Soap operas and primetime seriality

29Jul07

In the latest round of Henry Jenkins’s hosted discussions on gender & fandom, Abigail Derecho raises some good questions about how scholars studying contemporary television narrative complexity like Lost fail to acknowledge parallels with and debts to soap operas. I commented that in my essay on narrative complexity I do try to point briefly to the roots of soap operas, and in my book Genre & Television I discuss at length the early innovators of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap in building on soap opera norms. And Sam Ford pointed to a discussion on LiveJournal that alluded to my work on narrative complexity, critiquing its lack of engagement with soaps.
These comments are a good stimulus to talk more about this issue. Throughout my development of this project, I’ve felt that the soap question is crucial to deal with, and I’ve been somewhat at a loss on how to proceed. On the one hand, I can map out the ways that the two modes of storytelling are distinct and where the continuities lie. But on the other, I feel that I cannot adequately talk about soap operas as a form aside from referencing other secondary sources – I believe, as Robert Allen has argued in his classic work Speaking of Soap Operas, that people who don’t watch soaps with some regularity cannot really understand the form, as the whole point of the genre is the long-time accrual of meanings and experiences, not the individual narrative segments of episodes. And unfortunately, there’s not much more work on the formal attributes of soap operas beyond Allen and Robyn Warhol’s work (that I know of, at least – if anyone knows other good sources, let me know!).

But I do have some thoughts on the issue, with the caveat that my observations on soap operas stem primarily from reading scholarship, watching a few random episodes through the years, and a brief year or so of watching General Hospital in my youth (early-’80s Ice Princess days) – I would appreciate any corrections or clarifications from soap fans reading this. In the first draft of my essay on narrative complexity I spent a lot more time discussing the conventional modes of television storytelling of episodic and serial/soap forms before exploring how today’s narrative complex shows operate. But in revising for publication, I wisely removed this material to highlight what was more original in my essay rather than exploring the older models (although it’s important to note that discussions of TV’s narrative forms are not plentiful in the scholarly literature so this part isn’t really a rehash). But as a sort of Extended Dance Mix of the essay, I’ve put that part of the essay here, below the fold – I’d appreciate any comments, as it’ll reappear in some form in the eventual book on TV narrative.

Before turning to that section of the essay, a few more thoughts about the differences between soaps and primetime complex storytelling. First, and I cannot emphasize how vitally important this is, the different scheduling format of the daily soap with no hiatus or reruns vs. the 13 to 24 weekly primetime episodes transforms everything. It’s like the difference between newspapers and magazines, a totally different mode of presentation and creation, and completely changes our notions of the function of an episode, or what a regular viewer is. So while soap operas innovated many things that primetime shows now do, the way they do them are quite different and thus it makes sense that we study them as distinct models, not just viewing today’s primetime serials as just like soaps in the evening.

Another key distinction involves audience attention. Soaps emerged in large part to address women working in the home. First on radio and then on television, the assumed audience was not sitting mesmerized taking in every moment, but a distracted viewer juggling chores and potentially missing episodes (with no recourse to recordings or repeats). Thus stories embedded redundancies both within and between episodes, and fan cultures (often within families) emerged to discuss the stories and help fill-in any individual’s gaps. As technologies emerged and lifestyles shifted, recording enabled working fans to stay on top of episodes, but most fans didn’t generally use such tapes to pore over or save episodes – at least according to a number of anecdotes I’ve heard, a common practice is for soap fans to watch each episode with a finger on the fast-forward button, skipping over storylines that are less appealing or characters they don’t care as much about. (Obviously viewers consume in a wide-range of ways – there are soap fans who watch with rapt attention or collect tapes passionately, but I think the ff-ing viewer is much more common for soaps than other genres.)

If soap operas allow for or even encourage a distracted or partial model of viewing, narratively complex primetime shows of today require a high degree of attention and engagement. At perhaps one extreme, Lost has repeatedly offered moments (like the blast door map, Jacob’s appearance, and training films) that are only comprehensible with freeze-frames and repetitive  viewing. While few other shows demand such forensic scrutiny, most narratively complex shows reward viewers with a high attention to detail and recall – think of the running gags on Seinfeld or Arrested Development, or the dangling moments that return to significance seasons later on The Wire or Veronica Mars. Soaps reward longevity and recall as well, but less about micro-details – it’s more about the accumulation of relationships and events that forge complex characterization, not clues peppered throughout to reward the attentive fan.

