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.

2 Responses to “Rescue Me as hyper-masculine soap opera”

  1. Jason, this is interesting to think about in relation to soaps for several reasons. First of all, I haven’t watched Rescue Me, which limits my abilities to speak to the issues obviously, but this clip reminds me of one element of soaps that particular soaps do well, which is balancing the riduclousness of certain plots with the character-based interactions. That’s one reason why soaps seem much less problematic to viewers who know the characters, in that a storyline involving amnesia, or a coma, or a kidnapping, or a baby switch does not seem realistic becuase the what wasn’t the most important part in the first place.

    But I’ve written about this issue before, in relation to how it is not quite clear whether soaps belong to a common genre or a common format, which are obviously two very different things. Some soaps are quite good at providing the type of humor you mention there–a good extra-textual example would be this commercial for Tyson Chicken using a character from As the World Turns. Of course, this was in a commercial format, so they were able to use hyperbole regarding the crazy storylines they had done outside the text rather than within it.

    Not all soaps handle over-the-topness as well, and some of them are much better at scenes from everyday life, so that I would say in fact that some soap fans very much expect a heightened sense of naturalism.

    I think the problem here is that there are two types of soaps, and often even two types of soap within one particular soap, if that makes any sense. Some characters or storylines focus on the more ludicrous, just the type of thing that you are pointing to here and the kind of story that soaps are stereotyped for–identical twins, constant paternity suits, and so on. But often other characters on those same shows focus on issues like life as a gay teenager, or the struggle with breast cancer, or the affects of Alzheimer’s on a family–using soaps as catalysts of social awareness that character-based drama would do particularly well and through characters the audience are intimately familiar with.

    I think the difference may be that, with the amount of storytelling time daytime shows are afforded, they can manage to be more than one thing at once in a way that primetime shows cannot. Once you set a particular tone for a primetime show, it’s hard to break from that mold, so that Rescue Me might not be a particularly good venue to tell a serious long-term story about the affects of an eating disorder or the longterm trauma of losing a loved one.

    That’s not to choose one form of storytelling over the other, since I think both can be quite good, but soaps can often manage more than one mode at once (although I sometimes think that too many extremes are fit into one story, such as having a storyline about psychic primonitions coexisting and bumping into more realistic stories in which the supernatural doesn’t particularly make sense alongside, as happened recently on ATWT.

    But all that aside, Jason, I think you are quite right in how redundancy works here and in how the relationship on character relationships functions much differently here than on a show like Lost. Also thank you for pointing my attention toward Rescue Me, since I haven’t given it much of a look until now.

  1. 1 Rescue Me and the Crisis of Masculinity: Sean d. « Television & American Culture

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