Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Melodrama, Marriage, and House of Cards - Core Post 5

Two of this week’s readings, Tara McPherson's “24, Masculinity and Hybrid Form” and Jane Feuer’s “Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today,” engage with the form and function of popular melodramas. While reading these texts and considering our screening of Dynasty, I couldn’t help but think of House of Cards, one of my current favorite shows and a series I consider to be a contemporary “primetime” soap.

Feuer’s piece emphasizes the similarities between daytime soaps and primetime serials in order to situate them equally in her discussion of potential theories of melodrama. She notes that daytime and primetime serials share a similar narrative form, which consists of multiple plot lines and a continuing narrative with no closure. Both forms also concentrate on the domestic sphere, “although the prime-time serials also encompass the world of business and power (designed to appeal to the greater number of males in the evening viewing audience),” (pg. 4). Feuer examines the role of domestic space in terms of melodrama’s tendency to focus on family, oftentimes situating financial contracts within familial relationships. McPherson’s piece, on the other hand, analyzes male melodrama and its relationship to late capitalism, while noting melodrama’s identity as a typically feminine form.

McPherson references Lynne Joyrich’s notion that “sexual difference(s) in the TV melodrama…invite further investigation,” (pg. 176). In relation to sexual difference in melodrama, McPherson also analyzes the roles of public and private space (and their formation as “feminine” and “masculine” spheres) and the thinning delineation between work and home in our contemporary economy. In relation to House of Cards, the divide between public/private and work/home is nearly invisible, based on the Underwoods’ position of power (both living and working in the White House). The series features numerous characters and plot lines that come and go, but never find closure. In this latest season, in particular, stories and characters have re-emerged that were absent the previous season, requiring that viewers are especially engaged in the show’s history. What I find particularly interesting is that, as the series continues, its focus has turned from Frank Underwood to his wife Claire, in a sense reestablishing the woman-centric origin of the soap opera.

In relation to Robyn Wiegman’s conception of the “(binaries) of masculine/public and feminine/private” the series’ attention has shifted to Claire’s power (which is positioned in private space) as she battles privately with her husband Frank for public power (pg. 181). And as president of the United States, Frank’s authority is essentially as public as it could possibly be. What began as a clearly defined political melodrama became a series focused on marriage by its third season. I interpret this transformation as a requirement of the show’s narrative structure. How could a series concerned with power, both in public and domestic space, ignore the tensions of marriage? Interestingly, in Feuer’s piece she notes the role of an unhappy marriage in melodrama, and how the relationships in Dynasty and Dallas are often reduced to a financial contract (pg. 14). In House of Cards, Claire and Frank’s relationship is instead reduced to political terms. And finally, after multiple seasons, their private struggle for power is beginning to boil over into the public sphere.

PS: I’m part way through season four (trying to take it slow this time around) so please avoid spoilers if you comment! #sorrynotsorry :)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to think about House of Cards as a political soap opera that claims generic conventions of the primetime serial and the daytime soap -- two forms of melodrama, targeted toward male and female viewers. Christian also mentions below the idea of "quality television" and, if I remember correctly, this term surfaced initially in the 90s as a way to describe HBO's successful programming or the masculinization of the TV drama (Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, The Wire). Currently, the most popular shows on television seem to encompass these same categories, walking the line between primetime and daytime, melodrama and "quality" -- examples include Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones. Like House of Cards, Scandal also conflates private conflict with public through the lens of government, and in its wake, many copycats have surfaced (Madam Secretary with Tea Leoni, State of Affairs with Katherine Heigl) with women in power as leads. As government, which has always been a "male-centric space" shifts to become "woman-centric" in our current milieu, I wonder if melodrama has become a less generic category and in fact the norm of what constitutes "good TV." Since most of the TV programs mentioned above primarily navigate sexual politics, I am also reminded of how the televisual medium continues to be delineated in terms of sex and gender but also how it destabilizes those familiar categories.