Perhaps you’ve heard of Cheap Trick, although odds are it’s only because of their only hit, “I want you to want me.” But instead of deflating faster than MC Hammer’s collection of parachute pants, Cheap Trick was a true pioneer of music, managing to string a decadeslong career on the strength of their wild popularity in Asia—and only in Asia.
Cheap Trick may be one of the first appearances of what I will call the Cheap Trick phenomenon, where a flopped Western product receives widespread popularity in Asia.
More recently, I’ve run into an American show you may have never heard of despite the fact that virtually everyone under 30 in China has watched all 3 seasons: Prison Break.
As a foreigner, I’m not expected to be able to speak Chinese, fend for myself in China, like non-strawberry varieties of yogurt, or use chopsticks, but I am widely expected to love McDonald’s and to have watched every episode of Prison Break. After all, presidential candidates always carry their home state; and things are usually proportionally more popular where they originate.
But in reality, the first time I had even heard of Prison Break was when I started subscribing to Chinese podcasts, two years after the show began. Furthermore, in an jaw-droppingly scientific study consisting of an email to a handful of friends back in the US, not a single one had watched the show.
Because of the name on my passport, my students hardly believed me when I told them I had never seen Prison Break.
This was quickly remedied by a student who lent me her set like a Jehovah’s Witness handing out a free bible. Now I’m two seasons in; the prison is effectively broke; and I’m now convinced that there are cultural reasons why Americans aren’t watching and all of my Chinese students are.
I. Conspiracy: The plot centers around a massive government conspiracy to frame an innocent man through shadowy operatives who use silenced pistols to kill children, women, and men while hiding behind dark sunglasses.
Conspiracy stories like these are so common in American culture that they were already being spoofed 50 years ago in Dr. Strangelove. But China doesn’t have the same media openness to government conspiracy stories, so to watch may be thrilling for Chinese audiences—perhaps more so because the show does not grace cable television, but rather can only be downloaded off the internet.
II. The theme of family: The plot also hinges on a brother intentionally getting himself sent to prison to help his older brother break out. The genius younger brother’s master plan even involves handmade paper swans which, he says, symbolize family duty.
Later on, it’s also revealed that the older brother got caught up in the set up is because he took a dirty loan so that his younger brother could go to college, although he hid the fact from his younger brother. This way of helping family members “behind their back” is classic in China.
These are themes, I suspect, that are much more appealing to a Chinese audience than to an “I’m the best me there is” American audience.
III. The definition of cool: The most intriguing reason, I think, is the coolness of the main character, which is quintessentially Chinese.
Michael Scofield, the handsome and genius younger brother, is in almost every scene sporting an all-knowing, eyebrow-squinched scowl. To adorn his scowl, virtually every line is a veiled reference to his master plan that only he understands and that he keeps secret from those around him.
His tight-lipped scowling is his ticket to coolness in Chinese society, but it seems simply silly and worthy of mockery in the US.
Finally, Scofield is the pinnacle of secretly-work-the-system craftiness that the Chinese uphold, as opposed to the one-man-Rambo, kick-ass-since-I-know-I’m-right American archetype.
It’s no small feat to captivate an audience of 1.6 billion, but the Chinese have the last laugh, since Prison Break’s producers receive no royalties or advertising revenues when the show is pirated, downloaded, and hawked on the street.