Okay – if you’ve made it this far, here’s the section from the original essay, which precedes the explanation of narrative complexity that was actually published. It was first written a few years ago, and I will certainly revise it significantly before including it in my book. But hopefully there’s something here that will fill-in the gaps referenced above. Again, comments are welcomed:

Conventions of Television Narrative

To understand narrative complexity, we need to understand the backstory of conventional narration, as it provides the norms from which complex narrative deviates. Conventional television narrative is particularly marked by the distinction between its two main threads of programming, episodic and serial structure; one of the central (although not exclusive) features of narrative complexity is a creative interweaving of episodic and serial norms.   For conventional narrative, the divide between serial and episodic form is rigid and rarely transgressed until the 1980s.  Both forms differ distinctly from the norms of classical cinematic narration, and thus must be understood in their own television-specific terms. Serial form was traditionally the sole province of daytime soap operas in American television, with few forays into primetime before the 1980s—Peyton Place in the mid-1960s is a notable exception.  Serial narrative form has been given comparatively more attention by television scholars than episodic programming, despite (or perhaps, in reaction to) its comparable marginalization in television schedules.   The key feature of serial narration is, of course, continuing storylines traversing multiple episodes.  The potential richness of ongoing storytelling is certainly one of the great distinctions of the television medium (and its radio ancestry). Few other forms offer the infrastructure to accomplish such long-term narratives—serialized 19th Century novels are certainly a key predecessor that have been explored in depth, while film serials of the 1930s, comic strips, and comic books are other less-studied incarnations of seriality.  Interestingly, all of these forms of serial narration have been culturally devalued in their historical moments as compared to other non-serialized forms (unified literature, feature films, and graphic novels), with serialized pleasures often explicitly tied to feminine or youthful tastes.   Arguably, the complex narrative of 1990s television may be the first instance of serial structure being critically hailed as a positive cultural mode in opposition to a non-serialized form.

As Robert Allen and others have explored, serial narration is not simply a matter of continuing stories; rather the mode as developed in soap operas (both daytime and their primetime progeny) features a number of core narrative conventions. The content of most serial television prioritizes relationships over events—thus even when a major event happens in a soap opera, the question of “what happens?” is often secondary to “how does it affect the community of relationships?”  Hence, events are narrated to audiences with a great deal of redundancy, not only to ensure that all viewers share sufficient story knowledge, but also to explore how the retelling of an event impacts the web of relationships that comprise the centerpiece of any soap opera’s storyworld.  Even if viewers are witnessing the seventh recap of the previous week’s big narrative event, they are gleaning information about how this event impacted each character who learns about it, accumulating nuance in direct proportion to the amount of long-term backstory knowledge any viewer possesses to make sense of these ongoing tales.  As such, the narrative events themselves of serial dramas traditionally focus more upon relationship changes than the chains of cause-and-effect actions that are typical  of episodic action, adventure, and mystery dramas or even sitcoms; when soap opera events do fall within the purview of actions, such as murders, accidents, and schemes, they are typically narrated in such a way that its emotional impact concerns the ripple effect any given event has upon the community more than suspense over what may happen next.

Even though conventional serials foreground ongoing storylines, episodes do follow a basic structure.  Every episode offers a small number of separate plotlines to be tackled, typically ranging between three and five, and these storylines are cycled through in cross-cutting succession.  Daytime soaps, given the massive number of minutes needed to be filled each week, cycle through these stories quite slowly, with each return to a plotline in an episode generally offering its own recap of what came before, a small progression of events typically focusing on interpersonal dialogue, and an unresolved question to keep us tuned in while the show turns to other storylines.  Each week’s five episodes form another narrative unit in soap operas, as the alternation between storylines and the presentations of climaxes and cliff-hangers follows a regular weekly pattern.  Primetime soaps typically condense much of the daytime form’s redundancy into weekly segments, foregrounding transformative events more than endless discussions about such events, but the basic formula of multiple separate plotlines, emphasis on relationships, and working toward cliff-hangers before commercial breaks and episode endings still persists.

