Saturday, October 29, 2011

Are so called Zimbabwean Soap Operas on Course or still Groping in the darkness?

Sunday Mirror, 7 March 2004
Samuel Ravengai

In 2002 the first Zimbabwean soap opera came on air. Thereafter, several others emerged and I got increasingly worried about the idea of a soap opera which, at that time, was not properly understood by most producers. I decided something needed to be done and wrote this article, parts of which appeared in the Sunday Mirror. I won myself a lot of enemies and friends. I guess that is the prize for impacting on lives. Here is what I wrote then:

 The 2003 new television season began with much fanfare as the then head of Radio and Television Services Ms Abigail Mvududu announced to the nation that a home grown soap opera Studio 263 was going to be part of the menu. Kabanana, from Zambia and Fragments by a Zimbabwean producer King Dube were to follow. I believe by now Cont Mhlanga and Sithokhozile Zulu are at an advanced production stage with their soap opera Makorokoza. However, the real crux of the matter is can everything which is a dramatic serial be given the tag of a soap opera? We saw the production and screening of Ziva Kwawakabva, Mavara Azare Ivhu, Inongova Njakenjake, Zim Life, Kwiyo Muzukuru, Nzungu Muriva 1 and 2; the list is endless. All these television dramas were dramatic serials; not to be confused with soap operas.

Let us look at the origins of soap opera and see how it evolved to become what it is today. Although the term soap opera was listed as a new word in 1945 in American Speech, there is overwhelming evidence that this word existed well before 1945. According to Allen (1985) it appeared in the American magazine Newsweek as early as 1939. In the literature of that period soap opera is referred to as a ‘daytime dramatic serial’. The term ‘dramatic’ is full of ambiguities as it seems to embrace other television dramatic genres. Soap Opera has got its origins in opera. The opera invented its own structures by borrowing from three European performance traditions, namely the church, pageants and the masque. From the tenth century medieval church, opera borrowed from morality plays, mystery plays and miracle plays which contain almost all its bare essentials- music, narrative, costume and scenery. From the pageants, certain elements from quasi-pagan festivals and royal weddings were adapted. A shining example from this performance tradition is the play The Pilgrim which formed part of the entertainment at the royal wedding of Ferdinando and Christine of Lorraine in 1589 in Florence. The play contained six dramatic musical interludes, which are a familiar feature in contemporary opera. From the masque, which is a type of courtly entertainment in 16th century Europe, opera borrowed some of its elements like speeches, poetry, song, instrumental music, dance, games and revels. These features were borrowed, reinvented, restructured and reorganised to form a conventional system which is today called opera. The soap opera borrowed heavily from opera. Since radio is older than television, soap opera began on radio before it was taken over by television. The problem with defining a soap opera from a radio perspective is that the visual dimension is sidelined while the audio dimension is given prominence. The Dictionary of American Slang (1975) defines a soap opera as ‘a daily dramatic serial program broadcast by radio usually lasting fifteen minutes each day, concerning fictitious domestic crises and troubles and often characterised by little action’. This could be true to radio, but it certainly does not suffice for television. I have no problems in viewing Mopani Junction as a radio soap opera as it has all the attributes that a radio can possibly handle- a dramatic narrative, music, domestic crises, lack of closure etc. Television is an audio-visual medium and therefore a television soap opera definition has to take cognisance of this fact. From opera, television borrowed music, elaborate costume, elaborate set and of course heightened drama. However, these elements were not taken as they were. Television by its very nature creates its own version of the traditional popular arts by inventing a new structure which when used over a period of time becomes a formula. The soap opera has developed its own ways and techniques which it uses to shape, rearrange and repackage cultural products that were already in existence. These techniques jelly together to create the soap opera generic code which enables viewers to read a television product as a soap opera and not any other genre like a courtroom drama, western, horror movie, documentary, musical, science fiction, spoof, police and so on. There are conflations here and there. But how did the term “soap” come into being? Allen (1985) explains ‘the soap in soap opera derives from sponsorship of daytime serials by manufacturers of household cleaning products: Proctor and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers’.

A soap opera is a serial narrative whose world is populated by mostly middle class characters. All over the world, this class of people is not the majority in the population demography. However, in the soap operas wherever they are produced in the world, the number of middle class characters is disproportionately high compared to their distribution in those societies. In the Daily Mirror of 14 January 2004, Talkmore Chikumbirike castigated Studio 263 ‘for abandoning the rural life, concentrating on an urban setting’. Other television genres can handle those rural characters and settings quite well. On this generic code Studio 263 is on course although the earliest episodes were off-track. Proportionately, the workplaces and residential areas depicted in soap operas are those associated with middle class occupations and leisure- corporate offices, restaurants, clubs, posh houses and cars, law firms and so on. The dressing code also complements the softness and class of the characters as outlined by Newcomb (1974): “For the most part the people are elegantly but tastefully groomed. The men dress conservatively even when casual. The women are carefully trimmed in stylish fashions, coiffed in the most fitting styles. The appearance is carried into their homes” Studio 263 seems to be doing well on this aspect. Mrs Huni is always dressed to kill so are all the girl characters and everybody else except Themba, Mr Jari and Tendai.

