Admittedly, a sitcom centered around a friendship between a gay man and his female best friend isn’t an original concept. But Rainbow Family
, the second season finale of which just premièred on a number of domestic platforms
(and on YouTube
), is by no means a cheap Will & Grace knock-off.
Instead, it is an intriguing mash-up of bawdy comedy, surrealist flights of fancy, poignant sentimentality, and digital product placement tailored to a sophisticated viewer-ship.
The plot centres on Zanzan (played by Mumu), a swoonsome gay man who shares a flat with best friend and self-proclaimed ‘fag hag’, or geimi, Song Yi (played with consummate comic timing by Ma Xinmo) and flamboyant fashion victim Austin (Ma Tang).
Also in the mix are
compulsive glutton Lin Xiaozun (He Xiaodou), Austin’s lovelorn ex-boyfriend,
and two hunky, straight interlopers from Zanzan’s past. Add in rippling abs, a misappropriated
crate of designer lube, strategic sleeping pills and a running gag involving a
Taser, and you’ve got a show that, when it hits its stride, is genuinely
entertaining, and a great way to develop your gay Chinese slang
of the tropes Will & Grace engendered are there from the outset,
particularly Song Yi’s unrequited love for the fastidious Zanzan, Rainbow
Family is a Chinese web series aimed at a Chinese audience, and has earned a
legion of avid fans for its trouble.
The series is partly produced by gay social network Zank
, and the name-dropping gets a little wearing at times (at one point the cast even accept jobs at the company). Fans, however, seem to tolerate this blatant product placement – perhaps because the show’s characters are just so darn likeable.
‘Rainbow Family is hopeful,’ says actress Chen Peishan, who has a recurring role as Zanzan’s tomboy colleague, Meng Li. ‘Characters fall out, but they make up. Problems get resolved. I think people respond by thinking: Wow, that’s the kind of life I want to have!’
Mumu, whose gravelly voice and fresh-faced looks have made him an instant pin-up, agrees that Rainbow Family seems to have hit the right note with Chinese audiences. ‘It’s like pop music,’ he says. ‘To me, Chinese pop songs are all about “Oh, I’ve been jilted, why?” while foreign songs are “Hey, I’m so niubi [awesome]! You must like me!” There’s a lot of tragedy in everyday Chinese life. But we also find the humour.’
The show pulls fewer punches than you might think, considering that mainstream depictions of gay characters in the media are technically banned in China. Coming out (in one episode, Zanzan struggles with an unannounced visit from his conservative father), ‘lavender’ marriages between lesbians and gay men, the pressures faced by ‘leftover women’, and even date rape are all touched upon.
While most situations are twisted to comic effect (with occasional lapses into schmaltz), there is more social commentary packed into a 20-minute episode of Rainbow Family than you’d find in a whole run of a typical CCTV drama serial.
Mumu feels that shows like Rainbow Family can be a force for good in China. ‘People are homophobic because they don’t understand what being gay means. Lots of straight people watch our show, and they see that there’s not much difference there.’
‘However you look at it,’ he grins, ‘we’re still better off than Russia!’
Watch the first episode of Rainbow Family with English subtitles [VPN required]