Since the dawn of Peak TV, television has had perhaps the most cultural sway and power in Western society since its postwar nascence in the late 40s and early 50s. American prestige epics and comedies, British dramas and sci-fi, Hispanic telenovela, and Japanese anime dominate chatter on social media and around water coolers at work. Yet despite it all, live-action Asian television has largely been relegated to meme status here in the West. We’ve heard the stereotypes ad nauseam through viral youtube clips or twitter gifs: Japanese game shows are insane; South Korean soaps are ridiculous; Thai commercials are heartbreaking. Here abroad, these national industries are frequently regarded as little more than jokes, all of which insults the shows themselves, the networks that produce them, the fans who love them, and the tireless creatives and craftspeople who make them. So there’s a sense of almost righteous indignation towards those who would degrade Asian television throughout Hsieh Nien Tsu’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show, a hyperactive yet heartfelt Taiwanese film whose earnest veneration of its subject matter is so pure and unfiltered it’s borderline disorienting.
The plot can best be described as Jay Levey’s Weird Al Yankovic vehicle UHF (1989) by way of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967): the unscrupulous Mr. Lo, owner of struggling Taipei television station Crazy TV, seeks to secretly drive the value of his channel down as far as possible so he can sell it to a gangster in exchange for a generous kickback. To do this, he fires all the staff save a skeleton crew headed by tireless producer Yeh Tzu-chiang and orders them to improvise original programming. Yeh, a young go-getter with no clue towards Mr. Lo’s true intentions, takes up the task with unexpected gusto, drafting his best friend Abi, an immigrant Malaysian woman with dreams of stardom named Diva, and a small army of unpaid interns to help him make the best TV possible.
What follows is a staggering burst of DIY creativity as they pilfer props and sets from canceled shows and throw together surrealist programming on the spot for hours at a time. Many of their shows are shameless ripoffs, such as Kangsi Going, a horror-themed inversion of real-life Taiwanese variety-comedy talk show Kangsi Coming where Abi and Diva summon the spirits of the dead in the form of celebrity impersonators of famous figures like Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee, and Marilyn Monroe. Some of their shows are more traditional programming that shamelessly courts potential corporate sponsors such as Yakulta Happy Land, an anodyne kid’s show whose name they intend to attract the attention of real-life probiotic drink company Yakult. (Yeh sagely reasons that if they mispronounce the company’s name long enough, Yakult will pay them to say it correctly.) Other shows are absurd gimmick programming, like Life Drink Helps You Sleep Show where the cast and crew struggle to be as boring as possible to help insomniac viewers fall asleep late at night through such time-tested means as having a monotone math teacher explain complicated proofs. And then there are bizarre Dadaist experiments that feel ripped out of a Mr. Show sketch such as Spiderweb News, a news program where an actor playing a news anchor does coverage of historical news anchors covering news from decades ago.
In short, Yeh and his staff apotheosize everything the West has come to roll their eyes at concerning Asian television: brash, unabashed, unapologetic lunacy tempered with the sincere desire to entertain. And to Mr. Lo’s horror, it works like a charm, shooting their ratings through the roof. From there the film twists and turns through Mr. Lo’s attempts to further sabotage Crazy TV, resulting in a battle of shenanigans that climaxes with not one but two hostage situations live on the air in front of millions. The story is serviceable enough, but it’s the spasms of televised lunacy that makes It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show worth the ticket price. Much like last year’s NYAFF smash hit Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017)—which Yeh and Abi reverently name-drop in an early scene—the film is a celebration of creating art in extreme circumstances regardless of whether it’s “high art” or even “good art.”
But while One Cut of the Dead had no illusions that its beleaguered cast and crew of an ill-fated zombie movie were making anything other than schlock, Nien Tsu seems to honestly believe in the importance of even the most low-brow television. Consider Yeh, the put-upon producer who mastermind’s Crazy TV’s success. We learn in flashbacks that he was practically raised by television after his mother died and his father started working prohibitively long hours at work to support them. Yeh creates television not just because he loves it, but because he’s come to see it as an almost sacred public service, entertaining and uniting people everywhere through tears and cheers. The film itself climaxes with a 1950s Hollywood musical number celebrating the wonder and delight of all things televised. This starry-eyed view is occasionally shocking in its short-sightedness, not only in its unwillingness to consider how television has been used and abused throughout history as a tool of censorship, oppression, and state control—especialIy in its native Taiwan—but in how it doesn’t blink at some of the more troubling implications of Yeh’s own innovations. Throughout the film, Yeh invents many sneaky techniques to lure and retain viewers of Crazy TV, some of which seem less than ethical such as broadcasting phony satellite error messages to ensnare channel-surfers or tricking unsupervised children into jacking up their parents’ phone bills by calling into the studio for a nominal fee so they can talk live to the cast of Yakulta Happy Land. These are all played as jokes because, let’s face it, they’re good ones. But there’s no semblance of self-awareness that what Yeh & Co. might be doing is predatory and could be utilized by ratings-hungry media conglomerates like HBO or Youtube.
But still, it’s impossible to watch It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show without a smile on one’s face. There’s too much excitement, too much relentless forward momentum, too much breathless creativity on display to actively resent it, particularly in the last fifteen minutes which play as a knowing parody of overwrought soap opera climaxes complete with a love confession, a shoot-out, and a near death experience. Regardless of whether one chooses to excuse its naivety or not, it’s a spectacle to behold and a necessary corrective to Westerners who might still disdain the Asian boob tube.