Criteria for Criticising TV Drama

Criteria for Criticising TV Drama

Are there coherent criteria for judging television drama ?

Some viewers simply let it wash over them, making only the most minimal judgments, mainly in terms of deciding what to watch. Others make constant judgements on what they watch. They say they liked a programme or they didn’t like it. They consider some programmes good and others bad. If pressed, they might indicate certain storylines, characters, settings or sequences, which turn them on or switch them off. If pressed further, they might find it difficult to specify exactly why they put a value on some aspects and not on others. They would be hard put to articulate what criteria they bring to bear in making such judgments as they do, let alone what criteria should be brought to bear in making such judgements.

Most programme makers are vague enough about their values, about how they judge what is good and what is bad in making their programmes. They tend to be resentful of judgements on their work that do not conform to their own. They dismiss critics as failed programme makers and consider criticism as intrusion on their own domain. They believe that what they have created is what it is and it is not for anybody else to say what it is and what is not. Not that some critics do not give them cause for resentment. They are often arbitrary and indulgent in their likes and dislikes. They often fail to give any credible justification for their judgements. When it comes down to it, they can be vague as anybody else about specifying what criteria they apply, let alone what criteria they could justify applying.

There is, of course, a widespread view that there are no coherent criteria, or at least none that could be considered normative. It is this view that probably holds sway at the man-in-the-street level (or should it be person-at-the-box-level?). It is symptomatic of a deeper malaise, rooted in a social reality much broader than television and methods of appraising it. It is the fragmentary character of contemporary life. It is failure of vision and failure of nerve in the face of it.

Even in the academic world, there is a methodological anarchism that prevails across a whole range of disciplines, along the entire spectrum from the ‘softest’ of popular arts of the ‘hardest’ of natural sciences. From poetry, painting and pop videos to economics, biology and physics, it is anything goes.1 A person likes what s/he likes. A person believes what s/he believes. No one else has any right to say that they are right or wrong. The astrologer speaks with as much authority as the astronomer. The survivalist and the socialist can each make their case on an equal footing. The dramatist can produce either the classic well-made play or a chaotic happening. The critic in turn can come at it either from a naively commonsensical point of view or with all the exotically counter-commonsensical paraphernalia of post-structuralist semiotics. Who is to say which is right or wrong ? Each person’s intellectual, moral and aesthetic preferences are treated as autonomous and sovereign and unanswerable to anything beyond themselves. Any attempt to pass judgment on anyone else’s aesthetic tastes is considered particularly out of order. There is such an exaggerated emphasis on instability of meaning as to set the viewer/reader adrift from any sort of physical, social or textual determination.2

There is a populist strain in media studies, much of it an over-reaction to the elitism of high culture and traditional literary criticism and to the negativism of the Frankfurt School analysis of popular culture. It treats the pleasure the mass audience takes in Dallas, Melrose Place, Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be by definition justified and therefore not subject to negative judgements.3 It is sometimes accompanied by the most abstruse discourses on the nature of pleasure, which are so esoteric and disembodied as to raise the question of whether their authors have experienced an actual instant of the real thing. Whatever the intentions, it plays right into the hands of the one-hundred-million-Americans-can’t-be-wrong school of television criticism.

While some are paralysed in intellectual indecision about critical norms, others plough on regardless. The only criteria many television executives and advertisers regard as relevant are the ratings. In their world, television programmes are commodities designed to sell other commodities. Judgements on television drama are based on their ability to draw the most desirable demographics, ie, to attract the most affluent sections of the audience targetted by the advertisers to maximise their profits. In devising a method for testing pilots prior to transmission, Hollywood’s solution was to put 400 Californians into a preview theatre on Sunset Boulevard who would make their judgments by moving the dials on their black boxes between five positions: very good, good, fair, dull and very dull. They were first shown a Mr Magoo cartoon, which is used as a control to determine whether they are a typically responding audience, so that what the typically responding California audience liked, with Mr Magoo as the norm, was largely what the rest of the world got to see.

The fact that many of these shows have achieved high ratings the world over does not necessarily imply critical approval. Nor would mass critical approval necessarily establish their intellectual, social, moral or aesthetic value. The whole world is drinking Coca Cola as well, but this hardly guarantees its nutritional value. The free play of market forces is not the same thing as majority rule, nor is majority rule co-incident with value. Even in RTE, which was never as crass, those involved in production often dismissed their critics with the TAMs and considered no further argument necessary.

A more promising place to look might be in the explosion of interest in media studies in recent decades, giving rise to a burgeoning, if very diverse, literature. The different approaches to television studies employ very different methodologies. While some skim the surface and eschew questions of value, others penetrate beneath the surface and take on questions of value in the most direct way.

There are, first of all, empirical studies of the type predominant in the US. Content analysis studies texts in terms of manifest characteristics, which are easily specified and quantified.4 It tabulates acts of sex and violence in popular series. It gives statistics on characters in various dramatic genre, classified according to age, sex, socio-economic status and behaviour patterns. It has a certain limited value in establishing certain superficial patterns. Ultimately, however, it is piecemeal research that tends to beg more questions than it answers. It sometimes uses crude categories like pro-social versus anti-social characters. It glides over the surface of what television is all about, while it fails to probe either the underlying assumptions of world view or the overarching structures of power. It does not penetrate more subtle patterns of behaviour. It does not examine sociological contexts or philosophical frames of reference. It is mechanistic, atomistic and ad hoc. It never adds up to any grand theory, but plods along pluralistically, failing to see the woods for the trees.

