Personally I feel 2016 has been a rather lackluster year for dramas, and there wasn’t a single show that had me completely invested. My standards have risen exponentially after a slew of good dramas in late 2015, and I’m hoping some of the shows from the 2017 lineup will make up for the disappointment this year. That being said, I probably have missed out on a couple of gems this year, so feel free to suggest your favourites below.
This is my first time reviewing anything, so do bear with my ramblings as I try and figure everything out. I also owe a huge thanks to the team at CFensi, especially 0kuo0 and idarklight, for patiently answering all my questions and making sure I settled in with minimal hiccups. All productions are listed in the order they aired, and I’ve also included some short commentary on dramas I dropped.
The Imperial Doctress 女医·明妃传
The Imperial Doctress was touted as a female-centric medical drama, though that went down the drain after about 15 episodes. Sadly, the plot wasn’t the only thing that fell apart – the screenwriter sacrificed Qiyu’s characterisation to make room for Yunxian and Zhu Qizhen’s romance and chose to glamourise the latter in the most unsubtle way possible (Yes, I’m very salty about that).
It didn’t help that Zhu Qizhen was practically a rehash of Jin Yuanbao from Perfect Couple before he was captured by the Oirats, and then suddenly grew a brain when he came back. Qiyu’s transition from romantic prince who had a great sense of political acumen to gullible and insecure Emperor was awkward and forced – props to Huang Xuan for doing what he could to salvage the character. This is also the first time I’ve seen up-and-coming actress Jin Chen, and despite how unlikeable Wang Meilin was, at least she played it with aplomb.
Aside from the aforementioned actors, the only other positives were the theme songs by Lala Hsu and the exquisite costumes, which I assume was possible due to the extra investment from New Classics Media (the company behind upcoming big-budget drama Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace).
The last Tangren drama I enjoyed was 2011’s Bu Bu Jing Xin 步步惊心, and was hoping this drama would return said company to its former glory. Quite unfortunate that The Imperial Doctress was hindered by a terrible script. Although with China’s current market, how many dramas aren’t?
Ode to Joy 欢乐颂
This was one of the more ‘realistic’ offerings of the year (as realistic as dramas can get), and the story actually gave me some food for thought. Compared to other dramas this year, I could at least empathise with some of our protagonists in this drama.
Everyone’s acting was on point, although Jiang Xin’s nuanced performance was the best thing about this show. Fan Shengmei carefully treads the line between being sympathetic and exasperating, and the character slowly won me over as the drama delved deeper into her family conflicts. An Di was a bit too unrealistic (Liu Tao is still awesome though), Qiu Yingying was too naïve and annoying, Guan Ju’er was decent but quite forgettable when compared to the other five, while Qu Xiaoxiao…well, I’m still holding out hope that Season 2 will give us her backstory so some of her actions can be justified.
I was really excited to see Zu Feng in a modern drama and I actually thought Qi Dian was perfectly fine at the beginning – given his history as a failed entrepreneur, it seemed normal that he had to make sure every ‘transaction’ benefited him. However, I lost all respect for the character when he spilled An Di’s private problems and asked someone to investigate her. All his romantic confessions became increasingly moot, because it was clear he’s afraid that he would have to deal with a mentally ill An Di if they ever got married. I think I’m just going to go wash my eyes by re-watching Lurk 潜伏.
Les Interprètes 亲爱的翻译官
The Interpreter started off pretty well, and exceeded what little expectations I had of it. Cheng Jiayang and Qiao Fei’s bickering was hilarious and possibly the best part of the drama. After watching 3 dramas starring Huang Xuan, I already expected him to bring his A-game, and I’m glad to say that there are no missteps on his part. It was actually Yang Mi‘s improved acting and smooth line delivery (both Chinese and French dubbing was done by the actors themselves) that surprised me the most.
However, the drama decided to mess everything up with obsessive second leads, terminal diseases and the evil mother-in-law – by Episode 20, the drama had already fallen into the “dog-blood” (i.e. over-the-top tropes) category.
