So, I have good news and bad news, my friends.
The bad news is, this is one of those highly raved C-dramas that I ended up checking out based on the buzz alone, and once again, I didn’t end up loving it as much as everyone else seems to.
The good news is, unlike shows like Well Intended Love and Where The Lost Ones Go, where I not only failed to understand the shows’ appeal, but ended up strongly disliking both shows, I feel like I can understand why people like Go Go Squid. And, I even ended up enjoying it, albeit in a more muted fashion than most.
That’s progress, right?
MY TRAJECTORY WITH THIS SHOW
This was a show that I wasn’t actually planning on watching, because it looked a lot like other C-romcoms that other people had loved, and which I’d then failed to enjoy. But just like that old proverb that talks about dripping water eventually eroding a rock, my resolve to give this one a pass – though not quite a rock – was eventually worn down by the consistent spazz I saw over this show.
I didn’t like it right away, but I hung in there because 1, I’d heard that Show gets better after the first few episodes, and 2, I was quite taken by the fact that Li Xian in this legit looks uncannily like my first boyfriend (Gasp! I know!). Li Xian looks more handsome, certainly, but the resemblance was so striking that I got a kick purely out of seeing him on my screen, heh. Which then kept me watching this show for a lot longer than I ordinarily would, given my very muted levels of enjoyment of the show itself.
The funny thing is, even though I never got as sucked into this show as many others did before me, I did find myself growing affectionate of the characters, and genuinely interested in certain arcs, which is more than what I’d expected to begin with. Not bad.
I sometimes wished that I was more able to throw logic out the window and just adopt a silly, nonsensical lens with this show, because then I think I would’ve enjoyed my watch a lot more.
On the upside, I can see why people might really like this show.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that this show is far from perfect. It’s on the low-rent side of things, and the patchy dubbing, where the audio is patched with dubbed lines inserted either to cover mistakes or to accommodate a rewrite, is really obvious and distracting. To be fair, this also happens in more expensively produced C-dramas, so that’s not a problem limited to this show. It just.. didn’t help matters.
Show’s approach is also slice-of-life, so it can feel rather scattered, like nothing much happens in an episode.
Aside from these more fundamental structural sort of issues, here are 5 things that I found myself not liking so much. If you can take these into account when adjusting your lens, I think you’d have a better chance at enjoying this show.
1. The emotional beats generally don’t land with much weight
This is a big one, for me. Generally speaking, I didn’t manage to engage with Show in a strong emotional way, which limited my enjoyment of my watch.
There’s just something about this show that makes me feel that it’s made for your inner teenager. Something about how each arc is designed and pitched, and also, how the relationships are positioned and fleshed out; it’s all more on the young side.
Additionally, it occurred to me during my watch, that the dialogue in this show mostly leans stilted, like it’s obviously been written by someone, for a specific purpose, to create a desired effect. It didn’t feel organic to me, like the words would naturally come out of these characters’ mouths.
2. Logic stretches
There is an elastic kind of quality in Show’s brand of logic that I had trouble getting used to. I think it would help, if you could adopt a more manhua / donghua (the Japanese equivalent would be manga / anime) sort of lens.
Here are a few logic stretches that I noticed during my watch, which, while small, did niggle at me somewhat.
E9. I find it odd that Shang Yan (Li Xian) would need any kind of help navigating the steps to registering on an app and working out how to use it, given his profession. Has he been in an analog bubble all this time, only caring about games and not about social media?
E33. If Nian Nian (Yang Zi) has drunk a whole bottle of liquor, Shang Yan would’ve smelled it on her breath long before she announced it. It shouldn’t be a surprise to him, the way Show wants it to be a surprise to him.
E34. I don’t know if I buy the way Nian Nian’s mom (Kong Lin) is shown coming around. She was so against Shang Yan dating Nian Nian before.. and now she suddenly admits that she can see Nian Nian likes Shang Yan? It just feels a little out of the blue to me.
3. Sometimes the narrative choices come across as quite odd
On a related tangent, there were quite a few occasions where I found the narrative choices quite bizarre, and my struggle to take it all in my stride added to my bemusement with this show.
Here are a handful of examples, when I felt puzzled by what the writers were thinking.
E14. Shang Yan requesting that Nian Nian sing a children’s donkey song for the audition is really quite weird. I get that both of them are missing the other person, and that things are awkward, but the concept is weird, and the execution is painfully awkward. Ack.
E16. The way Solo (Li Zi Feng) tells Xiao Mi (Li Hong Qi) about his performance ultimatum on his birthday strikes me as odd. It’s a punch to the gut to Xiao Mi, and Solo knows that. So why would he choose to tell Xiao Mi during his birthday celebration, of all times?
E17. The way handsy woman tries to get between Shang Yan and Nian Nian is childish, and the way Shang Yan and Nian Nian retaliate is just as childish. I did not enjoy that.
