As film history attests to, different narrative forms have developed as a result of dissatisfaction with the medium’s dominant modes of storytelling at the time. The first documentaries, for instance, were produced in retaliation to a collective despair at the “absence of “reality”” demonstrated in Hollywood fiction films (Nichols, p. 139). Perhaps more relevant to the rise of “quality TV” are the documentary modes that, according to documentary theorist Bill Nichols, rose in prominence during the decades following the pioneer documentaries. The predominant mode of an era sought to eradicate the flaws of documentary in their ‘predecessor’ modes’ failure to present a “reality” of perfect quality. While Nichols’ theory of taxonomy is one that is constantly criticised, his ideas incite investigation into narrative “evolution” across other mediums. Are ‘quality TV’ programs a result of a genre reinvented?
“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!” – Jason Mittell
Social Darwinism appears an inevitable point of discussion when discussing ‘quality TV’ in relation to soap operas. This seems unnecessary when you consider that narrative complexity and soap operas occupy entirely different planes of thought in television studies. The former is a “narrative mode” typical of David Bordwell’s assessment of film narrative (Mittell, p. 29) while the latter is a genre that arguably adopts this narrative form but fails to gain entry into the ‘quality TV’ category. The term ‘quality TV’, then, is muddy – it is neither a discrete narrative mode as it is a subdivision of Mittell’s “narrative complexity” nor is it a genre if we define soap opera as genre. This is because ‘quality TV’ acts as a mechanism for genres like the gangster (The Sopranos) and the fantasy (Game of Thrones) to emerge as whatever it is we perceive to embody ‘quality TV’. For now, it seems ‘primetime’ and ‘daytime’ are the only means by which we can effectively make distinction between the two terms that become rather confusing when considered under the same mode of thinking, as Mittell demonstrates:
“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.”
Big Love is a wave in a veritable sea of HBO series’ that tackle melodrama from a different angle to soap operas. ‘Quality TV’ programs and ‘soapies’ bear similarity in their presentation of constant melodrama – a concept foreign to audiences for the relative infrequency of such crisis in their own lives (for the average viewer, anyway). The context that births such melodrama, however, becomes the point of difference between ‘quality TV’ and soap operas. In Home and Away, viewers are shown crises in contexts that appear traditional and probable to occur in their own lives if they were to encounter conflicts in the near future. Big Love re-packages these crises through alternative contexts. The ‘love paradigm’ is reframed via the notion of polygamy, the family politics debacle reconstituted through a look at alternative ways to alternative ways of living. Soap opera’s failure to tackle melodrama through unconventional contexts present in ‘quality TV’ programs is likely, in part, a result of the feared “unlikeable protagonist”, an obstacle Big Love overcomes by pitting “good polygamy” (the Henricksons) against “bad polygamy” (the Juniper Valley compound).
My own experiences with Big Love demonstrate that ‘quality TV’ programs can be appreciated for their commitment to avoiding textual redundancy and repetition so organic to the soap opera. Watching the pilot episode and series finale in succession, with next to no knowledge of exposition that had occurred between these first and last episodes, I could infer that there had been significant plot and character development as well as substantial forward temporal movement. That’s a lot captured in 53 fifty minute episodes (2650 minutes in total), a tremendous effort at streamlining narrative content when compared to the efficiency of soap operas:
“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… 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.”
In years to come, viewers of The Young and the Restless won’t be easily recalling that episode where so-and-so’s evil twin stole so-and-so’s lover because so-and-so was buried alive – partially because there are thousands-upon-thousands of TYatR episodes – but also because the ‘coffin’ segment was an indistinguishable chapter among the ‘so-and-so twins’ saga made insignificant for its similarity to other scenarios spawning from the feud between the two characters. On the other hand, if you miss a cue on a ‘quality TV’ program, you’re likely never to be given that clue again – as is the case in The Wire when we are forced to quickly put together all the pieces that initiate Stringer Bell’s death (in particular: Omar and Mouzone’s hate for Stringer and Avon’s fury over D’Angelo’s death – emotions that developed during events from the season previous to Stringer’s death).
Not only are soap operas and “quality TV” not snuggly fitting together under the term genre, their melodramatic characteristics, to me, seem too disparate for one to be a product of the other:
“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.” – Michael Kackman
And there we go with the ‘family tree’ schematics of media again. I imagine that creators of ‘quality TV’ would cringe at the suggestion that their works are influenced by soap operas: the mindless drivel that requires little innovative thinking from the team bringing the ‘soapie’ to the screen. Kackman sees ‘quality TV’ as offering so much more for necessary societal change:
“Our ability even to identify narrative complexity and see it as a marker of quality television is itself an act not of aesthetic, but cultural, recognition… I’d like to see us talk more about melodrama and contemporary quality television not just as an ameliorative, cathartic symbolic resolution of social anxieties, but as a mechanism for the registering of political dreams.”
Here’s where Big Love completely detaches itself from the soap opera. The show’s creators are in a homosexual marriage to one another and wrote the series at a time where family values were (and still are) being hotly debated in the public sphere. That Big Love questions normative meanings of family and marriage allows the pair to implicitly, if perhaps a little underhandedly, tackle the issues surfacing in their own lives. Television’s competency to challenge social norms remain impossible in the soap opera realm, where hyperbole and apathy toward realism means that no one takes the show’s content to be reflective of actual conflicts facing humankind.
– Kackman, M: ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’ in Flow Journal, March 5, 2010. Viewed on September 15, 2012 at http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/
– Mittell, J: ‘More Thoughts On Soap Operas and Television Seriality’ on Media Commons, July 14, 2009. Viewed on September 15, 2012 at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality