“My Friends from Afar” is the Greatest Thing on Singaporean TV
My Friends From Afar (知星人), the latest Chinese-language drama to air on MediaCorp Channel 8’s 9pm slot, is a departure from the usually grounded fare that the broadcaster serves up. It’s about aliens who land in Singapore to prepare for a mass migration of their species from their planet, and at the same time disguise themselves as humans to blend into their new Singaporean dwellings.

No, I’m not kidding – it’s a show about aliens in Singapore.

While the premise is outlandish, MFFA cleverly marries it with a more down-to-earth plot of the aliens (led by Feng Jiao, played by Carrie Wong) interacting with heartlander Singaporeans (led by Yang Tian Sheng, played by Shaun Chen).

The show mines much humour from these interactions, especially since the aliens are much more biologically advanced than humans (they can fly, communicate by telepathy and read thoughts).

A standout moment in the first episode is when the aliens are scorned by a Singaporean for not knowing how to use a lift at a HDB block, while they were mentally lamenting how humans were not advanced enough to be able to fly to their destination.

Later in the episode, as the aliens snap their flat’s blinds shut to avoid a neighbour’s curious gaze, the neighbour says: “怕人家看,住condo啦!” (“If you don’t want people to look in, go live in a condominium!”)

The show also gleefully uses its fish-out-of-water concept to poke fun at Singaporean society’s quirks. For example, the aliens wonder why Singaporeans would “chope” seats at a food court before ordering food when it would not take up more time to simply buy food and subsequently look for a seat. In another episode, the aliens rush to put out an open fire near their block, only to be admonished by the aunties who were actually burning joss paper in the fire.

I could go on and on with more examples, but I’ll settle for an analogy: Like a particle accelerator, MFFA smashes disparate ingredients together in the hope of unearthing something wonderful. It’s a successful experiment – MFFA takes a gamble on its premise and the result is a delight to watch.

Aloysius Pang and Carrie Wong play an alien couple who has landed in Singapore. (Photo from The Straits Times)
However, the reactions to the show’s trailer would suggest otherwise. While it garnered several positive comments, the overwhelming negativity to what was essentially a preview of a then-unaired show was a highlight on its own:

The comments may be cutting, but do these people have a point?

Let’s take a closer look at more comments.

This year, MediaCorp celebrates 35 years of Chinese dramas with a campaign to commemorate popular dramas, actors and actresses over the years. There is certainly much to cover, as MediaCorp has produced its share of fine dramas across all genres.

Think The Unbeatables (双天至尊), the iconic gambling drama with Li Nanxing and Zoe Tay; the historical war drama The Price of Peace (和平的代价); the wuxia adaption The Legendary Swordsman (笑傲江湖); and the period drama Stepping Out (出路).

However, in the past decade, the general perception has been that MediaCorp’s contemporary Chinese dramas have declined in quality. What’s more, public sentiments has been turning against shows in the family drama genre such as the long-running 118 and its sequel 118 2, which used to be mainstay home entertainment.

While we finally see a slightly positive comment about MFFA, this gripe still misses the point as MediaCorp’s family dramas can be great too. The ongoing longform drama Tanglin hits the spot (review here), The Little Nyonya (小娘惹) was a smash hit in 2008, and who can forget the beloved Holland V (荷兰村) in 2003?

If anything, we should be criticising MediaCorp’s inability to create a truly engaging family drama in recent years, rather than taking down the entire genre.

Then again, MFFA is not your typical contemporary family drama. In that case, how do we explain these mocking remarks?

Seeing as the special effects in the MFFA trailer were perfectly adequate, these comments smack of nitpicking. Though we should not deceive ourselves that MediaCorp’s dramas are perfect, at the same time these people seem to have veered to the other extreme, slamming something that they did not appreciate at first glance.

This tendency to put down Singaporean television at first glance is not just about the quality of our shows, but also the other facets of our television industry. Take MediaCorp’s annual Star Awards show, which has been criticised for being self-congratulatory – after all, who in the television industry would have the cheek to reward themselves every year for a job well done?

The answer: everybody, from Hollywood to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, TVB organises the TVB Anniversary Awards to honour the best in TVB programming for the year. Even in Hollywood, the annual Emmy awards are decided by voters from the Television Academy, who happen to be people working in the US television industry.

Yet, our local viewers conveniently ignore this and happily slam MediaCorp for being  “ownself reward ownself”.

Best (or worst) of all, local viewers are prone to make absurd complaints like these:

However ridiculous the first half of the second comment is, it hits on a relevant point: our easy access to television content. Besides MediaCorp channels on free-to-air television, we also have easy access to cable television and online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. This means we get the opportunity to watch television content from all over the world, be it Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, European or American content.

And that’s not even counting those who simply go onto the Internet to illegally download them or buy an illegal setup box to stream these shows.

In fact, our exposure to foreign television content is so widespread that every time local television content is discussed, someone would inevitably say that compared to foreign productions, local television is terrible.

Unfortunately, people who think that way are misguided. Foreign television can be horrible too – it’s just that we do not know about the bad shows out there. For every success like Orange is the New Black, there have been 100 television dramas aired in the US that are absolutely terrible. Remember the travesty that is Temptation Island?

Friends may be a classic in the sitcom genre, but we do not hear about the other 99 per cent of sitcoms that are forgettable at best and unwatchable at worst.

We Singaporean viewers are a lucky lot – we hear only about the best television series out there and can watch them with great ease. With our inflated expectations, it is inevitable that we find local television lacking.

And if local viewers were already inclined to sneer at our local productions, our exposure to international content provides the background for a classic put-down – that MediaCorp had “copied” a concept from somewhere else:

In the case of MFFA, so what if it is inspired by other shows before it? Television remakes, spin-offs and adaptations are legion. Take for example the American sitcom The Office, which is a remake of the BBC comedy of the same name and just as good, if not better.

Similarly, the Netflix hit House of Cards and HBO’s Emmy-winning comedy Veep were both based on British television shows and remade for an audience more in tune with American flavour.

Furthermore, though Game of Thrones is adapted from the popular A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novel series, the show has risen above the books and become arguably the most popular television show in the world.

To dismiss a television show simply because it was inspired by an earlier show is simply ridiculous and superficial. If we are comfortable with foreign shows doing exactly that, we should not be hypocritical when it comes to local shows.

And it’s a problem only we can fix – not MediaCorp, nor the aliens from MFFA even.

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