MELODRAMA

One of television's most diverse program types, the melodramatic genre encompasses an extensive variety of aesthetic formats, settings, and character types. Melodramatic formats include the series, consisting of self-contained episodes, each with a classic dramatic structure of conflict/complication/resolution in which central and supporting characters return week after week; the serial, which features a continuing story line, carried forward from program to program (this is typical of soap opera, both daytime and prime-time); the anthology--a non-episodic program series constituting an omnibus of different self-contained programs, related only by sub-genre, and featuring different actors and characters each week (important examples include The Twilight Zone, a science fiction anthology, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a mystery anthology); and repertory, a non-episodic series consisting of different programs featuring a group of actors who appear each week, but in different roles (very rare on television, the repertory is best represented by The Richard Boone Show). Settings include the hostile western frontier of Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel and its urban analogue--the mean streets of East Side/West Side and, more recently, Hill Street Blues; the gleaming corporate office towers of Dallas and L.A. Law; the quiet suburban enclaves in which Marcus Welby, M.D. made house calls in the 1970s; the ostentatious exurban chateaus of Falcon Crest and the numerous wealthy criminals outsmarted by the proletarian cop Columbo; and the high-pressure, teeming workplace peopled by dedicated professionals such as the newspaper reporters in Lou Grant. The seemingly endless variety of "heroic" and "villianous" character types in television melodrama, whose weekly travails and romantic interests ground the dramaturgy, are drawn from the rich store of historical legend, the front pages of today's broadsheets and tabloids, and the future projections of science fiction and science fantasy: cowboys, sheriffs, bounty hunters, outlaws, pioneers/settlers, police, mobsters, sleuths, science fiction adventurers and other epic wanderers, spies, corrupt entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and intrepid journalists.

Television melodrama has its direct roots in the early-nineteenth-century stage play in which romantic, sensational plots and incidents were mixed with songs and orchestral music. The word melodrama evolved from the Greek melos, meaning song or music, and drama, a deed, action, or play, especially tragedy. In tragedy the hero is isolated from society so that he or she may better understand his or her own and the society's moral weakness; but once enlightened, the hero cannot stave off the disaster embedded in the social structure beyond the hero's control. In contrast, the melodramatic hero is a normative character representing incorporation into society. Northrop Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) described a central theme in melodrama as "the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience." Since melodrama exists within a mass-cultural framework, it could, according to Frye, easily become "advance propaganda for the police state" if it were taken seriously. Frye sidesteps this fear by positing that the audience does not take such work seriously.

Peter Brooks, in The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), finds melodrama acting powerfully in society, reflecting the socialization of the deeply personal. Brooks sees in the melodramatic aesthetic unremitting conflict, possibly disabling, excessive enactment, and ultimately clarification and cure. It is, according to Brooks, akin to our experience of nightmare, where virtue is seemingly helpless in the face of menace. "The end of the nightmare is an awakening brought about by confrontation and expulsion of the villain, the person in whom evil is seen to be concentrated, and a reaffirmation of the society of 'decent people'."

Melodrama demands strong justice, while tragedy, in contrast, often includes the ambivalence of mercy in its code. Melodrama provides us with models of clear resolution for highly personalized, intensely enacted conflict. Television melodrama may be considered a contemporary substitute for traditional forms of social control--the rituals of organized religion and, before that, of "primitive mythologies"--that provided easily understandable models of "primal, intense, polarized forces." It is thus a powerfully conservative social artifact--a public ceremonial ritual, repositioned in politics and economics, drawing us into both the prescriptions and proscriptions of mainstream cultural values.

The hero is central to melodrama. In classical Greek dramaturgy, the term applied to a man of superhuman strength, courage, or ability who was favored by the gods. In antiquity, the hero was regarded as an immortal intermediary between the gods and ordinary people--a demigod who was the offspring of a god or goddess and a human being. Later, the heroic class came to include mortal men of renown who were deified because of great and noble deeds, or for firmness or greatness of soul in any course of action they undertook. The hero was distinguished by extraordinary bravery and martial achievement. Many heroes were boldly experimental or resourceful in their actions. Punishment of those who violated social codes was harsh.