Gao Jiaming is the twisted and arrogant adopted brother of Cheng Jiayang, and self-proclaimed ex-boyfriend of Qiao Fei who firmly believes that she left him for money. Gao Weiguang‘s over-acting and weak delivery of dialogue also did the character no favours. Zhou Qiqi, known for her role as Gong Yu in Nirvana in Fire was saddled with the most awful character in Wen Xiaohua. For the most part, I felt like I was watching a brightly repackaged version of the traditional old melo.
In the last stretch, Jiayang’s IQ dropped, Qiao Fei became a noble idiot, and the second leads managed to outdo themselves on the infuriating scale. This drama is watchable only if you leave your brain at the door and keep your hand on the fast-forward button. Also, make sure there are no breakables around.
To Be A Better Man 好先生
As the title suggests, this drama centres on the redemption arc of main protagonist Lu Yuan (Sun Honglei), who is first introduced to us as a scoundrel and alcoholic. I have no sympathy for noble and prideful idiots like Lu Yuan, hence his entire reason for hiding the truth from first love Gan Jing, and basically the catalyst for this entire drama just didn’t sit very well with me.
However, logical quibbles aside,the drama was simply a joy to watch, mostly because of the endearing relationship between the main trio made of Lu Yuan, Peng Jiahe (Guan Xiaotong) and Granny Peng (Li Wenling). None of the characters were one dimensional, but those three were definitely the best thing about this drama. I was always expecting more from Jiang Lai (Jiang Shuying) after a great first half, yet sadly the character was relegated to the sidelines as the scriptwriter chose to focus more on Lu Yuan, Gan Jing and Jiang Haokun’s love triangle.
On the technical side, the drama also deserves accolades for its directing and cinematography – the scenes are cleanly shot, and everything is just beautiful to look at. The palette is definitely more muted than the usual fare on TV, which is a nice visual change. To Be A Better Man had its fair share of inconsistencies, but the sharp sense of humour and genuine moments of warmth made up for all the flaws.
Just One Smile is very Alluring / Love O2O 微微一笑很倾城
I usually wouldn’t touch cheesy romance dramas with a ten-foot pole, yet somehow this drama made it work. I finally get Yang Yang’s aesthetic appeal now – he looks stunning in ancient garb, and as a fan of historical dramas, I’m not one to resist the pretty.
Gu Man’s original had a paper-thin plot that revolved around Bei Weiwei and Xiao Nai’s college romance. Thankfully the breezy plot didn’t require any groundbreaking acting, because the lead actors were serviceable at best. Special mention to Niu Junfeng (Yu Banshan in the drama), who stole the show too many times to count. I found out that he also had a guest-starring role in Home With Kids 家有儿女, and now I’m starting to wonder if I should dub the show a star-making machine.
Though the OTP romance leaned more towards the saccharine end, the drama itself was refreshing because it stuck to the basics of an idol drama. Love O2O steered away from most of the cliches, and ended up becoming the most enjoyable piece of fluff this year.
Dr. Qin Medical Examiner / 法医秦明
Now this is one drama where the acting, directing and (most of) the story are all up to standard. The cases aren’t very convoluted, but it wins points for making sure everything plays out logically. The first case was visually shocking, but I was a bit underwhelmed by how easily the culprit was caught, and surprised the neighbours didn’t catch a single whiff of the dismembered body parts from the crime scene.
Qin Ming isn’t as forced and pretentious as other genius male leads before him, and Zhang Ruoyun did a great job in the role. It’s obvious he’s a step ahead in talent when you compare him to his colleagues from the “fresh meat” category. Jiao Junyan’s Li Dabao is equally lovely – she’s a funny and down-to-earth medical examiner who isn’t afraid to throw insults back at Qin Ming when the situation calls for it. Their camaraderie with detective Lin Tao (Li Xian) is the heart of the show, and the comedic scenes in between cases made for a nice breather.
