Go Ahead (以家人之名, lit. In the Name of Family) is easily one of my favorite Chinese dramas. It started strong and never disappointed. Don’t let the opening sequence trick you into coming into the drama with expectations of juicy love triangles and romance. You’ll just be disappointed, because this slice-of-life drama is really about family and all its complicated, messy glory.
Li Hai Chao (Tu Song Yan) is a single father who runs his a humble noodle shop while raising his daughter, Li Jian Jian (Seven Tan). Through a series of circumstances, he ends up being the head of an unconventional family of five with his neighbor, Ling He Ping (Zhang Xi Lin), He Ping’s son Ling Xiao (Song Wei Long), and pseudo-adoptive son He Zi Qiu (Steven Zhang). Go Ahead follows this family, along with their friends and relatives, through the years, starting from when the kids are children to when they become young adults.
Go Ahead is charmingly slice-of-life, managing to maintain realistic, engaging story arcs without being bland. There’s a little bit of romance and some friendship struggles, but it shines when it focuses on family.
The main theme of the show is: what does it mean to be family? Jian Jian, Ling Xiao, and Zi Qiu grow up as pseudo-siblings, calling each other brother and sister even though they aren’t legally family. They insist that they’re a real family, even when others are confused, but that relationship is tested as they grow older, especially when biological family members show up, demanding to be recognized. There’s a running tension between legal and biological ties versus the emotional ties that make family. Which is more “real” and which is more important? Are legal ties necessary in order to be family? If there are no legal ties between two people, does that make them any less of a family than two people who are legally bound together?
Early on, Hai Chao, the leader of the family, tells his kids that family isn’t about laws or blood — it’s about the way they treat one another. After all, there are plenty of examples — in this show and in real life — of people who are legally family who treat one another poorly, and people who aren’t legally family treating one another well.
Go Ahead is well-written and well-acted. The characters are all complex, fleshed-out people who are both endearing and frustrating. Seven Tan always feels so natural on the screen, like she is Li Jian Jian. Song Wei Long is so pretty to look at and is fine as Ling Xiao, a character who has few words to say. But out of all three kids, Steven Zhang’s performance as Zi Qiu stands out, with some really great, nuanced monologues. He deserves a lot of recognition for bringing so much depth to Zi Qiu’s character.
But the real scene-stealer is Tu Song Yan, who plays Li Hai Chao. For one, Hai Chao is the perfectly imperfect father figure that everyone wants. He may not be the richest or the most handsome or the most intelligent, but he is truly selfless and generous and always puts children first. He wants nothing more than for his children to be happy, in the purest of ways, respects their autonomy and opinions, and lets them be free. His parenting style is socially unconventional for Chinese society, especially when compared to the pushy stereotypical Chinese parents portrayed in the show (and that I’ve experienced in real life.) Other parents are aghast when Hai Chao doesn’t care about Jian Jian’s grades in high school and doesn’t have her college and profession all planned out.
But Hai Chao stands out the most in how attuned he is to his children’s emotions, and Tu Song Yan has such an exceptional performance as a father who has so much empathy and feels so much for his children. He cares so much and he isn’t afraid of being emotionally vulnerable and showing that he cares, especially as his kids grow up.
Though Hai Chao finds himself imperfect, he’s also the only parent in Go Ahead who doesn’t screw up their kid in some way. The fathers in this show are woefully absent, while the mothers — if they’re alive and around — are the ones who are overly involved, to the point of being harmful. It’s interesting that Hai Chao, as the only father who is an active, positive part of his children’s lives, takes on a more traditionally maternal role in his family. He’s chattier, better with emotions. He does the mending and the cooking in the family.
Hai Chao often says that all he can do is cook, as if finding it less noble and less important than working an office job. But food is significant throughout Go Ahead. One definition of family is people who eat out of the same pot. Food is a way of communicating love, especially for parents who might not know how to express their affection in other ways. For Hai Chao’s family, food and meals are when they come together, and a way of healing after some tough times.
Go Ahead spans twenty years of our characters’ lives. What I like the most about that is that it allows us to watch the growth and maturity of our characters. As children, the trio of Jian Jian, Ling Xiao, and Zi Qiu are precious and adorable. But seeing how their relationships and maturity change as they age and experience more of life is so rewarding. They each deal with their own relationship, friendship, and family woes, but they’re strongest when they’re together.
There’s nothing particularly innovative or exceptional about Go Ahead‘s plot or content; it’s good because it’s just done so well. There’s a deep, relatable realness that made the show imprint itself on my heart. In the end, it’s a reminder that family can sometimes be a choice, but should never be taken for granted. Parents are fallible, and growing up means learning to have a little more patience with the rest of the adults in this world.