From a gritty epic about rural poverty to an outrageous cat-poisoning scene, here are the TV shows on everyone’s radar this year
With the year coming to an end, TV fans are left reflecting on a year of ups and downs for China’s TV shows. While some new dramas have exploded in popularity, a number of reality shows struggled with complaints of stagnant content, and even had to cancel their audience-voting components due to new government regulations aimed at reining in fan groups.
5. My Babylonian Lover (《我的巴比伦恋人》)
Once viewers get past the strange name, the odd-yet-clichéd storyline (a combination of time travel and romantic comedy) turns into a very enjoyable drama. On her 24th birthday, Chen Meiru, a network information censor, encounters an exotic stranger who calls himself a Babylonian prince and says he was “born” to love Chen. There’s also a princess who becomes Chen’s rival for the prince’s affections, and a best friend of the prince who is filthy rich.
All three of these characters emerged from a diary Chen wrote when she was 12—a diary that holds bad memories for Chen, since she was criticized by a teacher for its content.
The real value of the show lies in how it leads viewers on a journey with Chen as she learns to pay attention to sex and sex education, slowly discovering how to have a mature relationship and accept her own sexual desires without shame.
Douban rating (out of 10): 7.3
4. The Bond (《乔家的儿女》)
This powerful show sheds light on the strength of family ties. Five siblings live together with their selfish and indifferent father, after their mother passes away giving birth to the youngest child. The children are left to fend for themselves, with the oldest son forced to take responsibility for his siblings and give up his dreams for the sake of the family.
As they grow up, the strong bonds between the five siblings never fade, helping them endure hardships and support each other even when they are physically separated.
It is a heartwarming story and family-friendly throughout—a reminder that although life may take people in different directions, family bonds are permanent.
Douban rating (out of 10): 7.7
3. Delicious Romance (《爱很美味》)
This was another dark horse from the second half of 2021. Despite its cheesy name, this show comes highly recommended if you love big city dramas. Released in November, this 20-episode series has jumped to the top of the list for hit shows at the time of writing. The story revolves around three women working in the city (as a food blogger, a TV anchor, and a successful corporate manager) and their love lives, careers, and dilemmas ranging from sexual harassment to unsatisfying sex lives and LGBTQ issues.
These portrayals have struck a chord with audiences, who have lauded the show’s realism and humor—in one scene, a wife discovered her husband was having an affair because an epidemiological researcher came to the door asking if her husband was a close contact of another woman, who turned out to be his mistress. Viewers felt the three characters of this female-centric drama accurately represent ordinary women, working hard to make a living and find love in big cities.
Douban rating (out of 10): 8.4
2. The Awakening Age (《觉醒年代》)
It wasn’t just modern urban dramas that attracted audiences this year: The Awakening Age, a historical drama about the founding of the Communist Party of China, also proved a massive hit.
Released around the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Party in July 1921, the show drew praise from viewers for its inspiring portrayal of the danger, sacrifice, and hardship experienced by early members of the Party. This “Red” TV drama has been successful in making Party history attractive to young people.
Douban rating (out of 10): 9.3
1. Mining Town (《山海情》)
Another release for the 100th anniversary of the CPC, this 23-episode story relates the real-life poverty alleviation efforts of a poor and barren county in the northwestern Ningxia region since the 1990s, locals were asked to move out to a more livable and developed region, supported by the relatively wealthier Fujian province as a cross-provincial assistance project, but the resettlement scheme faced rejection from many villagers who were reluctant to leave their ancestral homes.
The eventual migration was full of challenges, ranging from dust storms choking the travelers en route, to a lack of electricity and clean water in the resettlement area. The village cadre, a recent university graduate named Ma Defu, spends several decades helping the displaced villagers boost their living standards and businesses in the relocated region.
The characters’ accents are deemed to be highly authentic of China’s rural northwest, and audiences also praised the show for not hiding some of the less positive aspects of official poverty alleviation campaigns.
