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The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell

Serial Melodrama

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Complex TV is not a genre. As I argue throughout this book, complex television is a storytelling mode and set of associated production and reception practices that span a wide range of programs across an array of genres. Television genres are cultural categories that bundle texts together within particular contexts and cultural circulations, not simply sets of textual conventions.[1] This is not to suggest that questions of genre are irrelevant to understanding complex television—to the contrary, looking at genre as part of its growth and circulation highlights how the mode has grown to pervade and influence a wide-range of types of television fiction, including both comedic and dramatic genres. Complex television is a site of tremendous genre mixing, where conventions and assumptions from a range of programming categories come together and are interwoven, merged, and reformed.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Likewise, melodrama is more of a mode than a genre, an approach to emotion, storytelling, and morality that cuts across numerous genres and manifests in a wide range of media forms.[2] However, when it comes to television, melodrama is often assumed to solely belong to the important genre of the soap opera, and thus moments of melodrama appearing outside of the daytime schedule are seen as linked to the soap opera genre, often through the derogatory label “soapy.” This chapter aims to tease out the formal and cultural linkages between the complex narrative mode discussed throughout this book, the genre of daytime soap operas, and its associated affective style of serial melodrama. Most complex television dramas that proliferate in primetime today are serial melodramas, and thus share some traits with the daytime soap opera; however in terms of formal elements, industrial histories, and critical discourses, primetime serials and daytime soaps have crucial distinctions that need to be underscored. Thus by highlighting complex television’s distinctive take on serial melodrama, I consider how it functions as a “narrative technology of gender,” per Robyn Warhol’s model, and argue that the mode’s gender politics complicate some claims about how primetime serials “masculinize” the traditionally feminine realm of soap operas.[3]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Soap Operas and Questions of Genre

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 To understand how primetime complex television programs work as gendered serial melodrama, we need to first consider how both television seriality and melodrama have been historically linked to the soap opera genre. Prior to the 1990s, the primary site of television seriality in America was the daytime soap opera, a genre that precedes the medium with long roots back into network radio, including some individual programs like The Guiding Light that ran for decades spanning the two media. Unlike most genres, the name “soap opera” refers neither to elements from the television text (like the setting of Westerns or central topic of cooking shows) nor the intended audience response (as with horror and comedy); instead, soap operas are a derogatory moniker coined by commentators in the 1930s to mock the juxtaposition of high melodrama with low commerce, condescending to the presumed audience of allegedly unsophisticated housewives. Prior to the popularization of the term, soaps were known more commonly as “daytime dramatic serials,” highlighting both their industrial placement on the radio schedule, their narrative form, and their intended emotional affect. All three of these features became culturally linked to the “soap opera” term, as the programs migrated to television in the 1950s and 1960s, with the genre becoming the primary manifestation of television seriality for decades.[4] The stigma of soap opera has remained active for decades, and certainly many contemporary primetime serials benefit from distinguishing themselves the generic connections to the daytime tradition.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 However, it’s important to note that daytime soap operas were not the sole or even primary form of radio serials in the 1930s and 1940s—many emerging forms of radio fiction were commonly referred to as serials, including the most popular and influential early radio fiction program, Amos ’n’ Andy.[5] Such early radio serials most resembled daily newspaper comic strips as a model of seriality, with sustained settings and casts of characters dealing with ongoing scenarios, but generally avoiding plotlines that created open-ended narrative situations demanding resolution. Notably, many of these early primetime shows were broadcast daily via the scheduling format now referred to as “stripping” (after daily comic strips), rather than the weekly installments now nearly universal on primetime television. While the plotting and storytelling found on 1930s primetime radio programs like Amos ’n’ Andy more closely resemble contemporary episodic television sitcoms that we rarely label as “serialized” rather than today’s complex narrative forms, seriality encompassed a much larger umbrella of narrative forms in the radio era, including both daytime soap operas and their ongoing melodramatic plotlines, and primetime texts within numerous genres that emphasized consistent and enduring characters and settings.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As television took over radio’s industrial and cultural role as the primary distributor of fictional programming into American homes in the late-1940s, serialized plotting became less common within primetime schedules—while a few primetime radio serials (both dramatic and comedic) made the shift to television, by the mid-1950s, they had shifted to daytime or disappeared from the television schedule.[6] Of course 1950s sitcoms like I Love Lucy and dramas like Gunsmoke were serialized in important ways mentioned in the Complexity in Context chapter, with consistent settings and ongoing casts of characters much like Amos ’n’ Andy and the comic strip convention. But just as genre labels function as clusters of cultural assumptions, formal labels like “series” and “serial” carry their own shifting connotations; by the mid-1950s, “serial” came to imply cumulative ongoing, open-ended plotlines, while “series” suggested continuous storyworlds and characters typical of comic strips and radio “serials,” but not necessarily cumulative plots. Both of these serial and series modes contrasted to the era’s important traditions of “variety” and “anthology” programming, which typically introduced a new set of characters, setting, and plotlines each episode.[7] Along with this shifting signification of television seriality, an important cultural linkage emerged between the genre that most prominently featured this plot-based serial model, the daytime soap opera, and the serial form itself; thus from the late-1950s onward, television seriality was viewed by many critics, viewers, and producers as synonymous with, and exclusive to, daytime soaps, forging a connection between serial form and the derogatory disdain for the genre.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 This discursive link between the soap opera genre and serial form has taken on additional associated meanings, with seriality tied to other aspects of the genre through some slippery chains of signification. I believe that these slippages have led to a frequently mentioned assumption: that contemporary primetime complex television has “borrowed” or “evolved” from the daytime soap opera.[8] While this claim has rarely been made via in-depth scholarly argument, it is frequently mentioned in passing within industrial, popular, and academic realms; for instance, soap actress Cady McClain asserts, “we all know how many nighttime shows borrowed from the daytime structure of storytelling” as if it is common knowledge, echoing a claim I have heard similarly mentioned as obvious fact at conferences and in casual academic conversations.[9] But what is the basis for this seemingly common-sense claim of generic evolution? While contemporary primetime television embraces seriality in a range of ways, I contend that the specific modes of serial storytelling it employs derive less from soap operas than other serial modes like comics, classic film serials and 19th century serial literature, all of which have their own connections to melodrama. But since the history of television seriality is so linked to the soap opera genre, the common assumption is that all primetime serials must be reacting to or building upon soaps, an assumption that I hope to break apart here. By pulling out some of the specific formal and cultural assumptions tied to the soap opera genre, including the episodic structures, daily scheduling, melodramatic focus, and ties to female viewers, we can have a better sense of how contemporary primetime serials operate differently than soaps, and also foster a better appreciation for the unique aspects of soap opera storytelling.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 At the formal level, soap opera seriality works through very particular structures and practices, with the genre using its own distinctive mode of production, scheduling, acting style, pacing, and episodic narrative structure. The redundant narration of soap operas depends on the device of diegetic retelling, as discussed in the Comprehension chapter, that both facilitates viewer recall and provides the pleasures of watching characters react to past events. A contemporary hour-long soap opera episode follows four to six story threads, intercut throughout the hour, selecting between a program’s dozens of potential ongoing stories active at anytime. At the beginning of an episode, each storyline features one scene to set up that day’s conversation, typically with the characters talking about some recent event and revealing some new information about how that event impacts their relationship or situation. These initial scenes are highly focused on retelling, reminding and catching viewers up about every element in the scene―previous events, relationships, settings, and even character names. As the episode progresses, the process of retelling continues, especially to remind viewers as each scene cycles back from a commercial break, but gradually advances the plot by highlighting the new story elements rippling out from past events. At end of the episode, each scene typically concludes with a moment of uncertainty that will prompt future retellings when the next episode featuring that storyline airs, often in the form of a suspense inducing cliffhanger. Typically, each of an episode’s plot threads progresses with minimal temporal shifts or ellipses (aside from occasional flashbacks that are highly marked as atemporal anomolies), with each of the cross-cut scenes typically playing out within a narrow frame of an hour or so of story time. Thus daytime soap episodes rarely have any self-contained closed plotlines, or the thematic distinction seen in the majority of primetime serials, as discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter; unlike primetime programs, soap episodes lack titles and are rarely rebroadcast as discrete storytelling units. A soap opera episode functions as an ephemeral daily “check in” on the storyworld as well as a part of the week’s larger plot and character arcs, rather than a self-contained unit of a larger narrative structure, a distinction highlighted by some fans fast-forwarding through the storylines that disinterest them.