Conventional episodic programs are defined by the opposite structural requirement from serials—stories must end promptly within the 30 or 60 minute scheduling framework.  Thus if serials thrive on the perpetual instability of ongoing stories, episodic programs are consumed with the quick violation and restoration of the underlying situation’s equilibrium.  Although the specific form that a narrative disruption may take depends on genre conventions—crimes on cop shows versus family squabbles on sitcoms—the basic structure of episodic programs transcends genre.  Typically, episodic programs feature two storylines (the A and B plots) that may coincide thematically but generally resolve separately, although it is not uncommon for half-hour programs to feature only one plot and for one-hour dramas to offer short additional C or D plots.  Like serials, episodic plots are structured to maximize tension by placing enigmas before commercial breaks, but conventional episodic programs almost never conclude an episode with an unresolved enigma (unless indulging in the convention of the “two-parter”).  The conclusion of any episode returns the characters to the equilibrium of their given situation—any lessons learned or characters changed will likely be forgotten or ignored in subsequent episodes.

By definition, truly episodic programs offer continuity only in their essential situation and characters, not in temporal changes.  The episodes of Dragnet, Marcus Welby, or I Dream of Jeannie could be viewed in any order with no confusion resulting from changes in relationships or situations, as there are none of note.  Any changes that do occur are motivated by extra-textual developments—actors leaving a series or showing signs of aging.  The most common markers of change in episodic series stem from the birth and growth of children, and additions or subtractions to the cast of characters, as we can place the episodes of Bewitched in a rough order based on Tabitha’s age (as well as its  shift to color and the recasting of Darrin’s character).  Yet there are minimal narrative differences between these various episodes, as we do not need to know what happened to Tabitha as an infant to appreciate her toddler mishaps—backstory is devalued in episodic programming, and may even be feared, as it points out the inconsistencies within long series runs.  While the pleasures of serials depend on long-term chronological engagement with stories, episodic shows encourage casual viewership, scrambled presentation of episodes via syndication, and the disavowal of a program’s history.

Both episodic and serial programs share a set of narrational tendencies that match and diverge from television’s closest medium parallel: classical Hollywood cinema.   Like typical film narratives, both episodic and serial television narration is typically an exceedingly obvious mode of storytelling.  Redundancy is foregrounded even more than in cinema, as character traits and situational features are reinforced in every episode and plot points are reiterated throughout episodes, most commonly following commercial breaks.  The plotlines in both episodic and serial programs typically follow the narrative logic of Hollywood cinema, with clear causality, goal-seeking protagonists, and genre conventions of suspense, mystery, melodrama, and comedy as required.  Temporality is generally chronological, with anomalies offered via heavily “signposted” conventions of flashbacks, fantasy sequences, or embedded stories to avoid any confusion among viewers who may be unfamiliar with a particular program’s storyworld—conventional television narration seeks to avoid confusion even more than film, as the economic incentive is always predicated on keeping viewers tuned in across commercial breaks.  Television narrative generally favors a more limited spatial representation than film, as studio sets are repeatedly inhabited weekly for both economic and narrational efficiency.  Like Hollywood cinema, television tends toward effaced, covert narration, with events visually presented rather than explicitly told by a character or external voice-over.

Despite these parallels to cinematic narrative, television offers some particular narrative tendencies that distinguish it as a unique narrational form.  Most centrally, the ongoing nature of series television, whether episodic or serial, alters the basic function of the beginnings and endings of stories.  While a typical feature film must offer sufficient character and plot exposition to invite viewers into a new storyworld, series television relies upon easily summarized narrative situations revisited in each episode.  Each episode must reiterate core character relationships and setting for new viewers, while not boring fans who are familiar with the series, a task often accomplished by credit sequences, such as the narrated montage in Charlie’s Angels or The Addams Family’s expository theme song.  In episodic programs, exposition is usually enhanced by reducing complexity in exchange for easily identifiable conventions for relationships (such as families or coworkers), characters (stock types and occupations), settings (workplace staples or suburban homes), and situations (as tied to genre and setting).  While a highly episodic program like The Honeymooners may not seem to offer narrative exposition each week, it does reestablish relationships between the four main characters, their personalities, goals, and urban milieu in each episode.  While soap operas require far more narrative backstory for in-depth comprehension, most episodes offer sufficient recaps to make basic sense of that day’s events even for viewers new to the program—as discussed above, the use of frequent narrative recaps serve to explore relationships and the emotional impact of events on the community in addition to briefing viewers.  Even though both episodic and serial programs offer narrative exposition, they are distinct from most films and novels in that exposition recaps material that has already been experienced by some viewers; thus aside from atypical pilot episodes, television narratives are nearly always joined already in progress.

