TVB - a necessary evil in the Hong Kong entertainment industry
So here's the thing, I used to be a huge fan of TVB. Like every other (Cantonese-speaking) Asian person I knew, watching TVB wasn't just a way to kill time, it was an activity ingrained with a sense of normalcy that you never really questioned. The cultural significance of TVB in Hong Kong is something that simply can't be overstated, and for my parents (who immigrated from Hong Kong), TVB served as a not-so-distant olive branch that kept them connected with the territory's popular culture scene. And for me, that was certainly a factor, but in more basic terms I just genuinely enjoyed watching TVB series. Sure, the plot lines could get pretty repetitive and the production values teetered on a level of laziness more often than not. But there was just something captivating about the world of TVB that kept you hooked.
Even the acting, which had long been plagued with a stigma that many refer to as 'TVB acting', could surprise you. To take a quick drive down memory lane, remember Francis Ng in Triumph in the Skies (not the sequel)? Or Paul Chun in pretty much anything? And what about At the Threshold of an Era? Arguably the most ambitious and best show to ever come out of the TVB engine, this was, in my opinion, the epitome of what TVB was capable of doing. Gallen Lo might not be the strongest actor out there, and the same could be said of most of his cast mates, but if there ever was a perfect storm this would certainly be it. TVB just had the ability to create melodrama in a way that wasn't your usual soap opera affair. It's hard for me to put in words, but anyone who's watched a TVB series will know what I mean. Hell, if given the opportunity to re-watch At the Threshold of an Era again for the fourth time, I would happily take you up on that offer. I'm just hoping that offer doesn't come anytime soon, because at 107 episodes long, it's gonna be a bit of a time suck. But note to self, a fourth viewing will definitely happen some day.
The thing with TVB is that although it was never home to the most groundbreaking stuff, it always had the capacity to engage viewers familiar with its content in a way that was unique and culturally specific. Which brings me to the meat of this post - why TVB just isn't the same anymore. I stopped watching TVB back in the mid 2000s, so am fully aware that my opinion is not as valid as it might've been a decade ago. But having said that, the TVB world has always been in my periphery and I've maintained more than just a cursory knowledge of the industry. I even came out of retirement in 2013 with Triumph in the Skies II, which was a poignant reminder of why I quit in the first place. TVB shows are just lacklustre nowadays, to a point where it's become overly difficult finding a compelling reason to stay on board.
Part of the problem might be the slew of younger talent who have since taken over most of the main acting roles. And this can probably partly be attributed to the inbreeding perpetuated by the training camps offered by the studio. Which, to my understanding, are mostly run by TVB veterans. The same inbreeding comment could apply to the writing and production departments, and might explain why creative advancement seems to be at a standstill. But that never seemed to be a major issue before, so I think it's got more to do with a general deficiency in the Hong Kong entertainment industry talent pool. That's something that definitely extends to the other entertainment mediums as well, but that's a separate topic altogether.
Seeing American television shows flourish and really take off during the early 2000s certainly didn't help TVB's cause to remain on my essential viewing list. It was during this time that cable television really came into the limelight, and from a purely practical standpoint, you only have so many hours in a day. But deep down, I never expected TVB to match up to the same level of production prestige as its American counterparts. Much like how I view Hong Kong cinema, every entertainment industry is its own unique entity and it's never fair to compare apples to oranges. It was really more an issue with TVB shows not evolving with a degree of relevancy.
BUT (and a huge but this will be), having said all this, I firmly believe that the Hong Kong entertainment industry has never needed TVB more than it does at this very moment. With Hong Kong cinema's identity being in crisis for quite some time now - no thanks to the pressures of China co-productions and a shrinking local market - TVB remains something that is unapologetically Hong Kong. Everything about its conception maintains a target that is aimed solely at Hong Kong audiences. Unlike the film and music industry, both of which have a tendency to pander to the expectations of China, TVB seems free to do as it pleases. From a popular culture standpoint, this is immensely important. TVB is essentially the seminal product of Hong Kong culture in the entertainment world, which, in the times we currently live in, is a valued construct of how society is represented and appreciated by the world at large.
Given Hong Kong's urbanized culture and how important the entertainment industry has been to its development as an independent society, this only elevates the importance of TVB. So as much as I've flooded my views of TVB with negative assertions, I don't for a second diminish how vital its existence has become. I've heard the argument that TVB makes its viewers 'dumb' from a artistic standpoint, a comment aimed at criticizing the studio's insistence on delivering content with a dated sense of quality. And I've gotta say that I'm inclined to agree with such sentiments, which is the primary reason why I consider TVB to be 'evil' in many ways. Having said that, however, putting a greater cultural context into perspective, it's unfortunately a necessary evil. While other facets of the Hong Kong entertainment industry have been losing their ideological battles with the larger China market, TVB survives and thrives. This is one pillar that remains untouchable, and quality issues aside, the Hong Kong entertainment industry should hope that the monster that is TVB continues to stand tall.