Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our CSO’s curious relationship with modern sitcoms; having spent much of the 1990s and 2000s blagging away sketchily on the topic of Friends, he recently dipped his toes back into the waters of industrial laughter with a sampling of brutal NYC depression-com 2 Broke Girls.
But away from post-development America and Europe, the sitcom is still very much a reflection of dreams, and there are arguably none dreamier than iPartment (‘Love Apartment’), a series co-produced by the Shanghai Film Group Corporation and the Shanghai Film Studio and (perhaps predictably) set in China’s largest city by population. iPartment, which charts the adventures of ten (mostly) twentysomethings as they negotiate life in a brand-new apartment block that looks like something out of Sim City 3000. Chinese audiences have been rapt by the blossoming romance between Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Lu Zhanbo (played by ‘Kingscar’ Jin Shi Jia) and billionaire banker scion Lin Wanyu (the charismatic Evonne Zhao); iPartment fans are presently looking forward to the fourth season since its 2009 launch.
In the West, iPartment has mostly made plagiarism-related headlines for some alleged shared characteristics with hit US sitcoms, with even a series spokesperson riffing on the fine line between copying and ‘homage’. But while it would be unrealistic to deny that there is more than a shot of Central Perk et al in iPartment’s characters, clothing and perhaps even entire scenes, the Jiangxi TV-pioneered show is much more interesting for what it tells us about modern China:
1. McProperty Bubble. The Shanghai apartment block where much of iPartment is set could be almost anywhere in today’s China – and therein lies the problem. Anonymous crash urbanisation has become the norm in the PRC, with Chinese property speculation a probably lead cause of a global recession coming to a country near you at some point in the late 2010s or 2020s.
2. Aspiration or Propaganda? On one level, iPartment reflects a dynamic and immensely confident country which is also drowning in consumerism; in this respect, the corporate sponsorship by Taiwanese computer companies and Italian spirits manufacturers is symbolic. But the sitcom also arguably functions as (indirect) cultural propaganda which has even less to do with the lives of most Chinese people than the equivalent American sitcoms accurately depicted their own populations.
3. Hybrid Westernisation? The iPartment environment is no hutong. But despite the overtly Western veneer, at least some of the content would appear unusual to contemporary audiences outside Asia. The gentle situational humour, strong sense of group solidarity and gradualist love dimension mean that iPartment will probably remain a predominantly local phenomenon.