This drama was on its way to an 8/10, but the last episode was a huge letdown. The story was rushed, and the scriptwriter didn’t have enough time – or couldn’t – explain the restaurant owner’s motivations clearly, resulting in an one-dimensional and hysterical villain.
The first eighteen or so episodes were great, and I would actually recommend skipping the last episode altogether. Trust me, the ending you imagine will definitely be better than the actual one.
When a Snail Falls in Love / 如果蜗牛有爱情
This drama is very stylish, and you just know it’s a Daylight Entertainment drama from the cinematography alone. I wasn’t very fond of Ding Mo’s original detective romance novel, and thankfully the drama has managed to steer away from the worst parts. Screenwriter Zhu Zhu has done a good job fleshing out the main characters and connecting all the separate plot threads, which resulted in a (mostly) well-paced crime drama with just a touch of romance on the side.
Ye Zixi’s murder case played out brilliantly, and I expected the same from the Myanmar storyline. Unfortunately the last three episodes didn’t answer the questions it had raised in previous episodes, and I feel cheated out of a proper ending. It seemed like the finale was more preoccupied with laying the groundwork for a possible second season instead of wrapping up loose threads in the present timeline.
I have no problem with the acting though, and I was especially surprised by Wang Ziwen’s performance. She’s managed to shake off all traces of the arrogant Qu Xiaoxiao from Ode to Joy, and Xu Xu really grew on me over the course of the show. Though there were many brilliant shots throughout the drama, I can confidently say that I won’t be missing the shaky cameras.
Legend of Nine-Tailed Fox 青丘狐传说 (Jin Chen & Wang Kai)
Their story was pretty cute, though the misunderstandings and obstacles didn’t really pack a punch. If the quality of this story is representative of the whole drama, then Tangren has failed to live up to its previous supernatural gems, including Strange Stories from Liaozhai 聊斋志异 (2005) and The Fairies of Liaozhai 聊斋奇女子 (2007).
Precious Youth 那年青春我们正好 (Episodes 1 – 3)
Not even my love for Liu Shishi could make me continue watching this show.
The Mystic Nine 老九门 (Episodes 1-9, 18-20)
The story itself isn’t anything to write home about, and the pacing is excruciatingly slow. I can’t believe it took 8 episodes just to convince Er Yuehong to take up grave-robbing again, and 18 episodes to actually see any action underground. William Chan also needs to tone down on the “I’m hot and I know it” type of acting.
Border Town Prodigal 新边城浪子 (Episodes 1 – 33)
Butchering of the original was expected, though I wasn’t prepared for this level of bad. The writer bit off more than he could chew, and the result was another messy Gu Long adaption. However, it deserves a passing grade just for the acting and the hand-to-hand combat, which is reminiscent of the beautiful and creative action sequences most often seen in the early 2000s wuxia dramas.
Singing All Along 秀丽江山之长歌行 (Episodes 1-6, 43-50)
I loved the original novel, but the small screen adaption just fell flat for me. The writer chose to keep the original female lead’s modern personality without the time travel element, which was jarring to watch. That being said, the drama is far from being mediocre, but just lacks the addictive quality that would’ve made me continue.
Ice Fantasy 幻城 (Episodes 1 – 6)
Neither the story nor the aesthetics are my cup of tea.
Noble Aspirations 青云志 (Episodes 1-7)
Started off pretty well, and has much better production value than the disappointing Legend of Ancient Sword 古剑奇谭. Again, this drama suffered from poor writing, and the wooden acting from some of the main actors made it even worse. I would actually be content just watching cuts of Xiao Hui annoying Tian Buyi.
A Love For Separation 小别离 (Episodes 1 – 15)
Acting and directing is brilliant, and the story started off really well. I was just really irritated by their daughter Fang Duoduo’s immaturity.
The Princess Weiyoung 锦绣未央 (Episodes 1, 31-33, 54)
Contrary to the promos, Weiyang had no revenge plot up her sleeve, and Tuoba Jun turned out to be a lovesick royal who was incapable of doing anything else.