“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Over the years, China has explored plenty of family woes on television: between husband and wife; parents and children; and, of course, relationships with the in-laws, to name but a few.
But since its premiere in early August, Go Ahead, a series on Hunan Satellite TV about a different family dynamic, has been the biggest hit drama in the country.
The story revolves around three teenagers – Ling Xiao (played by Song Weilong), He Ziqiu (Zhang Xincheng) and Li Jianjian (the actress Tan Songyun) – who grow up in broken families. Ling’s mother was hospitalised in an accident; while He’s parents left him behind when he was young. Li’s mother died when she was little. But even though they are not blood-related, the three grow up to be best friends, becoming a ‘family’ of their own, living together with two of the fathers.
On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the drama has a strong rating of 7.2 out of 10. Part of the reason the show has been a ratings hit is that it is light-hearted and upbeat, despite telling the story of three pretty dysfunctional upbringings. Choosing to focus on teenage characters, too, has made it easy for young audiences to relate.
But the unusual family structure has piqued viewer interest as well. Chinese culture traditionally puts the family or clan at the core of the Confucian social order and makes it central to the interactions of the individuals concerned. This is symbolised by the vast family banquets during Chinese New Year, which see attendees travel hundreds of miles to their hometowns to reunite with their kin. Blood ties also count for more in what is often described as a ‘low-trust’ society and in communities where a lot of commercial activity is transacted through family networks. All of which has made the unconventional ‘family’ in Go Ahead such a talking point among audiences and television critics alike.
“The creative storytelling, coupled with emotional plot lines such as family, friendship and love are presented, which not only enriches the story but also attracts a much more diverse group of audiences,” reckons Entertainment Capital.
“There’s laughter and there’s tears, it has such a hold over audiences’ emotions we just can’t get enough of it,” a netizen agreed.
The series also raises the question, what really makes a family? One of the most memorable scenes sees Li’s father holding the hands of the two boys, who now live under his roof, and tell them: “We are not related by blood, we don’t even share the same last name, but we will always be family.”
China Youth Daily voices its support for the unconventional family format as well: “In reality, we hurt those who love us the most. Therefore, the show wants to inspire us to cherish our family and happiness. Through the heartwarming stories about the three teenagers, it wants to convey that there is true love in this world that goes beyond blood.”
However, as the series progresses, (spoiler alert) the relationships between the ‘siblings’ turn into something of a love triangle, which quickly led to criticism from fans on social media. “It is rare to see such upbeat family drama in China. But please, screenwriters, please, don’t put the ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ into a romantic relationship. It’s just messed up!” one fan pleaded.
“I can’t accept family romances. Even if it is between those who are not blood-related,” another complained.
(For the more literary-minded, the love triangle hints at comparisons with the relationship between Jia Baoyu and his two cousins in The Dream of the Red Chamber, a classic eighteenth century novel that was later turned into one of China’s best-loved ‘family drama’ television shows; see WiC293.)
With ratings continuing to climb, Go Ahead’s producers can afford to ignore a few grumbles from netizens. “Given the longevity of the genre, family dramas need more innovation and breakthroughs. In addition to interesting storytelling and fresh topics, the ability to touch audiences is also important. Only a script that is in sync with reality and with natural acting can deliver high-quality family dramas,” declared Entertainment Capital.
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