On the terrain of popular communication are cultural artifacts with a potential to entertain, inform, or persuade. Accordingly, dramatic media content has been investigated by way of five interdependent perspectives: (1) genre, (2) medium, (3) narrative, (4) ideology, and (5) meaning. Especially with regard to film and television, this generic designation has been fluid, with shifting parameters and a tendency toward what Altman (1999) and others have called “genre mixing.” Television awards and DVD sellers may broadly distinguish drama from comedy, but scholars often treat what might otherwise be considered sub-genres of drama as genres in their own right. So, any scripted, narrative program or film that is not comedy, and which cannot be neatly classified under another, more specific brand such as Western, soap opera, film noir, melodrama, science fiction, action, or suspense/thriller, is designated simply as a drama. For instance, television features medical, legal, crime/espionage, political, and teen dramas, among others.
Under the broader view, however, dramatic sub-genres have proliferated due to social and economic imperatives, often rooted in the institutional arrangements of a medium within national and/or international systems. In turn, these sub-genres, their constituent texts, and audience negotiations are further assessed by cultural, media, television, and film critics of popular media according to narrative and other interpretive dimensions as well as particular ideological subjectivities, including class, gender, sexuality, and race.
The crime drama illustrates the influence of the social and economic. It includes film noir, police, and detective/spy dramas on the big screen and police, espionage, and forensic series on the small screen. Recent attention has been given to the re-emergence of the episodic procedural in American television and its most popular manifestation – the forensic drama. The CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) franchise, including three series at this writing, has attained international renown. Its success, along with that of similar procedurals such as the Law and Order franchise, is related to the recent reluctance of US networks to invest predominantly in series such as the medical drama ER, a type of ensemble, character-driven, serialized, cinéma vérité-style program that did not become fashionable until the 1980s and which, it turns out, does not play as well in five-day-a-week syndication as plot-driven, episodic shows that achieve closure at the end of each installment. Serialized dramas thereby curtail long-term profitability. Procedurals have also been said to respond to anxieties generated by the terror attacks of September 11, in that they present public servants working competently, swiftly, and almost always successfully to apprehend and convict the “bad guys.”
Soap opera provides a case by which to better appreciate interrelationships among genre, medium, narrative, ideology, and meaning. In its American, commercial network incarnation, the soap opera’s invention was economically driven by the desire to target female homemakers, aged 18 – 49, with the power to purchase household products. Like other forms of women’s melodrama, soaps center on the private sphere of interpersonal relations, but feature an array of female characters central to multiple storylines.
Their kinship to tragedy and romance in classical theater, the romance novel, and the “woman’s film” notwithstanding, soaps are often distinguished in terms of one of their myriad “feminine” qualities – the delay or avoidance of narrative closure. While Chatman’s (1978) narrative constituents of story (characters, settings, plot elements) and discourse (story structure) were originally applied to novels and films, Fiske (1987) reconfigured such attributes in order to differentiate between masculine and feminine television, with soap opera exemplifying the latter.
It is not surprising, then, that soap opera studies take on ideological significance. For example, the openness of the soap opera narrative has been said by some to encourage potentially empowering interpretations from female viewers, although Mumford (1995), among others, has countered that when the individual storylines in soap operas do achieve closure, they often reproduce patriarchal meanings.
While the narratives of many of the soap opera’s international derivations, such as Latin American telenovelas and Hindi television serials, eventually resolve, they still refuse tidy, episodic endings and adhere to other feminine traits. They, along with British and Australian soaps, have not typically been conceived as daytime fare. Moreover, they are often produced by public television and, consequently, are not motivated by commercial exigencies to “narrowcast” to women in their childbearing years in order to maximize profit. Such distinctions allow them to display greater diversity in terms of such subjectivities as age and class. With respect to the visual aspect of medium and meaning, it has been noted that the dearth of camera flourishes in British soaps serves to accent their social realism. Dallas, the most-analyzed American prime-time soap, clearly eschewed such realism. However, Ang (1985) revealed the resistive power of this series’ “melodramatic heroine” in her study of Dutch viewers.
These lines of inquiry make apparent how genre, medium, narrative, ideology, and meaning generate issues and modes by which to investigate drama. Regardless of the fluidity of its demarcations, popular communication scholars continue to adopt and enmesh these perspectives in determining drama’s evolution and significance.
- Altman, R. (1999). Film/genre. London: British Film Institute.
- Ang, I. (1985). Watching “Dallas”: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination. London: Methuen.
- Barbatsis, G. (1991). Analyzing meaning in form: Soap opera’s compositional construction of realness. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 35(1), 59–74.
- Brown, M. E. (1994). Soap opera and women’s talk: The pleasure of resistance. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Chatman, S. (1978). Story and discourse: Narrative structure in fiction and film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Creeber, G. (ed.) (2001). The television genre book. London: British Film Institute.
- Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. New York: Methuen.
- Mumford, L. (1995). Love and ideology in the afternoon: Soap opera, women, and television genre. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Scodari, C. (2004). Serial monogamy: Soap opera lifespan and the gendered politics of fantasy. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.