Critically panned idol dramas see support from targeted demographic

2017-05-05 10:31:18Global Times Li Yan ECNS App Download

It seems that China's generation gap is growing wider, at least when it comes to period dramas aimed at younger audiences.

Two new dramas that have debuted recently, Song of Phoenix (Simeiren) and Fighter of the Destiny (Zetianji), have both been harshly panned by critics, yet still have a large following among young TV viewers in the Chinese mainland.

The shows' secret? They star some of China's most popular young idols.

Fighter of the Destiny has Chinese superstar Lu Han as its lead and Uyghur model/actress Gülnezer Bextiyar as his main love interest, while Song of Phoenix stars 27-year-old heartthrob Ma Ke.

Harsh criticism

Song of Phoenix, a period drama based on the life of ancient Chinese poet and politician Qu Yuan (circa 343BC-278BC), brought in 2.18 percent of audiences when it debuted on Hunan TV on April 28, making it the king of its prime time slot. Phoenix most likely has another show to thank for this extremely high rating: the incredibly popular anti-graft drama In the Name of People. Phoenix's premiere came immediately before the series finale of People; as such many of the viewers tuning in to the period drama were likely those who were waiting to watch People.

Yet this warm welcome was short-lived. The following day, when the second and third episodes of the 81-episode series aired, audience ratings dropped to 1.27 percent.

However, online, where a large percentage of young audiences consume media, the show is still performing strong. On streaming platform iQiyi, the show's first 10 episodes have received a total of 180 million views, for an average of around 18 million views per episode.

Meanwhile, the first 22 episodes of Fighter of the Destiny have received a total of 2 billion views on iQiyi, for an average of 90.9 million views per episode. According to iQiyi data, 51 percent of the show's viewers are under 30 years old.

Critically, however, both shows have extremely poor reviews.

"Song of Phoenix looks beautiful… but many netizens have been left wondering why a decent historical figure such as Qu Yuan has been distorted so much," wrote one review from news site "The show has an absurd plot and characters that just fall apart. Basically, except for some pretty faces, there is nothing worth admiring."

On Chinese media review site Douban, Phoenix has a 4.2/10 average from approximately 3,000 reviews, while Fighter holds a slightly higher 4.6/10 from more than 46,000 reviews.

"A serious historical drama has been made into an idol drama. The dialogue is embarrassing, the CGI effects are embarrassing," netizen Yizhushen Zhiming wrote on Douban in his review of Phoenix. A professional tutor of young students, he added that his students are obsessed with the show, which has led him to worry that dramas such as these may mislead younger generations into thinking that what the show presents is real history.

"Most of today's Chinese film and TV production companies rely on pop stars instead of producing quality works," he noted.

Fighter hasn't escaped unscathed either. In addition to poor review, famous figures in China are also reportedly taking a swipe at the show.

According to the entertainment site, Wang Sicong - the celebrity billionaire son of China's richest man, Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin - posted on his WeChat social media page that Fighter is the only TV drama he has seen in which "even the lead actor does not know how act."

Youthful tastes

Despite this criticism, both Phoenix and Fighter have managed to find fans among a section of the audience mainly composed of teenagers and young viewers in their early 20s.

This of course has much to do with the ability of the shows' stars to attract eyeballs.

"At first I watched Fighter of the Destiny because of Lu Han, but later I started to find the plot interesting, especially when the show focused on the lead character's fight against destiny. Because we post-1990 viewers are not a generation that believes in destiny, the show appeals to us," Duoduo, a 21-year-old college student in Beijing, told the Global Times.

Duoduo said she lives with five other young women. Among the six of them, half are Fighter fans.

Thirty-something Feng Nan in Tianjin is a reporter who has been covering TV drama news for years.

According to her, most of the fans who watch the two dramas are loyal fans of Lu, Gülnezer, and Ma.

While Feng is also a fan of Lu, she admits his acting is far from great, noting that she was only able to sit through a few episodes of Fighter.

"The younger generation fall in love with these types of works more easily because they have not seen many quality shows," Feng said.

"There are also those who know they are bad, but want to keep up with current trends and have something to talk about with their friends."

There are fans, however, who say they watch these shows because they actually like them.

Phoenix fan Peng Junjie, 22, told the Global Times that he is not obsessed with any of the idols in the show.

He rushed to defend Ma's portrayal of Qu.

"As long as he shows Qu's patriotism and grace in temperament, I can accept him in the role," he said.

"Due to commercial considerations and audiences' aesthetic demands, it's very normal for attractive stars to appear in shows," Peng said, explaining that while the actual historic figure of Qu probably was not all that attractive considering the time period in which he lived, TV dramas tend to need a pretty face to bring in viewers.


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