More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
July 14, 2009 – 14:16
One of my most-clicked (if not read) posts concerns how my approach to prime time serial television relates to the traditional daytime soap opera. Last year I was asked to expand on those ideas via an interview to be included in a forthcoming anthology edited by Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C. Lee Harrington, entitled The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era (University of Mississippi Press, 2010).
In the book, my comments will be interspersed with others around particular issues and questions. Sam Ford, who conducted the interview with me via email, gave me permission to reproduce it here in full as a record of the conversation (under the condition that you agree to get the book next year). Hopefully, I’ll still agree with myself in a year when the book is out! As always, your comments are welcome…
Sam’s questions are in bold:
What drove your interest in looking at narrative complexity in fictional television storytelling?
I think just like a lot of soap researchers, my research interest stemmed first from my personal tastes and fannish investments. I remember a number of programs that I was watching around 1999-2001 that seemed distinctive in their narrative strategies, offering new possibilities for primetime programming. Some specific examples include The West Wing (with the season 1 finale standing out as an epiphany moment for pointing to new storytelling innovations), Buffy & Angel, Six Feet Under, Alias, and 24. All of these shows seemed invested in expanding the vocabulary of prime time television, both by incorporating serial form (which had been a growing trend for two decades) and by embracing more overt narrative experimentation: temporal manipulation, moments of “retelling” the same scene from a different perspective, “reboot” scenarios that change the course of the series quite significantly, and an overt acknowledgment of narrative mechanics (like 24’s “real time” structure and title, or Six Feet Under’s “death of the week” norm).
As I began thinking more about what united these programs, I started tracing back this mode of narrative experimentation to earlier programs of the 1990s, such as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, The X-Files, Malcolm in the Middle, and Seinfeld. Meanwhile, more programs started coming out that seemed to suggest that this was an overt trend, not just a coincidence – shows like Scrubs, Arrested Development, Lost, Boomtown, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veronica Mars, and My Name Is Earl all began to accumulate as evidence of a new mode of television storytelling that would have been virtually unthinkable in the 1990s or earlier.
I had just published my book on television genres, in which I argue that we need to see genre categories as they are culturally used by industries and audiences, not artificially created by scholars and critics. So it was probably an act of self-rebellion that I set out on a new project to create this scholar-defined category of “narrative complexity”! But I was careful not to call it a “genre,” as I believe it crosses most primetime genres and operates at the more macro-level of narrational mode, following a model laid out by David Bordwell. And I’m gratified that since I published my first essay on the topic in 2006, many more shows that fit the mode have aired – although per the logic of television, most have failed to last beyond a single season.
Where do you feel the daytime serial drama fits into the history of the complex television narrative? In particular, how do you feel soap operas have influenced complex television narratives in primetime?
This is a big question for my work, and I think my answer won’t be popular. But it’s not arrived at casually or dismissively.
Certainly the soap opera plays an important role in the history of serialized TV, as it has been the centerpiece of serial form for decades. If we look at the history of primetime serialized programming, soap operas are a common reference point. In the 1960s, Peyton Place had much in common with soaps, with focus on a web of relationships within a community, an assumed female audience, multiple airings each week (2 or 3 episodes a week) running year-round, and even some production norms common to soaps (although it was shot on film, not live). The producers of the show refused the soap label, highlighting its novelistic source material over the lowbrow assumptions tied to the daytime genre (with this link between the televised novel and soaps became more prevalent later through the Latin American telenovela form). Despite the show’s success, other primetime serials failed throughout the 1960s.
The next wave of primetime serials makes explicit ties to soaps, but through genre parody: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap both created highly successful serials that acknowledged the soap opera roots but explicitly mocked the genre. MHMH is one of the most interesting shows in TV history, as it violates all sorts of norms in terms of genre, scheduling, fanbase, taboo content, and sheer off-the-wall ideas. Although it was nominally created by Norman Lear as part of his wave of relevant sitcoms of the 1970s, it was written by Ann Marcus and a number of other former soap writers who were freed to undercut but still embrace the genre via this deeply strange program. I find it fascinating to watch today, especially with the context of knowing that it was the darling of the New Yorker set for a brief shining moment in the mid-1970s – a great highbrow/lowbrow crossover moment!
