when a drama turns bad, who’s to blame?

We watch dramas to be entertained.

Of course we have different standards of what an entertaining drama should be. But I guess we can agree on the basics: the story must draw us in, the actors must sustain our interest, and the product must make us feel we did not waste an hour of our Sunday night. True or not? Let’s ask the devil.

For sure there will be debates and differences on what story will draw us in because each of us have different preferences. Some like melodrama, others like it light while there are those who go for more action. Actors… we also have our individual preferences. Roy Qiu may not be hot to others as he is to me in the same way that I can’t understand why many find Cindy Wrong Wong Wang cute.

The dramas that have rated in Taiwan (since I watch mostly Taiwanese dramas) recently are: The Fierce Wife, Sunny Happiness, Love You, Office Girls, In Time With You.

All of these, except The Fierce Wife, have “idols”: Mike He, Rainie Yang, Roy Qiu, Ariel Lin. That’s one reason why they rated. In the case of Sunny Happiness, it rated more than expected with many surprised at the chemistry between Mike and Janine Chang. The same with Love You, where Rainie acted with an unlikely partner in Joseph Chang.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no chemistry between Roy and Alice Ke, but the drama works because of the overall material, which has remained solid so far. The same could be said of The Fierce Wife. It did not have idols in it, Sonia Sui is not exactly in that category and neither is James Wen. But TFW had a good story that riveted the audience and made them empathize especially with the central character.

Empathy. That is the reason why ITWY is rating even if I can imagine the flow and melancholic mood won’t suit everyone’s taste. But the material is solid and one can actually pick something from the story itself. It doesn’t just entertain, it also enlightens (OK, this sounds more like Buddha) and enriches (those lovely nuggets of dialogues).

I can’t say the same for Ring Ring Bell. I am watching this drama for Peter Ho but I only end up nitpicking. The cast is lovely. The premise, like I blogged previously, was promising. But everything fell apart soon after. And it just keeps getting worse going from one absurd story arc to another. And what I hate most, it is so manipulative. It does not allow you to process what’s going on onscreen nor does it give you space to empathize with the characters’ predicament. (And don’t get me started on whether the characters, especially that of Xiao Xiang, deserve any ounce of sympathy.) The drama simply tells you, no–dictates–how you should feel and think. And to me, that’s the huge difference between an intelligent writer and a mediocre one.

To be honest, I’m actually surprised that Sharon Mao wrote Ring Ring Bell. She started off well with Meteor Garden and considering that was her first work and she did not have any prior background on writing a drama before Angie Cai took her in, that was a pretty decent writing debut. I interviewed her last year and asked about Meteor Garden 2, which she said was not solely her work but it was a pool of writers. It was obviously a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

She sort of redeemed herself with Devil Beside You. It wasn’t a perfect script but it had its charm, and it was a hit. Then came Why Why Love, which was a disappointment. I guess there were so many reasons behind its relative failure (I say relative because it still rated decently): it was the same cast from DBY so Sharon might have been hobbled by that plus the pressure of trying to outdo DBY; the script was rushed; and as what seems to be her problem, Sharon gets lost in the middle of the material with so many sub-plots that she eventually loses focus. In the end, it created an impression that the story was not tight and there was no real plot to begin with.

That is happening again in Ring Ring Bell. It’s quite a pity because there was a real plot to start with but Sharon squandered it away. I am blaming the writer here because the actors are good and it’s obvious that they are doing the best they can with the flimsy material that they are given. Though I do have beef with Janine Chang’s portrayal. There are certain scenes that she makes her character appear annoying and stupid instead of being sympathetic and charming. This is specially obvious when she is trying to be feisty and determined only to end up looking pathetic and childish. I suppose part of it is because of Janine’s offscreen personality. She’s not bubbly, as say, Rainie in real life so when she portrays that kind of character, she ends up being coy and awkward it’s actually uncomfortable watching her. Does this mean she is not a good actress? Maybe. But she has been OK in her other drama or film works where she plays quiet-type characters so I’m thinking perhaps she has not overcome her inhibitions as an actress.  But then again, perhaps it’s also with how the character is written.