E26. Is this kind of weird jump common in Chinese dramas? Coz this happened in Where The Lost Ones Go, where the OTP went from estranged to giggly water fight in two seconds, with no lead-up that made any sort of sense. And here we have something similar, with Han Shang Yan showing up and acting like a possessive jerk to Zheng Hui (Qu Xian Ping) at the hospital where Nian Nian’s father (Wang Ce) works. And then while walking her home, a random guy in a silver alien suit suddenly starts playing music in the empty alleyway and the two start dancing together, all smiles and giggles. What?
E29. The goodbye for Su Cheng (Wang Le Jun) was beyond cringey, with all the dramatic tears and hugs, when she’s just moving to KK’s Norway office. The crying-humming-swaying song was laugh-out-loud terrible. Eep.
4. There’s a fair bit of filler
Generally speaking, Show presents narrative arcs that are quite short, and demonstrates a general habit of getting over humps quickly. While this made the watch feel lighter, it also tended to muffle the narrative arcs’ potential for emotional resonance. Another thing is, some of these narrative arcs felt like filler, which I did not appreciate.
[SPOILER] For example, Shang Yan’s breakup with Nian Nian in episode 21 is clearly designed to be filler, because at this point, Show is only at its halfway point, and we apparently can’t have 20 more episodes of Shang Yan and Nian Nian being in an uneventful relationship with each other. Which is why Show imposes a breakup via Nian Nian’s mother. We proceed to have quite a few episodes of filler where Han Shang Yan looks kind of tortured, while Nian Nian continues to be absurdly nice to him in spite of his cutting words. Ho hum. It’s not my jam, but as a silver lining, thanks to Show’s general light hand in just about everything, it’s not too terrible either. [END SPOILER]
5. Sometimes the aesthetic choices seem.. questionable
The biggest offender for me is Tong Nian’s wardrobe, which I found ridiculously ugly. Tong Nian is consistently dressed in multiple pastels, in clunky silhouettes, with weird mishmash designs. It was one thing when I thought the wardrobe people were buying the stuff and matching everything badly. But in later episodes, I spotted a bit of ungainly tailoring along the seams, which made me suspect that the wardrobe folks actually patched colored clothes together to make her have the colorful quirky wardrobe they wanted.
It’s.. really not a good look, in my opinion.
SHOW’S MAIN FOCUS
Notice how this section is headlined by a picture of Han Shang Yan, alone? Ha.
It took me quite a long time to become cognizant of the fact that romance is not at all Show’s intended Main Event. Yes, the promotional material, posters and trailers put the OTP front-and-center, and even the title suggests that it’s about romance (Show’s Chinese title translates literally as “beloved, ardently,” while the “Squid” in Show’s English title refers to our female lead’s online moniker), which is why I went into this with my romance lens firmly at the forefront.
Little did I realize that Show was doing something of a bait ‘n switch.
..Which wouldn’t have been that much of a problem, I think, if Show had been more obvious in its storytelling, what its main focus was. But the romantic developments take up a fair bit of screen time especially in Show’s early episodes, and that muddied the focus for me, I feel like. It was only in Show’s late episodes, that I realized that this was never all about the romance. This was really more about Han Shang Yan’s journey, and romance was only one part of that journey.
Now that I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I’d say that this is more a show about healing, reconciliation and sportsmanship, with some cute romance served up on the side.
Y’know, I think if I’d known this upfront, I might’ve been able to enjoy my watch a little more. I mean, at least I would’ve understood better (well, faster) the narrative restraint employed around Shang Yan’s relationship with Nian Nian.
That said, maybe it’s all on me; maybe if I’d been faster on the uptake, I would’ve gained clarity earlier, lol.
SHOW’S REAL LOVELINE: The angst around Team Solo and its resolution [VAGUE SPOILERS]
So it was only at episode 35 (out of Show’s 41!) that it became clear to me what the real loveline was, in this story. The real loveline, with the greater angst, and the greater emotional payoff, is between Han Shang Yan and his previous CTF (Capture The Flag) team, Team Solo, with whom he fell out years ago.
Prior to episode 35, we do get bits and pieces of Team Solo’s backstory, but we don’t actually find out what caused the rift until episode 27. This means that every time we are shown present-day angst (all very serious and dramatic), or team closeness from days past (all very earnest and happy), I found myself unable to actually appreciate what was going on.
I didn’t have the information to sympathize properly with any of the team members, because I didn’t know what drove them apart in the first place. I couldn’t appreciate why Shang Yan was so full of angst, nor could I really appreciate scenes where the other members are shown trying to make peace with him, and he brushes them off. I basically didn’t have the information I needed, in order to pick a side.
With the stakes kept vague for such a long time, I basically mentally shelved anything to do with Team Solo and its backstory, until Show did its “big reveal” in episode 27.