Likewise, television narratives rarely close.  This is certainly true of serials, which are defined by their ongoing continuation, but episodic series as well rarely achieve full narrative closure.  While a given episode’s plot may resolve, the underlying situation forestalls a degree of equilibrium that would undermine future narrative complications.  Lucy may be foiled in a particular attempt to break into show business on an episode of I Love Lucy, but she’ll try again the following week—no final resolution of her desires and situation is offered, even if each episode does provide some degree of closure.  Because conventional episodic programs limit closure, most genres feature low-stakes straightforward plotlines each week—singular criminal or medical cases, family or office mishaps, individual character conundrums—as any conflict must be solved quickly, but not conclusively enough to upset the basic narrative situation.  Thus episodic programming has a limited palette of plots to fit the limited scope of the genre and scheduling conventions, leading to the oft-repeated condemnation of series television’s formulaic and repetitive nature.  Even soap operas, which certainly have no incentive to quickly wrap-up plotlines, rarely entertain a plotline that drastically undermines the core narrative situation—relationships are redefined, characters die off (or are reborn), villains become heroes, but the core storyworld retains allegiance to any series’ basic narrative scenario, be it a suburban town, an extended family’s turmoils, or the life of a particular hospital.  Unlike other series forms, like 19th century serial fiction (and even British television norms), both episodic and serial American television measure success not by an effective conclusion wrapping up a compelling narrative, but by avoiding conclusion altogether, continuing a series run for years or even decades.

These two dominant modes of conventional television narrative form, episodic and serial, were imported to television from radio in the medium’s earliest days, and still remain the two most common ways that audiences experience television storytelling.  Yet a new option has emerged in recent years that stands as a distinctive alternative to the episodic and serial conventional models.  This new mode, which I term narrative complexity, is not as uniform and convention-driven as episodic or serials traditions—in fact, its most defining characteristic might be its unconventionality—but it is still useful to group together a growing number of programs that work against the conventions of episodic and serial traditions in a range of intriguing ways.   While some point to this emerging form as “novelistic” television, I contend that it is unique to the television medium despite the clear influences from other forms such as novels, films, videogames, and comic books.   The rise of narrative complexity in American television is marked by a series of changes within the television industry, audience practices, and domestic technologies, all suggesting that narrative complexity is a trend that will persist as these institutional and cultural changes accelerate.  For the purposes of this essay, it is important to explore how narrative complexity functions on contemporary television, and assess some of the cultural impacts of this innovative mode of storytelling.

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17 Responses to “Soap operas and primetime seriality”

  1. I wonder if, by drawing the distinction as almost an opposition, you might be overstating and/or simplifying things. First, your foundational premise — that the pleasures of soap opera narrative are essentially accretive rather than acquisitive — is not altogether wrong, but your emphasis on redundancy vs. blink-&-miss-it seems to miss the point. Soaps utilize a variety of strategies to revisit the necessary narrative detail. Dialogue laden with exposition and backstory are one, the quickie flashback another. But I tend to think that there are particular pleasures to be had in such “redundancy” (for even nominally attentive viewers/listeners). When a soap revisits prior narrative detail, there’s two kinds of narrative consent being constructed: bringing the uninformed into the fold AND revisiting the pleasures/horrors of the past. In both instances, the repetition builds the narrative community, but there are also narrative pleasures designed for both the naive and the sophisticated. The newbie gets brought up to date, while the veterans get to re-experience the pleasures/horrors of the past. Note how protective soap viewers seem to be regarding the collective memory constructed by their “stories.” (Consider all those anecdotes designers, writers, and actors share about how the soap fans remember, comment and complain about the reuse of props, settings, and costume elements.) My basic feeling is that what you call redundancy is actually a pivotal soap pleasure — revisiting key moments from the recent and distant past — not unlike the narrative data mining you describe in contemporary prime time serial drama. Just as contemporary intricate serial narratives anticipate the technologies as they script their maneuvers, so to did soap writers of yore who built the narrative conventions that guide the genre today. Indeed, I would argue such mechanisms of building the insider knowledge of an interpretive community is what links the two forms — rather than what distinguishes them.