This drama was originally called Xiao Xiang’s Beautiful Life and the original choices for the title role were Ady An and Joe Chen. Perhaps Joe Chen could have made a more effective Xiao Xiang?

I don’t discount the potential of the story being “beautiful” especially once she overcomes all the hardships. But at the moment, Janine’s character, which is supposedly the heart and soul of the drama, just does not work and the problem for me is fundamental–the way the entire thing was written.

I am not hating Sharon Mao. Having met her in person, I like her. She’s down-to-earth and open-minded. And I am also aware of the common complaint among scriptwriters themselves that when a film or drama becomes a hit, the actors and directors get all the praises while they are forgotten; but when the project fails, the blame is heaped on them. Fair enough.

But let’s put it this way: a drama is like a house. The land where it is built is the plot. The foundation/construction is the story. The architecture/interior design that makes it truly a house is the work of the director. But the ones that will make it a home are the actors. Yet, there can be no home nor house if the foundation is weak or poorly constructed. And that is why, the role of the writer is very important; the way the story is written is crucial to how a drama will be received by the audience.

For sure, there are factors why a story goes and ends the way it does, all those twists and turns have back stories not so much as coming from the characters themselves but elements that surround a production process. Like for example, the story may actually look good on paper but not when it is translated onscreen. The writer thinks the story should veer this way to make it more attractive to the audience. The director does a scene this way because that’s how he visualizes the material. The actor interprets the role the way he does because that’s how he sees the character. Some scenes are taken out in the editing process because they were deemed not necessary. And the list goes on and on.

Yet, the fact remains that the story remains the body of the drama and all the rest functions for it. If the story fails, the entire work crumbles. And it won’t ring a bell, no matter how many times you press it.

So who do we give the red card to?

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Copyright © 2011: TheAsianEdition. All rights reserved.


5 thoughts on “when a drama turns bad, who’s to blame?

  1. yes, I agree. The very foundation of a drama is the script. I do feel being a scriptwriter is a thankless job. It’s true, when a drama becomes a hit, it’s the actors who receive most of the accolades. They’re just not given enough recognition and sadly at times, they just tend to fade away from our memories.

    My first exposure to Tdrama was Meteor Garden & I didn’t even knew who the writer was, until now, thanks to you! To be honest, at times, I watch a drama because I was drawn by the actor or actress whose playing the lead. But, that’s not the only reason to sustain my interest. The story should be logical & not drive me crazy. It should narrate & not dictate as to how I should feel.

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I appreciate the things you pointed out. 🙂


    • oh, like you I was “indoctrinated” into Asian dramas through Meteor Garden 🙂
      I am a creature of habit when it comes to watching dramas, I only watch those actors I like but even then, I stop watching if there’s something I don’t like and it takes very little. Like I never even finished Love You and gave up on City Hunter halfway through.
      what dramas are you watching now aside from ITWY? are you watching Ring Ring Bell? I’m curious if I’m the only one who is frustrated with how the story is flowing.
      thanks for reading!
      P.S. I will post after this my old article on Sharon Mao 8)


      • Wow! I enjoyed reading your article on Sharon Mao, nice one. So Meteor Garden was more of like an experiment, what an experiment it was! Meteor Garden was a worldwide hit and it’s the drama that opened doors for other Tdramas to be known in other countries as well. I even watched an interview of F4 with CNN or NBC, I’m not sure what network, but it was in the US. Nice to know that Sharon Mao was a former TV entertainment reporter and she quit because she’s not into reporting scandals, good for her. Maybe one of the reasons why her dramas are a big hit is because she understands how the TV industry works.

