Hailed as one of the best legal dramas on television, The Good Wife was broadcast on the US network CBS between 2009 and 2016. It followed the career of Alicia Florrick, the wife of a newly disgraced state attorney jailed for paying for prostitutes with government funds. Florrick re-enters the legal profession as a junior associate at a firm whose partners include an old flame from college. The show follows her progress as she gets back on her feet and develops a new sense of self.
In China, a new drama that viewers say is heavily ‘influenced’ by The Good Wife is now a ratings hit. Rose War, which stars actress Yuan Quan in the lead role, shadows some of the plotlines of the US drama to a tee.
The series, which airs on state broadcaster CCTV and is streaming on iQiyi and Tencent Video, follows Gu Nian (played by Yuan) as she finds her life in tatters after her husband, also a lawyer, is snared in a bribery and sex scandal. Just like Florrick, Gu has to ask an old friend Feng Sheng (played by Huang Xiaoming) for a job at his law firm. There, she competes with younger and slicker colleagues for the one associate job up for grabs. Through her hard work, she eventually wins over the female partner at the firm Ling Yi (playing the Diane Lockhart-style role is Yu Feihong).
The similarity between the American and Chinese shows extends far beyond the plotline. To give the show a more American feel, Gu’s family lives in a single-family house, a relative rarity in China’s first-tier cities where apartment living prevails. To welcome neighbours that have just moved in next door, she brings over a roast chicken, unremarkable when Florrick does it in a US suburb but striking Chinese audiences as bizarre when Gu does so, given that gifting freshly roasted poultry is largely unheard of in China.
Huang’s character, meanwhile, is modelled on Florrick’s boss Will Gardner to such a degree that he tosses a baseball around the office, just like the fictional Chicago lawyer (odd, once again, given most Chinese are unfamiliar with the sport).
“What’s wrong with the screenwriters in China? I’m not going to ask why Huang Xiaoming’s character plays baseball, but I must find out; moreover, why would you send Yuan Quan to her neighbour’s house with a chicken, what kind of Chinese person does that?” one netizen mocked.
“Based on what we can see so far, it is obvious that Rose War has lifted a lot of story lines from The Good Wife. A lot of the names were directly translated from the US drama [for instance, David Lee, another partner at the firm, is called Li Dawei in the Chinese show]. Even the characters in the legal cases are totally the same,” another wrote.
Even though the series has done well in terms of ratings, another complaint from audiences is that there’s too much airbrushing of the leading actresses’ faces to make them appear more youthful. “What is puzzling is that, in general, there is little airbrushing on Rose War, but Yuan Quan and Yu Feihong seem to get special treatment. When they are in the same frame as the other actors only they seem to be completely wrinkle-free,” one critic noticed. “What the show doesn’t understand is that this affects not only their performances but also takes away all the wisdom from their faces.”
Another problem with the show, critics argue, is that Rose War focuses too much on the romantic tension between the two leads – to the degree that the practice of law soon becomes almost an afterthought in later episodes.
Localising the cases litigated is also an issue. “The legal consultant for this drama is Yingke [a major Chinese law firm], but the show is plagued with so many flaws in logic,” one viewer complained on Douban.
Most of the criticism from viewers, however, related to the areas of similarity with the series that inspired it. “While declaring that the series is totally original, the blatant ‘copy and paste’ shows that it is anything but. The more people love The Good Wife, the more they hate Rose War,” decided Zhengdian Guanying, a TV and film critic.
The challenge, Entertainment Unicorn reckons, is that legal dramas in China are often heavily censored if they are inspired by real-life events or follow plotline with connotations that are critical of the government. That makes them riskier for their producers, which typically tone them down to avoid difficulties with the censors.
“Suspense and legal-themed dramas often walk a tightrope when it comes to censorship. That’s because they involve topics that often touch on too many real-life cases. Getting them approved is a big problem. As a result, the dramas that are allowed for broadcast often express themes that toe the ideological line. And over time, investors become less willing to invest in the genre, actors are less willing to perform in them, the market gets smaller and the vicious cycle continues,” the showbiz news site lamented.
By contrast one of the elements that made the early seasons of The Good Wife so compelling was that many of the legal cases in the storylines were based on real examples. It helped that the show’s executive producer Craig Turk had practiced as an attorney in California and Washington DC, and three of the writers also had legal backgrounds. Moreover the show tapped into political storylines that it made it a must-watch even for senior political figures.
For instance, when the scandal surrounding messages sent via Hillary Clinton’s home server became big news one of the quirkier revelations from the leaked emails was that she watched The Good Wife too.
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