance.”

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