8:58am

Mon March 10, 2014
Asia

'Sherlock,' 'House Of Cards' Top China's Must-Watch List

Originally published on Mon March 10, 2014 8:59 am

What do an eccentric British detective, a cut-throat Washington pol and a bunch of nerds at Caltech have in common?

They are characters in some of the most popular foreign TV shows in China.

Over the past five years, The Big Bang Theory alone has been streamed more than 1.3 billion times. To appreciate how much some young Chinese love the BBC series, Sherlock, step inside 221B Baker Street. That's Holmes' fictitious address in London as well as the name of a café that opened last year in Shanghai's former French Concession.

Good luck, though, finding a table.

"Business has been very good since the premier of the third season," says Eric Zhang, the café's twenty-seven-year-old owner. "People have to line up or make reservations in advance on Saturday and Sunday, otherwise they can't get a seat."

Like many young people here, Zhang grew up reading the detective classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, translated into Chinese. Zhang says his father is a detective and used to share murder, smuggling and arson cases with him.

"Actually, I aspired to be a policeman," says Zhang, "but I didn't pass the physical and opened a café instead."

The café – all wood and leather — is drenched in Sherlock paraphernalia. On the wall next to the bar are hand-written, Sherlock plot-lines. By the window sits a tableful of what is supposed to be Dr. Watson's medical equipment, including a microscope and old glass syringes retrieved from the basement of a Chinese hospital. On the bookshelves sit seemingly endless photos of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in the series. Zhang explains the shrine-like treatment of the British actor.

"To tell you the truth, girls are especially fond of him," says Zhang. "He has personal charm. It's irresistible."

Indeed, nearly every customer here today is female. Tina Zhou, 25, works for a Chinese state-owned company. She says Cumberbatch – whose Chinese nickname is "Curly Fu," a reference to his hair — plays a great Holmes.

"He combines all these qualities," she says. "He's intelligent, pretty humorous, has a sort of a dry humor. He's charming, talented. He carries himself in an elegant way. A gentleman."

If many young women here can't take their eyes off Cumberbatch, millions of other Chinese are transfixed by a very different foreign TV character, Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician at the center of Netflix's House of Cards.

The series, which debuted here on Valentine's Day, is the hottest foreign TV show in China right now with more than 83 million streams. Andrew Jiang, who binge-watched all 13 episodes in a single day, thinks House of Cards may be more interesting to Chinese than Americans.

"Because you get this kind of political drama all the time," he says, "while in China, there is no political drama."

The Communist Party would never allow such a dark portrayal of its own politics, and when China does produce political dramas, Jiang says, they tend to be period pieces filled with stock characters.

"Everyone is like a hero and everyone is like a great statesman," Jiang says. "It's just propaganda, but in House of Cards, what you are going to see is the sausage-making process."

Jiang, who grew up in Beijing and is now a law student in Illinois, says another attraction to this season is its China storyline. The plot features Xander Feng, a corrupt Chinese businessman with close ties to the Communist Party who's trying to cut a secret deal with the White House. In one scene, he tells a U.S. official that Washington should reinstate a lawsuit to continue to put pressure on China to allow its currency to rise.

"When you do, there will be those on the [Politburo] standing committee who will protest," Feng tells Underwood's chief of staff, "but I will handle them. The majority want reform."

The plot point is far-fetched, but Jiang says it illustrates a political truth: the Communist Party is anything but monolithic.

"This shows American people and all those freshmen congressmen who don't know too much about Chinese politics, actually, there is division," says Jiang.

Dwarfing Sherlock and House of Cards in longevity and overall popularity here is The Big Bang Theory, which for many young Chinese became must-see TV, usually streamed on a computer or iPad. A big reason is because many identify with the main characters: nerdy science guys.

The show has been a big hit with Chinese college students, who are more bookish than their American counterparts. When Yu Wenting attended Sichuan University a few years back, she says many of her classmates were just like The Big Bang Theory's lead characters, Sheldon and Leonard.

"They themselves were having exactly the same issue as the guys in the show, of finding girlfriends and talking to girls, because their life is full of work and lacks a social aspect," Yu says.

Young Chinese recognize other traits in the cast, such as Sheldon's self-absorption. In one scene, Sheldon becomes irritated with next door neighbor Penny for giving him a Christmas present, which he sees as an imposition.

"I know you think you're being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity," says Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons. "You haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation."

Dan, a grad student in southeast China's Jiangxi province, says Sheldon's self-centered nature reminds her of many only children in China.

"After the one-child policy began in China, there are many single children," Dan says. "They grew up in an environment without many siblings, so they all — to some extent — regard themselves as infallible."

The Big Bang Theory — now in its seventh season — is losing some of its appeal here. People say the writers seem to be running out of gas, but newer foreign shows are coming along, attracting audiences. Young Chinese are increasingly drawn to an eclectic mix, which includes 2 Broke Girls, The Vampire Diaries and Masters of Sex.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

What does the American political drama "House of Cards" have in common with the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" and the British crime series "Sherlock"? Well, it turns out they are all among the most popular foreign TV shows in China. Over the past five years, "The Big Bang Theory" alone has been streamed online more than 1.3 billion times. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains what young Chinese see in a cut-throat politician, a bunch of nerds from Caltech and an eccentric British detective.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: To appreciate how much some young Chinese love the BBC series, "Sherlock," step inside 221B Baker Street. That's Holmes' fictitious address in London and the name of a café that opened last year here in Shanghai's former French Concession. Good luck, though, finding a table.

