Chinese reality TV off beaten track

Chinese reality TV is replete with studiobound contests in singing, dancing and diving and Hunan TV's Where Are We Going, Dad?, which packs off five pairs of celebrity parents and children to the great outdoors, gets away from it all.

Except it doesn't entirely. An adaptation of a South Korean MBC variety show, Where Are We Going, Dad? is really a light-hearted yet thoughtprovoking parenting contest.

You can coo over how cute Mandopop idol Jimmy Lin, 39, and his son Kimi are, as you judge Lin's little decisions, such as capitalising on the four-year-old auntie-killer's appeal and letting him haggle with hawkers to make the most of the show's 50 yuan (S$10) food budget for their trip to a desert in Ningxia.

You might chuckle at bungling dads, such as music video director Wang Yuelun, 40, who has trouble tying his four-year-old moppet Angela's hair back with a rubber band, as you picture how busy their wives must be usually.

The first season of the show - featuring Lin, Wang, Olympic diving champion Tian Liang, 34, model Sean Zhang, 31, actor Guo Tao, 44, and their children - has been a runaway success in China, resulting in a record-setting film and an upcoming second season.

The premise of the show seems pretty straightforward at first.

In locations from verdant Yunnan to snowy Heilongjiang, the fathers have to survive three days with the children in an emotional wilderness, deprived of mothers, smartphones and toys. Pursuing the back-to-the-basics theme, every episode has mini-contests which test the father-and-child teams as hunter-gatherers in foraging, fishing, cooking and the like.

But as storylines take root, the show grows into a complex study of parenting.

In early episodes, Zhang's newfangled theory of being friends with his son Tiantian seems misguided, especially when the six-year-old wakes up before a trip wailing, "I'm afraid I won't be obedient if mama isn't going", and throws a tantrum almost as soon as they arrive at a village outside Beijing.

Later, Zhang looks more and more like a winner, however.

Not only does the cook-turned-model excel in the challenges every week, but he also saves other dads such as Wang, suggesting easy recipes to them and giving them his catch so they don't look like losers in front of the children.

More movingly, Tiantian turns out to be a most thoughtful boy.

In one of the best episodes, each child is told to watch over an egg which is about to hatch, then thrown into distress when the egg is broken by a rival dad who pretends it is just an accident.

All the children are angry or sad, but Tiantian alone - who is months younger than the oldest child on the show, Guo's son, Shitou - has a mature response.

When his father asks him about the incident, Tiantian is the only child who doesn't blame someone else. Regarded as an equal by his dad, he reacts like an adult. He shoulders responsibility for his lapse of vigilance, apologises for disappointing his father and says: "Hit me."

Hunan TV had a huge hit in the 2000s with Super Girl, a singing contest voted by viewers which was too democratic for the establishment and yanked off the air eventually.

But the broadcaster is still pushing the envelope a little with Where Are We Going, Dad? and I Am A Singer, rare reality shows in

China which do not defer to judges and experts - somebody authoritative.

On I Am A Singer, a winner is elected by a studio audience every week.

With Where Are We Going, Dad?, Hunan TV has initiated a discussion about hands-on fatherhood in China by submitting the celebrity dads to viewers for judgment.

But the show is never too heavy-handed. It guides you through the experiences of the fathers and children but it doesn't tell you what to think.

By comparison, Jiangsu TV's The Brain is quite a traditional Chinese reality show, despite its atypical scenario.

Its contestants are not aspiring singers but unproven geniuses who have to perform amazing feats of memory or display astounding mathematical prowess. There is a boy who can add and subtract faster than a calculator. Then, there is a man who, despite being condemned as mentally subnormal, can compute mind-boggling equations faster than a mathematician.

Its celebrity judges, who can't possibly keep up with the contestants, operate like cheerleaders (absurdly famous cheerleaders, such as Jay Chou, Zhang Ziyi and Kim Soo Hyun, who appear occasionally), and it is left to brain scientist Wei Kunlin to be the gatekeeper.

Wei decides which feats are actually mentally challenging and which are just good TV, choosing, for instance, a man who can spot the difference between two tall near-identical walls of Rubik cubes but not a man who can snap his fingers more than 200 times a minute.

Wei's word is law on the show and a couple of judges, such as TV hosts Matilda Tao and Liang Dong, do complain that Wei has too much power.

All around them, however, the show is happy to overwhelm you with mawkish music and dictate what you think and feel.

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