At the other extreme are the varieties of structuralist and post-structuralist semiotics, more European in origin, which gravitate to grand theory and disdain empirical research.5 It analyses texts in terms of their formal qualities. It sees its task as the deconstruction of conventional codes of discourse. It conceives of both auteurs and audience as decentred subjects across a range of autonomous practices. It stresses the specificity of each mode of discourse: the literary, the cinematic, the televisual, etc. It is hostile to realist modes of representation, to narrative form, to rational coherence, to socio-historical analysis. It relates the text only to itself and rules out questions of the relation of the text to anything outside itself, although the truth is that it is generally so locked into introverted discourse on its own masturbatory methodology that it rarely gets round to specific texts.

When it does, the texts it favours are the cinematic and video equivalents of their own obscurantist tracts. It favours static or chaotic camerawork, disjunction of sound and image, non-sync sound, monitors and microphones in shot, picture not filling the frame, disruption of narrative unity, alienation of identification, arbitrary editing, and generally whatever is incoherent, in the belief that it alienates viewers and challenges them to construct their own meaning. It alienated viewers, true enough, but they may feel they can construct their own meaning quite well without all the gratuitous fragmentation and clutter that auteurs who announce the death of the author add to an already fragmented and cluttered experience of the world or without whatever disjointed words of pseudo-wisdom Godard might mumble with his back to the camera. Ironically, the myopic fixation on form leads to amorphousness. Paradoxically formalism becomes formlessness.

Both extremes of textual studies, both content analysis and semiotics, are pluralist, atomistic and ad hoc. Neither culminates in a coherent theory. Much of the problem is a failure to put texts in context. Other studies do put texts in context. Contextual studies also span a considerable range.

Effects research, at one extreme, is the behaviorist equivalent of content analysis. It attempts to measure quantifiable changes in individual behaviour patterns resulting from particular viewing experiences. It continues to investigate (inconclusively) the question of whether personal acts of violence are influenced by the violence of action-adventure series, films, news, etc. It tends to concentrate on overt changes of choice in voting and purchasing patterns, stemming from party political broadcasts or commercial advertisements. Like content analysis, it has a certain limited value in tracing certain connections along the surface. The basic problem, however, is that it defines its context too narrowly. So too does the uses and gratifications approach which brings in other factors and stresses the discriminating powers of individual viewers. Such studies fail to capture either deeper psychological processes or larger historical shifts.6

At the other end of the spectrum are historicist studies. These engage in research into production or consumption within a wider sphere. Studies in political economy of the media focus on the relationship between the prevailing structures of political and economic power in a society and the cultural products of that society. An economist approach construes the connection quite narrowly and focuses on the level of the direct influence of the ownership and control of media in determining the character of its products.7It stresses the role of television programmes in delivering audiences to advertisers and in conveying the ideology of the ruling class to subordinate groups. Other studies deal with the economic basis of cultural production as a far more complex and more subtle process.8 The culturalist approach, on the other hand, relates cultural products to other cultural products, but eschews an emphasis on the economics of their production.9

A more holistic approach stresses the complexity of mediations, the scope for individual creativity, dissident ideologies and subversive readings, the subtle and subconscious processes through which programmes are constructed and interpreted. It sees the ideological dimension of television drama in systemic rather than conspiratorial terms, ie, in terms of the complex contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, rather than in terms of the conspiracies of conscious and clear-minded capitalists.

The approach taken here is holistic and historicist. It stresses the totality of interconnections within the socio-historical nexus shaping cultural expression. It analyses particular texts and engages in empirical research. It pushes further and relates texts both to other texts and to larger socio-historical contexts. It deals with television drama, not as a simple and fortuitous succession of particular plays, series and serials, but as a complex pattern of cultural development, intelligible only in relation to the larger pattern of contemporary social history. It probes both underlying assumptions and overarching structures of power. It examines philosophical frames of reference and relates these to social, political and economic conditions shaping the concrete contexts of television production and consumption.

There are many judgments made both on particular productions and on persistent patterns of representation across a range of productions. The criteria brought to bear in making such judgments basically fall into two inter-related categories: aesthetic and ideological.

With respect to aesthetic criteria, the relevant question is: What is it that makes some television drama great or good and other television drama mediocre or bad?

Obviously, production standards constitute one set of considerations. The quality of casting, performance, camera angles, soundtrack, lighting, locations, editing, wardrobe and make-up all play their part in making the difference between good and bad in the nature of television drama. However, there has been a tendency in international television to rely on star casting, fluid camera movements, fast cutting, exotic locations, trendy soundtracks, stunts, special effects and haute couture to carry television drama production. The weight of emphasis within the television industry often tends to be on the technical, formal and financial aspects of television drama. Discussions on the current state of play then centre on film versus videotape, studio versus location, the single play versus the series or serial, in-house versus commissioned production, home production versus inter-national co-production.