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Soap operas embrace a poetics of slow-paced redundancy—but instead of treating repetition as a necessary evil, soaps raise it to an art form. Robert Allen influentially argues that soap operas, which were designed both for dedicated fans as well as distracted and erratic viewers, derive their narrative pleasures less from the forward-moving plot of new events and developments, but more from the ripple effects of an event across the community of character relationships within the drama, a model he calls paradigmatic storytelling.[10] A soap opera might portray a key event, but the event itself becomes less narratively important in its initial portrayal than in the chain of subsequent conversations about the event. Thus any single event can be retold numerous times through the dialogue-heavy conventions of the genre, as each character reacts to the news of hearing about the event and we witness the impact each retelling has upon the characters and their web of relationships. Through this convention of narrative recall, we are both repeatedly reminded of what happened and have our attention focused on the characters’ emotional lives, making redundancy an active pleasure of the genre. Yet this mode of repetitious seriality is by no means the only option for television seriality, as it is quite rare to see such embedded redundancy as part of primetime serials; instead it is a distinctive facet nearly unique to the form of daytime soap operas.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In large part, this model of daytime soap redundancy and its comparative absence on primetime serials stems from the material demands of each mode’s production and scheduling technique. Most network primetime fictions air no more than 24 episodes per year in weekly installments, and cable programs often reduce that order to 13 or fewer episodes, with lengthy gaps between seasons. Daytime soap operas are in constant production, airing five days per week throughout the entire year, meaning that the longest gap between episodes will be over a weekend, aside from rare preempting for special events. The significance of these different schedules is enormous, both for producers and viewers. On the creative side, the constant production of soap operas leads to a highly regimented, factory style production model that depends upon conventions, repetitions, and formula to keep up with the constant demands of the next episode, given that daytime soaps air over ten times more narrative material each year than an average primetime series. Just as daily newspapers and comic strips differ drastically in form from weekly magazines or monthly comic books respectively, we must distinction between the production models and resulting programming of endless daily soaps and seasonal, weekly primetime programs as vastly different textual formats.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 These scheduling differences forge vital contrasts in how viewers engage with daytime versus primetime serials. For viewers of primetime serials, an episode can be a regular appointment in a weekly schedule, emerging as a must-see occasion or a routinized time shift through a DVR; in contemporary television, many viewers prefer to bank episodes to watch in quicker succession or even wait for DVD release to embraced the boxed viewing aesthetic discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter. Whether watching in scheduled installments or boxed binges, most viewing practices for primetime serials center around the episode as a discrete unit, thus matching their narrative form of episodic unity with some self-contained storylines and defined episodic structures and themes. Daily soap opera viewing is more part of the ongoing texture of everyday life rather than a special event to be scheduled—even many viewers who time shift their daily soaps, a common practice dating back to VCRs in the 1980s, find ways to integrate the playback into their everyday routines and schedules, such as watching over dinner or while working out. The sheer volume of episodes prevents a binge aesthetic from taking hold, compounded by the rarity of soap opera reruns or boxed releases; this broadcast model requires soap viewers to be responsible for their daily rituals if they want to keep up with their favorite ongoing narratives, and for most soap fans, such daily ritual is key to the pleasures of the genre to the point that Laura Stempel Mumford claims that daily routines is an essential component of the genre’s definition.[11]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 While these daytime viewing practices have some parallels in primetime, their contrasting schedules and distribution models make the experience of watching daytime soap operas and primetime serials more distinct than similar, raising doubts about claims that primetime serials are merely legitimated, high-class, or masculinized soap operas, at least in terms of viewing practice. In the Complexity in Context chapter, I argue that the installment-driven structuring of screen time with significant temporal gaps between episodes is essential to the definition of seriality and the specific ways that serial television tells stories. Daytime soaps and primetime serials have vastly different structures of screen time, and the daily schedule of soaps deemphasize the gaps between episodes by locating them within part of a daily routine. For primetime programs, the weekly gaps, and even longer breaks between seasons, make each episode seem more of an event and encourage fans to engage in strategies to bridge those gaps with paratextual engagement and speculation, as discussed more in other chapters. This is not to privilege one of these modes of engagements as inherently more valued or effective than the other, but to highlight the vast experiential differences between the two scheduling models and the resulting storytelling strategies that they enable and encourage.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 If we look at genre as defined by viewing practices, industrial systems, textual norms, or discursive valuation, soap operas seem clearly distinct from most primetime serials, and thus an analysis of the melodramatic mode of complex television need not be lodged within the soap genre. But the question remains about the role of influence, where some observers claim that today’s primetime programs are retreading ground already broken by soaps. To understand the potential relationship of influence between daytime and primetime serial forms, it’s useful to look at three programs that stand as the earliest successful attempts to incorporate serialized plotting into American primetime programming, all of which had explicit relationships to the soap opera genre. The first is Peyton Place, the mid-1960s hit that seemed to signal the arrival of serial melodrama on primetime. Although the series was an adaptation of a well-known novel and movie, the storytelling format drew explicitly from soap opera precedents. ABC scheduled the show to air two or three nights per week, running in continuous production rather than the “seasons with reruns” model typical for primetime drama, and enlisted soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips to consult with series creator Paul Monash in making the drama succeed as serial television. Caryn Murphy discusses how Monash was adamant in denying the show’s ties to soap opera, preferring labels of “television novel” and “continuing drama” to highlight more respectable formats than the lowbrow associations with daytime serials, even though the primetime series diverged significantly from the original novel and followed many of Phillips suggestions over Monash’s objections.[12] There is no question that at the levels of both production and cultural circulation, Peyton Place was deeply influenced by and linked to the daytime soap opera, and the brief wave of failed primetime serials in the late-‘60s followed its precedent with the continuous, multi-episode weekly schedule evoking the ritual experience of soap opera viewership. However, no imitator came close to Peyton Place’s hit status, leading networks to eliminate such serialized dramas from primetime schedules by 1970.[13]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Serialization and explicit connections to soap operas returned to television outside of the daytime schedule through the unusual vehicle of comedy in the late-1970s, with the dual innovators of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. The former was a highly-idiosyncratic hit that emerged from Norman Lear’s successful production team in 1976, explicitly embracing the form, production values, and pacing of daytime soap operas via daily airings. Rejected by all of the national networks, Mary Hartman was distributed to local stations through the system of first-run syndication, airing in various timeslots outside of primetime, but most frequently in the late night spot of 11 p.m. to avoid controversy over its risqué content. The program married over-the-top storylines involving a small town mass murderer and an elderly flasher, with quotidian details of domestic drudgery, most notably Mary’s obsession with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor, creating a distinctive blend of the outrageous and mundane. Although the show embraced a dry, absurdist wit and was certainly best understood as a comedy, it featured none of the era’s sitcom conventions of laugh tracks, studio audiences, or even actual jokes; instead the humor came through its conventional soap opera style of unpolished videotaped staging and melodramatic music cues played straight, but with a quirky small town setting and an ambiguous tone that most resembles future television innovator, Twin Peaks. This allegiance to soap opera was affirmed behind the scenes, as Lear hired a team of soap opera veterans to write the series, led by Ann Marcus who had previously written for both daytime soaps and primetime Peyton Place, but never before (or again) for comedies. Thus Mary Hartman retains much of the feel of daytime soaps in its emphasis on relationships, deliberate pacing, redundant dialogue, and lack of overt sitcom style.