In the reality show The Apprentice – which first aired in 2004 – contestants competed for a chance to head one of Donald Trump’s companies. The show was a huge ratings winner and has a plausible claim as a key contributor to getting Trump into the White House.
Equivalent formats don’t have much chance of catapulting their own hosts into similar political office, of course. But a reality show in China about a group of young lawyers competing for a spot at a prestigious law firm has been one of the best-rated TV series since its debut on Tencent Video in mid-November.
The Exciting Offer brings together eight young lawyers from the post-1990s generation to battle it out for a full-time position at JunHe, one of the largest law firms in China. Four partners at the firm are assigned to award the final two contestants job offers. Well-known TV show hosts like He Jiong and Sa Beining – a former host of a programme aired on state television called Legal Report – watch from the studio and offer commentaries.
The first season last year showed more of a camaraderie than a rivalry between the contestants. The series also offered viewers tips on how to succeed in job interviews and navigate workplace politics. But the second season has not been as well received. For a start viewers have complained that the majority of contestants are children of privilege. For instance, one participant, after rattling off a list of exotic locales he has visited, casually mentions that he was accepted to study at Stanford and Oxford (he chose the former). Another drives a Porsche to work.
“Is this show a competition about these peoples’ abilities or to see who is richer?” one netizen mocked.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the contestants’ educational backgrounds and the partners appear very impressed with Wang Xiao, the aforementioned Stanford graduate, and don’t ask him too many probing questions during the first-round interview.
On the other hand, they seem more dismissive when interviewing Ding Hui, 29, a graduate of East China University of Political Science and Law. Ding was also ranked last in all of the challenges.
“It seems like Ding’s academic qualifications have already determined his future success, no matter how hard he works to change the outcome,” one critic commented.
Others watching the show also complained that it was sexist. In one episode, the female contestants were asked how they would prioritise between family and career (if the same question was asked of the male contestants, producers chose not to show it).
“It is hard to believe that the show would so boldly include a question that reflects such distorted values,” another netizen thundered.
East China University’s Ding also sparked controversy over his ‘naked resignation’ – a local term for quitting a job before being offered new employment. Ding explains to the four partners that he had left a position at another law firm for a chance to appear on the show, meaning he didn’t have a back-up plan if the internship at JunHe failed to pan out. He admitted that the move was risky, citing the idiom bei shui yi zhan (背水一战, or fighting with one’s back to the river).
While some applauded Ding’s determination and spirit, the partners at JunHe did not agree, saying that he came off as overconfident and trying too hard.
Another gripe was his unconventional resume (Ding worked in a sales job – the horror – before going to law school). The partners said this kind of background would never have made it through the filtering process at the firm’s recruitment team. Strangely, it didn’t even sit well with them when Ding admitted that he wanted to become a lawyer because it was a more prestigious career.
Ding’s honesty struck more of a chord with audiences, however, with many saying that he was the truer reflection of working-class Chinese today. “There are so many people like Ding Hui in the workplace. They don’t have a glamorous background but they are passionate, hardworking and earnest,” another netizen gushed.
“Ding represents all of us working-class folk: he doesn’t have any outstanding family pedigree; he did not graduate from a prestigious school, nor is he a fuerdai (a second- generation rich kid) with a silver spoon,” one critic wrote. “And while everyone else in the interviews gushes about their love for the law, only Ding admits that he chose the legal profession because it would elevate his social status. Maybe that’s not what people wanted to hear, but as a commoner, we understood his every word.”
Others said they had to stop watching the series because it was creating too much anxiety about their own job prospects. “The Exciting Offer is a reality show that induces a lot of stress. I would suggest that college students avoid it,” one netizen warned.
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