Often confusion reigns on the surface and the deeper questions remain unasked and unanswered. The most lavish productions are given to the shoddiest of scripts. Few would deny the primacy of the script in theory, but in practice the emphasis is sometimes more on stunts, stars and special effects than on having a significant story to tell and an appropriate method of telling it.

The significance of the story is the most fundamental consideration to be brought to bear in judging television drama. All other considerations, of visual style, pace, performance, should be subordinated to evaluation of the script in terms of its basic human meaning. All questions regarding the method of telling the story should be subordinated to the prior question of whether it is a story worth telling.

What is it then that makes a story worth telling? What is it that makes some stories more significant than others ? What is it that makes some television drama more meaningful and memorable than the rest ? The most significant stories are those which express the epochal in the immediate, by portraying the characteristic conflicts and choices of an epoch as embodied in the immediate circumstances of concrete lives. The most meaningful and memorable drama has a metaphoric thrust that reaches beyond itself and presents a whole way of life in microcosm. It provokes communal recognition and revelation. It does what all great art does. It synthesises common experience. It cleanses perception. It illuminates what is dark. It orders what is chaotic. It unifies what is fragmented. It clarifies what is preying confusingly in others’ lives. It brings to a focus what is there, but unfocused, for others. It appropriates the past, interprets the present and envisages the future. It combines epic scale with intimate impact. It creates individual images of social totality. It captures the flow of historical process.

Television drama should be judged, not only by the degree to which it explores the specific potentialities of television as a signifying practice, but also by norms by which all drama, indeed all art form, should be judged. It should be judged according to its scope, its depth, its integrity, its authenticity, its clarity, its relevance, its immediacy, its rhythm, its resolution. It should be judged by the degree to which it is probing, challenging, insightful and cathartic. It should be judged as to whether it raises substantial issues, whether it presents full-blooded and believable characters in credible situations challenged to make consequential choices.

The process of artistic creation, which issues in drama of this calibre, is rooted in the whole of the artist’s experience of life. It is the writer’s input which is most fundamental in creating drama, despite auteur theory and despite the essential importance of directors, actors, designers and the rest. Drama is decisively shaped by the richness of the writer’s life experience and by the degree to which s/he has creatively assimilated the most advanced knowledge, the most basic emotions, the most fundamental socio-historical processes. It is deeply dependent on the degree to which s/he can feel the pulse of the times about which s/he is writing and on the degree of intellectual, emotional and moral clarity s/he can bring to bear upon it.

The question of world-view is crucial. The Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs has perhaps put this most sharply:

“Without a Weltanschauung, it is impossible to narrate properly or to achieve a composition which would reflect the differentiated and epically complete variety of life.”10

His argument was that, without a philosophy, without the dynamic co-ordination of life in the writer’s mind, there was no drama of any real magnitude. The greater the playwright, the more and closer were the ties binding him to the life of his times. It was necessary for the writer to have a world historical mentality in order to create world historical characters, ie, characters who could bear and reveal the fullness of their world. Dramatic necessity depended on the depth of the inner accord between such characters and the concrete collisions of the socio-historical forces of their times. For the world historical personality, who need not be a powerful ruler or great explorer or whatever, individual vision and passion coincided with social substance. Sharper individuation did not weaken, but strengthened, the social character of dramatic collisions. Conversely, the more acute the understanding of the social character of such collisions, the less likely to do violence to individual psychology or dramatic form.

Not that all writers might agree with this, but there is nothing more important than achieving a world view, grounded in personal experience and integrating the socio-historical experience of the times. Some writers have agreed, however, even if it meant passing difficult judgment upon themselves. The relentlessly honest French writer Flaubert wrote:

“I lack a well-founded and all-embracing concept of life. The world’s religions …on the one hand, progress, brotherhood and democracy on the other, do not any longer answer the requirements of the present …. I see no possibility, today, either of finding a new principle or of paying any attention to the old principles. And so I am in search of that idea upon which everything else depends, and cannot find it.”11

Decades later, the British writer who published his earlier fiction under the name Christopher St John Sprigg and his cultural criticism under the name of Christopher Caudwell, wrote to literary friends giving his reflections upon finding himself at a crucial turning point:

“Seriously, I think my weakness has been the lack of an integrated Weltanschauung ….As long as there was a disintegration, I had necessarily an unsafe and provisional attitude to reality, a somewhat …. superficial attitude, which showed in my writing as ….’lack of baking’. The remedy is nothing so simple as a working over and polishing up of prose, but to come to terms with myself and my environment ….Naturally, it is a long process (the getting of wisdom) and I don’t fancy I am anywhere near the end” 12

Although most scripts today are being written by minds full of Hollywood razzle-dazzle or cluttered by French deconstructionist chic, nothing of substantial value will ever come of what is not rooted in the pursuit of wisdom. The problem is that there is a long-standing and deeply ingrained prejudice in television against writers with a well worked out philosophy of life, burning with something definite to say and wanting to say it through drama. The tired, trite adage passed on from one generation to the next is:

“If you want to send a message, call the Western Union”

It has created an atmosphere of ludicrous defensiveness about having a message to communicate. It is identified with political overkill, with clumsy propaganda, with cardboard characters, groveling in workerist grottiness and speaking pidgin agit-prop. However, superficial drama is produced by superficial people. Some may have a facile message to communicate, a shallow sense of psychology and an inept handling of dramatic form. Others, who may have no message to communicate, do not by virtue of that, have a better grip on individual psychology and great dramatic flair. They are generally the most superficial of all and lack the vision and the drive to create fully individuated characters with real psychological insight of dramatic import.