Another aspect related to characterisation is that soap opera characters exist independently of the actors and actresses who portray them. If for any reason an actor decides to leave the soapie, he is replaced by another unless of course the head writer decides to write the actor out of the cast. I understand Chikumbirike’s concern over Studio 263’s dragging when Stephen Chigorimbo decided to throw in the towel. Shannon McNicol was also not replaced leading the soapie changing direction. Studio 263 executive producer has to realise that a soap opera is very flexible as the audience will quickly adjust to any change of actor or actress. Incompetent actors and actresses can also be fired (and they are quite a number) if better ones are available. It is also permissible in a soap opera to resurrect dead characters. Mary, Manson’s girlfriend in Santa Barbra was raised from the dead many times. I must also add that the soap opera text must exist independently of associate writers or dialoguers as they are known in certain production houses. The script must not bear the mark of a certain writer. In Studio 263 there is a writer who is given to verbosity and overwriting. There is another or maybe they are quite a number who do not have the art of writing at all. They present lectures to the viewers and take them through boring routines. They forget that good intentions are not enough for the material must be interesting. The most interesting characters to watch are those who have a certain attraction towards each other yet they have the most conflict. There is another one who writes in a much better way and can be groomed.

A soap opera is also a serial narrative whose world is mostly set in the interior. It shares this generic code with a sitcom. As the viewers are allowed access to the soap opera community and as they enter house after house, their eyes are not allowed access to the outside world/space. There is nothing of substance in the soap opera realm between these physical spaces. The interior spaces depicted must be commensurate with the middle class taste of the characters. The furniture and electronic gadgets are solidly middle class. The taste in furniture and design ranges from traditional to modern. Everything in the spaces is soft and comfortable. Studio 263 straddles the course regarding this generic code. Its selection of internal spaces is accurate. The furniture in Tom Mbambo and Huni’s houses is indicative of their social and economic positions. Those in the lower middle class- the Jaris and Muwengwas are also fairly represented. The only problem with Studio 263 is their inclination to external spaces- the construction sites, fishing expeditions, airport farewells, out of court space, car parks etc. This use of space is not seen in many established soap operas like Santa Barbra, Generations, Isidingo and so on. This must be completely avoided as this is the domain of the movie and other television genres. By its very nature of running from Monday to Friday, a soap opera is a mass produced product which does not require the rigours that are associated with shooting those scenes. At Rotten Row Court, we ended up with Tom and the journalist as the only people occupying the car park. That place, on a normal working day is filled up with all sorts of people and cars. Where would PSI get the money to pay all those people who should make the place look more realistic? Big budget movies can afford that luxury.
The third soap opera generic code is that its narrative is family and/or community centred as opposed to character centred fictive television genres. There is not a single protagonist and an antagonist as we would find in a movie or a properly written television drama. The crises that occur in the narrative blast the whole family and not just an individual thus they are aptly labelled “domestic crises”. The family forms a subplot which is linked to other family subplots by family members who relate with other characters from a different family. The cumulative effect of these intra and interpersonal relationships is the formation of a community of anything between forty and fifty regular characters and a host of other irregular and new characters who continue to be added as new subplots are added and expanded. These relationships are based on kinship, friendships, business, marriage, and romance including interracial. In certain societies where relationships on the basis of the above are not a norm, minority groups are not represented in the cast. It is not uncommon in America to find an all white cast in a soap opera. This is not the norm in Zimbabwe and any race can be part of the cast. Admittedly, there is a group of characters who are more prominent than others in any given episode, however none can be separated and given that special role of a protagonist or antagonist. We simply have main characters and supporting characters. Who is the protagonist in Generations? In Studio 263? In Days Of Our Lives? Difficult to say eh! On this generic code Studio 263 passes the test.

