Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soapy Research Questions

The Ryan's Hope viewing experiment continues. I need to spend a bit of non-workout time with an episode or two to count the number of scenes per episode and their length, but there is no doubt that scenes go on for much longer in the RH of 1975 than they do on any soap today. A couple of other observations/questions (mostly so I can remember these thoughts when I eventually try to turn some of it into an argument):

1) the show seems to have multiplied its number of sets as of episode 17. From that point, we're seeing new sets each episode. None are fancy; all are very bare bones, but it's nice to get a wider view of the community this way. My guess is that they could only build so many before production began but, as of a few weeks in, more were up and running.

2) Men keep asking women out for meals and I'm having a difficult time reading the social mores of the time because I'm often not quite sure if this is an invitation to a date or just a friendly gesture. In the case of Bucky's offers to Faith, I know it is a date. His interest in her, and her oddball standoffishness, are at the center of the story. But I don't know how to read Ed Coleridge inviting Nell Beaulac, who is recently estranged from her husband, out to eat. Or how to read Roger Coleridge (Ed's son!) similar offer to Nell. [Update: Just saw ep. 21, when they do go out and Roger DEFINITELY sees it as a date.] Or Roger's offer to Mary, who seems more age-appropriate for him. And I think maybe Bob Reed also asked Mary out to eat. Are these the equivalent of the present-day soaps' "chemistry tests"? If so, they are so much more subtle that it is difficult to tell what they are suggesting. In fact, most things are much more subtle than in the present day soaps (or at least in that sinking ship, GH, which may very well be the worst I've seen it in my 25+ years of viewing). But RH keeps me guessing. Do Roger and Bob have things for Mary? Do Pat and Faith have a past? Does Delia really know that Frank and Jill are having an affair? I'm watching for clues to all of these questions as much as for the big plot points. Either it's really careful soap plotting or I just don't get 1975 social cues.

[Update: I think it's really careful plotting. In episode 20 we get the first real clue that something may be physically wrong with Nell--the dreaded soap headache!--while in the entire first month of the show she just seemed oddly determined to move on with her neurological research. But that determination is slowly, slowly going to be revealed as a cover for something else going on with her. Such careful long-range plotting! Love it!]

I've also been making plans to move forward with my soap research this summer and fall. One archive I plan to visit is UCLA's Film and Television Archive, as they have the most extensive collection of actual soap episodes anywhere I've seen, including episodes from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the pre-home VCR era and thus the era before fans were archiving episodes themselves. The most amazing part of their collection is a nearly full run of General Hospital from its debut in 1963 well into 1970. Both the fan and the scholar in me are beyond excited at the possibility of watching GH from the beginning. But.

Researching soaps = not easy. First, of course, is the time factor. I can't watch 7 years of GH episodes in an archive in California unless I were to live there and to view regularly for months. Even if this were possible, there's another but.

Some of these episodes are what the archive considers "archival copies." This means that no one can see them. Ever. The copies are too poor or fragile or something to be available for viewing. This is not just the case with some of the GH episodes but with MANY of the other soap episodes they list in their catalog (such as early '70s All My Children--the Erica abortion story!--and many others). I'm not a trained archivist, of course, but I just don't understand why they would hold such materials in the collection with these constraints.

Another problem: many of the GH episodes, as well as many other of the older soap episodes in the collection, are classified as "research copies." This means that the archivists must transfer the copy to VHS for me to view. The catch is their policy on such copies, which is to copy no more than 10 hours of programming per researcher. Now, the archive has other copies readily available for viewing, episodes that, presumably, others have watched in the past and that have thereby been transferred to VHS already. But this is a scattered selection, and one that does not include some of the real gems in the collection. With much advance notice, the under-staffed and under-budgeted archivists seem willing to stretch those 10 hours a bit for me. But it is doubtful that they will be willing/able to transfer the 30 or so (if I'm being honest, it's more like 40) hours I would most like to be able to see during my trip.

So my next task is to try to prioritize the list of what I would like transferred. I've already decided to limit my viewing to material before the early 1980s as the home VCR era that ensues thereafter makes it more likely that I will be able to see some of that material via fans' collections (plus my own memories and tapes). But, beyond that, I have several possibilities. Possibility no. 1: do I see as much GH as I can and have an in-depth sense of one show's past? (Keep in mind that that depth is inherently limited, as I can't watch all the episodes they have.) Possibility no. 2: If I do focus on GH, do I scatter my viewing across the years they have, or focus it so as to watch a particular story unfold? If the latter, how to choose an entry point? Or (possibility no. 3) do I spread my viewing across shows and time periods, to be more representative? (But how can you really get a sense of how a soap storyline is told by watching an episode here and there?)

