As anyone who’s made it through all 50-plus hours of hit Chinese dramas like “Story of Yanxi Palace” and “Serenade of Peaceful Joy” can attest, brevity is not among their many virtues. For years, China’s television industry has relentlessly churned out so-called water-injected TV: bloated productions bogged down with filler that eat up airtime and pull in binge-watchers. In 2019, there were an average of 42 episodes in Chinese dramas, dwarfing even their American competitors, to say nothing of the shorter European and Japanese TV seasons.
So it’s been a pleasant surprise that 2020 has featured so many stellar “miniseries” characterized by unusually fast-paced stories and tight plotting. Already, the 12-episode “If There Is No Tomorrow” and the 16-episode “A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower” have rivalled longer, more traditional productions like the above-mentioned “Serenade” both in terms of ratings and critical reception. Even since June, streaming giant iQiyi’s “Mist Theater” anthology has scored two of the television industry’s biggest hits in years with 12-episode thrillers “The Bad Kids” and “The Long Night.”
A still from the 45-episode TV series “Serenade of Peaceful Joy.” From Douban
Some analysts have hailed the success of these productions as evidence that “miniseries” are the future of China’s TV industry. China’s most successful provincial TV station, Hunan Television, has already announced that miniseries will be one of its focuses entering 2021. But length isn’t everything. According to Enlightenment, a big data service provider for the entertainment industry, the short dramas that reeled in audiences in the first half of 2020 were almost all thrillers. In other words, 2020 didn’t so much mark the rise of the miniseries as it did the rise of the suspense miniseries.
From a creative perspective, the suspense genre has always been well-suited to the miniseries format. Thrillers suck viewers in by building tension, and if the plot develops too slowly, the audience is likely to lose patience. A suspense drama that follows the current Chinese model of 40-odd episodes a season would require a frankly implausible amount of twists and tricks in order to keep viewers hooked. It is far easier to simply keep things short and sweet.
But if it’s so easy, why did nobody think of it before? China’s TV stations and streaming platforms generally purchase new dramas by the episode, and the past decade has seen producers deliberately try to inflate the number of episodes in a season to earn more money. The screenwriter Zhang Yuanang once publicly admitted that a series she worked on had been stretched from 36 episodes to 63 episodes at the behest of investors, resulting in what she called “some concerns about the structure of the story and the quality of the series.”
Indeed, water-injected TV dramas — a reference to illegally pumping livestock with water before weighing it for sale — have become a source of frustration for regulators and viewers alike. In February 2020, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) formally called upon new televised and online dramas to limit themselves to 40 episodes and “encouraged” producers to keep shows to 30 episodes or fewer. Although the policy is technically non-binding, TV drama producers are likely to hew closely to the guidelines, as the NRTA ultimately decides what is allowed to air.
Ironically, suspense and crime dramas, genres which the NRTA once watched over with hawk-like vigilance for any hint of trouble, are well-positioned to benefit from the new rules. Meanwhile, costume dramas, long considered politically safe, have faced increased regulatory scrutinty since 2012.
Audiences, too, seem weary of unending and repetitive plots. According to a 2018 report from iQiyi, the audience abandonment rate for TV series with more than 45 episodes rose from 47% in 2016 to 56% in the first quarter of 2018. The percentage of viewers who watch until the final episode is four times higher for short dramas than it is for longer ones.
A still from the online miniseries “The Long Night.” From Douban
Producers are also seeing the light when it comes to shorter productions. China’s streaming platforms have struggled to stay afloat on subscription fees alone, resulting in a host of controversial fees, including asking viewers to pay extra for early access to season or series finales. Typically, such moves are met with fierce backlash, but when thrillers “The Bad Kids” and “The Long Night” tried something similar, viewer reaction was muted, even positive.
But perhaps the most important reason for the success enjoyed by suspense miniseries in China is how they play into our current real-world anxieties. Although that might seem counterintuitive, experts and critics have long argued that when the social atmosphere becomes tense, horror and suspense stories enjoy a surge in popularity. As the British nonfiction author and scholar M. M. Owen once wrote, contemporary horror “is driven by our desire to stop all the clocks, shrink into a bubble of the familiar and the known, reject all things foreign.”
A promotional image for the online miniseries “A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower.” From Douban
In just the past year, “The Long Night” has explored hot-button issues like the sexual abuse of minors as well as collusion between businesspeople and public officials; “The Bad Kids” has offered chilling depictions of the harm domestic violence can do to children; and “A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower” took on a number of issues important to women. It’s easy for viewers to identify these fictional stories with real-life cases and project their emotions onto their characters.
Of course, the continued success of suspense miniseries is far from guaranteed. The very same factors that contributed to its rise — the shifting strategies of internet companies, the roving focus of regulatory authorities, or the swinging pendulum of audience attitudes — could upend its fate. But whether it proves lasting or not, the success of these shows has given creators, streaming platforms, and viewers alike a much-needed shot in the arm.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: From left to right, promotional images for online series “The Long Night,” “If There Is No Tomorrow,” and “A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower.” From Douban and re-edited by Sixth Tone)