The characters they do create tend to be individuated through superficial attributes or eccentric quirks, rather than thorough deep penetration of their inner life. They are such shallow clichés as to be nearly interchangeable parts. What was there to distinguish the heroes of Airwolf, Street Hawk and Knight Rider except the vehicles which they use to come to the rescue ? What was the difference between Charlie’s Angels or Baywatch babes except hair colour ? How much was there to know about the inner life of JR Ewing or TJ Hooker ?

The scripts written around such characters are loose, flabby and vacuous. The plots are full of arbitrary comings and goings, full of fortuitous happenings, full of opportunist contrivances. There is no sense of sufficient reason for anything to happen. There is no sense of adequate motivation for any relationships formed or course of action pursued. The dialogue is either innocuous or overblown. It never conveys a single interesting idea or a single genuine emotion. Confrontations tend to be physical rather than psychological. False problems are raised and resolved through macho flair and technical hardware, rather than real problems raised through a meaningful sequence of events and resolved through a psycho-social coming to terms. In the absence of the strong dramatic drive that can only come in the process of a real psycho-social coming to terms with real problems, there is only the recurrent cycle of standardised characters and plots, combining and re-combining, jazzed up with hooks, buttons and blows, with fast cutting, with cornball carry-on, with expensive couture, with elaborate shoot-outs, car chases and burning buildings, with ludicrous supernatural forces, with soulless sex hyped as sizzling and salacious.

Nothing can cover the fact that it is false. It may be melodramatic technically stylish falsity, but it is falsity. It is banality, bloated with inflated sentiment and hyped with pseudo-monumentalising devices. Its energy is the energy of faked orgasms. No amount of posturing can hide the emptiness. It may be chic, blow-dried, designer-labelled emptiness, but it is emptiness all the same. There is an intellectual, emotional and moral numbness at the core of it all that no number of clichés, copulations, car chases or designer clothes can disguise. Of course, television being the omnivorous medium it, with so many hours and channels to fill, not everything it produces can be great drama. In any age and in any medium, there is much dross along with the gold. All the same, it is not necessary for so much television drama to be so bad.

Television has in its time produced much good, and sometimes great, drama and has the potential to push much further. Television has produced characters which haunt the mind and embody metaphoric meaning. It has told stories which capture the thrust of socio-historical collision on the ground. Productions such as Talking to a Stranger, The Sinners, The Stars Look Down, Upstairs, Downstairs, Shoulder to Shoulder, Roads To Freedom, Drums Along Balmoral Drive, Threads and the Billy trilogy have given a complex and honest picture of a whole way of life. Whatever their limitations, there have been excellent productions probing the horizons of human experience and illuminating a particular cultural milieu.

Through the 1980s the Hollywood television dominating the international market went to the other extreme with Dallas, Glitter, Miami Vice. Its own producers openly referred to much of it as ‘trash’. Satirical productions from the film Network to the serial Beggars and Choosers satirise the whole process of their production from within. Even its more serious productions have been so deeply flawed. Its historical series, like Ellis Island, The Captains and the Kings, North and South and The Winds of War, tend to be pseudo-epics, which put a sophisticated cinematic gloss on the crudest clichés of the most unsophisticated and conventional historiography, spiced up with highly sentimentalised love interest and star billings. Some of the better efforts, like The Awakening Land, The Emigrants, Roots and even Rich Man Poor Man, have opened out a bit, but have never exposed the full weight of the social order being constructed and re-constructed. Some dealing with difficult material, like Concealed Enemies on McCarthyism have so swamped the narrative with such a multiplicity of small particularistic details, as to smother analytical reflection on the roots of McCarthyism as a historical phenomenon. The West Wing is undoubtedly sophisticated, but so smug and myopic. It is so full of imperial hubris. When Hollywood moves away from glitter to ‘do’ social issues, it gravitates towards television movies about athletes overcoming afflictions, communities rallying in the face of natural disasters, stars popping pills, families coping with alcoholism, desertion, divorce, disease, drugs, child abuse, teenage pregnancy or whatever. Most are maudlin morality tales, with bland up-beat endings and with Hallmark greeting card messages, although some have been cut above the rest.

Although the flow is still overwhelmingly from US to the rest, there has been some flow in other directions and watching television In Ireland has brought the experience of fine drama from many international sources. In relation to the standards set world wide, Ireland has produced drama that can stand with the best, for national and international audiences. Despite the high exposure to imported material, a high proportion of what must linger in the mind as the most memorable drama seen on television can be found among its indigenous productions. Stories exploring the human psyche and encompassing the rhythms of socio-historical experience, such as the Victims trilogy, King of the Castle, The White House, Ballroom of Romance, Assault on a Citadel and Strumpet City have been the sort to evoke communal recognition and revelation and to leave deep traces in the collective memory.

