Choose a text and conduct a textual analysis drawing on theories of textual analysis such as semiotics, genre, ideology or discourse analysis
As texts continually evolve every day, it is necessary that the categorisation of such texts be subject to similar evolution in order for genre theory remains relevant. The traditional view of genre being a defining characteristic based on the style, theme and narrative of a text, without consideration for external audience and industrial participation is becoming outmoded as new programmes rapidly elude their preceding moulds, and old theories are left inapplicable. Using the example of a very recent television drama serial, In Treatment, which first aired on HBO in January 2008, I will demonstrate how it is necessary to reconsider the current form ways in which we interpret and define genre. Based on Mittell’s proposal that genres are culturally operative, the cultural context of any genre plays as significant a role as textual content in its definition, interpretation and evaluation by audiences (2004:14).
In Treatment is essentially an American drama serial based on the Israeli series, Betipul, which chronicles the sessions of a psychiatrist and several of his patients. The most notable characteristic of the series is its very unique format: airing five nights a week in half-hour instalments, each night of the week (Monday through Friday) deals with a different patient with the exception of Friday where the psychiatrist himself is a patient to his own mentor. On the surface, it is a drama series dealing with standard thematic elements found in most drama series (adultery, love, obsession, etc). However, in many ways it is also far removed from the traditional primetime drama series.
Textually, the subject of mental health is relatively new for the drama serial (largely preoccupied with police, courtrooms and hospitals) and has only recently been explored other cable network serials (examples include Huff and HBO’s flagship Sopranos). Structurally, In Treatment employs a five-day-a-week format, which up until now has almost been exclusively associated with soap opera and has not traditionally been practical for a primetime series. Shows such as Deadwood, Rome and The Sopranos are associated with high production costs, so the feasibility in producing episodes at this high volume would be a huge issue. In addition, airing episodes this frequently for these shows would dilute the finite narrative complexity the shows possess, reducing it to that of a soap opera.
In Treatment’s short half-hour episode length, minimal production value and cast, real-time dialogue and rotation of storyline allow it overcome the conventional boundaries successfully. There is somewhat of a conflict then between expectations of In Treatment’s prescribed genre (primetime drama), and uniquely realised product of the series itself. These can be ascribed to the limitations of traditional genre interpretation. The difficulty in firmly categorising a lot of recent television programmes under distinct conventional genres suggests that traditional genre interpretation itself (emphasis almost exclusive on the text) is inadequate. The primary reason for this difficulty in because many of these shows (a quintessential example being ABC’s popular Desperate Housewives) are products of multiple traditional genres. Mittell states that “genre mixing… is a cultural process enacted by industrial personnel, often in response to audience viewing practices.” (2004:203)
In order to illustrate the other significant factors, namely audience and industry, Mittell (2004:12) cites Foucault’s discursive approach to explain how genre ought to function, based only in part by text, but also in part by systems of thought inherent in audiences through cultural and social means. Rather than repeatedly claiming that series such as In Treatment, amongst many others, are illustrations of conventional genre being broken, it would be helpful to simply reassess the way we are interpreting the notion of genre.
It is important to note that genres analysis is subject to many other external factors besides the text at hand. The genre of drama varies significantly in meaning and covers a broad range of media in scope, which is why in specifying television is critical in providing a specific discourse for the analysis of a programme’s genre. In Treatment relies almost entirely on medium specificity, as its peculiar format could not be accommodated by any other medium but television. As a film or a play, only a single episode (or “session”) would be feasible, which would not allow it to reproduce the breadth and realism provided by weekly sessions with five different patients over the course of nine weeks. A radio serial, although flexible in time, does not provide the much-needed visual perspective of the psychiatrist that is the motif throughout the series (him being the only character in every episode), as well as the visual nuances in the emotional interactions between the psychiatrist and his patients. The realism achieved from these daily, real-time sessions are part of the reason why the series still emulates the textual elements of a standard primetime drama.
The audience should certainly not be discounted in their importance when regarding genre. As programming continues its fluid evolution, the notion of television departs further from the earlier stigma of the “formula-ridden… assembly line aesthetics,” (Wilsher, 1997:11), and also the earlier theoretical perceptions of television as a form of mass culture, described as Huyssen as an exclusion from “authentic culture” (1986:191). Television is now getting increasingly complex, especially in narrative, which is why it “necessitates a new mode of viewer engagement” (Mittell, 2006:38).
In Treatment offers a unique overall viewing experience in its narrative, combining the daily dependence and regularity of a soap opera in witnessing this psychiatrist go about his everyday life with the weekly exploration of each patient’s progress, maintaining the attributes of other primetime serials with their multiple story arcs and weekly scheduling. This combination of both soap and primetime viewing habits is analogous to the stylistic combinations witnessed in other genre-defying shows, but from a different angle; that is, audience’s reception. As Mittell states, “[a]udience practices of genre consumption…featur[e] more active practices of fan involvement with ongoing series, especially serials,“ (2004:24) testament to the necessity in establishing a genre theory accounting for, amongst other things, audience viewership.
Genres are not static, but rather “a fluid and active process” (Mittell, 2004:16). Continual transformation and evolution is inevitable if television is to have any longevity; for example, one of the means is a simple concept known as defamiliarisation, in which “stylistic changes to a formulaic narrative structure have the capacity to make the formula appear new, strange…” (Harriss, 2008:57). A soap opera schedule format is used (ironically) to evoke a sense of realism in a psychiatrist’s day-to-day life in In Treatment, re-inventing two previously exclusive formulas in order to “defamiliarise” the traditional notions of soap opera and primetime drama. In Treatment therefore exhibits a sort of complexity, not so much in textual content, but with a structure and format that has radically transformed the audience’s experience of a drama and ultimately rendering the “drama” label inadequate. As these frequent albeit subtle mutations in the genre continue to occur, re-evaluation of genre theory is necessary in order to restore the equilibrium of sorts between programming and its practical categorisation.
—Harriss, C. (2008) ‘Policing Propp: Toward a Textualist Defintion of the Procedural Drama’ ,Journal of Film and Video, 60(1):43-59
—Mittell, J. (2006) ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, The Velvet Light Trap, 58:29-40
—Creeber, G. (2004) ‘Introduction From small to big Drama,’ Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: BFI Publishing, pp 1-18
—Johnson, S. (2005) Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books
—Mittell, J. (2004) ‘Television genres as cultural categories’ in Genre and Television. Routledge, New York, pp. 1-28
—Huyssen, Andreas (1986), ‘Mass Culture as Woman: Modernity’s Other’ in Tania Modleski (ed) Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp 188-205
In Treatment (2008-) HBO
Rome (2005-2007) HBO/BBC
Deadwood (2004-2006) HBO
The Sopranos (1999-2007) HBO
Desperate Housewives (2004- ) ABC