Rescue Me as hyper-masculine soap opera
I’ve previously blogged about the relationship between soap operas & prime time narrative, participating in a conversation at Henry Jenkins’s blog and Sam Ford’s post on the Convergence Culture blog. Basically, I think the majority of serialized shows in prime time do not take much from soap operatic narrative strategies beyond the serial form–the pacing is completely different, prime time has much more emphasis on ongoing mystery, suspense, & action than the relationship dramas that typify daytime, and evening shows feature far less redundancy, even using strategic confusion to engage viewers and keep them tuning in. Of course I’m speaking in generalizations, as there are counter-examples each way, but as a trend, evening serial dramas are not merely soaps in prime time (and again, that’s not to inherently valorize one model over another).
But some shows do traffic in soap opera norms more overtly. There are classic so-called “prime time soaps,” like Dallas, Melrose Place, and the like–I’ve never been a fan, so I can’t speak to their specific strategies. But the show I do watch that I feel is most directly influenced by the soap opera is Rescue Me. This is an odd match, as Rescue Me is also one of the most hyper-masculine programs I know, focused on the male ego in all of its fragile glory. But the show works by grafting soap opera norms onto a masculine emotional core, focusing on reactions to relationships and tragedies play out in the all-male world of the firehouse. The show plays its drama both straight and for laughs, as we care about these characters even as they’re clearly parodies of themselves.
Exhibit A: a scene from this season’s 4th episode (entitled “Pussified” for the various crises of masculinity at play). Lead character Tommy and his (ex)wife Janet try to go to therapy to repair the marriage:
This scene summarizes the previous three seasons’ relationship drama, with a dose of self-parody of how ridiculous the scenario sounds–and some meta-comments referring to the big dust-up among viewers surrounding both the “rape” scene and over-the-top death of their son. At the same time, the scene functions like soap opera, as the repetition of narrative events helps us both catch up with the show and provides emotional details into relationships – Tommy & Janet bond over their own drama, while the therapist pushes them away as just a joke, inviting us to view their relationship using both lenses.
The show similarly uses the emotional convention of the soap opera in dealing with a character’s death – in at least three different occasions (which I won’t name if you haven’t watched the show), a character’s death is presented using a musical montage of friends & family members learning the news. This mode of presentation is not soapy in the least – the pacing of soap operas would draw these conversations out over days or weeks, not condensed into three filmic minutes with no dialogue – but the emotional emphasis is: when a character dies, the focus is on how the death impacts the web of relationships portrayed on the show. Compare this to a show like Lost, where someone’s death focuses on that character’s final moments, and the emotional repercussions within the community are almost an afterthought – did we ever see anyone really care about Eko or Ana-Lucia’s death? On Rescue Me, a character’s death means something much deeper when witnessing the reactions of his family & friends, and I find myself much more wrapped up in the emotional lives of the show’s characters than almost any other series. At the same time, they’re completely over-the-top and somewhat ridiculous in their characterization – just like soaps.
The challenge is that Rescue Me forsakes realism to hit emotional buttons, much like soap operas, but we expect more naturalism in our evening shows. The show’s fans and critics are constantly battling whether it’s gone too far as it skirts the line between emotional engagement and hyperbolic self-parody. For me, the show achieves the balance far more often than it stumbles, keeping me caring about these hyper-masculine and often reprehensible characters far more than they really deserve. And that’s an achievement worth commending.
Filed under: Genre, Narrative, Representations, Television, TV Shows | 2 Comments
Tags: Rescue Me