To add to this, a soap opera is a serial narrative which is unending. One television critic Marya Mannes once said about soap operas ‘all is suffused, formless, unresolving, unending’. In other dramatic television genres like a movie, TV drama and so on problems are created in order to be solved towards the end of the narrative. The protagonist achieves his goal or fails to achieve his goal but accomplishes something nonetheless. The old order is reinstated at the end and sometimes a new one is established. Contrastingly, in a soap opera, the operative phrase is ‘growing suspense’. If this is to be achieved, new questions continually suggested by the growing action must be created at a faster rate than answers. The story is in no hurry to solve the problems and the story goes on forever, but without losing its entertainment value. This is the major challenge facing Studio 263. Ever since it began in 2002, about six subplots were established- Kenge subplot, Tom subplot, Jari subplot, Muwengwa subplot, Dread Welly subplot and the James subplot. The question is what is the contribution of these subplots to the overall story? If a subplot is contributing very little to the superobjective, it has no reason to exist. What does the Dread Welly subplot contribute to the story? Can the story cease to exist without it? Godwin Mawuru must revisit the story. A year now has passed and no old subplot has been killed nor a new one formed. The story is going to be exhausted very soon and force the soapie to be like any other boring TV drama.

Furthermore, a soap opera is a serial narrative which underscores nearly all its scenes with music. This generic code is borrowed from stage opera. It is now extensively used even in other stage performances like melodrama and also TV genres like documentaries, movies and game shows. Since a soap opera is a world of emotional extremes, it extensively exploits music to accentuate the emotional response it strives for. Music is not just used willy nilly; it provides transition of time and place. Apart from that, it is used to offer aural representation of the character’s state of mind. It predicts the disaster or excitement that is to follow a given incident. Special use of lights can also help this endeavour. The Studio 263 composer is not doing a fair job. Not all the time do we have music at the aforementioned points. There is need for a variety of sounds to suit each situation. The interpretation of the script rests with the director and he needs to say what he wants at pre-shoot briefs so that his director of photography and lighting designer can be more creative. Independent creativity emanates from the production concept created by the director. Yes there is music in Studio 263, but more creativity is needed in that department.

Another soap opera generic code is that its structure is non formulaic. Other television genres have a formula which has been widely copied by broadcasters and independent producers to gain extra mileage from its commercial success. Wallace (2000)’s book You Can Write a Movie lists a total of sixty-nine genres of movies. All of them use the same formulaic structure of exposition, inciting incident, complications, crises, climax and resolution. This structural arrangement is usually described as Freytag Pyramid. Although the soap opera has got some aspects of the above formula, their placement within its plot does not form a pyramid. The soap opera structure is a labyrinth. Some writers have used the term ‘formless’ for it. Allen (1985) rightly compares the plot movement of a soap opera to that of an uncertain tourist when he says ‘the movement of the reader’s wandering viewpoint along the frontiers of the text is not that of the driver of a sports car down a superhighway, but rather that of the uncertain tourist provided with a rather sketchy map, who frequently stops to look back where s/he has been, occasionally takes a side road, and constantly tries to glimpse what lies around the next bend’. This is where Studio 263 totally misses the point. The story is always moving forward and at high speed like a sports car down a superhighway. Each episode has an average of six scenes. Each subplot is normally given a scene of its own and once the issue has been dealt with, the story moves to another subplot. It is no coincidence that in a story with six subplots, the average number of scenes in each episode is six. The result is that the story has no gaps or blanks to allow the process of ideation on the part of viewers. I have read many views from the press and from ZBC itself complaining about lack of suspense in the story. Blank creation is one of the many ways of building suspense.

This brings me to the last generic code of a soap opera, which is redundancy. There is intraepisodic redundancy where the story revolves around the same issue which is shared by the characters in each episode. In one 1998 episode of Santa Barbra, Lionel’s wife throws in the towel. In the Cruse subplot, Santana is sick in hospital. For many weeks to come Lionel is begging his estranged wife to reconsider her stance. Cruse continually comes to visit Santana in her ward. Access to the CC subplot is gained through the technique of interior monologue. In fact many subplots thrive on intraepisodic redundancy. A thirty minute episode ends without much forward movement of the plot. Allen (1985) correctly puts it “reduced to its syntagmatic axis, the soap opera becomes an endless string of excruciatingly retarded subplots, related in episodes whose redundancy gives them an almost Sisyphean tiresomeness”. I appreciate the use interior monologues in Studio 263 as a way of introducing redundancy, but the scriptwriters need to be properly trained in the art of creating gaps and dialogue writing. As I have already indicated, Studio 263 is moving far too fast. However, it is not as fast as it used to be when it began. One would have thought it was not going to last another two months then. The writers have managed to slow it down a bit, but it needs to be slowed once more without losing its entertainment value. Once an issue has been exhausted, new problems must be created. We now know who sponsored the drugging of Vimbai on the eve of Miss Zimbabwe and the story shouldn’t dwell any further on that issue; new complications must be introduced.

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