It may have only premiered last month, but iQiyi’s “The Bad Kids” is already one of the most talked about Chinese TV shows of the past half-decade. The prestige web series, which centers on three children who accidentally witness a murder, has been streamed hundreds of millions of times, spawned countless memes, and maintained an average rating of 8.9 on notoriously difficult-to-please review site Douban.
Having struck gold once, iQiyi seemed well positioned to do so again. “The Bad Kids” was just the second in a planned six-part anthology of suspense series set to premiere on the service’s new “Mist Theater” subsection this summer — part of an effort to improve the streaming site’s reputation, set higher standards for original content, and change the public’s perception of online series as mass-produced shlock.
But not long after “The Bad Kids” aired its finale, iQiyi abruptly announced it was postponing the premieres of the remaining four series, citing “technical difficulties.”
It’s not the first time crime dramas have taken an unexpected hiatus in China. Despite the public’s obvious appetite for these stories, a successful crime show must walk a fine line between satisfying audiences, pleasing regulators, and upholding moral strictures. The more exciting and gripping the plot, the more officials worry it could give criminals ideas. When it works, as with “The Bad Kids,” the results can be spectacular; when it fails, it can set the entire genre back years.
Still frames from “Red Spider” (left) and “Black Ice.” From Douban
The crime drama emerged as a popular genre between 2000 and 2004, including “Red Spider,” “Black Hole,” and “Black Ice.” By the time “Goddess of Mercy” rolled around in 2003, it was the most popular genre in the country, accounting for almost 17% of all viewership the year before.
Yet the soaring popularity of crime dramas eventually attracted the attention of regulators, who worried about their increasingly trashy and derivative content. In 2004, the powerful State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) issued new rules directly targeting the genre: Any dramas centered on criminal investigations would only be allowed to broadcast after 11 p.m. Publically available data for 2004 shows a 40% drop in the number of crime shows to get SARFT approval, relative to the previous year.
The policy meant criminal investigations could no longer be the main focus of prime-time dramas, only a subplot. A few crime series still aired, but these largely revolved around the daily lives of police officers — not police work.
The result was almost a decade-long stretch, from 2005 to 2014, with hardly any real crime shows. Instead the industry was dominated by period pieces, fantasy, and martial arts.
Resuscitating the crime drama ultimately required adopting new strategies. Some turned to straight-laced productions made in cooperation with the authorities themselves, while others sought to adapt their stories for new, smaller screens: smartphones and streaming services.
The first sign of a thaw was “The Big Case on the Mekong River,” a coproduction between state broadcaster China Central Television and the national and local public security authorities. The series, which was broadcast in prime time on the country’s top channel, struck a balance between depictions of police heroism and the grizzly details of the case — helped by the fact that the dramatic true story it was based on needed little embellishment.
The 2017 hit “In the Name of the People” likewise focused on the real-life fight against corruption. Although fictionalized, the show took cues from the country’s colossal anti-graft campaign, and the screenwriters and cast were invited to speak with prosecutors.
Promotional images for “The Big Case on the Mekong River” (left) and “In The Name of People.” From Douban
Tight relationships between producers and the authorities were key to getting crime dramas back on the air. By working directly with the state, creators had a better idea of how far they could push the material, as well as better access to exclusive details that lent a sense of realism to their stories.
Of course, state organs naturally demand greater say over the content and promotion of the shows they’re involved with. “In the Name of the People” worked hand-in-glove with prosecutors, who it portrayed glowingly, though industry insiders say its less-than-positive depictions of public security officers caused resentment in other quarters.
Meanwhile, a more diverse array of crime dramas was emerging on the country’s less-regulated streaming platforms. Mostly adapted from online literature, the investigators in these series could be anyone from professional gamers to rebellious police academy trainees.
A still from “Day and Night,” 2017. From Douban
Compared with the crime dramas of the early 2000s, these new wave web series have adhered more rigorously to formulas established by their American, British, or Japanese counterparts. They are quick-paced, featuring a mix of “case of the week” plots and an overarching mystery, and their protagonists are often portrayed in shades of gray.
Take streaming platform Youku’s 2017 hit “Day and Night,” for example. Based on an online novel about an ex-police officer with an ax to grind and his wanted brother, the series is one of a select few to maintain a 9.0 Douban rating.
But the unique creative space provided by streaming platforms is shrinking. New guidelines issued in 2016 made it clear that content standards for online dramas should be brought in line with those of TV stations. By 2018, only 14 of the 49 crime dramas scheduled to air on Youku, iQiyi, or Tencent actually made it online. Given this history, the suspension of the “Mist Theater” anthology hardly comes as a surprise.
The roaring success of “The Bad Kids” shows that China can still produce an excellent crime drama, even within the current strict regulations. The aftermath, on the other hand, suggests these restrictions will eventually need to be loosened if the show is to have a worthy successor.
Nevertheless, I’m optimistic that crime dramas’ continued popularity will push producers to keep innovating. Their palates refined by American TV and increasingly high-brow homegrown series, Chinese audiences will no longer settle for simplistic plotlines and two-dimensional characters. They want shows that push boundaries — and a creative atmosphere that encourages it.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from “The Bad Kids,” a 2020 iQiyi series. From Douban)