I will say that by the time Show did its big reveal, I did feel rather underwhelmed at the truth, which seemed like, well, not a molehill per se, but something that had triggered a very emotional response, and then left to fester for years.
[SPOILER] Given the situation, Solo didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t have someone else who would care for Xiao Ai (Zhang Ge) for him, and Su Cheng couldn’t take care of her anymore. But ok. I get that it was a blow to the team, and somehow things fell apart. After all the sacrifice, that must have been a huge disappointment. But, it still felt like an anticlimax from where I was sitting, after all the angst and build-up. [END SPOILER]
Ultimately, the biggest, weightiest relationship in this show, isn’t the one between Shang Yan and Nian Nian. It’s the one shared among the original Team Solo. The weightiest relationship arc isn’t anything to do with the romance; it has to do with teasing out and unpacking all the emotional baggage among Team Solo, and letting everything come to a head, so that the old wounds can be soothed, and the enduring embers of emotion that have been smoldering all these years, can finally be fired up again, and given life.
For most of my watch, I found myself enjoying Show with a detached sort of appreciation. But the one time Show managed to fully engage me emotionally, it had to do with Team Solo. In episode 35, there’s drunk ugly-crying, shouting, tears and apologies, complete with three-way hugs. And while some of it lands kinda cheesy, I have to concede that it brought a lump to my throat.
In comparison, I found nothing that emotionally weighty with Shang Yan’s relationship with Nian Nian, which is why I say that this is Show’s true loveline.
[SPOILER] In episode 36, it’s nice to see the original Team Solo reunited, including the substitute players, and I like the idea of the celebrity match. It gives them one last hurrah as a team, which is something they never thought they’d have. Funny how I found this so much more meaningful than the OTP milestones.
I was a little disappointed that we don’t actually get to see Team Solo play in the celebrity match in episode 37 (I mean, we get to see the speeches and the cheers, but after all that build-up, I feel like I was shut out of a key part of the goings-on, which was disappointing), but still, yay that Show at least lets us in on the fact that Team Solo won, and that Gun God blew it out of the water and beat everyone else. Yeah, baby! [END SPOILER]
THE TEAMWORK / GAMING STUFF
Another thing that kinda crept up on me, in terms of getting me to care, was all the team-related stuff.
From thinking of all the CTF team stuff as a backdrop for the main romance (which, like I said, was the completely wrong focus), I grew fond of the various team members (I have the biggest soft spot for earnest and sweet Little Demo, played by Yu Cheng En), and I started to feel a lot more interested and invested in the team stuff, as I got deeper into my watch.
Here’s a handful of team-related highlights of my watch.
E10. It’s heartwarming to see the opposing teams unite while on an international stage, even though they’ve always been at loggerheads, in a manner of speaking, in the past. It wasn’t about who won among them; it was about bringing honor to their country.
E32. The arc with Buff (Chen Fang Xu) is rather meaningful, in that even though Buff and Shang Yan have always competed against each other, there is mutual respect there that is clear to see. And it’s pretty meaningful that Shang Yan doesn’t let Buff retire with regrets, but invites him to be a part of the KK team.
E38. It’s gotten to the point where I actually feel more engaged when the focus is on the team. When the focus shifts to Buff joining KK, and the initial angst around that, I found myself feeling more interested in the goings-on, and how the members felt. In particular, I’m fond of little Demo, and don’t want him to get downgraded to substitute, when it comes down to it. But it’s pretty admirable that every member understands why Shang Yan is doing this, and doesn’t hold a grudge, even though there’s a possibility that one of their own will be downgraded as a result of the change. That’s heartwarming.
THE ROMANTIC LOVELINE
By this point of the review, you’ve probably already figured out that I did not love this OTP loveline. However, unlike Well Intended Love, where I chafed at many of the OTP developments, I did find a good amount to like, with this OTP.
Li Xian as Han Shang Yan
Overall, I quite enjoyed Li Xian as Gun God Han Shang Yan.
It’s true that Li Xian’s delivery leans a touch one-note, especially in the beginning, in that Han Shang Yan is shown constantly furrowing his brow, as if it’s shorthand for angsty hot male lead, but over time, Han Shang Yan does show more facets to his character than just broody and angsty. And until that time, I was, like I mentioned earlier, content to enjoy the visuals, not just because I think Li Xian is a handsome man, but also because of the weird coincidence, that I see a striking resemblance between Li Xian as Han Shang Yan, and my first boyfriend (I totally missed the resemblance when I checked out Tientsin Mystic, but I blame that on the period styling, heh).
I think my favorite thing about Han Shang Yan is that even though he is packaged similarly to the 霸道总裁 (bàdào zǒngcái), overbearing president type male leads popular in modern C-romcoms, he is shown to be kind, caring, all-around decent, and a bit of dork, underneath the intimidating image.