[14]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Through its daily schedule, Mary Hartman developed a strong following from viewers who tapped into the ritualized rhythms of daily serialized storytelling. Although the series certainly did mock many soap opera conventions through heightened absurdity, it also embraced the melodramatic engagement with relationships and characters’ lives that drives the daytime form. While many viewers laughed at its exaggerated characters and subtle jabs at consumer culture, moments like Mary’s televised nervous breakdown that concluded the first season also delivered intense emotional moments of character melodrama. Reports on the trendy fascination with Mary Hartman focus on viewers’ speculation on potential storylines and the fate of relationships—these are not the pleasures of ironic parody, but sincere serial engagement. The parodic frame gave license to audiences who would normally dismiss soap operas to enjoy the pleasures of serial melodrama without guilt, with rave reviews in highbrow periodicals like The Village Voice and The Nation celebrating the program’s ironic sensibility, the writerly intelligence was seen as rising above soap opera convention, and formal inventiveness. Viewers wrote to the show’s producers praising Mary Hartman while being sure to mention that they did not like soap operas—and that they couldn’t wait for the next episode. For its brief two-year, yet more-than-300 episode run, Mary Hartman delivered the compelling story engine of serial melodrama, alongside soap opera production style and daily viewing rituals, but viewed through an absurdist, askew lens that tempered the genre’s emotional sincerity and allowed viewers who were skeptical of the daytime genre to shamelessly enjoy some of its pleasures.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2 The third early primetime serial had the most overtly stated connection to soap operas, but the least in common in terms of textual norms, production pedigree, or viewing practices. Soap debuted on ABC in 1977 following the conventional scheduling and production model for sitcoms: weekly primetime airings in a line-up filled with other comedies, shot in front of a live studio audience whose laughter cues viewers at home, created by veteran sitcom writers and producers, and featuring the broad humor and joke-filled dialogue typically found on the era’s sitcoms. In fact, creator and head writer Susan Harris asserted that they had no desire to either mimic or mock soap operas, but rather viewed the program’s title as simply a “shorthand reference” to serialized television storytelling—Harris denied even viewing soap operas, and none of the program’s production staff had a background in the daytime format. The show’s cultural reception similarly saw it primarily as a sitcom, albeit one that drew upon soapy serial style and mocked the genre’s storytelling excesses. Yet the series featured much faster moving plotting than either daytime soaps or Mary Hartman, and the weekly scheduling inspired none of the daily viewing rituals common to soap opera viewers. Additionally, internal redundancy and diegetic retelling was far less common, but instead outsourced repetition to tongue-in-cheek “previously on” segments that both recapped earlier events and mocked Soap’s serial complications. Instead, episodes featured numerous narrative events that grew more and more outlandish, as well as character-driven conversational humor (usually between women) more akin to Mary Tyler Moore than General Hospital.[15]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 I highlight these three early innovators to show what explicit soap opera’s influence on primetime programming might look like, and thus to argue that most contemporary serial programs lack such clear connections to the daytime tradition. In the 1960s, Peyton Place inspired a number of failed imitations that curtailed future primetime serial experimentation for many years. In the 1970s, the comparative influence of these dual serial comedies suggests a road not traveled for primetime serial storytelling. Although it received great buzz and cultural validation, Mary Hartman did not spawn imitators in incorporating its soap opera scheduling, production style, and creative pedigree into primetime, marking it as the last time a daily scripted serial would attempt to move outside the daytime block and soap opera genre delineation. Likewise, Ann Marcus proved to be one of only a handful of writers who worked on both daytime and primetime series, while it has been much more common in recent years for primetime series to be staffed with writers and producers from other media like comics, film, theater, literature, and journalism, as discussed more in the Authorship chapter. Created by primetime comedy veterans, Soap’s grafting of serial plotting onto sitcom production conventions and cultural definitions proved to be a more popular and influential model for subsequent innovations in the 1980s that became major television landmarks, whether sitcoms like Cheers, cop shows like Hill Street Blues, or medical dramas like St. Elsewhere. Even the rise of what are often called “primetime soaps” like Dallas and Dynasty bear little formal resemblance to daytime in terms of production style, plot structures, and most importantly episodic frequency and use of screen time. Instead, they incorporate serial plotting into tales of family melodrama that are structurally and formally more similar to other primetime programs than established daytime soaps. It is the prevalence of melodrama in nearly all modes of serial storytelling where we can find the most commonality between daytime soap operas and primetime serials, but we should not assume that the latter is somehow mimicking or transforming the former; instead we need to understand melodrama as a much more widespread facet of television narrative that is not primarily identified with daytime soaps or any single genre category.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Serial Melodramas and Mixed Gendered Affect

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 It is far more important to understand what complex serials are than what they are not. While I question their ties to soap operas, nearly every dramatic program I discuss in this book can be considered a form of serial melodrama, whether the “soapy” excess of Revenge, the adult family drama of Six Feet Under, the weighty political debates of The West Wing, or the realist social critique of The Wire. While few critics would be surprised to see the first two of these programs framed as melodrama, many would bristle with labeling the latter two, as their intellectual seriousness, measured production style, and claims to authenticity and realism are often viewed as the opposite of melodramatic excess. I was one of those skeptical critics myself, regarding melodrama as the core element that primetime soaps like Revenge shared with their daytime counterparts, and differentiated them from the non-melodramatic, more realist approach of other more unconventional series like The Sopranos and The Wire. But I was persuaded by Linda Williams’s call to redefine melodrama away from the terrain of excess: “melodrama has become so basic to all forms of popular moving-picture entertainment that it is futile to continue to define it as ‘excess,’ since these apparent excesses are not necessary for melodrama to do its work nor are they of the essence of the form.”[16] Instead of a specific genre tied to women’s films or daytime soap operas, she argues that melodrama should be construed as a narrative mode that uses suspense to portray “moral legibility,” offering an engaging emotional response to feel the difference between competing moral sides as manifested through forward-moving storytelling.[17]

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 This more expansive definition of melodrama provides a useful way of viewing various forms of serial television as united by a shared commitment to linking morality, emotional response, and narrative drive. As I argue throughout the book, the sustained storytelling time that viewers spend with a long-form serial, as well as the productive gaps between episodes, fosters deeply felt emotional engagement with television characters and their dramatic scenarios, often tied to moral allegiances outlined in the Character chapter. Television fiction is only successful if we care about the drama, and Williams highlights how that caring is mobilized to create a shared moral map: “strong affect combined with moral legibility to create a felt good is what these popular moving pictures do.”[18] Williams suggests that primetime television’s melodrama stems from its “shared DNA” evolving from daytime soap operas, but we do not need to follow her evolutionary implication (as I argue above) to still embrace her call to see the melodramatic mode running throughout the television schedule—in fact, her argument about the ubiquity of melodrama across film genres is more compelling as a shared cultural vocabulary rather than as an evolutionary tree of influence. But whether or not we want to chart influences or highlight shared modes, recognizing the ubiquity of melodrama throughout complex television is crucial to understanding the medium’s cultural work.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Extending the melodramatic mode to encompass more realist narratives that reject many norms of emotional and stylistic excess poses a challenge to many well-established critical categories. Thankfully, Williams has already done the critical heavy lifting by highlighting how television’s most acclaimed realist drama, The Wire, embraces this new model of melodrama. The series charts a shared “felt good” in the nostalgic ideal of a functioning, fair city of Baltimore, and provides emotional hooks to make us care about what has been lost (even as an ideal, if not an actual lived experience) through a range of injustices such as the drug war, global capitalism, and political corruption. Its melodrama is presented in an understated, often dry tone, but the cumulative emotional responses to the tales of personal redemption (Bubbles climbing the stairs) and institutional failure (bulldozing Hamsterdam) are as affectively powerful as any more recognizably melodramatic narrative trope like consummated romance or familial tragedy.[19] And once The Wire’s melodramatic core is made visible, then it is difficult to view any other complex serial without seeing its own map of moral legibility and use of narrative drive and emotionally resonant characterization to create a shared “felt good.”