I get irritated by claims that researching soap history is "impossible" because of such constraints, so don't think I'm saying that (and don't tell me that in comments, either!). But such are the practical considerations any archival study entails, albeit with particularly constraining constraints for the study of soaps.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?"

Just a linky little post to share this Inside Higher Ed article, reporting on a study addressing the above question, including the matter of differences in the experiences of male and female academics. Note the comments, as well. There's plenty of awareness of the problems academia may raise for parenting there, but also a defensiveness that I find disturbing, an urge to blame the (female) academic for her disinterest in childbearing and rearing in some instances and also an assertion that sacrificing academic life for motherhood is sometimes a necessity.

Nothing infuriates me more than the suggestion that we should accept the limitations of the institution. Urgh!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's next?

That's the question of the day, as I finally put my semester's work behind me and plot out my plans for the eight (8!) months of unstructured time ahead of me this summer and this fall, when I have a sabbatical semester. I've been eager to get to this time for weeks. Now that it's here, I'm a bit intimidated by it. I'm sure to feel better by the end of the day, when I hope to have a specific plan of what I hope to accomplish when. Three key activities are on the agenda: 1) reading, 2) writing, 3) research. I'm off to map the future--

Monday, May 12, 2008

On my iPod, it's 1975

I finally finished my viewing of the first 4 seasons of Entourage. I had recorded the series to DVD from HBO, transferred the episodes to my iPod, and watched them at the gym while working out on the elliptical trainer (and sometimes the treadmill, which is really too bouncy for such a tiny screen and my workout effectiveness is ENTIRELY secondary in priority to my iPod TV watching). I've written before about how much I love being able to watch TV while working out and how that feeling seems to transfer itself in full to whatever I am watching. So I totally enjoyed Entourage, which may be the subject of another post. I'm sure my pleasure was in part due to the efficiency/pleasure combo of the situation, but I also got a kick out of the show's unabashed masculine fantasy. But more on that later, perhaps.

I've decided that my next iPod TV project is going to be my backlog of Ryan's Hope episodes. I've been archiving these from Soapnet for the past couple of years, determined to save them all. I've watched bits and pieces, but have long wanted to start from the beginning and plow through. So this week I've begun with episode 1, from July 1975. RH was a half-hour soap that aired from '75 to '89 on ABC. Created and run for many years by Claire Labine, one of my fave GH headwriters of yesteryear, it's a soap that seems to be remembered fondly by many. I watched a bit in the '80s, but certainly not in the '70s. I'm just a few episodes in, but I'm really enjoying it so far. Again, iPod/workout magic is surely in effect, but so far it's an expertly told story. We are introduced to 9 regular characters in the first half hour ep (more like 20 minutes without commercials), all of whom have identifiable traits. The first week included location shooting in NYC (RH has been one of the few US daytime soaps set in a real place) and the seeds for some real soapy goodness--bantery romantic relationship between Mary and Jack, classically manipulative villainess in Delia, twisted familial dynamics between Faith and Papa Coleridge. And aside from the clothes and hair, it is not reading as dated to me.

Soapnet stops its RH reruns at the end of 1981, reportedly because the onset of popular music on the soundtrack thereafter has created rights issues. (This is also reportedly the reason why the much beloved, short-lived NBC soap, Santa Barbara, has not made a Soapnet appearance.) I'm not promising I'm watching straight through '81 at this point--I may take a break to watch something else for awhile--but now I'm definitely plotting when I can get to the gym to watch some more.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When it comes to gender, how real is MTV keepin' it?

No, this is not going to be one of those posts about how fake The Hills is. If it bothers you that the producers set up Lauren's dates or Heidi's "job", it's not the show for you.

But this is going to be a post about the gender politics of some recent moments on The Hills, and on The Paper, MTV's new must-see reality drama, the show that allows high school newspaper editors of yesteryear to relive/shrink in horror at their glory days.

When I wrote about The Hills for the online TV studies journal Flow a couple of seasons ago, I lamented the gender politics of a MTV's new-fashioned soap, pointing out the difference between The Hills' take on heterosexual romance and that of the daytime soaps (at least the soaps as they should be, but all too often are not these days). I wrote this after the gut-punch of Lauren's decision to forgo a summer-in-Paris internship for a summer in a Malibu beach house with her abusive boyfriend Jason. I wasn't so much upset with Lauren as I was with the program's representation of Lauren's choice as the height of romance, and of Jason as just so adorably in love that he couldn't bear to be away from her.