Soap is more conventionally a sitcom, but really pushes serial form into a primetime network hit. I wrote about the show in my Genre & Television book, and got a chance to interview the creators Susan Harris and Paul Junger Witt – interestingly, they claim that they did not set out parody soaps (which they said they’d never watched), but rather simply wanted to push the boundaries of sitcom narrative by creating a serial form. Soap was used as a working title during development, as a shorthand for the narrative form, and they never came up with anything better. Whether we can read this oral history as an accurate memory of authorial intent or not is besides the point – the more interesting insight is that in the mid-’70s, the form of serial narrative was culturally synonymous with the soap opera.
Soap’s success helped change a lot of network assumptions: audiences won’t be able to follow a weekly serial, viewers are too inconsistent for serials in primetime, they’ll drop out over the summer, serials are only for the traditional daytime audience, men won’t watch. So this sets the stage for the 1980s serial boom of the primetime melodramas (Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing) and the “quality” serial hybrids (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, L.A. Law, thirtysomething). This coincides, of course, with the boom in both viewership and legitimacy of daytime soaps in the 1980s, so serialization starts to lose many of its lowbrow assumptions – by the 1990s, I’d argue that serial form existed as an independent concept from the soap opera genre. Thus even a show that I believe explicitly references and comments on soap norms, Twin Peaks, is not framed within the context of soaps by most critics; if Twin Peaks had aired in the 1970s, I think it would have been viewed primarily through the lens of soap operas, much like Mary Hartman.
All of this history simply presages a point that I imagine some readers of this book will find controversial: I don’t think the contemporary primetime narrative complexity that I write about has much in common with or influence from soap operas, except through their common connections to 1970s and 1980s primetime serials. They are distinctly different in production method, scheduling, acting style, pacing, and formal structure. In reading interviews with, and talking to, primetime creators, I’ve never seen any reference to soap operas as a point of inspiration or influence. Likewise, there is almost no crossover between creative personnel between daytime and primetime drama.
So what are the shared features? Seriality, of course, and often an investment in melodrama. But the way daytime and primetime handle serial form and melodramatic writing and performance are so different that I don’t see this as a particularly compelling link. This is not to say that there aren’t primetime shows that are soapy – I think Friday Night Lights, The O.C., and Dirty Sexy Money are all examples of recent shows with a tie to soap opera’s mode of melodrama (and all of which I find quite enjoyable). But these shows aren’t particularly invested in the form of narrative complexity that I’m studying – they lack the self-aware storytelling mechanics, the play with temporality and subjectivity, and the commitment to a longterm accural of plot clues and mechanistic interconnectivity that I believe is central to the mode of “narrative complexity.”
You have said before that you hesitate to speak too much about the soap opera because of your lack of familiarity with the narratives? Do you think the sheer volume of soap opera texts pose major problems for incorporating the soap opera into these discussions? How can the media studies community overcome this barrier?
My own history with soap operas is similar to a lot of people of my age – as a tween in the early-’80s, I got hooked with my mother on General Hospital at the height of the Luke & Laura fad. I think I watched for about a year or so, but then my interest shifted to other serial forms like comic books. I haven’t turned back to any daytime drama aside from occasional forays to harvest examples for class, so I feel quite detached from the world of daytime as a viewer.
As a scholar, I was quite influenced by Robert Allen’s book Speaking of Soap Operas, which is still one of the best studies of a television genre ever written. Allen makes a compelling argument that one of the prime reasons that soaps have been so denigrated is that they do not lend themselves to the “drop-in” viewer – scholars who condemn the programs (especially before the cultural studies shift in the field of communication) typically have only watched a few episodes, and thus cannot appreciate the deeper pleasures and structures of interconnection, long-term memory, and paradigmatic relationships. Even though I’ve never watched a soap long enough to appreciate this level of engagement and sophistication, I buy his account of the genre’s potential rewards.
