I conclude that this is one of those times when a generally well-respected, well-liked show just isn’t working out for me the way I want it to.
I’d only heard positive things about The Advisors Alliance, and those who took the trouble to recommend it to me, all said that it was a good show that was worth the watch. For a while, I kinda rather enjoyed it too.
But 19 episodes into Show’s 42, I think it’s time to admit that this one just.. isn’t for me.
I thought it would be good to state for the record, that I am not well acquainted with Chinese history at all.
This means that while watching this, I had no previous knowledge or context to help me fill in any blanks that Show might have left, perhaps assuming that viewers would already know the content of those blanks because it’s considered basic stuff. This also means that I approached this show purely thinking of it as a drama working to tell a story, rather than, say, a retelling of history.
I do think that these factors affected my ability to enjoy this drama like the rest of its fans, at least somewhat.
STUFF I LIKED
Yu He Wei as Cao Cao
I feel like among the entire cast, Cao Cao (Yu He Wei) is the most interesting character, to me.
Sometimes, I hated him because he appears so heartless, cruel and amoral. At other times, he actually seems humane, full of thoughts and feelings. This made me feel that Cao Cao is not fully evil, nor is he fully good. Instead, he seems to be so many different shades of grey, and for that, I found him interesting. It helps that Yu He Wei is pretty excellent in his delivery.
Despite his flashes of humanity, cruelty is often Cao Cao’s modus operandi, so here are two instances where Cao Cao’s cruelty astounded me extra.
E7. Cao Cao purposely setting his sons up to fight each other for the crown is pretty cruel, to my eyes. He knows that Zi Jian (Wang Ren Jun) won’t fight Zi Huan (Li Chen), so he lets Zi Huan marry the woman that Zi Jian loves, to create enough deep-seated discontent in Zi Jian, to provoke him to fight Zi Huan. And he does this, knowing that when brothers vie for a crown, one of them tends to die. It blew my mind, that a father would knowingly set up his sons to very likely fight each other to the death, even when one of the sons has no interest in fighting.
E16. Cao Cao instructing Minister Xun (Wang Jin Song) to kill himself, is something I can’t forgive, coz I love Minister Xun, and I was really disappointed that he was no longer in our story. Plus, Cao Cao knows that he’s doing an unforgivable thing to a friend, but goes ahead and does it anyway, and then, has the gall to make a huge show of mourning him. Ugh. I found that utterly disgusting.
The battle of wits between Sima Yi & Yang Xiu
Fittingly, I found the strategists most interesting, among Show’s various arcs. Because Cao Cao sets up his sons Zi Huan and Zi Jian to battle each other for the position of Crown Prince, it makes sense that the true battle of wits is really between their respective advisors, Sima Yi (Wu Xiu Bo) and Yang Xiu (Zhai Tian Lin).
Consistently, the two advisors’ ways of looking at the same situation are completely different, and I found myself curious to see how each of them would break down and interpret the same information.
Of course, I was more interested in Sima Yi’s points of view, since he’s our protagonist. I found myself feeling curious about Sima Yi’s way of looking at the world and his way of breaking down the information. I found his approach wise, and his analysis, often piercing.
It really isn’t often that I find politics more interesting than romance, so I feel like this must be this writer’s strength.
Here are just two instances where I enjoyed Sima Yi’s perspective.
E11. Despite a lot of time being spent on a romantic arc this episode (more on that later), I found myself much more interested in the fight between Zi Huan and Zi Jian – something I never thought I’d say, since I’ve always favored romance over politics. But I literally felt more engaged over what the deal was, with the race of the flag, than with the romance. I really liked Sima Yi’s angle, that the challenge was really about being able to distinguish between right and wrong, and not about who managed to bring the flag to the appointed destination first.
E13. I thought Sima Yi’s perspective of Minister Cui’s rebuke of Zi Huan insightful; that Minister Cui’s expectations basically meant that Minister Cui was not disdaining Zi Huan, but looking to him to act like a crown prince in the absence of his father.
Wang Jin Song as Minister Xun
I have a pre-existing fondness for Wang Jin Song, for his lovely turn in Nirvana In Fire, and I similarly loved him in this show, as Minister Xun.
Character-wise, I like Minister Xun because he comes across as a very genuine and sincere person. I feel like he’s living according to his principles, and not being swayed by all the politicking, despite often being in the thick of it. Also, delivery-wise, Wang Jin Song is just so good. I loved having Minister Xun on my screen.