Show does a pretty good job peeling back Han Shang Yan’s layers, as we get deeper into our story, and the more I saw of Shang Yan’s softer side, the more I found myself wanting to root for him.
Here’s a quick overview of some of my Shang Yan observations.
E2. I do like that when he encounters Nian Nian online as a noob player, Shang Yan assumes it’s a kid that he’s interacting with, and is kind.
E6. This is the episode that I feel like we see more of Shang Yan’s nice side; the marshmallow underbelly to his reticent gruff aloof shell. The way he gives everyone red packets, and insists that the cleaning lady get one too, and the way he won’t let Demo stay at the dorm by himself over the new year holidays and takes him home. There are even a few small stifled smiles thrown in here and there, which I like.
E8. I find it very endearing how Demo throws himself all over Shang Yan, to wish him Happy New Year. It shows that beneath the surface awe and cautiousness, he really isn’t actually afraid of Shang Yan, and in fact, likes him very much. Shang Yan’s stifled smiles as Demo jumps on him and around him, hollering New Year blessings, is just so wholesome and sweet. Aw.
E8. The way Shang Yan thinks of Nian Nian, when the manager remarks that he doesn’t have to be accountable to anyone regarding his upcoming Norway trip, makes me think that he quite likes the idea of having someone. It also makes me wonder how lonely Shang Yan is, underneath his gruff surface.
E13. Even though he’s moody himself, Shang Yan makes an effort to check on Demo because he hears that Demo’s not doing well emotionally. That’s caring and kind.
E15. ..And the glowery male lead with all the swag turns out to be an awkward goofy dork when he starts dating for real. That’s hilarious and quite endearing.
E22. The reluctant connection between Shang Yan and his stepmom (Liang Ai Qi) is rather sweet. It’s quite touching that she insists on being his mother for life, even though she isn’t required to. The exchanging of pictures under their hotel doors is cute too.
Yang Zi as Tong Nian
Yang Zi has legions of fans who love her for her cute image, but I have to confess that I’m not quite a fan of the cutesy female lead type, and Yang Zi seems to have carved an image for herself playing cute roles. For example, I didn’t really care for Yang Zi’s cute female lead in Ashes Of Love, even though tons of people loved her and the show. I guess my drama taste is evolving, and of late, I find myself more drawn to female leads with more obviously strong personalities.
So let me state for the record, that lots of people loved Yang Zi as Nian Nian, so there’s a good chance you might, too.
As a silver lining, I found that Tong Nian wasn’t just all cutesy air and fluff. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that beyond the cutesy fangirl stuff that we see in episode 1, namely the insta-love and desperate texting, both of which didn’t at all appeal to me, we soon learn that Tong Nian is a very smart and talented individual, with a great deal going for her.
At first, I admit I was a little confused in terms of trying to figure out what Show was trying to say. Was Show saying that you can be the most successful woman out there, but in the face of love, you’re nothing but a desperate fangirl, or was Show saying that there’s no type or box when it comes to being smart and popular? Ultimately, I chose to believe the latter, if only to ease my own ability to enjoy this show.
I also appreciate that even though we see Tong Nian going all-out to support Han Shang Yan in his passion for CTF, we also see that in the end, she doesn’t forget her own interests and career.
Just for the record, here are some of the random factoids that Show tosses out about Tong Nian:
1. She’s a bit of an online celebrity, being a very popular singer on Netease, and has so many fans (more than a million followers) that she attends fan meetings and signs autographs.
2. She’s quite the academic, and started university at age 15, doing a double major in hardcore engineering subjects.
3. She came in second in a prestigious international programming competition, and is often invited to give talks, such as the one we see her give on Artificial Intelligence.
Han Shang Yan and Tong Nian together
I have mixed-tending-positive feelings about this OTP, and here’s why.
[HIGH LEVEL SPOILERS] Show creates the OTP connection via a chain of hard-to-believe events and coincidences, where Tong Nian falls for Shang Yan at first sight, and hard, and then proceeds to try to connect with him in somewhat stalkery ways. I did not care for her desperation and rather lame behavior, so that was a negative, in my books.
I also found the start of their dating connection via sudden fake relationship hard to believe, even in the romcom sphere of things. However, I like that once that connection is formed, the dynamic between Shang Yan and Tong Nian is generally shown to be a healthy one. That, I liked. Plus, some moments are genuinely cute, and I appreciated that. [END SPOILER]
However, with Show’s light touch, and the story’s real emotional weight lying elsewhere, I found that the OTP relationship didn’t land with enough feels or resonance, for me to feel strongly engaged.