So in part there’s a problem given the sheer number of episodes involved in any soap, frustrating the scholarly instinct to “master” an object of study. Most soap scholars I know got hooked on their shows as adolescents and as part of an intergenerational community with parents or grandparents. If you’ve had that experience, it’s become a significant part of your life that will undoubtedly impact your scholarship. But if you haven’t, there’s no way to reclaim those decades of research. Thus the only ways I can envision scholars without a soap history integrating the genre into their scholarship is to befriend and collaborate with scholars with that background. I do have some “native informants” whom I go to with questions about soaps, and I think that may be the best we can do – although I’m certainly open to other ideas!
Some, such as Sharon Ross, have posited that the emotional and communal focus of soap operas, along with their cheaper production values, have led to their continued marginalization. Do you think this helps to explain the gap between gaps between soap opera and primetime scholarship, fan bases, and industries?
No doubt, the cultural distinctions between daytime and primetime dramas are in part tied to production values and formal norms, where the speed and factory style of soap production makes them look “worse” based on most aesthetic criteria. But I still think the genre is laden with the assumption that it’s targeted for a marginal and degraded audience niche: older, lower-class, less-educated women. Whether that’s an accurate reflection of actual viewers or not, that’s certainly the perception that my students still have. So I don’t think that it’s actually the “emotional and communal focus” that triggers marginalization, except for how that idea serves as code for “housewives,” or at least in perception among many outsiders.
I say that in part because a large number of primetime series offer tremendous emotional and communal rewards, whether it’s the online fan communities surrounding shows like Lost or BSG, or the emotional attachments that many viewers have to characters on The Wire and Buffy. So I think the continued marginalization of soaps has less to do with actual ways that fans engage with them, or even the texts themselves (although certainly I do think their production values and some textual conventions turn off a number of potential viewers), as much with the historical associations linked to the genre’s status as bad object. Add to that the sheer commitment it takes to get into a soap, needing both a community of viewers to share it with and a lot of time to dedicate to its consumption – the barriers to entry are quite high.
You’ve mentioned in prior writing that one thing that sets primetime complexity apart from daytime is a difference in how redundancy and repetition is handled. How would you describe the difference?
One thing we need to remember is that an average primetime serial produces around 22 hours each year, or even less for cable series (without subtracting out commercial time). A soap opera produces over ten times that amount each year, a stark difference in the sheer amount of storytelling volume. How is that volume filled? This is a great project for an ambitious quantitative-minded researcher, charting out the specific ways that stories are told across different shows. I’m not that person, and I haven’t done the research to “prove” these differences, but here are my working hypotheses:
- Soaps spend much more time talking about events that have happened rather than showing them, while primetime serials show events more frequently than talking about them.
- Soap dialogue includes the names and relationships of characters more frequently than on primetime.
- The amount of narrative change that happens over one week of a soap opera is less than one episode of a primetime serial.
- The amount of narrative change that happens over one year of a soap opera is less than a season of a primetime serial.
- Soaps involve more interwoven characters than primetime, where separate storylines have less interactions.
- Individual episodes of primetime have much more defined boundaries and distinctive features than on daytime.
- Individual storylines on primetime serials are introduced and concluded far more quickly than on daytime, with the exception of major plot arcs & mythologies (as on Lost).
- Narrative events have far more emotional and character repercussions, both for an individual character and the community at large, on daytime versus primetime.
- Missing a week of a soap opera would cause less confusion than missing a week of a primetime serial (assuming the viewer does not watch the “previously on” recaps on primetime), because daytime incorporates far more recapping into the dialogue than on primetime.
- A published “recap” of an episode on a fansite is far more likely to focus on character reactions to information and events on daytime, versus the actual events themselves on primetime recaps.