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Expanding our understanding of melodrama to a more pervasive mode instead of a narrower genre has at least two major impacts on our understanding of contemporary television seriality. First, it disrupts a dichotomy that has been posited for decades, pitting the “primetime soap” marked by stylistic excess and trashy sensibility, against the “quality drama” heralded as serious, socially engaged, and more aesthetically mature than its lowbrow competition.[20] If we separate excess from melodrama, we can see 1980s programs like Hill Street Blues and Dynasty as existing in a more continuous spectrum of affective morality and serial storytelling, rather than polar opposites. We can better understand the multiple facets of stylistic play and emotional engagement offered by hybrid programs like Twin Peaks and Mad Men. And, of course, we can avoid defensive caveats of why a series is not being “soapy” when it embraces moments of emotional pathos or moral judgment, recognizing the ubiquity of the melodramatic impulse across various modes and genres of serial storytelling, regardless of its stylistic excesses or connections to soap opera traditions.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Embracing complex television’s melodramatic elements also has an important impact on how we see the narrative mode’s gender politics. A frequent critique of many of the programs I discuss in this book is that they are overwhelmingly masculine in focus and appeal, and through that emphasis they deny the traditional links between serial melodrama and more conventionally feminine subject matter, viewing practices, and pleasures. Newman and Levine extend this critique to suggest that “the legitimated serials of the convergence era masculinize a denigrated form, negating and denying the feminized other upon which their status depends,” suggesting not only that primetime serials derive from daytime soaps, but also that they actively try to deny those origins as a strategy of differentiation.[21] While certainly many primetime serial creators, viewers, and critics do deny links between complex television and soap operas (I’d contend with good justification) and melodrama (with far less justification), I do not want to focus on this question of differentiation and legitimation, as doing so reinforces what I regard as overly simplified dichotomies between serial and episodic forms, melodrama and realism, and feminine and masculine texts and viewing practices. Instead, I hope to more productively suggest how we can reframe the conversation to see how the integration of serial melodrama into other genres has led to more fluid possibilities of gender identification and challenging rigid stereotypes of gendered appeals. But to explore this facet, we need a better understanding of what it means to call a narrative form “masculine” or “feminized.”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 I doubt any contemporary cultural critic would claim that melodrama or seriality are inherently “feminine” in expressing a viewer’s biological essence or even a static cultural norm, but rather that such modes of expression have been discursively linked to female practices as to signify a contingent yet significantly gendered cultural realm. Robyn Warhol productively explores this realm within the realm of serial narrative consumption, suggesting that emotional responses to sentimental fiction such as “having a good cry” function as “gendered technologies of affect,” an analysis she develops through case studies of soap operas, Victorian serials, and marriage-plot movies.[22] Warhol labels such affective responses as “effeminate,” both linked to and constitutive of behaviors culturally coded as female, but by no means determined by or limited to female bodies—by using the term “effeminate” that connotes gay men’s behaviors more than women’s, she highlights the performative aspect of gender practice rather than the connection to sexed bodies. She identifies how such sentimentality is marginalized within both academic criticism and broader mass media that dismiss melodramatic genres and forms as unserious, manipulative, excessive, and aesthetically barren, especially when compared to more legitimated and masculine forms, arguments that Newman and Levine echo. But Warhol’s emphasis on affect and form allow for a more fluid understanding of the cultural politics of taste and engagement, as effeminate pleasures are not exclusively tied to fixed formats like daytime soaps; instead she provides a formal vocabulary of sentimentality that helps demonstrate how it might be evoked within both conventionally effeminate and non-effeminate genres and modes.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 While Warhol focuses her account on effeminate responses and textual modes, she also suggests that there are masculinist pleasures and engagements with texts like Patrick O’Brian’s serial maritime novels, focusing on adventure plots and homosocial friendships.[23] We can include more facets of serial narrative that are conventionally coded as masculine, such as the analytic puzzle-solving common to mysteries, and procedural explorations of systems like sci-fi technologies or mapping fictional worlds—all responses frequently elicited by complex television and forensic fandom, as discussed more in the Orienting Paratexts chapter. Again, labeling such modes of engagement as masculinist is not to suggest they belong exclusively (or even primarily) to male viewers, as many women embrace genres like mystery and science-fiction where such affective engagement predominates, and certainly many forensic fans are female.[24] Rather the key distinction is that such practices are culturally coded as masculine no matter who is performing them, the same way that sentimental crying is regarded as effeminate even (or perhaps especially) when done by a man. At their most reductive, these distinctions echo the long-standing stereotypical mapping of rationality as male and emotion as female, or the gendered dichotomy between thinking and feeling, a set of dualities that link to the modes of affirmational versus transformative fandom discussed in the Authorship chapter. Warhol’s performative model highlights how such assumptions are reiterated through cultural practice rather than illuminating innate gendered differences, and despite their status as pernicious stereotypes, exploring the gendered dimensions of such affective engagements is crucial to understanding the cultural dynamics of narrative consumption.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 2 As explored throughout this book, a good deal of complex television foregrounds narrative elements that invite such typically-masculinist analytic, forensic responses, but Williams convincingly argues that melodrama and its felt good are importantly prominent in such programs as well. Thus merging Williams and Warhol’s convincing analyses, we can see that the melodramatic pathos which suffuses most television serials works to evoke effeminate feelings, even outside the traditionally feminine genre of soap operas. Williams’s account highlights how, despite its overwhelmingly male cast and crew, focus on the world of men at work, and rational procedural focus, The Wire generates deeply felt emotional responses of pathos and sadness, and I would extend her analysis to suggest that it occasionally elicits a “good cry” per Warhol—I certainly get choked up at the untimely deaths of a few characters, the suffering heaped on victimized children like Randy and Dukie, or the understated triumph of Bubbles getting (and coming) clean.[25] Such sentimental responses exist alongside the show’s more conventionally masculinist pleasures of procedurality, systems analysis, political critique, and homosocial bonding in the workplace, producing a vibrant mixture of gendered responses that can appeal both to a wide range of viewers, and a spectrum of affective engagements within a single viewer of any gender identity. Thus I reject Newman and Levine’s claim that contemporary serials “masculinize” the soap opera form, but rather invert their claim to suggest that the pervasive spread of serial melodrama has added an effeminate layer to traditional masculinist genres like crime shows, espionage thrillers, and science-fiction.[26]