In episode 15, Minister Xun’s scenes were the most interesting, to me. Minister Xun’s conversation with Cao Cao feels pained and deep. He simply cannot continue to support Cao Cao’s quest for power, and it’s just so courageous of him, to actually articulate that. In addition, he speaks the truth with such earnestness and good faith; his good intentions are crystal clear. And Wang Jin Song’s delivery of the scene, is just wonderful; he’s quietly restrained, but completely arresting. I was captivated.
Therefore, I was heartbroken when Cao Cao ordered Minister Xun to kill himself, in episode 16. Sob.
The relationship between Mr. & Mrs. Sima Yi
In a drama world where I found it hard to get behind the romance as a general rule (more on that in a bit), I was pleasantly surprised to find that I rather enjoyed the bond between Sima Yi and his wife (Liu Tao).
I found their disagreements believably rooted in deep-seated concern, and their rare sweet moments, quietly endearing. I don’t think I ever minded spending screen time with this husband and wife duo. It helped, that Wu Xiu Bo and Liu Tao share a warm, believable sort of chemistry.
STUFF THAT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME
Unfortunately, despite enjoying good chunks of my watch, there were various other things that I didn’t enjoy. To make things worse, some of these issues became more pronounced, the deeper I got into my watch.
Li Chen as Cao Pi / Zi Huan
This one was quite a big issue for me: I found that I didn’t really like Zi Huan as a character. Considering that he’s a major character – and the one that Sima Yi is working to put on the throne, to boot – this was a Problem.
Essentially, I often found myself dissatisfied with Zi Huan’s lack of wisdom and foresight, and I also found myself feeling extremely frustrated at his often misplaced stubbornness. He didn’t seem much like Crown Prince material to my eyes, and I sometimes actually felt sorry for Sima Yi, for having to deal with Zi Huan’s blockheadedness. It also doesn’t help that I didn’t find Li Chen’s delivery of the character very well done at all. I found Li Chen’s delivery rather flat and uninteresting, as a general rule.
Putting those things together, I found myself fighting a losing battle, trying to like Zi Huan enough to actually want to root for him.
Here are a couple of examples when I found myself struggling with either Zi Huan as a character, &/or Li Chen’s delivery of the character.
E13. Zi Huan is so frustrating. Minister Cui’s rebuke about the hunting makes sense, and Zi Huan knows it, but he rejects it anyway, on principle that Minister Cui is Zi Jian’s father-in-law. And then, to make things worse, he plans for another hunting trip right away. How shortsighted and stubborn. At this moment, I felt tired for Sima Yi, having to work so hard to talk sense into Zi Huan.
E14. Zi Huan is so shortsighted and self-centered. This episode, he refuses to ask Cao Cao to bring Zi Jian back to the capital, despite pleas from just about everyone. And then later, he rejoices in Zi Jian’s blunder, without thinking about Sima Yi’s brother, whose life is now in danger because of said blunder, even though he claims to see Sima Yi as more of a friend than a servant.
E16. Li Chen is not a very nuanced actor. In this episode where Zi Huan is wrongfully imprisoned, there is a huge opportunity for Li Chen to flesh out Zi Huan’s inner conflict and outer bravado, but everything is just.. flat, and I don’t feel anything when I watch him. All I see is the outer bravado, but there is no inner conflict that is visible. There is just a flatness in his eyes that’s always there. Sadly, I am bored by this actor.
E17. I still can’t find myself to feel for Zi Huan, even though he’s been framed and is being beaten in prison. There’s just something about Li Chen that just feels inaccessible, to me. I feel like Zi Huan has a stony sort of mask that prevents me from feeling like I really know him as a character, and I blame that on Li Chen’s delivery.
The loveline between Zi Huan & Ah Zhao
I personally don’t find the lovelines in this show believable nor engaging. I don’t have any feelings invested in the lovelines, mostly because the lovelines feel perfunctory, generally speaking. Specifically, I find the loveline between Ah Zhao (Tang Yi Xin) and Zi Huan odd, because it feels even more random than connect-the-dots storytelling. Additionally, I don’t feel chemistry between the actors.