To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that these differences should be measured in terms of quality – there are different appeals, pleasures, and aesthetics at work here. We also have to account for the differences in viewing strategies – I believe that soap viewers are less likely to watch an episode straight through with their full attention aimed at the screen than for primetime viewers. Soap viewers use recording devices to timeshift and fast forward through plotlines or characters they don’t care about, frequently multitask while watching, and rely on recaps from their community of viewers or paratexts like Soap Opera Digest or fansites. Certainly primetime viewers do all of these things, but I would guess with less frequency. I think these viewing tendencies reinforce textual norms that encourage daytime repetition and slow pacing, versus primetime speed and moving forward.
The primetime shows I’m most interested in explicitly discourage such viewing strategies & textual redundancies – their plots and enigmas are constructed to reward viewers who watch every episode carefully, and they refuse redundancy and repetition for dramatic effect. For instance, The Wire plants some seeds of narrative backstory in the first season, such as Clay Davis’s bribery or Cedric Daniels’ history of corruption, that do not blossom until later seasons, even 5 years later in some instances. The moment of recognition that accompanies the connection to this deep backstory depends on that lack of redundancy, rewarding your careful attention over years rather than having foreshadowed and gestured toward a turn of events explicitly. I would guess that such moments in soaps are more about backstory relationships, rather than dangling loose ends of plot – but since for many soaps, the fans know more about the backstory than the producers, such moments might be more frustration than revelation!
You’ve also written about “strategic forgetting and remembering” in primetime shows. How does this relate to daytime dramas?
This ties into these moments of recognition – serial narratives can play with how much a viewer knows and forgets to create narrative pleasures. For instance, in the third season of Lost, it is revealed who Claire’s father is (and I won’t spoil it in case readers want to experience the series without that information). This relationship is not referred to again until a year later, when he shows up on the island suddenly and Claire says, “Dad?!” I think the average viewer who follows the show consistently (but not repeatedly) would have been able to tell you who Claire’s father is if you asked, but until she said “Dad,” they wouldn’t be thinking about that relationship. Because this hypothetical viewer (which mirrors my own experience, at least) is aware of this relationship but has forgotten it from working memory, the show allows for a moment of narrative pleasure unique to the serial form: the sense of being surprised by what you already know.
Can soaps offer this pleasure? Sure, but I’d be curious to hear from fans whether it’s common. The assumed distracted viewership, the lack of reruns/DVDs to ensure completism, and the constitutive pleasures of repetition and redundancy all seem to work to avoid the pleasures of forgetting and remembering. But again, I don’t have the experience to know whether these moments do occur like this in soaps.
In light of increased serialization, character-based storytelling, and dialogue-driven shows in primetime, is the daytime soap opera becoming an historical genre? Does it have a future, in your opinion?
All cultural forms emerge at the conjuncture between creative innovations and historically specific circumstances that allow a form to flourish. For television, this is tied to technology, industrial norms and goals, and viewer behaviors. The contexts that allowed soaps to emerge on radio and flourish on television are mostly gone: television is no longer centrally a live synchronous form, defined by scarcity of channels, regimented schedules, and limited viewing choices. The single-sponsorship model is gone, making a genre where sponsors might own a production quite rare. Schedules are no longer defined by genre homogeneity, so daytime has many more options for viewers. Technologies have given viewers more control of viewing contexts and access, which can facilitate increased viewership via time-shifting (although this doesn’t translate into Nielsen viability), but also encourages more competition among programming options. And finally, peoples’ lives have shifted such that far fewer people are home and looking to watch TV in the afternoon.
Take this thought experiment: imagine that soap operas never existed. What would a network say to a producer pitching a series like All My Children today? I don’t see any reason why a network would want to innovative toward daytime soaps today, so I think that the programs persist primarily due to precedent and long-term viewership. However, history is a powerful force, and there are clearly many viewers and producers invested in the continued health in the genre. So just because it doesn’t make sense as a new business model, I do think there is enough of a commitment to the form that it will persist, at least into the near future.