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Lost provides a good example of the type of genre and gender mixing prevalent in complex television serials. Few shows are more exemplary of the importance of forensic fandom, the operational aesthetic, and the ludic engagement with transmedia storytelling that I discuss throughout the book, and these facets, along with its central focus on male heroes coming to terms with their “daddy issues” and conflicts over leadership, would suggest that Lost is a resolutely masculinist program in its appeals. Yet Michael Kackman convincingly highlights how the series intertwines melodramatic plotlines that evoke both effeminate and masculinist narrative conventions and appeals, mixing the formal narrative complexities triggering forensic fandom with the affective pulls of melodrama to foreground a cultural complexity of morality and emotional engagement.[27] We can extend this analysis using Warhol’s seven-part “narratology of good-cry techniques” as a yardstick to measure sentimentality, highlighting the prevalence of melodrama and effeminate pleasures within Lost.[28] Warhol suggests sentimental films use highly emotive acting and cinematic styles, “rendering emotion as something overtly visible” (43) as well as manifested in the emotionally excessive musical cues, all tendencies common to Lost’s dramatic moments. In Warhol’s account, sentimental fictions are focalized around the perspective of characters who are most emotionally vulnerable, with Lost’s rotating focalizations via flashbacks highlighting the inner emotional life and struggles of many members of the large ensemble. Warhol notes that sentimental literature often directly addresses its readers to actively engage in narrative comprehension, although film rarely embraces this device; while Lost’s use of direct address is more implied in moments of reflexivity that call attention to narrative enigmas or plot devices, rather than sweeping emotion or romance, it does “blend its metafictional self-consciousness with sentimental techniques” (47) in a way that is consistent with her account.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Warhol suggests that “the sentimental plot emphasizes close calls and last-minute reversals, either for better or for worse” (47), a description that perfectly captures Lost’s penchant for twisty plotting that services both rational and emotional engagement. She argues that characters in sentimental texts frequently act against established type at critical moments of emotional payoff, a tendency we can see repeatedly in climactic moments in many of Lost’s characters, including Jack, Ben, Jin, and Sawyer. Finally, she suggests that sentimental fictions balance moments of tragedy and joy, suffering and triumph; given Lost’s multi-threaded plot structure, especially with the sixth season’s parallel “sideways” narrative, virtually every character in the ensemble experiences important moments of both suffering and triumph, death and redemption, with no singular fate overriding the other. Lost hits every element of Warhol’s inventory of sentimental storytelling techniques, highlighting the centrality of melodrama to its appeal and its mixed genre format that refuses any simple classification that the series “just” belongs to a masculinist genre of science-fiction or action-adventure.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Newman and Levine acknowledge that shows like Lost do incorporate “soapy” elements like these into their storytelling stew, but they argue that they are always marginalized and secondary, functioning as an internal “other” to highlight a program’s cultural legitimation in more masculinist terms.[29] But as I argue in the Endings chapter, Lost frequently foregrounds affective over forensic fandom, and the series concludes in a way that privileged the emotional over the rational, much to the chagrin of many of its more masculinist fans. It is telling that the nearly universal choice amongst critics and fans for Lost’s best episode is “The Constant,” which balances a sci-fi time travel tale centered around arcane physics experiments, with a sweepingly romantic tale of doomed lovers reuniting across time and space. As critic Ryan McGee writes, ““The Constant” represents the humanist side of Lost better than any other [episode], using its narrative trickery not to create riddles about smoke monsters and glowing caves, but rather a simple, powerful story about human connection.”[30] The episode’s climactic romantic moment is among the most affecting of many in Lost where the sentimental wells up to produce tears as an emotional payoff to hours of serial engagement, and belies any claims that such a program’s melodramatic tendencies are an afterthought meant to “legitimize” it in comparison to soap operas. If anything, I would contend that the series is primarily an emotionally-focused melodrama, in both the adventure and sentimental incarnations of the form, that uses puzzles and sci-fi trappings to draw in masculinist viewers.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 With Warhol and Williams’s perspectives on sentimentality and melodrama in mind, we can see the importance of effeminate viewing practices in nearly all primetime serials, and it becomes clear that the majority of complex television offers a blend of gendered appeals. These gender mixtures are a comparatively recent phenomenon within mainstream fictional television, made visible when looking back to a seminal work of 1980s media studies, John Fiske’s Television Culture.[31] Fiske contrasts masculine and feminine television forms as stark oppositions, using examples like The A-Team and Dynasty respectively, while acknowledging that (then) newer innovations like Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey were starting to blur such distinctions; in his dichotomy, Fiske contrasts what he calls the feminine facets of open narrative deferment, emotional expressiveness, domestic settings, and character complexity, with masculine norms of exclusively male professional spheres, rational actions, and narrative closure. What is striking is how difficult it is to find a primetime drama today that neatly fits into his feminine or masculine paradigms, as the blends of episodic closure and serial deferment, character actions and emotions, and blurred work and domestic spheres are nearly universal. As I discuss more below, such incorporation of sentimental melodrama and female characters into traditionally masculist genres has worked to validate effeminate emotional experiences for male viewers, and help destabilize longstanding gender hierarchies.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 2 The various ways that new forms of television storytelling and genre mixing have reframed the medium’s techniques of gender representation are far too multifaceted to deal with fully here, but it is worth exploring a few techniques that have emerged as part of this mode of narrative complexity.[32] One common strategy places a female protagonist at the center of a highly-serialized version of a traditionally masculinist genre story, such as espionage programs Alias and Homeland, legal thriller Damages, or police procedural The Killing. One of the key innovators of such gender reversals mixed the traditionally masculinist horror genre with female-centric teen dramas to forge the influential (and highly studied) series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Less written about, but arguably just as interesting, is Veronica Mars, which mixes the effeminate teen drama highlighting romantic and familial relationships, with the neo-noir crime procedural typically framed as masculinist. As discussed at length in the Beginnings chapter, the series opens by positing teenage Veronica as a hard-boiled cynic, solving crimes and condemning romance, while surrounded by a cast of male characters who often surpass her in sensitivity and sentimentality. In terms of narrative pleasures, many of Veronica Mars’s core storylines fit more neatly into the masculinist norm of action and detective drama than the effeminate realm of romantic melodrama. While Hill Street Blues and other early primetime serials focused their ongoing stories on traditionally effeminate relationship and character arcs, keeping the masculinist crime and professional plots more episodically contained, Veronica Mars typifies the new breed of complex narratives that weave serialization into all realms of their plotting, featuring heavily serialized mysteries alongside character melodrama, blurring assumed gendered appeals into a fictional world that actively questions the presumed gender norms of its characters, and, by extension, its viewers.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Gender norms also are blurred within Veronica Mars’s plotting. The self-contained detective stories seem consistent with more masculinist crime narratives, but the low-stakes high school setting and Veronica’s status as a savvy investigator willing to use both traditionally masculine and feminine traits to solve mysteries complicate this simple gender identification. The ongoing serial storylines contain both the effeminate and masculinist traditions that Warhol discusses―the relationship arcs generally follow serial melodrama patterns typical of teen dramas, but often interweaved with the detective mysteries, such as the connections between Logan’s budding romance with Veronica and his potential involvement with both arcing plotlines of Lilly’s murder and Veronica’s rape. Veronica often uses her hyper-rational detective skills to explore her emotional realm, whether by investigating her own paternity, solving mysteries for friends, or implicating her boyfriends in criminal cases. The program’s serialized mysteries offer narrative thrills in a more masculinist vein, but tied to the emotional and female-identified realms of rape, motherhood, and soured romance prompting murder. While Veronica Mars clearly embodies both gendered modes of narrative pleasure, it does more than offer parallel pleasures for distinct types of viewers; instead, the program’s storytelling structures intermingle and complicate such neat gendered binaries that invite all viewers to experience both effeminate and masculinist emotional responses.