AKA The Vigilantes in Masks (2011, sometimes listed as 2010). Five out of five stars here, you can tell when the plum and cherry blossom scenes are green-screened but the rest is very well done, and the story just rocks.
I know I’ve mentioned that the Imperial Coroner would make a fun Leverage cross, but if you’re looking for “Leverage in Ancient China”, this is the series that so far comes the closest. In fact, if you’ve watched the premiere ep of Leverage and you then watch the first 4 eps of Strange Hero? You may be throwing popcorn at the screen in helpless laughter, because if the writers didn’t directly riff off Leverage they took a lot of inspiration from it.
Though the rescue of Li Ge Xiao is definitely unique to this show. And it is an awesome rescue, that shows that even though he is a convicted criminal, the men he led in the Jǐnyīwèi years ago believe he’s been railroaded and still intend to help… as much as they can get away with.
…Which is another bit of Leverage similarity. Five years before the show started, Li Ge Xiao was second in command of the Jǐnyīwèi, the Brocade-Clad Guards of Ming China. He was a cop. More specifically, he was the secret police. Someone who investigated undercover at least part of the time – which is likely how he survived his first death sentence and escaped….
Yes, I’m also reminded of the A-Team. Because in the first ep Li Ge Xiao isn’t handed a team, he goes out and finds specific people to do the job. Three “chivalrous strangers,” the ex-bandit Chai Hu (hitter), the light-footed thief Yan San Niang, and actor/impersonator He Xiao Mei (grifter, also later medic). If you have a problem, if no one else can help you, and if you can find them….
I do have two grumps with the show. The first being a bit of Artistic License – Medicine. The first time mercury shows up as a poison in-show it’s mostly played straight. The second arc of episodes it shows up in? Noooot so much. They really should have used some other hallucinatory/violence-inducing compound. Even if they had to make it up.
Second, and this is a warning to anyone who wants to show this to kids – starting around ep 20, the humiliation conga Ying Wu Qiu (current head of the Brocade-clad Guards) as a much younger Bao Lai Ying goes through that shows how he became a villain and why he hates Li Ge Xiao so much is… really intense. And a bit stomach-turning. Older teens will probably be fine with it, younger kids not so much.
OTOH if you can watch those eps, it’s a sobering take on, bad things happening to people are no excuse to become a bad person. Ying Wu Qiu isn’t a horrible person because he went through hell; Li Ge Xiao goes through at least as much hell, and still tries to help people. Ying Wu Qiu is a horrible person because there’s something fundamentally wrong with his character. He has no ethics, no pride in himself as a person, none of the innate dignity that makes a person say “this is the line I won’t cross, because it would be wrong”. All that matters to him is that he stays alive and has the power to get what he wants. He has nothing he’s willing to die for… and that means he loses everything that really matters. Sure, he has political power, wealth, concubines. But there’s no one who loves him. No one who’s willing to pick him up when he falls down. No one worth coming home to.
In contrast, our heroes might like living, but there are things they are willing to die for. They’ve lost a lot in their lives, and sometimes they’ve retreated to selfish behavior. But when the chips are down they do the right thing – no matter what it costs.
In that vein, the show writers really picked the right setting for our heroes to shine in, because historically the Imperial Court at this time was horribly corrupt, including the Guards, so “vigilantes working outside the law” really are the good guys. Nicely done.
So if you’re looking for a show that draws clear distinctions between right and wrong, supports people looking after their families, and gets in the rock-and-hard-place aspects of people trying to pick the least wrong thing to do when all choices are either bad or illegal – this is a good one.
It also has loads of action, engaging characters, and a slow-burn attraction between San Niang and Ge Xiao that feels very, very realistic in both how long it takes and the various missteps on both sides. (That, and the various other people in their lives dropping gleeful hints of “you like him/her, you really do!”)
[Jiang Hu] Strange Hero Yi Zhi Mei Ost Opening
The first ep.
…There’s also a very sparse TV Tropes page. Someone should get on that!