Not every drama need embody total vision to be good. Not every playwright need have attained a self-conscious, all-encompassing, coherent world view to create drama of any value. But the drive must be towards totality and coherence and not away from it. The pressure to write must come from a push to cleanse perception and not to intensify its murkiness, to order the fragments of experience and not to add to the clutter, to illuminate the world and not to contribute to its darkness.

Unfortunately, the tendency is often to murkiness, clutter, disorder and darkness. It is not simply a problem with writers, but with the world in the grip of the postmodernist neo-liberal mentality. It is a mark of decadence in the social order when drama becomes decadent and storytelling no longer strives towards totality. A decadent, disintegrating society tells decadent, disintegrating stories. A society that has lost its vision cannot deal with encompassing themes. A society that has lost its way lacks the clarity and the energy of strong dramatic drive. It is only possible for a writer to deal with encompassing themes and to achieve the clarity and energy of strong dramatic drive by seeing through and taking on the decadence, by unmasking its pretensions, by challenging its norms and by opening sources of growth to offset the decay. Dramas made in the Dallas and Melrose Place mode lack authenticity, conviction, depth, proportion, integrity, insight, resolution and purposefulness. They are dishonest, superficial, trivial, contrived, arbitrary, opportunist and capricious. They produce neither illumination nor catharsis. They have a miscellanising, mind-crowding, fragmenting, dissipating effect. They are decadent. They tell something about the temper of the times, but in a way that distracts attention from the true reality of the epoch, in a way that subverts the capacity to come to terms with it. They delete the difficult dimensions of reality. In the words of South African poet Jeremy Cronin:

“Santa Barbara, the Bold and the Beautiful, Restless Years –
the milk of amnesia”13

They are seductively addictive, even to those who know better. Their cinematic stylishness captures and holds visual interest. Once a certain amount of attention is invested in continuing characters and storylines, no matter how absurd, it is difficult not to get hooked by curiosity about what will happen next. Some enter more fully than others into the fantasies they construct, fantasies of macho aggression, fantasies of exploitative power and unearned wealth, fantasies of saccharine sentimentality and slushy sexuality, fantasies which are aesthetically and psychologically immature, but by no means ideologically innocent.

Lukacs took the view that the main business of the critic was to elucidate the relation between artistic creation and ideology. Where the writer stood in relation to the socio-historical collisions of his time and how far he had worked out a world view capable of encompassing the realities the world presented to him: these were the fundamental factors shaping what sort of story he told and how he told it. To apply this to the contemporary critic looking at television, there is much to elucidate on the relation between drama and ideology.

Is television drama ideological? It is a question likely to provoke, not only a variety of answers, but also a variety of reactions to even posing the question. Many a viewer, producer, actor or author might express puzzlement, indifference or contempt at the very nature of the question. If pressed, they might perhaps admit that television drama may have its ideological moments. They might cite bits of phatic dialogue and straightforward declarations of position, such as:

Fr. O’ Connor in Strumpet City: “We condemn Marx.”
Dubliner in A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton: “Babies don’t get bit by rats in Foxrock.”

John Willie O’Neill in Heritage: “Catholics kneel under plaster saints. We sit with Christ under guns and swords.”

Certain characters might be seen as carrying ideological connotations: the IRA kidnappers in The Price and the UDA heavies in the Billy plays. Entire plays like A Very British Coup or Black Day at Blackrock or entire series like Strumpet City or The West Wing might be seen as concerned with ideological positioning. All the same, even given the number of lines, characters, plays and series that could obviously be construed as ideological, all of it together might be argued to be marginal within the overall flow of television drama.

Frank and Kate in The Price might be admitted to carry ideological connotations, but surely not Miley and Biddy in Glenroe. Some scenes in Making the Cut might have ideological nuances, but surely there is nothing all that ideological about Friends or Fair City. Surely, the argument might go, most of it is pure entertainment, harmless escapism, or simple fantasy. On the contrary. No entertainment is ever pure. No escapism is ever harmless. No fantasy is ever simple. In actuality, all television drama is ideological, implicitly if not explicitly. It may not be constructed or consumed with conscious ideological categories in mind, but it inevitably stakes out a pattern of representations shaped by the traditions and tensions of the social order in which it emerges. Every story embodies certain assumptions about the nature of the social order, which are de facto ideological.

What then is ideology ? Ideology, in common parlance, is often taken to be synonymous with propaganda, bias, distortion or false consciousness. To say all television drama were ideological in this sense would be to fail to do justice to its narrative complexity and to its capacity for truthfulness.

Ideology, in the uncommon parlance of Parisian cafes and culturalist texts, is taken to be a form of misrecognition, illusion and reaction. In the convoluted discourse of althusserian or lacanian theorists, any form of narrativisation, verisimilitude or identification is ideological in this negative sense.14 To say that all television drama is ideological in this sense would be to consider any form of story-telling, any realistic portrayal, any evocation of identification with character, to be inherently regressive, misguided and illusory. This would be to fail to do justice to the very capacity of narrative for truthfulness and for progressive meaning.