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 3 If centering a masculinist genre on a female figure disrupts traditional gender norms, the infusion of serial melodrama into male-centered narrative worlds often calls the dominant definitions of masculinity into question. Certainly the majority of complex dramas (like most primetime television) are quite male-centered, focused on men in professional realms of crime, crime-fighting, or other professional accomplishment, including important programs such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Cable channel FX has made a profitable brand identity out of complex masculinist dramas like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Rescue Me, and Justified, all of which portray hyper-masculine worlds using serial storytelling—and notably, FX struggled to find an audience with its sole example of a female-centered drama, Damages. Yet such masculine series are not simply a contemporary version of The A-Team, celebrating male bonding, action sequences, and professional success, but rather they use the emotionally foregrounded storytelling style of serial melodrama to cover new narrative ground—such programs are not just male-centric, but are ultimately about masculinity itself in crisis and conflict. As Amanda Lotz argues in her book Cable Guys, the multifaceted narrative strategies of “male-centered serials enable these shows to interrogate submerged sentiments about gender scripts that lurk beneath the surface of largely reconstructed masculinities.”[33] While few of these male-centered melodramas are overtly feminist in questioning patriarchy, the narrative act of making male privilege an object of dramatic conflict, as well as encouraging male viewers to experience the emotional realm of effeminate melodramatic pleasure, can be regarded as progressive steps within the traditionally hegemonic realm of dramatic television.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 As discussed in the Character chapter, many complex serials focus on male antiheroes as protagonists, often highlighting the emotional suffering that they both cause and feel as a result of their actions. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is certainly a unique case, as his character undergoes drastic transformations toward villainy rather than starting out as an amoral figure like most antiheroes. Throughout his journey toward amoral criminality, he rationalizes his actions to provide for his family, following what his fellow criminal Gus tells him: “What does a man do Walter? A man provides for his family.… And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”[34] Such overtly patriarchal rhetoric, contrasted with the hideous actions Walt does toward others and eventually toward his family itself, articulates the hollow, rotten core of traditional masculinity as portrayed on the series. While we are aligned with Walt and can sometimes empathize with his struggles, he eventually steps over the line to pure villainy and object of narrative contempt (with the specific point by which he loses sympathy differing among viewers).

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Of course, Walt is not alone in his journey, and the role played by his wife Skyler is particularly interesting in light of serial melodrama and effeminate responses. We view Skyler mostly from Walt’s point of view, which starts as loving affection, but ultimately frustrated with her as an obstacle to his self-realization as a “real man” via his criminal alter-ego Heisenberg. Walt’s perspective has inspired a large portion of Breaking Bad’s fans to dislike or even hate Skyler, treating her as the series’s true villain—for instance, a Facebook page called “I Hate Skyler White” has more than 6,000 fans. If we regard the series as a gangster drama where Walt’s success in the drug enterprise is the purported goal, then Skyler can be viewed as an obstacle. But complex serials features multiple story threads that invite us to follow and shift character connections; thus if we focus primarily on Skyler’s character’s arc, Breaking Bad becomes a very different type of gendered tale, offering a melodramatic account of deception, adultery, and ultimately an abusive, dangerous marriage.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Skyler starts the series in a content and comfortable place, although not living the life she had dreamed of when she married the older Walter White, an ambitious and successful scientist who was a bit too risky in wanting to spend beyond his means. But Walt’s professional failings and the challenges of having a disabled son shifted their life into a more struggling but stable existence: she gave up trying to be a fiction writer to work as a part-time bookkeeper, he became a high school chemistry teacher who had to moonlight at a car wash. A surprise pregnancy changes things, but more abruptly Walt starts acting highly erratically around his 50th birthday. Walt’s behavior is explained when he reveals that he has terminal lung cancer, and is resigned to die rather than getting treatment. In an effort to keep her family together, she convinces Walt to undergo treatment and extend his life. But Walt’s behavior remains bizarre, including a fugue state causing him to appear naked in a grocery store, an odd connection with a drug-dealing former student, numerous unexplained disappearances, strange parenting decisions (like getting their 16-year-old son drunk on tequila), and hints of a second cell phone that points toward some deception. Despite being 8 months pregnant, she goes back to work to help pay for their medical bills, even though her boss’s affections creep her out. And on top of everything, Walt misses their daughter being born with a shoddy excuse. When Walt undergoes cancer surgery, he accidentally confirms his second cell phone, leading Skyler to investigate his cover stories to find a web of deception worse than she’d imagined, and thus she leaves him as soon as he has recovered from surgery.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Soon after their separation, Walt tells Skyler his secret: that he has been cooking crystal meth. He assures her that it’s a safe job, with no violence or threat of danger, but she’s outraged at how his actions and deceptions risk everything for their family and demands a divorce. Walt refuses, calling her bluff and moving back in despite her threats to go to the police. So she lashes out in the only way that she can think of: having an affair with her boss Ted, who has his own corrupt business practices that she finds herself involved in. Eventually Walt does agree to a divorce, but Skyler decides to remain married for spousal legal protection. When Hank is shot and left paralyzed due to circumstances seemingly related to Walt’s crimes, Skyler agrees to pay for Hank’s medical costs, devising a cover story for Walt’s riches involving compulsive gambling and card-counting, drawing her deeper into Walt’s criminal interests to help her family. As Skyler learns more about Walt’s business, she puts her bookkeeping skills to work to help launder money and purchase a car wash as a front, rationalizing her decision that helping Walt is better for the family than breaking the law for Ted. Although their relationship is far from solid, Skyler and Walt reach a balanced arrangement of mutual benefit, until she learns that one of his drug associates was killed in cold blood. After expressing concern for their safety, Walt lashes out with an anger she has never seen before, claiming to be “the danger” in a threatening moment. She comes close to taking newborn Holly and fleeing, but decides she must remain to “protect this family from the man who protects the family”—how much she honestly fears Walt versus regarding him as a blowhard out of his depths is uncertain, but clearly she feels like she can still manage him. Trouble with Ted returns in the form of an IRS investigation, which she helps skirt by paying him off, and enlisting Saul’s help to convince him to step aside. And then a threat to Hank’s life prompts the family to go into protection, which ends when Gus Fring is killed in a nursing home explosion.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 When Skyler realizes he was responsible for the bomb, this is the first indication she has gotten that Walt is capable of murder—while we have witnessed his procession of increasingly amoral killings for years of screen time, to Skyler this revelation means Walt has suddenly gone from a criminal chemist who seems in over his head, to a scheming murderer willing to blow-up a nursing home to take out an enemy. We can only imagine what might be going through her mind, positing what else he might have done that she has yet to discover. Suddenly she’s not only aiding a drug criminal, she’s an accessory to murder—and soon learns that her efforts with Ted have led to his near demise and resulting terrorized paralysis. Skyler is simultaneously repulsed by her murderous husband who moves back in and assures her “life is good,” and horrified that she too has made moral compromises in the name of protecting her family, taking her down the road that Walt has already traveled. But unlike Walt, she experiences remorse and horror at her own actions, placing her in a state of passive paralysis as a battered spouse, desperate to protect her children from “the danger.” The hiatus in the middle of season 5, which is when I am writing this chapter, ends with Skyler convincing Walt that they have too much money to be able to ever spend, and he claims to quit the business and return to a mild-mannered suburban life.