Reality TV shows given a dose of realism
Reality TV shows in China are often rubbished as vulgar, superficial and brainless by critics and viewers alike, especially when purportedly “unrehearsed” elements actually follow written scripts.
However, a new crop of hit shows, such as “The Sound,” “Singer” and “The Making of An Actor,” is challenging those stereotypes and debunking the belief that showbiz stars live the life of luxury only because of luck or good looks.
Ever since its debut on Hunan Satellite TV on January 6, “The Sound” has received wide acclaim from both critics and audiences. Early episodes of the show scored 8.3 out of 10 on the film and TV review website Douban, based on the ratings of more than 11,000 viewers.
In each episode, four stars are required to dub excerpts of classic movies or TV series. They also need to improvise with commercials, news and sports clips. In the final part of each episode, they collaborate on a drama.
Based on their performances, audiences select the “king of sound” who will go on to compete in the final episode of the show. Artists from the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio attend each program, coaching and giving professional comments.
“It is the first variety show in China that highlights the charm of dubbing,” says Mark Wang, an information technology engineer, who watched the show. “The stars have to show basic skills in the performing arts, such as monologues and improvisational acting. For many cushioned in glamor and fame, it is undoubtedly a risky endeavor to lay themselves bare.”
The show has also attracted many anime lovers, who are usually more interested in vocals and dubbing. Jessica Liu, a frequent user of Bilibili, a video-sharing website themed around anime, manga and game fandom, says she is thrilled to see dubbing take center stage instead of always being relegated to behind the scenes.
Many actors who weren’t very famous before the TV show aired have delivered surprising performances.
Actor Zhai Tianlin, 31, who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, displayed superb dubbing skills when voicing over difficult excerpts related to regional dialects and ancient Chinese prose. The good-looking actor proved that his recent sterling portrayal of the ancient Chinese sage Yang Xiu in the historical drama “The Advisors Alliance” was no accident.
Another actor, Zhu Yawen, who usually portrays tough guys on the screen, surprised audiences with his female impersonation of actresses Zhou Xun and Evonne Sie in their roles in the romance film “Women Who Know How to Flirt Are the Luckiest.”
Zhu’s “sweet” voice and sensitive portrayal won widespread acclaim.
According to Xu Qing, chief director of “The Sound,” the show was inspired by a recitation act of dubbing actors for the 1984 version of the Chinese TV series “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” The act generated unexpected popularity on the Internet last year.
“It encouraged us to produce a show about the magical power of sound,” says Xu. “We hope to raise awareness of the art of dubbing and at the same time also pays tribute to classic drama and film productions.”
The new crop of reality shows, while playing on the dreams of wannabe stars looking for their big break, also reveals the sweat and tears on the road to stardom. Participants have to perform live before audiences and judges, with no gimmicks to hide behind.
Every year, major theater academies in Beijing and Shanghai attract thousands of young enthusiasts who dream of overnight fame. These new shows are designed to illustrate that gaining recognition goes beyond just having a pretty face.
At the same time, established celebrities have become more aware of their responsibilities as public figures to inspire young people with stars in their eyes. Their message: There are no shortcuts to success.
Another of the new breed of such reality shows on Hunan Satellite TV is “Singer.” The 2018 season has gathered singers from home and abroad to compete on the same stage.
Among the contestants are English singer and songwriter Jessie J, Chinese mainland rock musician and composer Wang Feng, ballad singer Li Xiaodong, vocalist Tien Chong and Taiwan singer Sam Lee, a former tennis player.
The format rules out the lip-synching, forcing singers to show their true vocal talent. After their song performances, the studio audience votes on who was the best. Each episode of the show is hosted by one of the singers.
“I was so nervous preparing for the competition on this stage,” said rocker Wang, who presented an original song he wrote for his wife, actress Zhang Ziyi. “It reminded me of those tough old days when I was studying the violin at the Central Conservatory of Music.”
In recent months, Zhejiang Satellite TV’s “The Making of An Actor” has also stirred considerable attention online. The series, which concluded in January, focused on acting skills rather than fame or appearance.
Unknown actors competed with established stars, including award-winning actor Liu Ye, Zhang Ziyi and Song Dandan. The crew spent two months hosting training camps for the candidates. Scripts were prepared for the sketches used in the show.
“I was surprised to discover actors who were not widely known but had superb acting talent,” said one netizen. “On stage, they managed to eclipse the big-name stars with their passion and creativity.”
Actress Tao Hong was one such surprise. The 46-year-old amazed audiences with a 10-minute excerpt from Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic film “The Last Emperor” (1987). She practiced diligently for the performance, which portrayed the empress as a sweet and innocent girl who became desperate and crazy when political events turned against her.
Professor Gu Xiaoming, a film and TV critic from Fudan University, says he welcomes the new trend in reality shows as one way of emphasizing that becoming a top-flight entertainer is hard work.
“Reality shows require real talent, revealing the true capabilities of contestants,” Gu says. “In the future, such shows will attract more people to explore their untapped potential.”