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Chinese occupational dramas reflect diverse aesthetics

GUO MEI and ZHANG YUTIAN | 2020-01-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
As the first TV series focusing on the logistics industry in China, On the Road zooms in on the entrepreneurial experience of a small character, fully demonstrating the challenges facing startups. Photo: FILE


In the market for Asian TV dramas, the occupational drama genre is flourishing. As an important realist genre, occupational dramas satisfy the audience’s desire to learn about different industries. After a long period of localized exploration, Chinese occupational dramas have become a new trend in the film and television market. 
By definition, occupational dramas refer to the TV series that tell the career stories of specific industries and the professional lives of workers.
In 2019, occupational dramas saw strong development, but the problems of increased quantity, poor quality, diverse themes and insufficient content prevails. To be specific, while high-quality TV series such as The Thunder and A Passionate Life  (Jiqing de Suiyue)have made waves across the nation, most occupational dramas are still haunted by ambiguous positioning and urban romance clichés. In addition, problems such as a lack of realistic characters, a lack of professionalism, and anticlimactic plots are also common.
Traditional occupational dramas
In general, the occupational drama can be roughly divided into those about mass industries and those about niche industries according to the number of employees in the featured workplace, among which mass industries can be further divided into traditional industries and emerging industries. 
Traditional industries refer to industries with a long history and mature production and operation practices. In 2019, TV dramas mainly cover characters such as health workers, architects, lawyers, security guards, chefs, teachers, scientists and researchers, soldiers and policemen, and people who work in finance and rural construction. Among them, the portrayals of soldiers and policemen took up the largest share of the market, and it is worth noting that sub-categories were more diverse than ever—detectives and special police during the period of the Republic of China, public security officers in the early stages of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and contemporary detectives, soldiers, forensic scientists, narcotics agents and anti-fraud police were all covered.
For example, the popular drama The Thunder is a heroic story revolving around a father and son who represent two generations of policemen as they risk their lives in the battle against illegal drug manufacturers and traffickers. The twists and turns in the plot combined with visual effects bring to life the detailed investigation processes of anti-drug operations. 
The breathless rhythm, pleasing visual style and vivid portrayal of emotions, coupled with the fine acting of young heartthrob Huang Jingyu and veteran actors Wu Gang, Wang Jinsong and Simon Yam, present the audience with a solid crime thriller. 
A Passionate Life tells the story of scientists and researchers devoting their lives to atomic bomb research in the Gobi Desert. Though the love romance of protagonists Wang Huaimin and Yang Jiarong is central to this drama, it does not steal the spotlight. To better represent the historical scene, the crew abandoned the film studio and braved the wind and sand to shoot in the harsh natural environment of the Gobi Desert. This spirit of rigor has also been an important factor in the drama’s positive reception.
The award-winning rural drama Fragrance of Wheat tells the story of army wife Mai Xiang (literally, the fragrance of wheat) working her way up to become an entrepreneur, thereafter helping her entire village attain prosperity. But unfortunately this drama failed to register ratings as successful as those of The Ordinary World, a TV drama adapted from Mo Yan’s novel of the same name. For one, Fragrance’s the rural theme seems to interest young audiences little. In addition, protagonist Mai Xiang’s behavior comes across as unrealistic. For example, she pays tuition for the children  of other people to go to school but lets her own daughter drop out, which to many audience members makes no sense.
Finance-themed dramas have long been popular with the market, and in 2019, they covered a number of hot occupations. Unbeatable You is about salesmen, When We Are Still Young focuses on publicity, while My True Friend and Pushing Hands center on real estate. 
Among them, My True Friend, which stars a number of highly popular young stars, recounts how the real estate rookie Cheng Zhenzhen rose to be a gold medal broker. The drama was designed to unveil the stories and lives of ordinary people in housing transactions. However, it fails to achieve that effect, and the reason can be partially attributed to the contrivance of the plot and unrealistic workplace atmosphere. In the end, it becomes a romantic drama under the guise of an occupational drama. The show is perhaps a warning sign that popular stars are no longer enough to make a drama popular.
