Soap operas and primetime seriality
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.
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 17 Comments