September 4, 2008
On Soap Operas and "Strategic Forgetting and Remembering"

C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell spent some time in June a little out of his element, presenting at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, for The Society for Cognitive Study of the Moving Image. Jason gives an outsider's perspective on the work being done in the field of cognitive film studies, as well as the slides from his own work, on his blog, Just TV.

His presentation was entitled "Previously On: Prime Time Serials & the Poetics of Memory," addressing questions of how American television storytelling has shifted in the past two decades and issues of "historical poetics." His slides bring up some intriguing points, one of which deals with how the longtime complex and serialized storytelling nature of daytime serial dramas (soap operas) intersect with primetime dramas. Jason and I have discussed these issues through the blogosphere in the past (Look here and here.)

Back in that prior post, I wrote about some discussion that broke out in the comments section of Jason's blog.

I said regarding redundancy in soaps that:

But people outside the genre often greatly overstate the amount of redundancy in soaps, I think. Reader StinkyLuLu makes this point, writing, "My basic feeling is that what you call redundancy is actually a pivotal soap pleasure--revisiting key moments from the recent and distant past--not unlike the narrative data mining you describe in contemporary prime time serial drama." I'd like to develop that thought a little further.

At their worst, soaps are recap-laden. I've seen Days of Our Lives have episodes a few years ago, for instance, that seemed more flashback to earlier in the week than current. That's not good soap, and we have to distinguish between good and bad practices in the genre. However, with five episodes a week and little in terms of reruns, the redundancy is necessary. That's why REaction is so important in soaps. The redundancy becomes a central part of the story. It matters not as much that X happens as it does seeing how everyone in town responds to finding out about X. In that case, the plot is a driver for character-driven stories. Anyone who missed X will find out about it during various scenes retelling and reaction to parts of it, but that retelling process IS the show; it's about interpersonal relationships, not the what. (By the way, my guess is that some of the fans who fast-forward are also some of the ones who archive; fans often pick out particular characters or stories they follow on a show that they actively consume, even while skipping others...)

The distinction Jason made in his slide (and, mind you, I haven't talk with him about this, so I'm doing some guesswork based on bullet points at the moment), is that:

  • Soap operas offer pleasures of redundancy
  • Prime-time serials highlight past events through dialogue to create comprehension
  • ...and surprise - strategic forgetting and remembering as narrative technique

Not to be redundant, but I think redundancy in daytime soaps is often misunderstood. As I point out, there's plenty of worst practice with eight shows going 260 episodes per year, but sometimes--when the redundancy is used most effectively--the re-telling is presenting new information to the viewer simultaneously. And, as Jason points out, this provides some "pleasures of redundancy," not in seeing the same scenario repeated over and over, but rather in seeing how information will be relayed differently, with new commentary and spin added to the mix.

But the other issue I wanted to point out is that soap operas also rely heavily on their own version "strategic forgetting and remembering," even if it's significantly different from what we would see on a flash-forward and flash-back show such as Lost or Heroes.

For instance, there's the regular soap opera plot line of repressed memories, ones that come through in flashback and reveal important narrative plots from sometime past. On As the World Turns, we've seen the technique used in the past few years for one woman's repressed childhood memories and another character's rape by her older brother-in-law. These memories first show up in brief glimpses of flashbacks, with the characters themselves not knowing where they're coming from or why. Eventually, they lead to that "Aha!" moment, in some ways similar to the season finale of House this past summer.

The soap opera murder mystery regularly uses "strategic forgetting and remembering," as well, with crucial scenes being withheld from the viewer until they come out at an opportune moment.

Perhaps the best daytime use of "strategic forgetting and remembering," though, is the way that subtle plot details can be dropped into the storyline and then resurface months later. Many people knock their soaps for not providing the narrative complexity that they could with such rich possibilities provided by an ensemble cast and daily episodes, but take this example from ATWT. At the beginning of the year, terrified that she might be blamed for the murder of her ex-boyfriend, Emily Stewart tells the chief of police--and her son's stepmother--a story that requires her to reveal a terrible truth about herself: that she spent some time as a prostitute. We the viewers knew that, but the information was kept from most in town. Emily does this to prove her innocence but then pleads for the police chief, Margo Hughes, not to tell her husband Tom, so that their son Daniel wouldn't be taken away from her.

Then, it seemed as if the writers had forgotten all about it. After that revelation, and a look on Margo's face that led viewers to wonder whether she would tell Tom or not, the murder was solved and the storyline moved forward. We never saw any indication that she had told Tom, at least because he wasn't trying to take Daniel away from Emily, but it was also never brought back up between Margo and Emily.

Fast-forward several months, when theoretically most viewers might have themselves forgotten about that detail. Emily had taken in Tom and Margo's older son, Casey, as her administrative assistant at the tabloid newspaper she runs, and they had eventually started sleeping together. Of course, Emily again didn't want Tom and Margo to find out, lest they try and take Daniel away from her. Casey says that there's nothing they could do to hurt her, and we see angst on Emily's face. For much of the viewing audience, it's a moment of strategic remembering: we know, as Emily does, if we caught that one episode months and months ago, that Emily had revealed her illegal recent past to Margo in a moment of desperation, and now we know why Emily is especially desperate to keep the relationship a secret.

Margo eventually catches Casey and Emily together and goes on to threaten to tell Tom and make sure that Emily never gets to see her son again. And what had been a momentary detail from an episode months prior, with perhaps almost 100 episodes in between, suddenly launches a major storyline twist.

So, while soaps are quite known for their redundancy, I think it's equally important to think about how soaps often withhold scenes or details, or else drop details into the background only to pull them back to the forefront of the viewer's conscious after months or even years. Just as the re-telling and reaction to plot twists are crucial in soaps, so are their own version of "strategic forgetting and remembering."

Thanks to Jason for a thought-provoking presentation, and look forward to any thoughts you all might have.

Sam Ford is a research affiliate with the Consortium and Director of Customer Insights with Peppercom. He also writes for PepperDigital and Reason Enough.