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
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'."
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jacky, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, editors. Melodrama:
Stage, Picture, Screen. London: British Film Institute, 1994.
Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. New Haven, Connecticut:
Yale University Press, 1976.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1957.
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
Richard, and William Link. Stay Tuned. New York: Ace, 1983.
Elizabeth. "The Force of Myth on Popular Narratives: The Case of
Melodramatic Serials." Communication Theory (New York), August
Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday,
Frank W. "Doctor Who: Televized Science Fiction as Contemporary
Melodrama." Extrapolation (Wooster, Ohio), Summer 1989.
David. "Television Melodrama." In, Adler, Richard Adler, and Douglass
Cater, editors. Television as a Cultural Force. New York:
Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York:Schocken,
See also Beverly
Hills, 90210; Brideshead
Forsyte Saga; The
The Jewel in
the Crown; Mama; Miniseries;
Man, Poor Man; Road
to Avonlea; Soap
The Thorn Birds;