The world in which the classic hero operated was a world of heightened emotional intensity--a harsh world in which the norm included unending tests of both physical and moral strength, and the constant threat of death. The hero represented a carefully defined value system in which good triumphed over evil in the end, and in which the actions of the hero, with the assistance of the gods, produced order and stability out of chaos.

Heroes are "social types." As Orrin Klapp notes in Heroes, Villains, and Fools (1962), heroes offer "roles which, though informal, have become rather well conceptualized and in which there is a comparatively high degree of consensus." Drawn from a cultural stock of images and symbols, heroes provide models people try to approximate. As such, Klapp argues, heroes represent "basic dimensions of social control in any society."

Reflecting the increasingly technocractic nature of contemporary American society, many "workplace" melodramas on television have featured what Gary Edgerton (1980) has termed the "corporate hero"--a team of specialists which acts as a unit. The corporate hero derives his or her identity from the group. He or she is more a distinct "talent" than a distinct personality. Heroism by committee emphasizes the individual's need to belong to a group and to interact. The composite corporate hero tends to reinforce the importance of social institutions in maintaining social order. When violence is employed to this end, as in police or spy melodrama, it is corporatized, becoming less a personal expression for the corporate hero than for the traditional individual hero. Major examples of the corporate hero in television melodrama include Mission Impossible, Charlie's Angels, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law.

Heroes could not exist on the melodramatic stage without their dramaturgical counterparts--villains and fools. While heroes exceed societal norms, villains, in contrast, are negative models of evil to be feared, hated, and ultimately eradicated or reformed by the actions of the hero; villains threaten societal norms. Fools, on the other hand, are models of absurdity, to be ridiculed; they fall far short of societal norms.

Within the television melodrama, these social types operate as images or signs, constructed according to our society's dominant values, reinforcing commonly held beliefs regarding the proper ordering of social relations.

The aesthetic structure of television melodrama, as a form of popular storytelling, is clearly linked to its dramaturgical predecessors. It employs rhythmic patterns in its scene and act progression analogous to the metrical positions in the poetic line of the mnemonically composed classical Greek epic poetry. As in the grand opera of the nineteenth century, television melodrama is organized into a series of distinct acts, each generally signifying a change either in time or place, and linked by orchestral transitions. Superfluous exposition is eliminated. The spectator is offered a series of intense highlights of the lives of the protagonists and antagonists. Orchestral music introduces actions, provides a background for plot movement, and reinforces moments of heightened dramatic intensity. Television melodrama, like grand opera, is generally constructed to formula. Plot dominates, initiating excitement and suspense by raising for its protagonists explicit questions of self-preservation, and implicit questions of preservation of the existing social order.

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, melodrama came to signify "democratic drama." Critics condemned the form as sensational, sentimental entertainment for the "masses." Rural-type melodrama--with its beautiful, virtuous, impoverished heroine, its pure hero, its despicable villain who ties the heroine to the railroad tracks, and the rustic clown who aids the hero (wonderfully satirized in the television cartoon "Dudley Do-Right of the Royal Canadian Mounties," originally a segment of The Bullwinkle Show), gave way to city melodrama focusing on the seamy underworld, and to suspenseful crime-dramas such as those of Agatha Christie.

Television melodrama has drawn freely from all these precursors, both structurally and conceptually. Highly-segmented plots developed in four 12-minute acts, each with a climax, and a happy ending usually encompassed in an epilogue in which moral lessons are conveyed to the audience (a function assumed by the "chorus" in classical Greek drama), are carried along by background music and stress peaks of action and emotional involvement. Suspense and excitement are heightened by a sense of realism created through sophisticated, if formulaic visualizations (car chases being obvious examples). Characterizations are generally unidimensional, employing eccentric protagonists and antagonists made credible by good acting. Ideologically, the plot elements reinforce conventional morality.

The rhythm of the commercial television melodrama depends on a predictable structure motivated by the flow of the program segment-music-commercial sequence. As suspense builds and the plot thickens, viewers are carried forward at various crucial junctures by a combination of rapid visual cutting and an intense buildup of the orchestral background music and ambient sound that create a smooth transition to the often frenetic, high-pitched commercials. This rhythm produces a flow which the audience implicitly understands and accepts as a genre convention in the context of the pecuniary mechanisms that define the regime of commercial television.

