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Ordinary Greatness (2022) A Review
Among the many and varied police procedurals that have fallen off the C drama assembly line of late, Ordinary Greatness has earned itself a unique position among them all in terms of its slice-of-life approach and grounded storytelling. While there are cases (large and small) to be tackled, this is a drama primarily focused on the hectic lives of the men and women in blue viewed through the lenses of four recent recruits and their experienced mentors as they navigate the murky waters of modern day policing in the backdrop of a community police station in metropolitan China. Overseeing the doings of the rank and file as well as nagging them into shape is the sagacious Wang Shouyi, the station’s head honcho and everybody’s go to guy for permission and advice. He is the cantankerous, good-hearted uncle everyone never knew they needed in a pinch that is, until he’s noticeably absent. At any given time Chief Wang (Wang Jingchun) leads with velvet gloves or iron fists while others follow… willingly.
The oxymoronic title points to an important theme that’s echoed all throughout in a refrain: It’s all in service of the people. When ordinary men and women put on the uniform, they become servants of the public not a licence for elitism. Moreover, they are no longer just relatives, neighbours and friends, it behooves them to act in the interests of the greater good. After all, they are tasked with a duty to do things that others cannot, even to the point of self-sacrifice.
Zhang Ruoyun, Ba Lu, Xu Kaichen and Cao Lu play the four recruits of varying backgrounds who come to the station with personal baggage that may or may not have implications for their work performance. Most of the very best parts of the show feature their respective dynamics with their mentors Chen Xincheng, Cheng Hao, Cao Jianjun, Zhang Zhijie. The cunning station chief, in his profound wisdom, has deliberately paired off opposites (much to the initial dismay of some) so that the process of learning is mutually beneficial. This is the chief's hidden agenda, an undercover operation, which I call Operation Healing. Wang Shouyi wants to fix his people whether or not they seek his ministrations. Second chances, healing and moving on from the past are all part and parcel of the strong moralising tone of the narrative. The mentors here act as surrogate fathers in all cases but especially for the two youngsters raised in single mother households. The shifu - tudi (mentor-apprentice) relationship is far from being a one-sided lecturing gig but a bond that goes way beyond prosaic classroom dynamics. Learning is a lifelong endeavour and that’s seen in the backstories of Jianjun, Xincheng and Cheng Hao. Good cops are made in the caldron of suffering but there’s no guarantee that all will come out on top at other end. This is where the heart of the show lies — the ties that bind — making it much more than an extended recruitment drive for the police services on the mainland.
Led by the gregarious Li Dawei (Zhang Ruoyun) brimming with initiative, the four newcomers form their own close-knit group where they share their struggles and fears. Each is given their own growth arc. Not only do they share a flat together but they become firm friends. There’s surprisingly no rivalry, jealousy or resentments — just good o’l fashion camaraderie in good times and in bad. Thankfully too there’s no romance or love triangles entangling them in more unnecessary complications because that would end up defacing a masterful work of art. Being romance free among the four friends means that romance tropes were nowhere in sight, preventing them from destabilising the story’s primary achievements.
Bai Lu’s character, Xia Jie has mother issues to say the least. Mother hasn’t moved on from losing her husband in the line of duty but as her own sister says, to a stranger looking on, it’s hard to know which of the two is the mother or the daughter. She creates unnecessary stress for her own daughter who is trying to assert her own independence and the hardworking senior staff of Bai Li He station. Li Dawei has absent father issues but has a fantastic relationship with his mother whose outlook on life is in stark contrast to Xia Jie’s mother. These issues play largely in the background with some intersections with the policing side of things by way of fleshing out certain growth arcs.
The drama begins with a phone conversation between the chief and his superior at the bureau. Their station is overworked and understaffed in a busy area so after a bit of haggling with the director at the bureau, he is given four fresh faces — a landmark in the history of Bai Li He Station. So he says at least. Pleased as punch with his recent acquisition and killing time before the welcome ceremony commences, he embarks on a tour of the station which is seen via a tracking shot from his office to the balcony and down the stairs, barking orders to anyone within earshot. This acts as the audience's introduction to the life and times of Bai Li He. Within the mix of the chatter that follows, there’s friendly collegial banter, bragging, complaints of fatigue and foreshadowing in this quick initial sequence. It’s a quick taster of the goodies to come.
In this large toolbox of camera techniques, the tracking shot is a key lever of storytelling. The station is the central set piece which is a record of continuous activity. It is the household that never sleeps as it plays hosts to the residents with never-ending problems. Day and night, there’s someone at Bailihe at the reception taking calls. All location shoots lead to it. The effect of being able to follow the characters all around the station provides a near documentary-like exposure to the ins and outs of a busy police station dealing with anything from household registrations to murder. It is the coalface of the organization, the first line of inquiry. Hence, the good, bad and the very ugly of humanity as well as the scourge of materialism are on full display here.
As much as this is about policing, the show makes it clear that the police station isn’t just a place where the problems of the people find solutions and compromises but where familial bonds are formed. At least with Chief Wang at the helm, the station feels like a warm, caring place — a home away from home. For instance, when a member of the team takes time off work to care for a dying relative. The chief orders a roster to be made up to help support the officer until the end. In truth no one, not even cops, can escape the harsh realities of life but the effects can be mitigated when one is supported by genuine community.
The end of a story marks the end of a journey and the beginning of another. For some the learning curve has been brutally steep and there’s palpable growth which only experience in the school of life can give. It’s the hero’s journey multiplied manifold and writ large. Policing is a calling and only those who are called can move to its drumbeat despite the less than ideal working conditions. It's not a career but a lifelong service to the community that leads ordinary people do to extraordinary acts of heroism without any expectation of personal gain.
This is a drama I could have easily watched another 10 episodes of — something I don’t say often, particularly about C dramas. However, this is a rare beast of being quality production from the moment it begins to where we bid it farewell. It's a masterclass in visual storytelling and easily one of the best C dramas ever made. The moment I stepped into their world, I laughed, shook my fists, sighed and wept for the men and women of Bai Li He Station.
An expanded review on one that was first published in My Drama List.