Filming TikToks Next to Your Dying Mom: The Fascinating World of Indonesian TV

I was discouraged from watching local TV as a child.

It was my babysitter who eventually let me sneak a peek into the unruly world of Indonesian soap operas (sinetron), talent competitions and infotainment shows. It’s unlike any other form of entertainment I’ve encountered: a wacky land where gaffes and corny jokes are bountiful, and the editors have the time of their lives inserting comical background noises during inappropriate moments.

Growing up, I’d looked down on this industry. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand most of the jokes. I’d watch an entertainment talk show and roll my eyes whenever the hosts chase each other around the set. (Happens more often than one would think.) I’d cringe whenever judges at a reality show incessantly criticize the contestants. My cheeks would flush with embarrassment at every transparent attempt of plagiarizing from overseas television dramas.

My appreciation started as ironic. I had to shift my lens to re-contextualize it all for what it’s always been, essentially: exploitation. Overacting. Cliche. Chaos. Camp. Unintentionally.

Source: SCTV

Back in June 2020, a Hello Kitty doll was found mysteriously boiling in a pot during a soap opera episode. It became viral on Twitter, to which one of the writers, Aya, responded with a lengthy thread. In it, she wrote about the regulation hurdles her team had to jump through (no gore or violence for scenes involving a child), the all-nighters they pulled (they were dying to sleep) and last-minute talent demands they had to fulfill (an actress couldn’t make it to the set). It all led to a boiling Hello Kitty doll being a plot point to showcase that someone, or something, was out to get the protagonist’s family.

And the gag doesn’t end there. As goofy and unbelievable as it may be, Indonesian TV does still strive to be a dynamic, adaptable industry. In its own unique way, of course.

Social media app TikTok has taken over the world and even managed to captivate those outside of their intended target market. Including Indonesian TV execs. In formulating engaging, forward-thinking content, they came up with:

Kisah Nyata Spesial: Istriku Menelantarkan Keluarganya Demi Jadi Artis TikTok (True Story: My Wife Abandoned Her Family to Become a TikTok Celebrity)

Source: Indosiar

I’ll spare you the plot details, but it involves a comatose mother, a grieving family and a cellular tripod. Oh, and the intricate art of recording a TikTok dance video in a hospital next to her. I’d like to see HBO top that.

Meanwhile, over at the nonfiction side of things, reality competition shows such as Indonesia’s Next Top Model and Masterchef Indonesia have skillfully mastered the craft of public hazing for entertainment purposes. While their American counterparts can be baffling in their own right, these franchise offsprings take it to the next level.

After the first mini challenge of Indonesia’s Next Top Model, host and head judge Luna Maya announced a rather strange punishment for the losers: they are to cook and clean for the girls in the winning team. A Twitter user hilariously dubbed this segment as ‘Indonesia’s Next Top Maid’.

On the other hand, judges at Masterchef Indonesia are notorious for reducing contestants to tears, spitting out their food and calling them pussies. The contestants are like baby chicks, about to be devoured by ravenous vultures at the high table. As an adult, I do realize that it is all an act; smoke and mirrors that fade outside of the set. Hey, if Gordon Ramsay can go from 0 to 100 in a millisecond, why can’t Chef Arnold be allowed to do the same thing?

Amongst this mayhem, I choose to believe the oft underappreciated creative minds of this industry are not lacking in self-awareness of the quality they put out. They have to know it’s bad, right? With a limited budget, frigid censorship requirements and demanding execs to answer, your synapses are bound to break down at one point. I mean, mine would.

What I used to think as lazy storytelling, I now see as a form of protest; a fat middle finger to studio execs, advertisement sponsors and censorship institutions alike. In the midst of pixelated cartoon breasts and a shoddy working environment, these people still found a way to satisfy the needs of the Indonesian public.

Kudos, guys, seriously.

Your home-grown Jakarta girl with a penchant for glimmering make-believe and the outrageousness of pop culture