Because of the random introduction of their loveline in the earlier episodes, I found it hard to believe the supposedly strong bond between them, in later episodes. Every time this couple appeared, I felt distracted by how hollow I found their connection, more than anything else. This.. wasn’t a good thing.
Overall, it feels like this writer is most comfortable writing about political strategies, and maybe he was arm-twisted into shoving some romance into the story. It also feels like he has no idea how to flesh out a romance, and just threw some stuff in there to meet the requirement.
The whole concubine thing with Ah Zhao in episode 11 feels odd to me. I guess I don’t quite buy into the strength of the bond between Zi Huan and Ah Zhao, and so the scene of them arguing about whether he was being true to her, didn’t resonate with me. It all feels like a whole lot is being waged on the strength of not very much. Based on a few short interactions, Ah Zhao is suddenly entering Zi Huan’s house and becoming his concubine. And there’s no ceremony about it either. He picks her up on his horse and that’s.. it? I found the whole thing hard to get behind.
After this, every time Ah Zhao is shown as being devoted to Zi Huan in other episodes, I found it hard to believe the strength of their relationship.
Show’s general handling of characters
Show has a weird propensity for suddenly killing off characters without explanation. Like, suddenly, a relatively key secondary character would be either suddenly on his deathbed, or already dead. I found this rather confusing, because it all felt very random to me.
E6. In this episode, we suddenly see that Cao Cao’s trusted advisor, Guo Feng Xiao (Cao Lei), is suddenly deathly ill. A rather heartfelt conversation with Cao Cao later, he dies. I found that quite random, because before this episode, Guo Feng Xiao had seemed perfectly strong and healthy, and had seemed to be a pretty key character. I thought that Show might give some explanation of why he would suddenly take ill and die, but Show doesn’t.
E8. This episode, it’s Cao Cao’s youngest son who suddenly dies. Put in such close proximity to Guo Feng Xiao’s death, it definitely feels like the writer is using a bit of connect-the-dots writing. In this case, they needed the youngest son to die, never mind that the child had seemed completely healthy not so long ago – so that his teacher could quit, and set the subsequent chain of events into motion. Even though it’s more elegant than the usual connect-the-dots writing we see in dramaland, it’s still connect-the-dots writing in the end, and Show lost another brownie point, in my books.
Occasionally, there are scenes or plot points where logic just doesn’t seem to apply, and suspension of disbelief is required. It doesn’t happen terribly often, but there were definitely a few times when Show left me scratching my head.
Here are a couple of examples.
E6. Sima Yi’s legs suddenly getting cured, is hard to believe, in the sense that, how would he be able to suddenly stand and walk, without regular physiotherapy and exercise? He’d been either in bed or in a wheelchair, literally for years, and suddenly, he accidentally discovers that he’s magically regained his ability to walk, and quite well too. I’m.. pretty sure the human body doesn’t work that way.
E10. This episode, we see Zi Huan and Ah Zhao share a friendly moment on the stage in the town square. Around them, the town is dark and deserted. Nearby, Zi Huan’s wife arrives in a carriage, and when she sees Zi Huan with Ah Zhao, she leaves. I found this really hard to believe. It’s unlikely that as a warrior, Zi Huan would be oblivious to the arrival of his wife’s carriage and entourage, along with their horses, even if they were at a distance. With the entire place under curfew, it’s not like there was a lot of other stuff going on around him. In that silence, it’s just not logical that he doesn’t hear or notice anything.
E19. Sima Yi kneeling in the snow overnight, that there would be a thick layer of snow on his back in the morning – and he doesn’t get frostbite, and is even able to walk, albeit with help? That’s unbelievable. Being exposed at those freezing temperatures, for that many hours, it’s more likely that he’d lose at least several toes.
The thing is, Show didn’t do one Very Bad Thing, that made me decide to drop it. It’s just that, the things that I liked about the show were showing up less and less, the further I got into the episodes. At the same time, the things I didn’t enjoy, seemed to be piling up, slowly but surely.
At episode 19, I realized that I just wasn’t enjoying this show as much, anymore. I mean, I could have tried to muster up some interest to keep going, at least for a little while longer, but I found that I actually didn’t want to muster up that interest. In fact, I felt so happy and relieved to be working on this dropped post, because it meant that I didn’t have to watch more episodes of this show. That’s how I knew for sure, that this one’s just not for me.
I’m sorry, Show. Lots of folks seem to love you, but I guess you and I just weren’t meant to be.