Dead serious

Tencent Video makes TV hit by mixing history with forensic science

Su Xiaotong-w

Su Xiaotong: breakout performance in The Imperial Coroner

The longest-running crime series in Britain and one of the most enduring anywhere — at 23 seasons – is BBC’s Silent Witness. Like the American TV series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Silent Witness features a central female character who leads a team of forensic scientists and their investigations into various crimes and murders.

In China, a new show about a female forensic expert has also become a hit. The Imperial Coroner, which is set in the Tang Dynasty, tells the story of a young girl named Chu Chu (played by Su Xiaotong), who travels to the capital city Chang’an in the hope of becoming a coroner. There, she meets Prince Xiao (played by Wang Ziqi), who has been put in charge of all criminal investigations in the country. Together, the two solve cases around the nation. Before long, they stumble upon the disappearance of Prince Xiao’s father, whom many thought had died, though his body was never found. Of course, during the process, the pair also develop romantic feelings for each other.

The show has become a sleeper hit in China. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, more than 153,000 reviews gave The Imperial Coroner a strong rating of 8.3 out of 10 (for comparison, in 2020, only 19 TV series had scores over 8). It has also clocked up over 700 million views on Tencent Video.

Its success has been a pleasant surprise for Tencent Video, as the online streaming platform did little to promote the show. The series reportedly cost less than Rmb50 million ($7.8 million) to make, a small sum by today’s standards. Prior to its release, netizens even mocked the entire cast as “E-listers”.

So far, its popularity has been down to word-of-mouth recommendations. But what sets the show apart? For a start, the two young actors give an agile and natural performance, while the screenplay earned high marks from viewers too. Critics says there aren’t many plot holes orinconsistencies that distract from the story, a problem that many Chinese crime dramas have encountered in the past .

“Compared with the recent wave of idol dramas, its plot is full of twists and surprises. The two leads, too, come across as genuine, which is rare these days. The plot also respects audiences’ intelligence and that I think is the biggest reason the show is so popular,” one entertainment industry blogger gushed.

Fans of the show says the screenplay also stays more focused on solving cases rather than the romance between the two leads.

“In the past idol dramas and those set in historical periods are all about the love story – fighting crimes becomes something of an afterthought or just a backdrop,” another TV critic opined. “I think this is what draws me to the show, when the characters don’t just get blinded by the pursuit of love and lose all sense of purpose.”

The series was written by two female screenwriters, one of whom (Qingxian Yatou) is the author of the original online novel from which the show was adapted. The other has no prior work released under her name. Nevertheless, together, the two seemingly inexperienced screenwriters have produced one of the most highly-rated TV series of 2021.

Their unique perspective also moves the female friendship in the show in unexpected directions.

Instead of pitting the two female characters against each other in vying for the attention of the male lead – a typical plotline in Chinese dramas – Chu Chu and supporting female character Leng Yue, played by another young actress Zhao Yaoke, strike up a relationship that goes beyond camaraderie.

In one scene, the skilled fighter Leng tries to protect Chu Chu from enemies and is injured as a result. “You need to stop crying,” she comforts Chu Chu, who feels guilty for putting her friend in danger. “Women protecting women is right and fair. There’s no need to feel bad.”

While the characters are completely fictional, Qingxian Yatou explains that she chose the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) as a backdrop because it was a historical period in which women enjoyed relatively similar social freedoms to men.

“The liberal attitude towards gender roles in the Tang Dynasty was able to give us a lot of creative freedom. Even though there was still the existence of class, men and women were able to express their admiration for each other and show mutual respect for the other sex,” she told ThePaper.cn.

The success of The Imperial Coroner suggests that Chinese audiences are becoming more discerning, drawn to a drama’s substance. Another TV series on Tencent Video that was released around the same time was Miss The Dragon, which boasts actors with large online followings like Wang Hedi and Zhu Xudan. It received a miserable score of 3.8 on Douban and was slammed for poor acting and its even worse screenplay.

“The fact that The Imperial Coroner has such strong word-of-mouth, as well as huge ratings, proves that audiences’ response to a drama is not based on the popularity of the stars. All the details both in front and behind the camera are what determines whether a show is attractive. When the market values quality, the overall development of the industry must be heading in a positive direction. The improvement in the quality of online dramas in recent years has confirmed that trend,” another TV critic concluded.

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