        Honestly, I didn’t only enjoy Meteor Garden but I remember how I swooned over Vic Zhou at that time. I actually like him more that Jerry Yan, LOL! And how I admired Barbie Xu & hoped she & Vic got together in real life, which they did but never lasted. Don’t laugh, okay, I had those “foolish” moments in my Tdrama experience. hehehe! But I did enjoy Meteor Garden 2 more because I felt it had a lot more “twists” than the first. And quite frankly, Meteor Garden got me the urge to learn Mandarin because I wanted to hear the actual voices of the actors than the dubbed version. Now my understanding of Mandarin is getting better but Mandarin is really such a hard language to learn compared to Spanish or French. 🙂

        I actually started watching Office Girls. Which is a nice balance to the roller coaster of emotions I get from watching ITWY. I like Roy Qiu, he’s cute, I like him better than Mike He. But I think I’m way past my Meteor Garden days. Lol! Right now my heart just needs to be relieved from those heart wrenching scenes of my dear Li Da ren. I don’t know why, but ITWY is just close to my heart. No, I haven’t watched Ring Ring Bell. I was actually reading some comments wherein some viewers were mentioning some inconsistencies in the story & how Janine’s character was annoying but I haven’t checked it out for myself.

        Anyways, I also love watching Korean dramas but lately I haven’t. The past Korean dramas I enjoyed, to name a few — Winter Sonata, Princess Hours, Stairway to Heaven, My Lovely Kim Sam Soon, Full House, Shining Inheritance. There were a lot more but I can’t remember the titles. In the past 2 years, there seem to be no interesting dramas that came out from Taiwan. I actually didn’t enjoy watching “The Fierce Wife” that much. I liked it but I can’t say it’s a great drama.

        Thanks again! And for the article on Sharon Mao. 🙂


      • oh no worries, I won’t and don’t laugh at thoughts over OTPs because I have my own OTP myself.

        your story on MG is a shared experience among so many fans… wanting to learn Mandarin because of it, watching other Asian dramas etc. I think the F4 interview you’re talking about was on CNN’s Talk Asia with Lorraine Hahn then.

        I haven’t watched the latest epi of ITWY because I pity my poor laptop, which might be the shock-absorber for my hate over that Ding Li Wei character. Office Girls is so fun to watch! Roy Qiu is the one carrying that drama I swear.

        Of the Korean dramas you have enjoyed, my faves are Princess Hours, Kim Sam Soon and Full House. The last Kdrama I watched as My Princess with Kim Tae-hee and Song Seung-hun and I enjoyed it! But not really into Kdramas that much coz they tend to be melodrama.

        I liked The Fierce Wife in the sense that it offered a new plot other than the usual boy-meets-girl-fall-in-love stories that abound on TV. and it was some sort of woman emancipation.

        thanks for reading!


    • >> article on Sharon Mao

      How To Write A Hit Drama

      Yasminka Lee in Taipei
      Asia News Network
      Publication Date : 04-06-2010

      There’s no fixed template for a successful drama; it depends on cast, production, audience, timing and story

      Scriptwriters provide the soul of a drama and when it fails to attract the audience, the blame is placed on them.

      Not many people know that the scriptwriter of the Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden was a former TV entertainment reporter.

      Sharon Mao (Mao Xun Rong) quit her job in December 2000 because she was turned off by how entertainment news have deteriorated, putting premium on scandals. She went to Hong Kong and Shanghai to watch Cuban band Buenavista Social Club and when she returned to Taipei in February 2001, there was a message waiting in her answering machine. It was an invitation from a former colleague to join them in the production of a new drama.

      She was tapped to write the script geared for the young audience and based on a Japanese magna, Hana Yori Dango.

      “After the phone call, I ran to a comic store to rent the manga,” she tells popdom.

      Before that, Mao has never written a drama script in her whole life although she has a degree in theatre.

      Meteor Garden was more like an experiment. Most everyone involved in it were relative newbies from the producer to the director and down to the cast.

      “I never thought it would be so popular but when I was writing the script, I had this little feeling that maybe this could work,” Mao recalls.