In terms of chemistry, I found that the vibe between Li Xian and Yang Zi was decent overall. I found some moments quite well executed, and others rather awkward, as if our leads felt uncomfortable in the scene. But, because this OTP relationship wasn’t actually the Main Event that it was advertised to be, I didn’t find this to be dealbreaker for me, and ended up enjoying the OTP relationship, albeit in a fairly muted fashion.
Here’s a rather sprawling map of my reactions to this OTP relationship, during my watch.
E3. The whole misunderstanding about Nian Nian being at the competition for Grunt (Wen Yi Fan) lame, but I’ll buy it for set-up. Again, I like that Shang Yan is kind. He assumes that she’s Grunt’s girlfriend and that she and Grunt are lying about not knowing each other, so he arranges for her to be included at the hotel meal. That’s pretty gracious, for the intimidating Boss man.
E5. Again, Shang Yan isn’t unkind, even when he has the option to be. When his team members needle him to let Tong Nian come into the competition arena, he allows it even though he knows that it’s all based on a misunderstanding. When he sees that Tong Nian doesn’t quite know how to explain their misunderstanding to the team members, even though she’d offered to do so, he tells her she doesn’t need to explain, because it won’t matter anyway. He’s showing a marshmallow side, which I rather like.
E7. The random family friend connection, and the sudden fake relationship is ridiculous, but I’ll buy it. Xiao Bai (Hu Yi Tian) throwing Shang Yan under the bus using misleading bits of information – “all our club members call her sister-in-law” ha! – to save himself is something I’d believe he’d do, and Hu Yi Tian’s amused-defiant delivery of the moment is gold. I find myself nicely amused by this episode and this development. It feels like a new dimension’s been added to the entanglement between Tong Nian and Shang Yan, and I’m curious to see where this fake relationship will go.
E7. It’s just like Shang Yan to be honorable about the fake relationship arrangement, telling Tong Nian that until they break up, she is his girlfriend and will honor her needs if she just tells him. I find that quite endearing about him.
E8. Grandpa (Paul Chun) demanding to see Nian Nian means Shang Yan does the boyfriend thing and pays a New Year visit to Nian Nian’s family. But, on top of the basic minimum, I find that he goes above and beyond. I mean, he really does act like her boyfriend.
Indulging all her snack whims at the supermarket, carrying all the groceries, getting her to fish his car keys out of his pants pocket (those startled blinks were gold!), doing all the cooking and washing, and then after driving her home, even asking if she wanted to sit in the car and listen to some music, since it was still early. That last one really threw me extra, because there’s no reason at all that he would need to do that, so he must actually want to spend more time with her.
E9. All the fan reactions on Tong Nian’s post on Netease was quite fun to watch; that does feel like how fans talk online. And it was amusing to see how much furore her post, and Shang Yan’s innocent, awkward reply, created.
E10. Tong Nian calling to leave cheery messages for Shang Yan on his birthday seems to have tilted his attitude just enough, that he reached back out to Xiao Mi for company on his birthday. That’s nice.
And the way Shang Yan thanked Nian Nian, when she called him right after KK’s win to congratulate him, struck me as being genuinely sincere, rather than simply lip service. In that moment, his connection with Nian Nian felt real. He even asked if she wanted to hear the cheers for China, and held the phone up to let her hear the full sound. Aw.
E11. Nian Nian offering to make the testing software for KK – the quality of that’s going to surprise Shang Yan, I’m sure. I do like that she keeps employing her strengths to support Shang Yan in practical ways.
E12. This is the amusement park group date, followed by Tong Nian getting drunk on one can of beer, back at KK headquarters.
Drunk Tong Nian does feel rather awkward to watch, especially since Show uses it in a rather tropey way, to introduce close proximity hijinks. But I was quite taken by surprise, that Shang Yan would reciprocate Tong Nian’s affection by stroking her hair as she rests her head on his shoulder. Does he have – gasp – feelings for her?
E13. Han Shang Yan keeps surprising me with how.. sincere he is. First, he decides to give the bracelet to Nian Nian just because she seems really happy with it when she’s drunk – this, even though it will put him in debt for a year. And then, when Nian Nian’s friend Lan Mei (Shi Qing Yan) quizzes him about whether he likes Nian Nian, he gives a very serious, well thought-out answer: that he can’t say he does right now because he’s only met her a few times and saying he does would only be hypocritical. But, feelings will come with time.
Squee? As in, at this point in time, he does seem fairly serious about developing feelings for Nian Nian?
Also, he does seem genuinely bummed when she suggests breaking up.
E15. I’m glad they’re dating for real now coz all the moping was not fun to watch. I do like that they’re just taking it as a time of getting to know each other. Honestly though. Han Shang Yan’s awkward nervous “Should we hug for a bit?” had me giggling.