ERIC ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Business has been very good since the premier of the third season. People have to line up or make reservations in advance on Saturday and Sunday, otherwise they can't get a seat.

LANGFITT: This is Eric Zhang, the café's twenty-seven-year-old owner. Like many Chinese, he grew up reading the detective classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, translated into Chinese.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) My father is a detective so I'm very interested in these books. He investigated many criminal cases, just like Sherlock, murders, smuggling, arson. He would come home and tell me his analysis of the cases, how he captured the bad guys. Actually, I aspired to be a policeman, but I didn't pass the physical and opened up a café instead.

LANGFITT: The café, all wood and leather, is drenched in Sherlock paraphernalia. On the wall next to the bar, are hand-written, Sherlock plot-lines. By the window sits a tableful of what is supposed to be Dr. Watson's medical equipment, including a microscope. This is amazing. He has these old glass syringes that a friend gave him from a Chinese hospital, but they're so old, they actually look like they're from the period.

And there are endless photos of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in the series. Zhang explains the shrine-like treatment of the British actor.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) To tell you the truth, girls are especially fond of him. He has personal charm. It's irresistible. He has qualities of an idol.

LANGFITT: Indeed, nearly every customer here today is female. Tina Zhou is 25 and works at a Chinese state-owned company. She says Cumberbatch, whose Chinese nickname is Curly Fu, a reference to his hair, plays a great Holmes.

TINA ZHOU: (Through interpreter) He combines all these qualities. He's intelligent, pretty humorous, has a sort of a dry humor. He's charming, talented. He carries himself in an elegant way. A gentleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The hottest foreign TV show in China right now is "House of Cards," the sinister Beltway drama from Netflix. Chinese viewers have streamed episodes more than 56 million times since season two's debut on Valentine's Day. Andrew Jiang binge-watched all 13 episodes in a single day. He thinks the show, in some ways, may be more interesting to Chinese than Americans.

ANDREW JIANG: Because you get this kind of political drama all the time, while in China, there is no political drama.

LANGFITT: The Communist Party would never allow such a dark portrayal of its own politics, and when China does produce political dramas, Jiang says, they tend to be period pieces filled with stock characters.

JIANG: Everyone is like a hero and everyone is like a great statesman. It's just propaganda, I got to say. But in "House of Cards," what you are going to see is the sausage-making process.

LANGFITT: Jiang grew up in Beijing and is now a law student in Illinois. He says another attraction to this season is its China storyline. It features Xander Feng. He's a corrupt Chinese businessman with close ties to the Party and he's trying to cut a secret deal with the White House. In this scene, he tells a U.S. official that Washington should continue to pressure China to allow its currency to rise.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SERIES "HOUSE OF CARDS")

TERRY CHEN: (As Xander Feng) There will be Port Jefferson Bridge(ph) unless the lawsuit is reintroduced. When you do, there will be those on the standing committee who protest, but I'll manage them. The majority want reform.

LANGFITT: The plot point is far-fetched, but Jiang says it illustrates a political truth: the Communist Party is anything but monolithic.

JIANG: This shows American people and all those freshmen congressmen who doesn't know too much about Chinese politics, that, actually, there is division. And if you work in the way that is being super hawkish to China, it might be not a great policy.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES THEME, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

LANGFITT: In recent years, one of the most popular American TV shows here has been "The Big Bang Theory." A big reason, many young Chinese identify with the main characters: nerdy science guys. The show is a big hit among Chinese college students, who are more bookish than their American counterparts. When Yu Wenting attended Sichuan University a few years back, she says many of her classmates were just like "The Big Bang Theory's" lead characters, Sheldon and Leonard.

YU WENTING: They find themselves having exactly the same issue as the guys in the show, of finding girlfriends and talking to girls, because their life is full of work and lack a social aspect so they feel themselves pretty awkward when facing girls.

LANGFITT: Like the opening scene of the CBS series where the two scientists meet a beautiful blond who lives across the hall.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

KALEY CUOCO: (As Penny) Yes, I'm your new neighbor, Penny.

JOHNNY GALECKI: (As Leonard) Leonard, Sheldon.

CUOCO: (As Penny) Hi.

GALECKI: (As Leonard) Hi.

JIM PARSONS: (As Sheldon) Hi.

CUOCO: (As Penny) Hi.

GALECKI: (As Leonard) Hi.

LANGFITT: Young Chinese recognize other traits, such as Sheldon's self-absorption.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) You bought me a present?

CUOCO: (As Penny) Uh-huh.

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) Why would you do such a thing?

CUOCO: (As Penny) I don't know. 'Cause it's Christmas?

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) Oh, Penny. I know you think you're being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation.

LANGFITT: Don, a grad student in southeast China's Jiangxi province, says Sheldon's reminds her of many only children in China.

DON: (Through interpreter) I would say Sheldon is very self-centered. After the one-child policy began in China, there are many only children. They grew up in an environment without many siblings, so they all, to some extent, regard themselves as infallible.

LANGFITT: "The Big Bang Theory," now in its seventh season, is losing some of its appeal here. People say the writers seem to be running out of gas, but newer foreign shows are coming along, attracting audiences. Young Chinese are increasingly drawn to an eclectic mix, which includes "2 Broke Girls," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Masters of Sex." Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.