  2. 2 TISH

    HEY…LIGHTEN UP…LET’S NOT TRY FOR A DOCTORATE HERE…IT IS ENTERTAINMENT…SUCH AS IT MAY BE…, ONE OF THE FEW FREEDOMS WE HAVE LEFT IN THIS COUNTRY IS TO HIT THE “OFF” BUTTON

  3. I’m diggin’ that comment on Bewitched. It’s right on….

    Herbie J Pilato
    Author
    Bewitched Forever
    The Bewitched Book

  4. Will you specifically use and explain the term “story arc” in your discussion of narrative complexity? I am think about shows like Buffy, where individual episodes could stand alone, but there was often a thread that connected all the episodes of a season. Not so much a continuing story like a soap opera, but recurring ideas leading to plot points as part of a larger design.

    Oh, and since you compare television to film, will you mention anything on the growth of the sequel as something akin to a return to cinema seriality?

    *sigh* Reading your stuff is actually making me reconsider quitting grad school…

  5. Thanks for all the comments!

    StinkyLulu: I agree with your comments – the repetition is not simply for filling in gaps in viewing, but adding layers of meaning and strengthening the web of relationships & emotional depth. And I’m certainly trying to make a fine distinction not to valorize one over the other, but to understand what’s distinctive about this new primetime model. Here’s the question: would a soap ever present important narrative information in a single brief and obscured moment? No doubt that individual moments in soaps matter, but in my highly limited experience, it seems like moments of importance are typically highlighted and repeated, rather than subtly dropped in as clues for observant viewers. I’d love to hear about examples of the latter in soaps though.

    Myth: Definitely I talk about story arcs as midway between full seriality and episodic form, something covered some in the article linked to at the beginning of my post. As for film, I’m not convinced that seriality in film is more common today than earlier times – there have always been successful ongoing film series, and very few of today’s sequels are explicitly serialized in so far as you need to know the full backstory to understand the next entry (with notable exceptions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Matrix, & Star Wars). And I hope your reconsideration of grad school is that reading my stuff makes you want to stay in academia, not flee!

    TISH: Sorry, I already got the doctorate…

  6. 6 baslinger

    Jason,
    I really liked the entry, and I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months, but this is my first response.
    I like the fact that you’re thinking about the ways day-time soaps and prime time dramas handle narrative complexity differently. You hit on some under-examined (to me) ideas about pacing in the two forms, which to me is interesting b/c while soap opera fans may fast forward through plot lines they dislike, the long form narration has been relatively standardized. However, it seems that what has angered many Lost viewers isn’t the “soap operaification” of prime time, but the ways that many viewers feel J.J. Abrams and company have oddly paced the series. It might be interesting if you could expand on the pacing issue, but they may take you on a tangent.
    I also wonder if the move towards narrative complexity had changed the nature of previously ons. Have previously ons for prime time dramas become more soapy? I ask this because it seems that Lost previously ons (and Brothers and Sisters, oddly one of my favorites from last season) go way back to explain the character arc(s) of the person(s) the subsequent episode, sometimes going back to episodes from much earlier in the season (or the previous season). Are these “enhanced” previously ons part of a conscious strategy by the producers of narratively complex tv texts, or are networks forcing producers to work harder to orient viewers to the multiple story arcs (reminiscent of Bochco’s experience with network brass over Hill Street Blues)? [Derek Johnson probably has more to say on this.]
    One last question that may seem a little far-fetched: With the growing Latino market and the network adaptations of the telenovela form (with its own brand of narrative complexity and industrial scheduling patterns on TV Globo and Televisa), is there any indication that global format trades or the transnational television trade will alter either the commercial or prestige value of narrative complexity or the ways that disparate national audiences will take up narratively complex television texts?
    Anyway, I really liked the piece and I’m glad the VLT published a version of some of these ideas. Best, Ben.