I think that serial storytelling taps into a widely-shared and even primal set of narrative pleasures: investment in an ongoing storyworld, relationships with characters, long-term interest in what will happen next. But I think back to my own brief soap opera viewership – I got hooked in because of the “what next?” question. But the obstacles for regular viewership were too high, so I abandoned it for the more convenient (although costly!) serial form of comic books. I gave up comics around the same time that I got invested in primetime serials (Dynasty and St. Elsewhere were two of my favorite 1980s shows), and I’ve continued to be an ardent primetime serial viewer for 20 years. And all the changes I just mentioned privilege this mode of seriality: more flexible technologies of viewing, lower commitment threshhold, and more choice allowing for the flourishing of serials across genres and channels. So when my kids get interested in seriality, why would they turn to soap operas? I don’t think that there’s enough of an appeal there without the intergenerational community to nurture soap fandom. So as viewership dwindles, so does the next generation’s exposure and investment – a recipe for making soap fans endangered, if not extinct.
What about the daytime soap opera model still remains unique and unable to be replicated in other genres?
I’d say it’s the daily ritual and amount of textual material. For many, this is a core pleasure that a primetime serial cannot replace, even with paratextual exploration online via fanfic, wikis, blogs, vidding, etc. Is it enough to sustain the genre? Hard to say – I could imagine a mode of online storytelling that could effectively match that ritual, but I haven’t seen an example that’s worked yet. But we’re still in the primitive era of online video, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes up with a smash hit online serial in the next few years.
Given your work on the nature of television genres, what do you see as challenging in referring to soap operas as a genre? Is it instead a format?
I definitely see soap opera as a genre, while “serial drama” is a format. My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera! Some of those associations are tied to textual form, such as production style, performance, and narrative mode, but others are more operative within the industry and audiences, such as assumed viewer base, low cultural value, and norms of consumption. Thus I don’t think that primetime serials are still considered soap operas, or at most they bear the adjective “soapy” while acknowledging that they’re not the same as daytime. This is a change since the 1970s, when the producers of Soap couldn’t imagine serial television apart from the soap opera.
I think its important to detach seriality and melodrama from the specific genre of daytime soaps – obviously soap operas have been prime sites for both serial form and melodramatic television for decades, but today there’s a wider range of these formal and tonal elements across genres, including nearly every primetime fictional genre, reality TV, sports, and even news, where both melodrama and serial form seemed to bubble up quite a bit in the 2008 election. But this doesn’t make these texts “soap operas,” any more than when a soap opera incorporates a crime plot does it become a cop show. Even though I’ve heard that General Hospital has recently focused on a mafia storyline, I don’t think that plot makes us regard it as a gangster show. Genres matter as they’re culturally used, and the framework for understanding daytime dramas continues to be exclusively “soap opera,” even as the shows mix in other genres.
I know other scholars who disagree with me on this point concerning the influence of soaps on primetime. They argue that the presence of serial melodrama in primetime suggests the expansion of soap opera outside of daytime, and assert that this influence suggests that soaps should be seen as more legitimate and central to the cultural values of television. But I just don’t see that argument applying today, as the majority of both producers and viewers of primetime serials have never watched soaps, and probably wouldn’t particularly like them if they did. Soap operas did not invent serial form or melodrama – they just happened to be the dominant locale for both throughout the bulk of television history. But I see today’s primetime serials as much more influenced by other serial formats, like comic books and 19th century novels, than by soap operas. Thus today’s primetime serial is cousins with the soap opera, sharing common ancestry from the 19th century novel, but very few primetime shows seem to be directly influenced by daytime traditions.