E16. Snerk. Han Shang Yan means well, but he’s really noob as a boyfriend. The way he solves the misunderstanding of what Nian Nian saw on the video call, of a robe-clad woman in his bedroom getting handsy with him, is to book Nian Nian a ticket to join him? And then the way he informs her about it is just so weirdly backwards too. Best of all, he even looks oddly proud of himself. HA.
E16. Can’t deny that I felt a measure of satisfaction when the handsy woman looked like she’d had the wind knocked out of her, when Han Shang Yan received Nian Nian and took her luggage for her, like the dutiful yet distant boyfriend that he is.
E17. I think I enjoy watching Shang Yan being a dork about being a boyfriend. He has no experience, and only knows how to frown and glower, mostly, so it’s extra amusing to see him preen in front of the mirror in expectation, before meeting Nian Nian.
E18. That almost kiss was nice – it felt like such a heartfelt and natural response when he realized she’d stayed up just to make the game for him.
I can see signs of Shang Yan falling for Nian Nian. Like the way he gives her the hoodie off his back, when she asks for one as a keepsake of her little vacation. I also like that Nian Nian’s questions for Shang Yan show that she is genuinely interested to know more about him, and she really does want to understand him better. That’s sweet.
E21. This is becoming less fun to watch. Mom is being a hypocrite. She’s extracted a promise from Shang Yan not to contact Nian Nian anymore, and when Grandpa tries to put in a good word for Shang Yan, Mom says to let the kids figure things out for themselves? That is so deceitful and full of double standards. Ugh.
It’s also hard to see Shang Yan doing the noble idiot thing of being mean to Nian Nian in order to drive her away. Also hard to watch.
E22. Shang Yan ghosting Nian Nian without any warning or explanation is not cool. That’s not how you break up with someone, dude.
E23. It is not ok at all for Shang Yan to say the cruel things he’s saying to Nian Nian in order to fulfill the promise he made to her mother. I hope he suffers a lot of regret for hurting her like that.
E26. So now Nian Nian and Shang Yan are in this weird not-a-couple truce space. They seem happy to have made peace, but.. this doesn’t mean anything, so I feel like this entire story seems to be written by preteens who’ve never actually been in a relationship.
E27. I still don’t get where things are between Han Shang Yan and Nian Nian. He’s telling her some truths, but not telling her about her mom, and not clarifying where they stand with each other right now, and that vague no man’s land makes me uncomfortable. The fact that this state of affairs is making Nian Nian happy also makes me uncomfortable.
E28. This is the combined family trip to Suzhou, and Grandpa preparing to leave for Norway. Ok, so it looks like at least Nian Nian and Shang Yan are clear that they are just friends – at least officially. I guess it was more clarity for me than for them, since they seemed to know this while I didn’t.
E30. Alright, I’m mollified and I approve. I’m pleased that Nian Nian demanded (nicely) to know exactly what they are, and when Shang Yan indicated that she was his girlfriend, I’m pleased that she protested. I’m also rather pleased that he asked before he kissed her, and, I’m also rather pleased that the kisses are far from static.
E31. The interactions between Shang Yan and Nian Nian are rather sweet but on the decidedly muted side of things. There are times when I really do feel like Shang Yan is dating a little girl; the way he tells her to go play on her own sounds akin to what an adult would tell a child, to keep them busy while the adults do their adulting things.
It’s sweet though, that when Nian Nian realizes that Shang Yan might be tight for money, she immediately offers to take care of him because she believes she will be able to earn good money.
E31. The whole thing about keeping their relationship from Nian Nian’s parents niggles at me. When her parents are not in the picture it’s easier to overlook, but when Shang Yan was distracting Nian Nian’s father with the pretense that he couldn’t get over Nian Nian, so that she could sneak back into the house, that was harder to swallow. I know it’s being played for comedy, but.. somehow it’s just not that funny to me.
E32. The whole misunderstanding about marriage between Shang Yan and Nian Nian is supposed to be funny, but I find it hard to buy that things could get blown out of proportion like that. I thought the initial communication between them on that was clear enough for anyone with common sense to figure out the situation, that neither of them is itching to get married right away.
E32. The argument between Shang Yan and Nian Nian is, again, played for comedy, but it felt exaggerated and try-hard to me. I do appreciate that Shang Yan really is a relationship noob, and so it terrifies him when Nian Nian appears upset, and he goes overboard again, trying to cheer her up.
E33. The whole thing with Nian Nian drunk-confessing her relationship to her mom was meh to me, even though I understand that, narratively speaking, it’s to get her relationship with Shang Yan out into the open. Also, even though I rationalize that Shang Yan made up a story about him being the one smitten with Nian Nian from the beginning, in order to preserve her dignity, but it just felt weird that he’d basically lie through most of his spiel, when he’d promised to come over and explain everything to her parents.
I will say, though, Li Xian cleans up nice in a suit.