      She couldn’t be further from the truth. The drama marked a new era in Taiwan’s pop culture and created a breakthrough for the drama industry. Those newbies that worked in the production are now big shots. Producer Angie Cai (Cai Zhi Ping) has set up a production house, Comic Ritz, and continues to make hit dramas. Director Tsai Yueh Hsun is now one of Taiwan’s established directors, whose body of work includes last year’s biggest drama Black and White. The main cast are now household names: Jerry Yen (Yen Cheng Xu), Vic Chou (Chou Yu Min), Ken Chu (Chu Xiao Tian), Van Ness Wu (Wu Jian Hao) and Barbie Xu ( Xu Xi Yuan). Even support cast Rainie Yang (Yang Cheng Lin) and Blue Lan (Lan Cheng Long) are now A-list stars.

      Mao also gained from the experience, moving on to write other dramas. But it was only four years later when she reached her peak with the success of Devil Beside You, another drama based on a Japanese manga.

      Cai had wanted her to write a story inspired from Ghost and she threw herself into the job half-heartedly.

      “I was resisting the idea and that time, I have already done one or two episodes but I didn’t really want to do it. So I went to the comic store and saw this manga (Akuma de Souro) and started reading it. I went back to tell Cai Jie to ask her staff to read it and if they think it would be better than the ghost one. Luckily, she supported my idea and so Devil Beside You came about,” she explains.

      By the time she was writing Devil, Mao has gained enough experience and confidence to stray from the original material. She says that unlike in Meteor Garden, which was faithful to the manga, there were changes in Devil that were deliberate.

      Devil was so successful, just as Meteor was, that there were plans to do a sequel. But perhaps learning from her experience with Meteor Garden 2, Mao declined to write a part two and instead insisted on coming up with an original story for the same cast. The drama, Why Why Love, was released in 2007 and is one of Mao’s favourites among her works.

      She also likes the tandem of Ho Jun Xiang and Yang Cheng Lin, who both played the main characters in Devil and Why Why Love. “They have the most chemistry. They devoted themselves to the characters even beyond my expectations,” she says.

      She notes that Taiwan is still star-oriented when it comes to casting dramas and this could be a problem for scriptwriters who have to consider the idols’ image when writing their characters.

      The common practice is to have a star in mind for a lead role, like what happened in Starlit, with Jerry Yen being signed up first.

      Starlit, about a pianist who encounters an accident, was a breakthrough for her. “It was a tragedy and I didn’t think I could write that kind of story,” she says. “Everytime I write a new script, it’s always difficult and I always want to make some breakthroughs.”

      It has also became tougher to come up with materials that would rate and interest an increasingly fickle audience.

      “Ratings are always the main concern for any drama-makers, including scriptwriters,” she says, adding that if a drama does not click, the blame is always placed on the scriptwriter.

      Ten years ago, it took her a week to finish an episode of Meteor Garden but now it takes her at least two weeks per episode. “I have higher standards and in fact, I may be the fastest.” At this speed, she can only work on one and a half dramas per year.

      She watches Korean and Japanese dramas too to study the trends and notes that productions in those countries touch on varying issues. “Maybe that’s one thing Taiwan dramas can learn from, the plot category. Japanese and Korean dramas have a lot of different topics but Taiwan focuses mostly on love and the local audience loves it. It’s not only idol dramas but even Taiwanese or Chinese literature or traditional drama, it’s all about love.”

      Mao says there is no fixed template in writing a drama that would be accepted by the audience. Scriptwriters have to compromise between their artistic freedom and what the producers and audience want. “I always put maybe 80 per cent of my ideas to every script I write and submit it to the producer. It can never be 100 per cent of my dream.”

      Three years after she started working with Cai, the lady producer told her that she was not wrong in choosing her to write Meteor Garden despite her lack of experience. “She told me: ‘When I first met you, I knew that this girl can do the job’. She saw the potential but she told me only later.”

      At the moment, Mao is writing a new drama with a “not-so-popular” cast. Will it be another breakthrough like Meteor Garden or Devil Beside You?

      Only time can tell but while Mao may have quit entertainment reporting, she continues to entertain with her stories.


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