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 2 Of course, it is not Skyler’s story. Walt is Breaking Bad’s protagonist, so we are invited to see his perspective on his marriage and share his singular knowledge of his actions and motivations. Yet Skyler’s story is there, creeping towards the narrative center as the series progresses, while Walt’s performative iterations of his patriarchal role and masculine prowess begin to crumble and erode, in our eyes if not his. Skyler’s presence serves as an irritant for some viewers, but for others willing to consider her perspective, Skyler’s experiences offer a vital critique of Walt’s damaged masculinity. It is impossible to say for sure how the series comes down on this divide until the final episode airs, as its melodramatic “moral legibility” is not yet definitive. Yet it is hard to imagine the series redeeming Walt and blaming Skyler for his crimes, as it has made it progressively more apparent how much damage his ego-driven actions have wrought. While it can only be a contingent judgment for now, it seems that by considering Skyler’s perspective, Breaking Bad functions in part as a “women’s film” in reverse, told through the rationalizing perspective of the abusive spouse whom we only slowly grow to recognize as the villain—a recognition that will hopefully be shared in the end by viewers who have demonized Skyler for years.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 2 Many examples of complex television use serialized melodrama to tell stories of damaged masculinity, or recenter a traditionally masculine genre around a female protagonist, but some mix genres to portray the intersection of traditionally masculine and feminine spheres with a focus on a larger ensemble of characters. Friday Night Lights overlays the hyper-masculine realm of high school football with family melodrama focused both on teens coming of age and life in the small Texas city of Dillon, Texas. While much of the drama involves men trying to use football as a lifeboat to escape their dead-end lives or as an anchor to their past glory days, storylines focused on the gender politics of Eric and Tami Taylor’s dual career marriage, or Tyra’s attempt to succeed academically to escape both her poverty and sexual reputation, decenter masculinity within the drama. Notably, the moments that contain the greatest degree of melodramatic excess do focus on football, especially the game sequences suggesting that every game is decided in the final seconds with a desperation scoring drive, portrayed with hyper-dramatic slow-motion and emotionally wrought musical scoring. Additionally, one of the program’s most emotionally harrowing and acclaimed episodes, “The Son,” focuses its sentimental core on Matt Saracen grappling with his father’s death, creating a portrait of a masculine emotional journey so intense that I cannot help but get a bit weepy just writing about it. While Friday Night Lights is erratic in its serial consistency and use of complex poetics, it melds gendered genre norms through ongoing storylines to complicate any clear categorization of masculinist or effeminate identification or narrative pleasures.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Another series that complicates its gendered appeals through innovative genre mixing and storytelling strategies is The Good Wife. Explicitly gendered by its title, the premise suggests a melodramatic, effeminate focus: a political wife is humiliated by a shameful sex scandal, and forced to both establish her own career and publicly redefine her relationship with her estranged husband. Yet as Alicia Florrick builds a legal career in her old friend’s firm, the series spins an elaborate, highly-serialized set of interlocking professional and personal storylines, notably with a huge stable of memorable supporting characters of judges, attorneys, family members, clients, and political operatives. Although it retains a case-of-the-week episodic structure, The Good Wife features as complex of a cumulative, multi-institutional serialized storyworld that has ever been seen on network primetime, leading one critic to compare it to cable’s standard bearer for complex world building, The Wire.[35] But unlike The Wire, The Good Wife imbues its complex institutionally-grounded serialization with explicit cross-gender appeals, merging the familial, professional, romantic, and political, often within a single story thread, and in the end exploring how all of these threads connect with the emotional and rational choices of its female protagonist.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 A good example of The Good Wife at its most complex is the fourth season episode, “Death of a Client.” Primarily taking place in a single timeframe of a St. Patrick’s Day fundraising event hosted by Chicago’s Catholic diocese, the episode focuses on the main ongoing political plotline, the gubernatorial campaign of Alicia’s husband Peter. But as always, the politics merge with the personal, as Alicia must present herself as both a doting political spouse and a new partner of her law firm, as well as defending her son against false accusations from Peter’s opponent and juggling a potential family crisis concerning her mother’s inappropriate disclosures to her teenage children. Additionally, her former lover (and still boss) Will’s presence at the party creates tension with Peter, despite the firm’s political support of his campaign—as well as Peter’s offer of a potential Supreme Court appointment to Will’s partner Diane, returning to a long dormant storyline from the first season. The episodic case-of-the-week emerges in the form of a previously-unseen client of Alicia’s being murdered, as the police bring her in for questioning about the litigious client’s numerous enemies. We come to know the client and his connection with Alicia through her recollections, presented via flashback in short non-chronological bursts that force viewers to piece together a more linear account of his story to ensure comprehension. But mixed into this professional episodic plot are personal arcs, as the assistant district attorney working the case is romantically interested in Will and asks for Alicia’s advice, prompting Alicia to remember bits of her affair with Will intermixed with flashbacks of her murdered client. Every storyline in this complex episode (and there are a few others left unmentioned) builds on threads from longer arcs, provokes an array of emotional responses, and intermixes various personal and professional plots, suggesting a highly interwoven cloth of genre and gender mixing.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Examples like The Good Wife highlight how complex television has challenged the gendered norms of serial storytelling. The series is far removed from the polar examples of feminine and masculine television that Fiske highlights from the 1980s, and distinct from the mixed but separated style of serial romances and episodic cases that typified earlier mixtures like Hill Street Blues or L.A. Law. Instead the personal and professional, effeminate and masculinist, melodramatic and rational are fully interwoven and inseparable both in terms of storytelling structure and affective viewer experience. While some critics suggest that such mixtures “masculinize” feminine forms and thus marginalize the female basis of much of television storytelling, I contend that these recombinations complicate gender dichotomies in ultimately more progressive ways by inviting viewers to cross-identify and embrace affective pleasures that are typically non-normative for their gender identity. Male viewers weep at the sentimental melodrama of Friday Night Lights or Lost, female fans celebrate female power and analytic intelligence featured on Alias or Veronica Mars, and all viewers feel the affective interconnections of The Good Wife’s personal and professional realms—such viewing experiences problematize strict gender dichotomies, offering sites of fluidity and empathy, however imperfect and partial, that seem consistent with feminist critiques of gender norms. Warhol argues that narrative consumption is a constitutive practice of gender identity, with serial forms promoting particularly powerful reiterations of affect; I contend that the prevalence of serial melodrama within complex television across a range of genres enables a particularly provocative set of practices to challenge and revise such cultural gender norms.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Notes

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [1] See Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 [2] For influential takes on film melodrama, see Christine Gledhill, ed. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (British Film Institute, 1987); Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised.” In Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History, edited by Nick Browne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 42–88.; Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2002).

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 [3] Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003).