Emerging themes
With the appeal of mass entrepreneurship and innovation, many new industries are emerging. Film and television practitioners have keenly captured this new trend and produced many stories focusing on emerging industries in 2019. For example, On the Road focuses on online express delivery. Go Go Squid!, Gank Your Heart and The King’s Avatar revolve around the esports industry. Retourner, Standing in Time and Nice to Meet You are about the fashion industry. The Brightest Star in the Night Sky and Next Top Star highlight the entertainment industry.
Among them, On the Road has received quite some attention. The series shows a clever integration of the internet and express industry. This story revolves around 20 years of ups and downs in Yao Yuan’s life. Yao fights to overcome many setbacks, having to launch his startup twice before achieving a breakthrough in the online express delivery field, revealing the difficulties and hardships of entrepreneurship. 
As the first TV series focusing on the logistics industry in China, this drama zooms in on the entrepreneurial experience of a small character, fully demonstrating the challenges facing startups. It also lets the audience see the arduous development of online express delivery. Unfortunately, the emotional subplots of this drama have been criticized.
There are also some considerably niche industries, even intangible industries, that have hit the screen this year, featuring such characters as pianists, wine tasters, cartoonists, pilots and toy designers. The TV series Memories of Peking sets its story in a pickle shop in 1947 Beijing. It displays well its careful choice of subject matter and the detailed production process of traditional Chinese pickles. It has been lauded by audiences.
Unfortunately, however, most dramas have failed to adequately illustrate professional lives. For example, in Sweetheart Pianists, the leading actor and actress compete in a contest where she falls in love with the actor at first sight, stirred by the actor’s piano talent. However, some knowledgeable viewers pointed out that the piece that the actress played was much more complex than that of the actor. 
Another example is Traditional Chinese Medicine. This show hires Chinese medicine consultants to ensure its professionalism, but at times the effort seems gratuitous, confusing the audience with half-classical Chinese, half-vernacular dialogue, jargon, and complicated ancient medicine names.
Going forward
It’s worth noting that in the past medical and legal dramas tended to be most popular, but in 2019 neither genre performed well. For example, China’s so-called first aerial medical rescue TV series Rush into Danger was troubled by confusing storytelling and performances, resulting in a flood of bad reviews.
To sum up, Chinese occupational dramas are on the rise in 2019, with the emergence of a number of high-quality dramas. In particular, dramas featuring emerging industries and niche industries cater to the diverse aesthetic needs of audiences. 
According to the list of dramas to be aired by major platforms in 2020, military, police and finance-themed dramas maintain a strong momentum. For example, People’s Property (Renmin de Caichan) has been selected into the list of 100 key TV series, and Like a Flowing River 2 will be broadcast in 2020. Legal and medical dramas are making a comeback, such as Healer of Children and The Gold Medal Lawyer, which have been highly anticipated. 
As for emerging industries, TV series focused on e-commerce, such as We Are Young and Rebirth of the Shopping Addict, are quite fresh. Niche industry dramas will touch upon broader themes such as Glory Table Tennis (Rongyao Pingpang)and the aviation industry in New Horizon. It is believed that occupational dramas with more diverse themes and forms in 2020 will bring audiences a refreshing visual feast. 
Going forward, the first step is to eliminate common sense mistakes and stress plot and dialogue, so as to avoid disappointing experts and critics or confusing normal viewers.
Second, the priority of occupational dramas should be to represent real workplace atmospheres. Therefore, romance and workplace scenes should be in proper proportion, so as to complement each other. 
Third, considering how some occupational dramas have received bad ratings due to obscure themes and fields, production crews need to polish scripts more carefully and adjust the storytelling to match their audiences. In addition, anticlimactic endings should be avoided. Plots should follow the audience’s desire as well as reality.
Guo Mei and Zhang Yutian are from the College of Cultural Creativity at Hangzhou Normal University.
edited by YANG XUE