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Wesleyan University | Center for the Humanities


Consuming Darkness: Melodrama and Comedy in Television Storytelling

Consuming Darkness: Melodrama and Comedy in Television Storytelling

ELIZABETH G. TRAUBE • Wesleyan University

NOVEMBER 28 @ 6 P.M. | Daniel Family Commons, Usdan University Center

Various commentators remarked on the pronounced darkness of the vision of America that Donald Trump projected in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in July. Unlike Republican presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan who have emphasized the nation's infinite possibilities, Trump dwelt upon themes of danger, vulnerability, and decline. He conjured an embattled and weakened America, threatened from within and from without, and he presented himself as the strong, hypermasculine leader prepared to do whatever it takes to restore "law and order". Although he reiterated that phrase three times, the television show that anticipated Trump's America was 24 (Fox, 2001-2010). 24 told the story of counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, as he (almost) single-handedly saved the nation from a seemingly endless series of deadly attacks, all the while dealing with internal interference from weak and/or treacherous media professionals, bureaucrats and politicians who cast doubt on his judgment, abilities, and loyalties. Surrounded by critical disbelievers, Jack, like Trump, is willing to take extreme measures to defend the nation against its enemies. 24 was one of the most successful network versions of a dark turn in television storytelling, a pervasive shift, evident across genres, from a reassuring to a more pessimistic, disillusioned address. Cable channels and streaming sites, less restricted by regulators or advertisers, have favored lawbreakers over lawgivers in their original dramas, a programming trend driven by the unprecedented success of HBO's The Sopranos (1999-2007), which aligned viewers with its mafia dad. In keeping with established language of cultural value, the shift to darker stories is typically portrayed as a claim to "realism," and The Sopranos, in particular, has been hailed as "tragedy". But television scholars argue that the shift is better understood in terms of a pervasive melodramatization of prime-time television storytelling. This lecture explores industrial, aesthetic, and cultural conditions for the shift in storytelling, with attention to intersections of dramatic and comic genres, and to continuities with early television. If, as revisionist critics of 1950s domestic sitcoms have argued, the seemingly utopian television of the postwar era had dystopian undertones, then the heightened pessimism of contemporary television may provide resources for hope.

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