Ideology, as used here, is not synonymous with propaganda, false consciousness or reaction. It is not a pejorative or negative concept. Ideology refers to a set of interconnected views and values systematically generated by specific socio-historical conditions. The concept of ideology is meant to shed light on the way a person’s view of the world is shaped by the vantage point from which s/he perceives it. It is meant to focus on the fact that the images, ideas, norms and codes, which people take for granted, are rooted in the time, space and social conditions within which they emerge. They are not eternal, universal or unconditional verities. It is not meant to indicate that they are necessarily false, regressive or unscientific. An ideology may be true or false, progressive or regressive, scientific or unscientific.

To focus on ideology in this way is to assert that the emergence of ideas, political movements and cultural trends is not arbitrary or fortuitous. It is not such that anything could have been thought, that anything could have happened, that anything could have been created, at any time. It is a matter of deeper logic embedded in the unfolding of intellectual and cultural history than anything that can be explained by great thinkers, great artists or historical accidents.

Ideologies are grounded in a society’s mode of production. Contending ideologies, in exceedingly intricate and complex ways, are rooted in the specific division of labour generated by particular modes of production. The more highly developed the mode of production, the more complex the social order, the more specialised the division of labour, the more abstract the modes of mediation, the more formidable and variable the process of representation of the totality within which human endeavour takes place. The contending ideologies that emerge from this constitute a struggle for the terms in which this totality is to be defined and dealt with.

In the broadest terms, in an advanced capitalist society, there are many variations of bourgeois ideology contending with each other, along with residual elements of feudal ideology and emergent developments of socialist ideology. Each highlights certain key images, emphasises certain issues and prescribes certain norms at the expense of others. In relation to the social division of labour, one ideology will give expression to the whole network of views and values rooted in blood and land (peasant or aristocratic), another to those rooted in entrepreneurial skill and individual acquisitiveness (bourgeois), yet another to those rooted in labour and collective effort (socialist). The most abstract of theoretical arguments, when it comes down to it, often have their basis in the clash of peasant, aristocratic, bourgeois or socialist values.

It is not, of course, a matter of any simple one-to-one correspondence between ideas and class interests. The connections are not always direct, immediate or conscious. Ideologies often function all the more effectively by indirection, in a subtle and extended pattern of incorporation, and below the threshold of consciousness. An ideology provides the matrix of thought through which the world is perceived and conceived. Although it structures the very patterns of perception and conceptualisation, it is itself usually neither perceived nor conceptualised. It often operates more in terms of implicit assumptions than explicit statements, shaping all that is seen, moulding it within its framework, but remaining itself unseen.

Those who are most adamant in their renunciation of ideology in all its forms and who proclaim themselves to be non-ideological are often those most under the spell of ideology. Notions of journalistic objectivity, of political neutrality, of artistic creativity and art for art’s sake, are profoundly and deeply ideological. All such illusions of autonomy have their source in the ever escalating separation and specialisation of mental and manual labour, which gives rise to theories and art forms which are ever more remote from any concrete experiential base. All spheres of thought and activity fly increasingly apart, seeming to be autonomous worlds unto themselves, generating ever more one-sided and partial versions of the whole and making any coherent view of the whole more and more difficult to attain or even imagine. The most ‘independent’ of observers is often the one who is most dependent on the dominant ideology, who has internalised its norms and procedures so unconsciously and so completely as to be unaware of its existence and incapable of conceiving of any alternative. In the process, a taken-for-granted universality and unconditional truthfulness is ascribed to views and values that are actually perceptions of the world from a particular class standpoint.

To add further to the complexity, such perceptions come to be accepted even by those whose actual position in the scheme of things is sharply at variance with those who inhabit such a class position and have the power to project their definitions and their codes of behaviour as if applicable to everyone at all times and everywhere. The poor take on the world view of the rich. It is not only the queen or the pope, whose power and position stem from the institutional and ideological remnants of a pre-capitalist social order, who uphold concepts of inherited wealth and privilege and divine authority. The working class of the world cry for Diana Spencer, who never did one day’s serious, and rate her among the great figures of the century. Labour MPs end their days as life peers. In Ireland, for example, the rhythms of its history have been such as to leave the debris of ideologies of other eras either in unreflective co-existence of in uneasy conflict, even within the same person. Lovers of the Lake was a striking evocation of the intermingling of druidic, medieval and modern myths and mores. It is not only executives of multinational corporations, who live well on the fruits of the capitalist system, who believe in its rags-to-riches, equal-opportunity-for-all myths, but those raising children on the dole, whose lives will forever be all-rags-and-no-riches, believe it as well. The images of those who have made it, even if fictionally, may loom larger than the more factual and much more common everyday reality of those who have not.

Television drama plays an enormous role in the development and dissemination of ideologies and it does so on many levels. It is not just when its characters are making speeches declaring their fundamental values. It is not just when its plots are obviously demonstrating the virtues or vices of the capitalist system. It is not only through its particular programmes, but even more through its total flow, through its kaleidoscope of images, which merge with images drawn from a host of other sources, to form a sort of composite picture of the world in our minds over a period of time.

To probe the ideological dimensions of television drama in this sense, it is necessary to focus, not only on particular dramatic productions, but on the overall patterns of development of television drama, to trace the networks of assumptions embodied in the recurring images, plots, settings, themes, genres and modes of characterisation. It is also necessary to analyse the shifts which have occurred over a period of time in relation to the larger shifts within the socio-historical contexts in which they have occurred.