Since then, The Hills has taken a decidedly different turn, one also indebted to the daytime soaps. Lauren's real-world break up with Jason during the Malibu beach house summer forced a storyline reboot in which Lauren became single gal unlucky in love (and wary of awful dudes like Jason) and the primary drama shifted away from boys and toward the relationships between the girls--a dynamic always present but soon heightened by the breakdown of Lauren's friendship with Heidi.

Now, the daytime soaps grapple with relationships between women as well. But the kinds of problems that place daytime's women at odds with one another tend to be of a more melodramatic nature--baby swaps, man stealing, and lies, lies, lies. The tensions between the women of The Hills are more quotidian, but also painfully close to many girls' and women's actual experiences of friendship drama. OK, maybe a sex tape is not at the center of most women's friendship tension, but the issues underlying L and H's sex tape battle are all too common -- feelings of betrayal, of abandonment, of rejection.

The problem for The Hills these days is that Lauren and Heidi are seemingly splitsville forever--these two ain't gonna be friends again and Lauren, at least, seems to have little interest in engaging with Heidi at all, even to accuse and argue. So where's the new drama? It seems to be brewing between new roomies Lauren, Lo, and Audrina, as Lauren is placed in between her actual, for-real childhood pal Lo and her MTV-generated friendship with Audrina.

Granted, this totally works as relatable drama. But. It is placing Lo in the position of villainess, and this I just can't take. Lo is one of the few young women gracing the Laguna/Hills-averse that seems to have some smarts. She's witty, clever, just seems to have thoughts going on behind her sparkly blues. (I really don't mean to diss the others, especially not Lauren, who delivers some bon mots of her own from time to time.) In this latest friendship drama, Lo is being depicted as forcing Audrina out of Lauren's life while Audrina is the sad victim of Lo's actions. [Important aside: Isn't Justinbobby's transformation a-mazing?! Sobriety has made him actually really and truly attractive! He looks great, and is a sympathetic boyfriend/friend/whatever to Audrina!]

The soap villianess is a crucial character, but in the daytime soap world her villainy comes from somewhere--usually insecurity or desperation or revenge--and her challenges to patriarchal strictures of femininity are a pleasure to love (or love to hate). But Lo is so not this character. No, the brainiest girl on The Hills is cast as the bitch, for no real reason other than to stir up drama. Disappointing, again.

The Paper features another brainy girl in the role of villain. But Amanda Lorber is no existing genre's idea of the female foil. This series chronicles the experiences of the new regime of editors at a high school newspaper in Florida. Amanda is the new editor in chief, a girl unlike any we typically see on American TV. Others have described her better than I could, but suffice it to say that she is super-ambitious, super-enthusiastic, super-nerdy, yet supremely confident. Others have compared her to Election's Tracey Flick, a great teen girl character if ever there was one, but Amanda is much less cutthroat than Tracey, and also more vulnerable and more likable. Most of Amanda's underling editors are guys, also super-nerdy but so ensconced in their nerdy guy world that they don't really notice or care.

The main thrust of The Paper's story so far is the rest of the editorial staff's indignation at Amanda's appointment as in-chief. The other kids mock her, criticize her, pretty openly hate on her. At first I thought I couldn't watch the show because they were so mean to her, and she was such a comedic figure that I thought the show wanted me to side with them and laugh at her, too. But the Amanda-love I encountered online, as in feminist-leaning sites like Jezebel, encouraged me to take another look.

I'm pretty certain now that The Paper has a more complex story to tell, one in which the editorial staff (mostly straight-acting boys, but also one girl-who-hangs-with-the-boys and one seemingly gay guy) may turn into the real villains while we are invited to side with Amanda, however misguided she may seem. This became especially clear to me when it was revealed that Amanda has a past of sorts with Alex, perhaps her greatest male adversary, the paper's Managing Editor and Amanda's second in command. Alex admits to having had a crush on Amanda in 9th grade and the two clearly share a long friendship, one now somewhat fractured. In part this seems to do with their competition for the top spot at the paper, but I'm thinking it has more to do with his teen boy assholery, his need to prove his manhood by asserting his superiority to her, by aligning with his buds against her. And he is not looking good in the process. Week by week, Amanda in all her goofiness is coming off as the one to root for.

I'm still a bit uncertain as to where this will all lead, and I still worry that Amanda is too much the butt of the joke on this show to make her the sympathetic heroine I want her to be. I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that she doesn't get the Lo treatment--no room for smart girls on MTV after all. Meanwhile I'm rooting for the girl to prove her haters wrong.