Friday, January 23, 2015

Melodrama and employment-themed reality television

      The opening credits of Undercover Boss employ strategies of rhetorical excess to frame the economic recession as a melodrama of personal relationships. The evolution of these credits during the first four seasons demonstrates the series' diminishing interest in the socio-economic context that generated the show and the program's increasing focus on the character of the individual boss. During the first season of Undercover Boss, episodes opened with this melodramatically-intoned voice-over narration during the opening credits: 

Narrator: The economy is going through tough times. Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what's going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take EXTREME action to make their business better.
(Undercover Boss, season 1)

This syntactically awkward opening statement—"the economy is going through tough times"—mirrors the work of the show. It personifies the economy, suggesting that the national or even global economy is yet another individual enduring temporary hardship. This personification, which demonstrates what Hadley identifies as melodrama's "tendency to personify the absolutes like good and evil," (22) minimizes the global recession. It is significant that the word "recession" is not used. At the same time, the indirectness of this statement makes the argument that there is no responsible actor here. The next line, "Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs," hints that the series may take hard workers, the heroes of old melodrama, as protagonists. The rhetorically excessive statement that follows, however, announces that it is the CEO, not the worker, who will be the hero: "some bosses are willing to take EXTREME action."


T. Davis said...

The term "melodrama" here could be historically situated. To move it outside a specific theatrical context threatens to empty the term of meaning. There is a tendency in scholarship today to make arguments through loose analogies. By clearly defining what "melodrama" means in this context, however, you could make a clearer argument.

Susan Schuyler said...

Yes, I could clarify here. I think that melodrama as we know it emerged in the nineteenth century, but I prefer a flexible definition that can be extended beyond that historical period and beyond the theatre itself. In finding echoes of Victorian melodrama in popular culture today, I think we can better understand popular culture's historical roots, and see more clearly the arguments it makes that have become so ritualized we overlook them.

E. Hadley said...

I agree that melodrama as a mode--and it is best defined as a mode, not a genre--emerged in the nineteenth-century. While stage melodrama was the most prominent realization of this mode, melodrama characterized expressive communication in a variety of spaces in the nineteenth-century. I am not as familiar with modern popular culture to make a confident statement about the melodrama on contemporary television. However, I think it is safe to say that it persists.

H. Bloom said...

Hey kids, get off of my lawn.