Looked at in this way, all television drama is pervasively ideological. As Todd Gitlin has put it in Inside Prime Time:

“Television can no more speak without ideology than we can speak without prose. We swim in its world even if we don’t believe in it.”15

Indeed, so penetrating is the medium that

“we don’t even have to be tuned in to be wired up”.16

Perhaps more powerfully and pervasively than any other medium, television provides the collective images, stereo-types and myths of popular culture through which we as a society represent ourselves to ourselves and to others. There is a complex and intricate relationship between the production and reception of television drama and the larger pattern of experiencing and coming to terms with the world. Its stories both express and effect the push and pressure of a wider world.

Examining television drama in terms of the stories a society tells about itself to itself and to others and about others to itself is likely to bring to light a great deal about the experiences, moods, concerns, hopes, fears and values of given social forces in a given culture at a given time. It may indicate much about the texture of the times, though it does not do so in a simple and straightforward way. Every drama, even if unintentionally, reveals something of the dynamics of the interacting nexus of forces in the society which has produced it.

It often conceals a fair bit about it as well. Every story, at least implicitly, embodies elements of a world view, in the sense that it symbolically conveys certain premises about what sort of world it is, about how the social order is structured, about what the rules of the game of life are. In doing so, it either acquiesces in the status quo or it queries it, challenges it, dissents from it or poses alternatives to it. It either exposes or eclipses the underlying structures of power. It either normalises or subverts the idealisation of its hegemony, the taken-for-granted assumptions which legitimate it and make its ideology seem to be only common sense. It either induces or inhibits the exploration of alternatives to it.

There has been a tendency to back away from ideological analysis in media studies, exemplified by Jesus Martin-Barbero’s book Communication, Culture And Hegemony: From the Media to Mediations. He characterises it as a conception of the media process which leaves room for nothing but the strategems of domination, a process defined as a few powerful message senders controlling passive receivers without any indication of seduction or resistance. It is perhaps necessary to assert that neither the producers nor the audiences of mass media are homogeneous, that there are internal conflicts and contradictions in the production of programmes, that there are complex strategies of assimilation and resistance in their reception. On one level, it may be a matter of emphasis: how much weight to put on hegemonic texts and how much on alternative or subversive or even oppositional readings of these texts. On another level, it is something more: the unravelling of more powerful explanatory concepts, such as the media imperialism thesis in its more sophisticated versions, into pluralistic dissipation of mediations masking relations of power.17

The ideological complexion emerging from the total flow of television is by no means homogenous. The ideological profile of its drama varies according to time, place, genre, programme, production source, author, etc. There are significant differences, for example, from the 1950s to the 2000s; from America to Britain to Ireland; according to whether it is crime, sit com or soap opera; whether it is from Spelling, BBC or RTE. It embraces numerous contradictory impulses, even subversive ones. It is not a closed system. As Gitlin has put it, “it leaks”.18 It changes. The dominant ideology needs to be continually re-negotiated vis a vis alternative and oppositional trends. It has an enormous capacity to absorb, tame and trivialise even the most subversive currents, although it cannot prevent such challenges to ideological consensus from making any inroads. It operates in a way that often gives the edge to distortion, superficiality, opportunism, crassness and cowardice, but it also gives a certain scope to a sincere search for truth and a deeper striving to come to terms with the exigencies of socio-historical experience.

Nevertheless, amidst all this, there is an underlying pattern, a highly complex one to be sure, in which certain views and values predominate over others, in which certain types of characters, settings, themes, problems, solutions and lifestyles are dramatised at the expense of others.

To come to grips with this, it is vital to ask such questions as:

In terms of any given programme:

Is it a significant story?
Does it have metaphoric thrust?

Does it shed light on common experience?

Does it cleanse perception or add to the clutter?

Does it capture the rhythms of historical process?

Does it provoke recognition, revelation or catharsis?

Has it credibility, integrity, proportion, clarity, immediacy, insight, purpose, depth, relevance, resonance, resolution?

What is the overt point of the story?

What are the unspoken assumptions which set the framework for the story? What is the underlying world view?

What are the underlying presuppositions about class, sex, morality, religion, business, the range of legitimate life – styles, the structure of power, the distribution of wealth?

How are these presuppositions encoded in the narrative conventions, camera movements, editing, casting, dialogue and visual imagery?

What issues are raised? Why?

What is said about the issues raised? Why?
What is not said? Why not?

What issues are not raised? Why not?

What are the key concepts which set the limits within which issues are raised?

What are the alternative key concepts?

In terms of the overall flow of programming:

What stories are being told? By whom? Why?
What alternative ways could these stories be told?

What stories are not being told? Why not?

More specifically:

How to characterise and explain the standardised plots and patterns of resolution, the stereotypical modes of characterisation and the stylised settings of US serial drama?

How to characterise and explain the similarities and differences between these and those of British productions and of Irish productions?

How have any or all of these changed over the years? Why?

What is the relationship between the patterns of development of these changes and the larger patterns of social change?

To make a stab at answering these questions, it is necessary to struggle to synthesise a vast and variable flow of programming.