  7. Just a link to Sam Ford’s discussion of this post on the Convergence Culture blog – check it out!

  8. Hey Jason, I wanted to link to my post on these issues from yesterday. I wrote this before I read your latest comments in response to StinkyLulu, but I hope they further illuminate the discussion of redundancy in soaps. To address your question, I would say soaps seldom give important new narrative information in scenes, but there are sometimes important hints to upcoming stories in dialogue well before those stories are addressed. Far more often, the link comes by important hints or references to past relationships and storylines that give the stories new meaning to longterm viewers without distracting from the plot for short-term viewers.

    For instance, on ATWT, Holden says to Paul that he doesn’t know what it is like to be a father, and the look of hurt on Paul’s face for a split-second reminds viewers who have been watching for a decent amount of time that Paul had lost a baby not incredibly long ago. It is never mentioned again, and Holden doesn’t seem to be aware that he brought it up, but the non-verbals in the scene give a reward to longtime viewers by indicating WHY Holden’s insult hurts so much. Or people’s current actions are explained by a brief mention to something in their long-time past, which veteran viewers explain and illuminate more recent viewers on…this type of complexity has narrative information, and it does potentially present new information to more recent viewers, but it isn’t of the puzzle sort that you see in Lost.

    Anyway, I agree completely with your “distinction not to valorize one over the other,” especially since I am a fan of both. Both are complex serialized narratives, but we can neither ignore the connections nor pretend that the two types of narrative are completely comparable. Just the nature of the large ensemble cast and 250 episodes a year of daytime soaps guarantee a much different experience than a primetime show, especially when it comes to the autonomy and importance of the episode.

    By the way, you might want to check out some of the questions raised by Scott Ellington in response to my post, and yours, over at the C3 blog.

  9. Sorry that I didn’t see your link to the post before I made mine, Jason–I guess I still had the same unrefreshed page up from yesterday when I published my comment. I think that Ben’s mention of telenovelas is intriguing, because they raise another interesting format question regarding soaps.

    I would contend that telenovelas, and the way that we would measure their quality and complexity, would be quite different than that of soap operas, because the whole point of that long and complicated history is lost in short-form content. Might the relationship of telenovela to soap opera, purely in terms of format, be akin to that of the television mini-series to the serial television program?

  10. Ben: good questions and welcome to the blog. I definitely think pacing is crucial – in the book on narrative, I’ll definitely look at pace as a key variable, both in terms of story time (for instance, Twin Peaks, 24, and Lost all radically compress the amount of narrative present covered within a season or series, although the latter’s flashbacks/forwards change that dimension somewhat) and discourse time (the amount of time the telling of the story takes). It’s hard to explain much in a blog comment, but the wide range of temporal techniques will probably get an entire chapter in the book.

    And elements like “previously on” and “coming soon” have certainly become both more prevalent and complex themselves – I think I saw one comparison that noted that recaps have been growing much longer in recent years, with some going as long as 2 minutes! And sometimes recaps have their own aesthetic possibilities – the s5 finale of Buffy was particularly artful, and the classic Soap used recaps/previews as a comedy routine.

    Sam: Interesting example – might we say that soaps reward attention to details for foreshadowing future events, and referencing backstory, but don’t typically bury details about the narrative present?

    And telenovelas – this reminds me of a previous blog post I’ve written about the “infinity model” of broadcast TV, where every show is ideally designed to last forever. Soaps are obviously the most successful at this goal, but it’s a pretty unheard of model outside the US system – telenovelas embrace the closure of endings in ways that virtually no American TV does. The fact that Lost and other shows seem to be starting to plan their endings earlier in their run, perhaps the norms of genres like telenovelas will be more influential in the US?

    Thanks for the comments!

  11. 11 lynn liccardo

    i’ll be posting soon on the c3 complexity discussion http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2007/07/daytime_and_primetime_serial_d.php, but had some(and somewhat scat-tered) thoughts specific to this discussion.

    at first, i thought you might be suggesting that the story-telling on daytime soaps was not complex, then read your “distinction not to valorize one over the other.” i’m glad that sam stated “both are complex serialized narratives” as a matter of fact. to me, the sheer volume of daytime seri-ality confers de facto complexity.