E33. Xiao Mi’s random remark about Nian Nian losing out because Shang Yan’s much older than her, and so she’ll never experience a campus romance, leading Shang Yan to go incognito at her campus, is kinda silly, but since I’m fairly amused by the idea of Shang Yan cosplaying the ideal campus boyfriend, I’ll let it slide.
E34. Shang Yan’s stint as Nian Nian’s campus boyfriend is mildly amusing, though I mostly just liked looking at Shang Yan wearing casual loungewear and looking all spiffy as the Handsome Boyfriend.
What I do appreciate is how seriously Shang Yan approaches being a better boyfriend. When Xiao Mi says something in passing, he gives it thought, and then acts on it. Now, Stepmother is talking to him about how to love someone, and I know he’s going to act on that too. He’s just quite consistent, that way.
E36. I like that Shang Yan is gentle with Nian Nian, and that he’s telling her that they will get married when she’s ready; basically, that he won’t rush her in any way. I also like how supportive Nian Nian is, getting so informed and involved in CTF for his sake, and doing all kinds of things to cheer him on. I also appreciate that she is willing to go all in, even offering up all her savings, in all seriousness, to further his dreams.
E37. I like that Shang Yan is pouring his heart out to Nian Nian, about what happened in the past, and what his feelings and motivations were. And I like that she says she’s happy to hear him out. That’s a healthy, supportive, open relationship dynamic. The proposal was all very meaningful for Shang Yan, with it being at Beijing station where he first arrived to meet Solo, and done with his championship ring.
The proposal rejection thing was a bit surprising, since both of them had considered marriage, and Nian Nian had expressed that she would marry Shang Yan, if he wanted to get married. This feels a little shoehorned in, just to create a bit of filler. But, I do appreciate that the angst is short-lived, and Shang Yan and Nian Nian talk it out quite nicely, and make up on the flight home.
E38. I alternate between finding the awkwardness between Nian Nian and Shang Yan when they are alone and trying on naughty thoughts, amusing and cringey. Mostly cringey, as is the case this episode, where they sit around awkwardly pretending to be oh-so-comfortable, while waiting for Nian Nian’s parents to come home. Thankfully it’s not dragged out for too long, phew.
SPOTLIGHT ON A HANDFUL OF NARRATIVE ARCS
Because of Show’s rather slice-of-life nature, there are multiple smaller arcs that take the spotlight over the course of our story. Here’s just a handful of them, that stood out to me a little extra.
Xiao Mi’s journey
I was pleasantly surprised by how meaningful I found Xiao Mi’s arc, which takes place at around the episode 23-31 mark.
The idea that his less-than-ideal performance would force him to consider the team’s needs, as well as his own second career, is something that feels relatable and real, even though I felt the execution leans overly neat.
Here’s my small collection of thoughts and reactions around Xiao Mi’s story.
E23. Xiao Mi’s retirement is hard on his friends, but it’s the most realistic step for him, and he did it in a way that was full of swag. Leading your team to victory as the lowest ranked member, and then bowing out in glory? That’s one heckuva retirement announcement.
E29. I find myself appreciating Xiao Mi’s arc more than I’d expected to. The thing about making one decision that you regret because it’s affected the course of your life in a big way, and then working to reverse it by re-entering the competition arena, only to fail and then bow out, feels so real.
I feel like this thing, about failing, and then looking for a new area to be reborn in, so to speak, is something that many viewers would be able to identify with. I like the idea of him being KK’s new manager, though I do wonder about his administrative skills. I also like the idea of him winning the team members over in his own way, even though I feel like the team members’ cold reception of him is rather overdone.
E30. I was hoping that Xiao Mi’s acceptance by the team would be played out more organically, but I guess with a show like this, and for a supporting character, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s been somewhat glossed over and fast-tracked to its happy conclusion. I did appreciate that Xiao Bai led by example and supported Xiao Mi, and I rationalize that that would naturally get the other team members to reconsider their positions on the matter.
E31. It’s a little jarring to me still, the massive turnaround from the team towards Xiao Mi. Them singing to him to greet him as they met to go out for their celebratory dinner was really odd, I thought. But, it’s still gratifying to see Xiao Mi grow into his new role, and do well, as KK’s manager.
The Xiao Mi and Ya Ya connection [VAGUE SPOILERS]
Xiao Mi gets a little loveline with Tong Nian’s friend Ya Ya (Jiang Pei Yao), who happens to be a diehard fan of his, from his Team Solo days.
While this loveline is relegated mostly to a slow-burn, background sort of thing, I had a soft spot for it because I liked the idea that down-and-out, discouraged Xiao Mi, would have such a loyal fan who would support him with stars in her eyes.
I would’ve liked this loveline to have been developed more organically, but I was still no less pleased to see this couple get their happy ending by the time our credits rolled on the finale.