Suffice it to say here that, between the early days of television and today, there has been much water under the bridge. New tensions and new times have brought to light much that was seething beneath the surface and then burst into open flames, only to be dampened down again. Much is still smouldering, and whatever the attempts to smoother it under a shrill and shallow pretence that all is well, things will never be the same again.

Society has changed enormously in those years and so has television. The trajectory from Friday to Furillo, from Lucy Ricardo to Ally McBeal, from Rita Nolan to Nicola Prendergast, is most definitely one with interesting aesthetic implications and with deep and determinate ideological dimensions. It is a process deserving systematic articulation and demanding serious assessment, grounded in clear and coherent criteria of judgment.

Notes to Chapter 3

1. Paul Feyerabend explicitly argued that “anything goes” even in the natural sciences in Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, 1978.
2. See, for example, John Corner Critical Ideas in Television Studies, Claredon Press, 1999.
3. There have been quite a few studies of Dallas and Dynasty, studying it in relation to different international audiences and taking different critical stances, for example: Ien Ang Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination London, Methuen, 1985; Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas, NY, Oxford University Press, 1990; Jostein Gripsrud The Dynasty Years: Hollywood Television and Critical Media Studies, London, Routledge, 1995; Alessandro Silj East of Dallas:The European Challenge to American Television, London, BFI, 1988. Barbara O’Connor Soap and Sensibility: Audience Response to Dallas and Glenroe, Dublin, RTE, 1990. Gripsrud takes a strong critical position against more populist approaches.
4. Some examples of content analysis of television programmes: JR Cantor, “Humour on Television: A Content Analysis”, Journal of Broadcasting, 20, 1976; Mildred Downing, “Heroine of the Daytime Serial”, Journal of Communication, 24,1974; Sydney Head, “Content Analysis of Television Drama Programs’, Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television, 9,1954; Jean McNeil, “Feminism, Femininity and the Television Series”, Journal of Broadcasting, 19, 1975; Nancy Tedesco, “Patterns in Prime Time”, Journal of Communication, 24,1974.
5. Examples of structuralist and semiotic studies: Roland Barthes Elements of Semiology, London: Cape, 1967. Rosalind Coward and John Ellis Language and Materialism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977; Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, London: RKP, 1978; John Ellis (ed.), Screen Reader: Cinema/ldeology/Politics, London: SEFT, 1977; Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London, Methuen, 1977.
6. Examples of effects research: JD Halloran (ed) The Effects of Television London, Panther, 1970. JG Blumler and E Katz “The Uses and Gratifications Approach to Communications Research” SAGE Annual Review of Communication, 3,1975.
7. Frequently cited as an example of an economist approach to media studies is: Dallas Smythe “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism”, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1, 3,1977.
8. More complex studies of the political economy of television include: Graham Murdock and Peter Golding “Capitalism, Comrnunication and Class Relations”, John Westergaard “Power, Class and Media’, Philip Elliot “Media Organisation and Occupations”, all in Mass Communication and Society, J Curran, M Gurevitch and J Woollacott (eds) London: Arnold, 1977; Nicholas Garnharn , “Contribution to a political economy of mass communication”, Media, Culture and Society, 1;2 1979; Kevin Robbins and Frank Webster “Mass Communication and Information Technology”, Socialist Register, 1979.
9. Studies in the culturalist mode representing different emphases include: Stuart Hall “Culture, the Media and the Ideological Effect” in Mass Communication and Society, op,cit.; M Barrett, P Corrigan, A Kuhn and J Wolff, Ideology and Cultural Production, London: Croom Helm, 1979.
10. Georg Lukacs Marxism and Human Liberation NY 1973, p126.
11. Flaubert cited by Lukacs, ibid, p125.
12. Christopher St John Sprigg to Paul and Elizabeth Beard. 21 November, 1935. Caudwell archives in Humanities Research Center, University of Austin, Texas. Permission to quote from unpublished correspondence from Rosemary Sprigg, executor, and from Paul and Elizabeth Beard.
13. Jeremy Cronin “Even the Dead” in Inside and Out Cape Town, David Philip, 1999, p134.
14. For an elaboration of this approach, see such texts as: Louis Althusser “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin and Philosophy London, New Left Books, 1971; Jacques Lacan Ecrits: A Selection, London, Tavistock, 1977; Julia Kristeva “The Semiotic Activity”, Screen, 14,1/2,1973; Colin MacCabe “Realism and the Cinema”, Screen, 15,2,1974; Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, 16,3,1975. For a critique of this approach, see: EP Thompson The Poverty of Theory London, Merlin, 1978; S Clarke, T Lovell, K Robbins and V Seidler One Dimensional Marxism :Althusser and the Politics of Culture London, Allison & Busby,1980.
15. Todd Gitlin Inside Prime Time, NY, Pantheon,1983, p333.
16. ibid.
17.Jesus Martin-Barbero Communication, Culture And Hegemony: From the Media to Mediations London, SAGE, 1993. See also review by Helena Sheehan in Irish Communications Review 1995.
18. Gitlin “Prime Time Ideology” in Television: The Critical View Horace Newcomb (ed.), NY, Oxford University Press, 1982.

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