    in my comments on the dericho/mccrea discussions on henry’s blog http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/07/gender_and_fan_culture_round_e.html, that soaps have been marginalized because of their association with women i take as a given. what inter-ests me more is how deeply that marginalization has been internalized and how it manifests itself. it strikes me that if the following sentence “If soap operas allow for or even encourage a distracted or partial model of viewing, narratively complex primetime shows of today require a high degree of attention and engagement” was read out of context, that “distracted or partial” juxtaposed with “high degree of attention and engagement” might be construed as assigning a higher social value to the latter.

    re the running gags on sitcoms: what i love is references from one show to another. the classic, of course, is the last “newhart” show, which so brilliantly invoked the pre-vious “bob newhart show.” more recently, it took me a cou-ple of weeks to wonder if robert mccallister on “brothers and sister” was a reference to “jack and bobby.” i actually had to check to see if there was a connection (greg ber-landi) because i thought it might be just a coincidence. and then, my all time favorite: cab 804, a two-part episode of “taxi” referenced in “fraiser,” the connection, of course, being that the creators of “taxi” also created “cheers,” where fraiser crane was introduced.

    “Arguably, the complex narrative of 1990s television may be the first instance of serial structure being critically hailed as a positive cultural mode in opposition to a non-serialized form.” in his 1997 book, “glued to the set,” steven stark makes the same argument for “hill street blues.” i was 30 in 1981, and notwithstanding the guilty pleasures of “dallas” and “dynasty,” “hill street” was the first time i remember any television show being talked about seriously by serious people.

    “Primetime soaps typically condense much of the daytime form’s redundancy into weekly segments” yes and no. daytime soaps operate more or less in real time; they follow the seasons and observe holidays. not so primetime. for instance, “friday night lights” ended its first season this past may with the team winning the state championship, presumably in november or december, and the coach’s wife, cami, announcing her pregnancy. when the second season begins in September, eight months will have passed, and cami is ready to deliver. it will be interest-ing to see how much of the eight-month interval will be filled in.

    i absolutely agree with stinkylulu’s comment: “Indeed, I would argue such mechanisms of building the insider knowledge of an interpretive community is what links the two forms — rather than what distinguishes them” certainly, from daytime’s perspective it’s far more important to un-derstand the connections. and i’ve always wondered if the efforts to distinguish daytime from primetime seriality stem as much from daytime soaps’ marginalization as from scholars’ intellectual curiosity.

    baslinger: very interested in your observations re “previ-ously on,” which i confess, i hadn’t noticed. but i will pay more attention. also, you describe your fondness for “brothers and sisters” as “odd.” why? regarding bochco and “hill street,” i kew he had issues with nbc about cost overruns, i hadn’t realized there were also issues regard-ing viewer orientation, which makes his comments below all the more interesting: “Hill Street Blues might have been the first television show that had a memory. One episode after another was part of a cumulative experience shared by the audience…Your knowledge and memory of any given episode was informed by your experience watching previous shows.”

    sam’s comments regarding the exchange between holden and paul echos the late doug marland’s complaints about story recaps in the soap press: this is a paraphrase, but the gist was “sure, they’ll know what happened, but they can’t see the look on emma’s face.”

  12. Lynn, interesting point regarding the timeline of a primetime show versus that of a soap opera, in relation to “real-time” and the actual calendar. Of course, we all know that continuity can get really interesting on soaps, when it comes to aging characters, etc., but the nature of the storytelling does make a difference in how there is typically no time for time to be left out in soaps, since the point is to follow the daily lives of a show’s featured characters rather than snippets of their lives. After all, this is most apparent in a soap opera called Days of Our Lives.

    As for your other comments on sitcoms and running gags, I’ve been meaning to post on this for a while, how experiences feel differently when you watch reruns of sitcoms as boxed sets, etc., and how different shows take advantage of that in different ways. For instance, a lot of shows that weren’t considered serialized AT ALL occasionally appear a little bit more so when you watch them in order, in that running gags were more common among earlier sitcoms than we often realize watching them out of order or not being able to watch episodes back-to-back. Hope to write more on that later in the week over at the C3 blog.


  1. 1 jill/txt » “the whole point of the genre is the long-time accrual of meanings and experiences”
  2. 2 Rescue Me as hyper-masculine soap opera « Just TV
  3. 3 episodic vs seriality, and ‘not-so-quality’ TV « radioblaster
  4. 4 More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality « Just TV
  5. 5 Complex TV: Serial Melodrama | Just TV

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