Douban rating (out of 10): 9.3
5. Star of Ocean (《星辰大海》)
Dubbed a “Middle-age Mary Sue (中年玛丽苏)” drama, this TV series centers around the love story between an ordinary but hardworking woman Jian Ai and a bossy CEO Fang Hengzhi, both in middle age. The heroine, Jian Ai, was born into a poor family but never gave up striving. With relentless effort, Jian climbs the social ladder from small restaurant waitress to owner of a multinational company. But viewers didn’t buy it, in part because 43-year-old actress Liu Tao plays the 18-year-old main character, but also because of the campy and brainless plot: Jian leaves a deep impression on the CEO only because she accidentally spills hot coffee on him, and every male character seems to loves her for no special reason.
The show somewhat redeemed itself by throwing a spotlight on gender issues. For instance, how some girls in rural areas are still essentially “sold” into marriage by their families to get a “brideprice” to pay for their brothers’ marriage.
Douban rating (out of 10): 4.9
4. New Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (《新天龙八部》)
Why are some TV series so keen on ruining classics? This show is the sixth remake of legendary wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (《天龙八部》) by Jin Yong (金庸), also known as Louis Cha, and it is quite possibly the worst of the lot. The story follows the adventures of three brothers, who at first work against each other but finally forge a strong brotherhood during their journey in jianghu, the semi-mystical world of Chinese wuxia.
Along the way, the new adaptation makes some confusing “improvements” to the plot. For example in Cha’s version, the first time that Duan Yu, a generous and well-mannered prince from Dali, encounters his beloved Wang Yuyan, he greets her as a humble gentleman. However, in this series, Duan kneels to the ground to worship Wang, and when servants drag him away, the camera gives a close-up shot of a pool of urine where Duan has just been kneeling. Maybe the screenwriter just wanted to show the character’s astonishment, but many viewers felt this scene was crass and unsuited to Duan’s noble nature.
Douban rating (out of ten): 3.4
3. Falling into Your Smile (《你微笑时很美》)
This was a glorious year for esports in China, with EDG winning its first League of Legends world championship title in November, but this TV series about gaming failed to impress.
On the surface, it’s an esports romance that tells how amateur gamer Tong Yao grew to be the first female professional esports player in China. However, the show has been slammed for sexism and misogyny: for example, Lu Sicheng, the male leader of Tong’s team, always calls Tong “Dwarf” due to her short statue, and constantly criticizes her appearance.
On top of that, there’s little to no character growth for Tong or any of her teammates, and the plot switches focus to Tong and Lu’s married life after they win an esports championship. In essence, it’s a conventional love story with an esports backdrop, with the sport having little relevance to the plot or character development. The drama presents winning esports championships as effortless—just a matter of playing computer games every day, while also having plenty of time to flirt and date.
The drama also received a sharp backlash when Tong’s ex-boyfriend chose to lose an esports game against Tong on purpose to show his regrets and love for her. Viewers felt this was disrespectful of real esports players’ talents and hard work.
Douban rating (out of ten): 3.0
2. Cute Programmer (《程序员那么可爱》)
Someone thought the world needed another gender-reversal rom-com—they were wrong. In this dire drama, Lu Li falls for genius programmer Jiang Yicheng and wants to join his startup to get close to him. However, Jiang’s company doesn’t recruit any female employees, so Lu cuts her hair to disguise herself as a man in order to get hired.
The romance, full of clichés and sexism, also had viewers struggling to believe the premise. What about Lu’s ID card and the medical exam Chinese employers often require new recruits to take? And Lu’s “cunning” disguise just makes her look like a woman with short hair.
Even more upsettingly, how is a company still refusing to hire female employees in 2021? Is the issue of gender discrimination in the workplace really of little value beyond a clunky plot device? Oh and of course, the whole drama has little to do with coding.
Douban rating (out of ten): 2.8
1. Marvelous Women (《当家主母》)
Here it is: The lowest of the low for 2021. This 35-episode drama follows two female love rivals who are both part of a large family of leading textile weavers in Suzhou in the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911): the childhood sweetheart and the powerful but virtuous wife of Ren Xuetang, the head of the family, who put aside their differences and work together to restore the declining family business. The series is supposed to help spread traditional Chinese weaving culture, suggests the director Yu Zheng.
While the show is nothing special, it is not terrible, either. But it ignited the ire of audiences because the producers appeared to poison a cat during one scene, which drove the rating down almost overnight, from 5.1 to 2.8.
Douban rating (out of ten): 2.8