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Daytime and Primetime Serial Dramas: The Question of Complexity

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This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on July 31, 2007.

I have been meaning to post links to the latest two rounds in Henry Jenkins' fan studies and gender discussions, and I also wanted to respond to some detailed comments from Jason Mittell over at his blog, Just TV. Jason is one of our consulting researchers here in the consortium.

First, see the posts and debate surrounding a round of posts from Kristina Busse and Cornell Sandvoss here and here.

This week's posts are from Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea, here and here.

The first round of Abigail and Christian's debate brought up a lot of issues about soap operas and pro wrestling and other massive narratives which exist on the "margins" of popular culture, which of course got me particularly interested in the discussion. Be sure to look through the comments there for more.

Mittell's post on these issues particularly interested me, as he addresses his own works on narrative complexity in primetime television. I have often credited Jason with being one of the few scholars who does not try and hide the ties to daytime serial drama that primetime complexity has, but some in a recent conversation criticized his essay for not going very in-depth with that connection. He brings up quite a valid point in his blog--that many scholars have pointed out that it's hard to understand soaps from the outside and that it's best not to try and analyze them without intimate knowledge of them. Of course, that makes folks who aren't looking particularly at soaps at a loss for how to cover them, since many of their visual and storytelling markers have been so stereotyped, and are often misunderstood.

His point about the nature of the complexity is also important. While both are about serialization, the difference between 13-to-24 episodes per year and 250 are a major difference. I would always say that an individual episode of a good primetime show will almost always be better than an individual episode from a good daytime show, but that's because the two shows place differing degrees of value on the individual episode. Even the most serialized primetime show still gives authority to the single episode and often has some issues to be brought up and resolved in a single day. This is not what daytime dramas are good at, so I don't agree that they should copy this format. So I think that he's quite right that we should consider primetime complex television in its own right, but I think the gripe among some of the fans and scholars writing was the continual exclusion of daytime serial dramas from the conversation altogether. In the comments on Henry's blog, Lynn Liccardo points out that some primetime shows are doing what daytime is good at better than daytime these days, but it's still important to point out that primetime shows CANNOT be as good as a good daytime show at what daytime shows are good at, particularly with their lack of long-term history. Passions is a newbie in the soaps world; there's not been a high-quality long-term serial fictional in primetime that has lasted as long as Passions (since 1999).

Where things get a little more complicated, though, is in the discussion of audience attention. Jason is right that the way shows use that attention is important. For daytime soaps, it's about the day-to-day, the accretion, and not the visual detail. He points out that soaps were intended for the housewife not sitting directly in front of them, so visual detail is not as important. But dialogue is, so the dialogue is always privileged on soaps, and we don't need to tie complexity to the visual, I don't think. I'm not saying here that Jason is making that false connection; his point that the traditional lack of reruns caused redundancy in soaps can't be disputed.

But people outside the genre often greatly overstate the amount of redundancy in soaps, I think. Reader STINKY LULU makes this point, writing, "My basic feeling is that what you call redundancy is actually a pivotal soap pleasure--revisiting key moments from the recent and distant past--not unlike the narrative data mining you describe in contemporary prime time serial drama."

I'd like to develop that thought a little further.

At their worst, soaps are recap-laden. I've seen Days of Our Lives have episodes a few years ago, for instance, that seemed more flashback to earlier in the week than current. That's not good soap, and we have to distinguish between good and bad practices in the genre. However, with five episodes a week and little in terms of reruns, the redundancy is necessary. That's why REaction is so important in soaps. The redundancy becomes a central part of the story. It matters not as much that X happens as it does seeing how everyone in town responds to finding out about X. In that case, the plot is a driver for character-driven stories. Anyone who missed X will find out about it during various scenes retelling and reaction to parts of it, but that retelling process IS the show; it's about interpersonal relationships, not the what. (By the way, my guess is that some of the fans who fast-forward are also some of the ones who archive; fans often pick out particular characters or stories they follow on a show that they actively consume, even while skipping others...)

I think Jason's piece lays out his points well, and, as someone who studies soaps and is a professed fan, I thank him for his acknowledgment of the links between complex primetime shows and daytime serial dramas. My only major caveat would be the point outlined here, that redundancy in daytime, when done correctly, is actually what provides the complexity and the enjoyment from the viewer's perspective. This dialogue is also where the peppered clues come back into play, as soap writers at their best make passing references to past events and characters throughout the dialogue that reward longtime viewers in the way Jason is talking about without distracting newbies.

I really do hope we continue pushing this conversation, as I think some valuable dialogue between primetime and daytime television is on the verge of emerging.

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