Solo’s personal arc [SPOILERS]
Although I didn’t feel very connected to Solo as a character, I felt that it was important for us to understand his backstory, and Show delivered on that.
Not only do we see what happened in the past, when Solo discovered that he had a baby daughter, we also see his struggles in the present, to be a good father to Xiao Ai. Xiao Ai’s brattiness thankfully gives way to much more warm and open behavior eventually, and while it’s bittersweet to see Xiao Ai leave Solo’s side to stay with mum Su Cheng in Norway, I appreciate that this is often the reality of co-parenting a child, post-divorce.
Additionally, I appreciate that Xiao Ai makes peace with both parents, and even though they are all in an imperfect situation, that the relationships among them have all turned for the better.
Wu Bai’s connection with Ai Qing [SPOILERS]
We’re told fairly early in our story, that Wu Bai has a longstanding crush on Ai Qing, who is his idol, and the entire reason he got into CTF in the first place.
Thereafter, Show maintains this connection, but doesn’t actually give these two much narrative real estate to develop it. Mostly, we see Xiao Bai asking her to have coffee with him, with her declining. They lock meaningful gazes several times over the course of our story, mostly at competition arenas, but don’t say much at all. In the end, Xiao Bai is rewarded with a hug, delivered in a professional capacity, but when he asks Ai Qing to have coffee with him, she finally readily agrees. And that’s about it, really.
Ack. This is an arc which I found full of potential (I did feel that Hu Yi Tian did very little, and showed up very little overall, in this show), and I would have really liked Show to have explored Xiao Bai’s crush on Ai Qing more. With him an up-and-coming CTF star dominating the world rankings, and her a CTF legend herself, I would have loved to have seen more conversation, more interaction, and more sparks between these two. This was a wasted opportunity, I thought.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
As I expected, Show gives us a feel-good ending, with happy bows all-around.
Everyone not being able to sleep before the big day of the finals is quite touching. The fact that Nian Nian and Ya Ya can’t sleep, vicariously excited for the competition that both their men are involved in, is sweet. They’re so invested. It almost feels like a lesson for other significant others, for how to support their loved one’s passions and interests.
KK wins the Asian Championship, while SP wins their own match and comes in third. It’s nice to see SP and KK no longer at loggerheads, but cheering each other on, congratulating each other after each win, finally acknowledging with gusto, that it’s China that comes out the champion.
Nian Nian asking Shang Yan to marry her, right before the competition starts, feels quite perfect. She’s speaking his language, in that sense, telling him that regardless of the competition outcome, she’ll always be there to support him. Shang Yan’s funny antics swopping clothes with Solo to meet her parents right after the competition, is bonus.
Shang Yan’s dramatic, heartfelt spiel to Nian Nian’s parents, asking them to entrust their daughter to him, and basically pledging to love her forever with all of his might, is part cringey and part sweet, which I rather enjoy, despite finding it rather heavy on the cheese.
It’s also fitting that when Shang Yan and Nian Nian return to KK, amid lots of cheer and teasing, that Shang Yan takes a moment with Team Solo. Their conversation touches on the past as well as the future, with a poignance that is laced with both wistfulness and hope, before they toast to their dream of the world championships. The scene is quick, but it’s clear that it means a lot to all of them, Shang Yan in particular.
Xiao Mi finally confirms his relationship with Ya Ya, which is a good thing, though I can’t help feelings that it’s a bit of a cop-out coz it’s such a by-the-way sort of thing, with Ya Ya being the one to clarify what she should say, when his family asks over the phone if she’s his girlfriend. But, Ya Ya is so shyly happy, and Xiao Mi is so sheepish in his gladness, that I can’t hold it against him too much. Plus, his bashful peck on her cheek after the phone call is sweet.
Shang Yan and Nian Nian register their marriage, and call Grandpa in Norway to share the happy news. Gramps is beside himself with excitement and decides that the lovebirds need five wedding banquets in order to properly celebrate, heh.
The KK and SP teams gather at the airport, with Solo joking that if SP needs any substitute players for the competition, they can just borrow some from KK. Heh, I do like how closely united the two teams have become. As Show closes out, we see Shang Yan, with Nian Nian on one side and Solo on the other, heading into the airport, towards the world championship.
In voiceover, we hear Solo asking, and Shang Yan answering: “Do you have a dream?” … “Get first place; for China, get first place in the world.”
Which, to me, brings home the point that this story was always more about Shang Yan’s dream, and about carving a name for China in the arena of CTF. Shang Yan’s romance with Nian Nian was always just a part of his journey, albeit an important part.
All in all, I’d say that Show ended on a note that felt true to its overall tone: a little awkward in some of the emotional beats, but overall, still earnest, aspirational, and heartwarming.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Show’s emotional punch tends to land muted, but is still a pretty feel-good, fluffy watch, given the right lens.
FINAL GRADE: B