I still watch Channel 8 shows.
In fact, when I'm having a bad day, I sometimes feel better after going home and watching Channel 8. (Yes, you are free to judge me.)
My recent favourites include "King of Culinary" (三把刀), "Hawker Academy" (小贩学院), as well as some 9pm dramas like "A Jungle Survivor" (森林生存记) and currently, "Mind Jumper" (触心罪探).
But gone are the times when I would talk to my friends about 9pm Channel 8 serials.
In fact, along the way, it has become kind of uncool to profess love for the newer Channel 8 shows.
A 20-year love affair
It may seem completely unthinkable that a millennial would still be hooked on Channel 8 shows in the age of Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube.
Being confined to local television is a thing of the past — with a click or two, we now have the option to watch dramas from all over the world.
And so, the mystery remains: Given all these choices, why do I still find myself catching certain local programmes at broadcast time? Even if I'm not home to watch them, there is a good chance that I would diligently set aside some time for meWATCH.
Somehow, my love for Channel 8 has persisted from the 1990s all the way into 2021.
But just so we're clear: I'm not saying that all Channel 8 shows are worth watching (I personally cannot get behind the current 7:30pm "Recipe of Life" (味之道)'s ridiculous and meandering storyline).
All I'm saying is that, and naysayers please hear me out, there is still much to love about Channel 8 shows.
Leisure in a time where on-demand didn't exist
Perhaps it has something to do with nostalgia.
I have plenty of fond childhood memories associated with the act of watching TV, and more specifically, watching Channel 8.
Pleasant memories include my family and I tuning in to variety shows after dinner. Over plates of cut fruit, we would then sit around the living room, watching the 9pm drama together — an activity that has since become relatively rare these days since personal screens became ubiquitous.
In a world where on-demand TV was still relatively unheard of, how I organised my time as a kid revolved around this programming schedule.
If I hadn't finished my homework by the time the 6:30pm news happened, it means that I would be due for an earful. And my cue to wash up and go to bed? When the credits for the 9pm drama rolled.
We lived in an era where local TV and radio played a huge part in fostering a shared imagination of our lives in Singapore. How we understood life and leisure was also way simpler back then.
But I'd like to think that my love for Channel 8 shows isn't rooted in an irrational desire to chase the joys of a rose-tinted past.
The best era is over? I think not.
Ask anybody who used to be remotely invested in Channel 8 shows and they'll likely tell you that the peak of Channel 8 shows in Singapore seemed to be in the 90s, or maybe early 2000s.
I watched as my peers gradually fell out of love with Channel 8 over the years ("Huh? You're still watching Channel 8??"/ "Walao, you go home to watch the 9pm show?").
The best Channel 8 show in their opinion? Probably "Stepping Out" (出路), "The Unbeatables" (双天至尊), "Holland Village" (荷兰村), "Wok of Life" (福满人间) or maybe even "The Little Nyonya (2008)" (小娘惹).
To them, all other dramas from 2010 onwards have no place in their consciousness.
Story arcs continue to be innovative
Nobody will disagree that there are plenty of memorable shows from the 1990s and 2000s. But if we are talking about storylines that compel, I think that riveting story arcs still exist.
There are the perennial police and crime drama favourites (think "C.L.I.F.", which has a grand total of five seasons, and a lesser-known cold case investigation drama "Truth Seekers" (真探), which I really enjoyed).
Local TV has also continued to innovate with unusual plots. Some that I really liked:
- Aliens living in the Singapore heartlands ("Our Friends From Afar" (知星人) was called "the best thing on Singaporean TV" by this writer in 2017)
- An elaborate con artist plot ("Game Plan" (千方百计) featuring Christopher Lee and Jesseca Liu)
- A heroine and imperial guard time-travelling from ancient China to modern-day Singapore ("A Quest To Heal" (我的女侠罗明依) snagged an impressive amount of nominations for Star Awards 2021)
- An intrepid Vietnamese bride integrating into Singapore life ("My Star Bride" (过江新娘) was a widely popular show in 2021)
But wait, aren't some of these so-called "novel" story ideas unoriginal? Surely one can imagine con or time travel shows from virtually any culture!
The main difference —and this is why I believe Singaporean TV continues to ensnare — is that it frames the relationship between characters, as well as conflict resolution, in a context that's distinctly local, making it all the more relatable to Singaporeans.
And this is why it's not just novel plots that have the ability to draw audiences in. Slice-of-life family dramas (think "118") also help us to make sense of our life in Singapore as we know it through on-screen portrayals of anxieties and aspirations.
If anything, perhaps a valid criticism I would agree with is that there hasn't been any recent slice-of-life family dramas that have been quite as memorable.
A question of acting?
Another common retort is that the quality of acting is not like what it used to be.
But let's not forget that A-list (and B-list actors) exist in every generation. That means that while there are some actors now who aren't so great, not-so-great actors also existed back in the 1990s and 2000s too.
If we are looking at older artistes like Zoe Tay or Christopher Lee, who are thought to have reached the pinnacle of acting excellence, I think talent renewal is well underway.
Surely artistes like Qi Yuwu (three-time Best Actor winner at Star Awards with breakthroughs in international films), Rui En (two-time Best Actress and All-Time Favourite Artiste at Star Awards) and Felicia Chin (widely considered to be A-lister) must be considered promising?
Others like Xu Bin, Shaun Chen and Rebecca Lim have also held their own in various roles.
And what about the up-and-coming younger talents, involving the likes of Carrie Wong, Ya Hui (although she hasn't had any recent breakthroughs, from what I recall) or even Chantalle Ng?
Given their relatively young ages, they arguably have a decent runway before they take over from the generation before them.
Arghhhh the ads
The argument that I am most empathetic to is the fact that advertising has increasingly become more prevalent and embedded in Chinese dramas.
If you've been following local TV in recent years, you'll notice that you would first have to sit through an entire 30-second Daikin jingle ("iiiiiiiii... smiiiiiilleeee... seeeerriiiiiiess!") before you can get started on the 9pm show.
There would likely also be product placements and promotional messaging within the programme. This could range from the benefits of a particular mattress, promoting traditional Chinese medicinal products or even how to curb the spread of dengue. (Sidenote: Perhaps this might be one of the reasons explaining a decline in Channel 8 period dramas in recent years?)
However, this phenomenon that isn't limited to just local TV. Some overseas productions, such as Thai dramas that I am particularly fond of, also have similar ad placements promoting snacks, drinks or cosmetic products.
If the ads bother you and significantly affect your ability to enjoy the programme, I get it. There can be more elegant ways of subtly integrating client messaging into the programme.
Do these ads interfere with the watching experience? Yes. But how much it affects a viewer then depends on their expectations of what should and should not go into a drama. (My threshold for advertising is likely higher.)
Personally, I have never felt that these ads made me want to stop following a compelling storyline.
Put it this way: There will always be room for improvement. We can always aspire towards more realistic representations, even more sophisticated methods of storytelling, and an overall increase in production value.
However you choose to see it, the fact that I still find myself gravitating to Channel 8 shows could very well say something about the quality of Channel 8 dramas and its ability to connect to audiences.
Or it could mean that, as my friends would say, I need to get a life.
I'm betting on the former.
This article is not sponsored, okay.
Top photo collage via Wikipedia.