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [4] See Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985)

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [5] See Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952(Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1997), for a detailed discussion of this and other radio serials.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [6] See Newman & Levine, 83, for an account of this early history.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [7] Such formats could span these categories, as with The Jackie Gleason Show that offered a variety-style set of new sketches each week, alongside the embedded series of The Honeymooners, whose consistent setting and characters eventually spun-off into a more typical “episodic” sitcom.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 [8] For one such example of such claims, see Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata, “Perspective: Scholars Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata on the State of U.S. Soap Operas,” in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era, ed. Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C. Lee Harrington (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 23.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [9] McClain, Cady. “All My Children Stories Are Moving Much Faster,” PARADE, May 6, 2013.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [10] Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [11] Mumford, Laura Stempel. Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 33-35. Even though daily viewing is essential for soap fans, they do have their own techniques for filling narrative gaps that might arise from missed episodes, such as elaborate communities of home taping and trading, the intergenerational sharing of narrative knowledge, or the use of paratextual publishing with magazines like Soap Opera Digest.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [12] Caryn Murphy, “Selling The Continuing Story Of Peyton Place: Negotiating The Content Of The Primetime Serial,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 33, no. 1 (2013): 115–128.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [13] See Newman & Levine, 82-84, for more on primetime serials in the 1960s and 1970s.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [14] For more on Mary Hartman, see Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 202-07.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [15] I discuss Soap’s genre mixing and Harris’s own claims of the program’s connection to soap operas in Mittell, Genre & Television, Chapter 6.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [16] Linda Williams, “Mega-Melodrama! Vertical and Horizontal Suspensions of the ‘Classical’,” Modern Drama 55, no. 4 (2012): 523–543, 526.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [17] Williams uses “suspense” to describe the narrative impulse of melodrama, following a broader notion of the term that is closer to what I call “anticipation” in the Comprehension chapter.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [18] Williams, “Mega-Melodrama!”, 529.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [19] See Williams, “Mega-Melodrama!”; Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming). For another take on The Wire’s use of melodrama, see Amanda Ann Klein, “‘The Dickensian Aspect’: Melodrama, Viewer Engagement, and the Socially Conscious Text.” In The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2009), 177–189.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [20] For one of many examples of such distinctions, see Jane Feuer, “The Lack of Influence of thirtysomething,” in The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), 27–36.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [21] Newman and Levine, 82.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [22] Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003). See also Kristyn Gorton, Media Audiences: Television, Meaning and Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 [23] Note that Warhol uses the term “antieffeminate” as she argues that there is no real antonym to effeminate; however, I prefer the not-quite-parallel term of “masculinist” because it has less of an oppositional connotation than “antieffeminate,” as I am trying to explore how the dual modes can co-exist.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 [24] See Sue Turnbull, “`Nice Dress, Take It Off’: Crime, Romance and the Pleasure of the Text,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 67–82, for a revealing account of female fans of crime fiction.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 [25] See Williams, On The Wire.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 [26] Again, I am not claiming that these genres typically only appeal to male viewers, as that is both empirically and analytically untrue. Such genres have always had an active female fan base, but such fans have frequently worked to highlight a sentimental and affective subtext that is often buried within more overtly masculinist programs, like Star Trek or Man From U.N.C.L.E.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 [27] Michael Kackman, “ Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity,” Flow, March 5, 2010.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 [28] Warhol, 41-50.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 [29] Newman and Levine, 98.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 [30] Ryan McGee, “Lost, ‘The Constant’,” The A.V. Club, December 24, 2011.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 [31] John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1987).

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 [32] Many scholars have explored such recent paradigms of television gender representation—for instance, see Susan J. Douglas, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010); Amanda D. Lotz, Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 [33] Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 [34] Breaking Bad, “Mas,” season 3, episode 5, originally aired 18 April, 2010, AMC.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 [35] Todd VanDerWerff, “The Good Wife Has Proven Itself a Worthy Successor to The Wire,” The A.V. Club, May 17, 2011.

  • 1 See Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  • 2 For influential takes on film melodrama, see Christine Gledhill, ed. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (British Film Institute, 1987); Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised.” In Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History, edited by Nick Browne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 42–88.; Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2002).
  • 3 Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003).
  • 4 See Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
  • 5 See Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952(University of Minnesota Press, 1997), for a detailed discussion of this and other radio serials.
  • 6 See Newman & Levine, 83, for an account of this early history.
  • 7 Such formats could span these categories, as with The Jackie Gleason Show that offered a variety-style set of new sketches each week, alongside the embedded series of The Honeymooners, whose consistent setting and characters eventually spun-off into a more typical “episodic” sitcom.
  • 8 For one such example of such claims, see Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata, “Perspective: Scholars Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata on the State of U.S. Soap Operas,” in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era, ed. Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C. Lee Harrington (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 23.
  • 9 McClain, Cady. “All My Children Stories Are Moving Much Faster.” PARADE, May 6, 2013. http://www.parade.com/12016/cadymcclain/cady-mcclain-all-my-children-stories-are-moving-much-faster/.
  • 10 Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas.
  • 11 Mumford, Laura Stempel. Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 33-35. Even though daily viewing is essential for soap fans, they do have their own techniques for filling narrative gaps that might arise from missed episodes, such as elaborate communities of home taping and trading, the intergenerational sharing of narrative knowledge, or the use of paratextual publishing with magazines like Soap Opera Digest.
  • 12 Caryn Murphy, “Selling The Continuing Story Of Peyton Place: Negotiating The Content Of The Primetime Serial,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 33, no. 1 (2013): 115–128.
  • 13 See Newman & Levine, 82-84, for more on primetime serials in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • 14 For more on Mary Hartman, see Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 202-07.
  • 15 I discuss Soap’s genre mixing and Harris’s own claims of the program’s connection to soap operas in Mittell, Genre & Television, Chapter 6.
  • 16 Linda Williams, “Mega-Melodrama! Vertical and Horizontal Suspensions of the ‘Classical’,” Modern Drama 55, no. 4 (2012): 523–543, 526.
  • 17 Williams uses “suspense” to describe the narrative impulse of melodrama, following a broader notion of the term that is closer to what I call “anticipation” in the Comprehension chapter.
  • 18 Williams, “Mega-Melodrama!”, 529.
  • 19 See Williams, “Mega-Melodrama!”; Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming). For another take on The Wire’s use of melodrama, see Amanda Ann Klein, “‘The Dickensian Aspect’: Melodrama, Viewer Engagement, and the Socially Conscious Text.” In The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2009), 177–189.
  • 20 For one of many examples of such distinctions, see Jane Feuer, “The Lack of Influence of thirtysomething,” in The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), 27–36.
  • 21 Newman and Levine, 82.
  • 22 Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003). See also Kristyn Gorton, Media Audiences: Television, Meaning and Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
  • 23 Note that Warhol uses the term “antieffeminate” as she argues that there is no real antonym to effeminate; however, I prefer the not-quite-parallel term of “masculinist” because it has less of an oppositional connotation than “antieffeminate,” as I am trying to explore how the dual modes can co-exist.
  • 24 See Sue Turnbull, “`Nice Dress, Take It Off’: Crime, Romance and the Pleasure of the Text,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 67–82, for a revealing account of female fans of crime fiction.
  • 25 See Williams, On The Wire.
  • 26 Again, I am not claiming that these genres typically only appeal to male viewers, as that is both empirically and analytically untrue. Such genres have always had an active female fan base, but such fans have frequently worked to highlight a sentimental and affective subtext that is often buried within more overtly masculinist programs, like Star Trek or Man From U.N.C.L.E.
  • 27 Michael Kackman, “Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity,” Flow, March 5, 2010. http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/.
  • 28 Warhol, 41-50.
  • 29 Newman and Levine, 98.
  • 30 Ryan McGee, “Lost, ‘The Constant’,” The A.V. Club, December 24, 2011, http://www.avclub.com/articles/lost-the-constant,66980/.
  • 31 John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1987).
  • 32 Many scholars have explored such recent paradigms of television gender representation—for instance, see Susan J. Douglas, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010); Amanda D. Lotz, Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).
  • 33 Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).
  • 34 Breaking Bad, “Mas,” season 3, episode 5, originally aired 18 April, 2010, AMC.
  • 35 Todd VanDerWerff, “The Good Wife Has Proven Itself a Worthy Successor to The Wire,” The A.V. Club, May 17, 2011, http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-good-wife-has-proven-itself-a-worthy-successor,56168/.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/serial-melodrama/