A good TV drama demands heart-wrenching affairs, vicious conflicts, thorny social issues and relevance to real life.Shanghai's prime-time drama Humble Abode, or Woju, ticks all those boxes and more. That's all the more surprising when you consider that the mainland's tight TV censorship usually results in drama so fluffy and onedimensional that Desperate Housewives seems gritty by comparison. The series, which began airing last month, evokes the mainland's biggest corruption scandal in a decade. The story revolves around two out-of-town college-graduate sisters in the fictional city of Jiangzhou. Soaring property prices makes them 'house slaves' - a popular term for those forced to borrow heavily to buy property. The character that attracted the most attention, and arguably helped Humble Abode secure a near-10 per cent audience share, is Song Siming, a powerful and well-spoken technocrat who falls from grace in a scandal surrounding the diversion of hundreds of millions of yuan from Jiangzhou's pension fund to finance property projects. With landmarks like the Bund, Fudan University and an iconic downtown railway station, it doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to see that Jiangzhou is Shanghai. This is particularly bold: a crime drama drawing on the city's darker side could draw a backlash from officialdom, never keen to dwell on its mistakes. One of the darkest moments in Shanghai's recent history was the downfall of its party boss Chen Liangyu in 2006, and Humble Abode pulls no punches in its references to this. Chen and several dozen subordinates were purged for siphoning off money from the city's pension fund, along with other cases of graft. Chen was charged with accepting 2.39 million yuan in bribes and sentenced to 18 years in jail. In Humble Abode, the shadowy mayor takes more than 300 million yuan (HK$340 million) from Jiangzhou's pension pot to invest in property. The fictional Song keeps the younger sister, Haizao, as his mistress courtesy of a developer keen to curry favour. Leveraging his clout as a mayoral secretary, Song sorts out the sisters' money troubles and gives them luxury homes. His downfall mirrors that of Qin Yu, who was Chen's secretary.Qin, now 45, was an academic-turned-official and a key culprit in the pension fund scandal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after accepting 6.8 million yuan in bribes. His downfall was the precursor to the removal of Chen. Most of Qin's illicit gains came in the form of free apartments from favour-seekers, just like the fictional Song. And Qin also kept mistresses, reportedly through 'matchmaking' by developers. Intriguingly, one of the investors in Humble Abode was the Shanghai Media Group, an entertainment conglomerate backed by the local government, along with the Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Group. SMG bought the storyline from a Singapore-based, best-selling Chinese author, Liuliu, who said she drew inspiration from 'online chat rooms and forums'. The show has been a major topic among the online community, whose members, in addition to comparing Song and Qin, have been intrigued by the elusive mayor. 'It's obvious they avoided casting a party boss as the ultimate bad guy not only to shy away from explicitly pointing to Chen but also to save face,' one contributor observed. The show's appeal goes beyond its bold storylines. It also subtly taps into something that is rarely spoken of publicly - a certain level of sympathy for Chen among Shanghainese. After his downfall, Chen and his subordinates were portrayed by state media as presumptuous bureaucrats, who did nothing but trade power for personal gain. But many Shanghainese privately subscribe to a less black-and-white view. Chen, they say, may have been arrogant and corrupt, and his relationship with developers helped fuel a property boom that turned thousands into 'house slaves'. But at the same time he was competent and efficient, his aggressive attitude was in stark contrast to the usual bureaucratic inertia and his downfall was as much to do with a party power struggle as anything. As for corruption, which official isn't corrupt, they ask. Song exemplifies this standpoint. Instead of being the usual cardboard cut-out villain of Chinese drama, Song comes across rather well. He is a genuine lover rather than a womaniser, a man of commitment not an insatiable embezzler, and gentle rather than a heartless criminal. He is ultimately a tragic figure - a reasonable man in a system that turns everybody bad. This is the subtlest message of them all in Humble Abode. If someone like Song can go so horribly wrong, what hope is there for the rest of them?