There is a strategic cultural politics to asserting the importance of soap opera to the more legitimate cultural realm of primetime serials, but I see a dangerous side-effect to this claim. If you argue that shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Wire are indebted to the soap opera genre, it’s pretty easy to rebut that these programs are “more evolved” than daytime – the aesthetic criteria that celebrate primetime serials will judge soap operas as cro magnon relatives at best, and thus worthy of evolutionary extinction! If you’re a soap fan, it’s a dangerous game to suggest that the primetime serial can be regarded as a mutated soap opera, because soaps are going to lose this aesthetic evaluative comparison for the vast majority of critics and viewers. I see it as both more accurate and politically useful to maintain that soaps possess their own unique values, aesthetics, and rewards distinct from primetime serials, forcing us to evaluate daytime on its own terms. And based on soap’s own assumptions and aesthetic terms, most primetime serials fail to measure up.
Do you have any hypotheses about where the soap opera will be in 10 years? What would be lost if the soap opera “genre” ceased to exist? In particular, what would be lost if the eight current shows were to go off the air?
It’s hard to say – think back 10 years ago, and who would have predicted the rebirth of the primetime game show, reality TV, YouTube, DVRs, TV-on-DVD, and the like? And whenever I’m asked to predict the future of TV, I always think of the “death of the sitcom” proclamation that was rampant in the early-’80s, just before The Cosby Show came on. So any predictions bear the caveat that nobody really can predict these things, and that uncertainty suffuses media industries.
With those caveats in mind, one advantage of soap operas is that they’re fairly cheap to produce, so they could linger on TV even as their ratings dwindle. I could imagine some series migrating from network to cable channels, where lower ratings are more acceptable to be profitable. And perhaps more aggressive product integration might help fund the shows even as timeshifting becomes more prevalent. But many of the trends of TV today don’t seem to mesh with the traditions of the genre. Migrating online would make it harder to reach the older audience that still values these longterm narratives and would disrupt much of the genre’s ritualistic appeal. Likewise the transmedia strategies that I know some soaps have explored might not resonate with a good deal of viewers.
As for what would be lost if soaps died out – there’s certainly a sense of sadness that would accompany the extinction of storyworlds that have persisted for so long. But I’d be curious to know whether soap fans today are truly invested in the shows as they are now, or more nostalgically holding onto a series as it once was – how many viewers are watching out of habit and hope for a potential return to a golden age, versus how many still find the shows rewarding? American television is so invested in the notion that cancellation equals failure, that people mourn the loss of long-running primetime series even after they’ve lost their lustre. I think the cultural place of shows like ER and The Simpsons might be even higher if they’d ended in their prime, rather than going on for years after their core fans had moved on. This “infinity model” of TV is certainly most prevalent for soaps, where cancellation is quite rare and lamented. But the idea that a story can go on forever just doesn’t make much sense if you think about it, and really has few precedents in other narrative traditions.
How can soap operas learn from trends in primetime? Do you feel there are aspects of primetime storytelling that would port well back to daytime?
I’m not sure how well primetime innovations can fit into the constraints and expectations of soap operas – building elaborate puzzle narratives like Lost or complex games with narrative form as on Buffy doesn’t seem feasible in the daily production grind of daytime. Plus these storytelling strategies are really dependent on viewers paying careful attention to every episode – would enough daytime viewers consume their series that way? I don’t know enough about the viewing patterns of soaps, but I do think there is a big disconnect with the style of viewing between daytime and primetime serials, enough that we need to think about their strategies more separately rather than as part of the same trend.
Again, I see the downside of soap fans & critics claiming major influence and connections to primetime serials is that it denies the uniqueness of daytime, and ends up highlighting the ways that daytime fails to match some aspects of primetime. I can’t imagine a soap version of The Sopranos that doesn’t seem subpar to the original, because we’d carry over the aesthetic values of primetime, which can never be met given the constraints of daytime. So if you’re looking for advice on how to reinvigorate soap operas, I’d say producers should focus on what the genre does best: immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge. If there’s no longer a market for this, then the genre will disappear – and perhaps there does need to be some contraction to concentrate the audience who still want these pleasures to choose from only a few shows. But I’d argue that the problems daytime is facing can be solved best by trying to be more like soap operas, not more like primetime.