Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Who needs love when there's Law & Order?

Law & Order is my TV vice.
Yesterday I realized that it is also my brand of soap opera.
"Law & Order? A soap opera?" You ask incredulously.

I know, it seems like L&O doesn't have much in common with ubiquitous daytime TV fare such as The Bold & The Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, or All My Children. Yes, the structures and formulae are different. Soap operas are serialized - each episode picks up where the last left off. L&O is episodic - each episode is a self-contained story. (L&O does have serial strands from time to time, such as the storyline around Olivia's mother in SVU, but is by and large episodic.)

The most obvious difference, of course, seems to be one of genre. Soap operas deal in complicated romances and family secrets. Law & Order is a hybrid of crime and courtroom dramas. Both, however, are melodramas. In her essay "Melodrama Revisted," Linda Williams argues that melodrama is not a proper genre, but a trans-generic mode. The melodramatic mode, whether as it is manifest in a 1940s' Douglas Sirk pic or in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo, is largely about morality and righteous suffering. Law & Order has both of those themes in common with soap operas.

The settings of Law & Order and soap operas are also vastly different. Soap operas are set in the domestic sphere; L&O is set in the public sphere - whether the urban space of the streets of NYC or government buildings such as the police station and the courtroom. But in both instances the setting is very important. The details of the mise en scene form a shorthand for viewers. These shorthands work across series (in the case of the soap opera) and spinoffs (in the case of L&O). Props, and costumes give us familiar character types - the oily boyfriend and the scheming mother, the edgy cop and the virtuous ADA.

Formal and structural techniques are very similar between soap operas and Law & Order. Intense dialogue-driven scenes are shot with shot-reverse shot close-ups of expressive faces. Dramatic music comes in at crucial moments in both, driving up the tension.

Finally, the way the two are shown on TV are pretty similar: they're both always on.

To close, I leave you with this video of Amanda Palmer's "Leeds United," the source of this post's title:

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