David Thorburn, in "Television Melodrama" (1976) described the structure of television melodrama according to what he termed a "multiplicity principle" by which a particular television melodrama will "draw . . . many times upon the immense store of stories and situations created by the genre's . . . crowded history. . . . By minimizing the need for long establishing or expository sequences, the multiplicity principle allows the story to leave aside the question of how these emotional entanglements were arrived at and to concentrate its energies on their credible and powerful present enactment."

Taking Thorburn's interpretation of melodramatic structure one step further, Raymond Williams, in Television: Technology and Cultural Form argues that more than dramatic power is involved here. Williams refers to this melodramatic structuration as commodified "planned flow." By cutting down on exposition or establishing sequences that tend toward lengthy and deliberate characterizations, the purveyors of melodrama are able to break their tales into shortened, fast-paced, and often unconnected simple sequences that make the commercial breaks feel natural to viewers.

The production imperatives of television-series melodrama reinforce Williams's concept of the commodification of flow. Noted producer/writers Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo, Mannix, Murder She Wrote, and made-for-television movies "The Execution of Private Slovik," "The Storyteller," "That Certain Summer") described these production procedures in Stay Tuned (1983, 74-75). The network commits itself to a new television series in mid-April. The series premieres in early September, leaving four-and-one-half months lead time for producers to hire staff, including writers and directors, prepare scripts, and begin shooting and editing. It takes four weeks, under the best conditions, to complete an episode of a melodrama; with luck, four shows will be "in the can" by the season's premiere, with others in varying stages of development (at any time during the process, many series episodes will be in development simultaneously, one being edited, another shot, and another scripted). By October, the initial four episodes will have been aired, and the fifth will be nearly ready. If the show is renewed at midseason, the producer will need as many as 22 episodes for the entire season. By December, there will be but a matter of days between the final edit and the airing of an episode, as inevitable delays shorten the turnaround time. In addition to normal time problems, there are problems with staff. Levinson and Link cite the frequent problem of having a good free-lance writer in demand who agrees to write for one producer's shows as well as those of other producers. The writer with a track record will be juggling an outline for one show, a first draft for another, and a "notion" for a third.

In the frenzied world of the daytime soap opera, actors get their scripts the night before the taping, begin run-through rehearsals at 7:30 the next morning, do three rehearsals before taping, and tape between 3:30 and 6:00 that afternoon. This hectic ritual is repeated five days a week.

The prime-time-melodrama production process is driven by short-cuts, scattered attention, and occasional network interference in content, created by the fear of viewer response to potentially controversial material that may range from questionable street language, however dramatically appropriate, to sexual taboos (proscriptions change over time as standards of appropriateness change in the wider culture). Simplicity, predictability, and safety become the norms that frame the creation and production of television melodrama.

Planned flow, the melodrama's highly symbolic heroic ideal, its formal conventions, and its reinforcement of the society's dominant values at any given cultural moment render the genre highly significant as a centrist cultural mechanism stressing order and stasis.

- Hal Himmelstein

FURTHER READING

Bratton, Jacky, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, editors. Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Himmelstein, Hal. Television Myth and the American Mind. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1984, 2nd edition, 1994.

Klapp, Orrin E. Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Landy, Marcia, editor. Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Levinson, Richard, and William Link. Stay Tuned. New York: Ace, 1983.

Lozano, Elizabeth. "The Force of Myth on Popular Narratives: The Case of Melodramatic Serials." Communication Theory (New York), August 1992.

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974.

Oglesbee, Frank W. "Doctor Who: Televized Science Fiction as Contemporary Melodrama." Extrapolation (Wooster, Ohio), Summer 1989.

Thorburn, David. "Television Melodrama." In, Adler, Richard Adler, and Douglass Cater, editors. Television as a Cultural Force. New York: Praeger, 1976.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York:Schocken, 1975.

 

See also Beverly Hills, 90210; Brideshead Revisited; Brookside; Coronation Street; Dallas; Dark Shadows; Dynasty; EastEnders; Family on Televsision; The Forsyte Saga; The Fugitive; Genre; The Jewel in the Crown; Mama; Miniseries; Peyton Place; Poldark; Rich Man, Poor Man; Road to Avonlea; Soap Opera; thirtysomething; The Thorn Birds; Upstairs, Downstairs