Prime Time Genre and Cultural Difference in Narrative Construction — Or, The Theme of Work in Western TV

This week is hectic in part because the biannual Student Presentation Contest is coming up. It sounds more, er, voluntary than it actually is: a contest lends at least a little more of an air of excitement to what is a graduation requirement: every student must give a ten minute presentation to the department.

Well, no, not to the department, but to an audience. It turned out that if we actually ran the contest these days the way we did originally, there would be something like 450 minutes of speeches back-to-back, or run over two days, and no human being sit through that much at one time.  So we’ve enlisted help from the English Lit department and pair up professors to judge the individual contests, then comparing the “winners” of each group to see who ought to come out on top.

The quality of the presentations was becoming a bit of an issue, so we started running workshops on how to give a good presentation, and how to construct a convincing set of arguments for a solidly constructed thesis. But this seemed not to make much difference, so we’ve instituted a “proposal” stage to the contest, where everyone must submit a passable proposal for the contest, complete with a clearly stated, strong thesis, a research plan, and more.

This, too, seems not to have made much difference: students still seem to be submitting topics (such as “Reality TV”) as if they were “solidly constructed thesis statements.” So I’ve spent the afternoon doing two things:

  1. Writing up a brief and simple guide on how to choose a topic, research it, come up with a thesis, refine a thesis, build a series of arguments that support the thesis, and finally conclude a presentation. It’s the first half of the document. The second half will focus on how to actually prepare for the presentation itself – the act of presenting. There’s also an appendix titled “Dead Topics” for topics we’ve seen so many times we want to vomit when we see them, and would prefer students not choose anymore. (I’m also going to revise the point-by-point worksheet so that students who fill it out will, by definition, have at least gone through the process necessary to have a strong thesis, and three supporting arguments, as well as a sensible start on their research. Yes, I’m just now getting how a worksheet could in its own structure (with leading questions) be inherently didactic. Wish someone had told me. Har har, very funny.)
  2. Consulting with students who need to rewrite their proposals and resubmit them for a chance to participate this semester.

You might think that for a group of students who couldn’t seem to come up with a sold thesis and supporting argument to save their lives, the discussions might be uninteresting, but in fact, some of them are very interesting indeed. This afternoon, I had a really fascinating talk with a student who was simply not coming at things from an interesting angle. She grasped that Korean and American prime time TV shows are different.

The thing was, she had a specific preference for the American TV dramas, and took the universally-applicable validity of her preference for granted. This  tripped her up, for what I think is mostly the same reason a lot of literary critics bash SF and can’t produce anything worth reading on the subject: it’s difficult to do really incisive critical analysis on something that you regard as trash, or dislike immensely. Of course, it is possible to do so — otherwise feminist, postcolonial, and other schools of literary criticism would have nothing to say about the texts they most often are very concerned with — but one needs to be well-trained in order to do it well, and it’s just not easy or pleasant.

Well, it might be easy if you're this guy.

Taking a degree in English Literary Criticism — which is what an English Literature degree is, since what’s most important is being able to play the litcrit game —  is really a kind of training in setting aside one’s personal taste and reactions to a text, and looking into it to see what can be talked about interestingly. One learns to see which discussions the text invites directly — what’s there in the text — and what’s visible through intended or unintended gaps and omissions — what’s been left out of the text.

It is a strange way of reading, when one is coming to it for the first time, as have lately been reminded by some of my students in our discussions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s not how most people read, that’s for sure. More about the Conrad in another upcoming post, though.

Anyway, we talked about what was better about American TV shows, and then I pointed out one interesting fallacy a friend of mine pointed out to me once. A lot of North Americans, he said, claim that British TV is better than American; but of course, it’s mostly the good stuff that people outside Britain will be seeing. He argued that in his experience, there’s heaps of garbage on British TV just like anywhere. I noted that large proportions of American TV are awful, just like large proportions of Korean TV are, but that the true garbage isn’t aired in Korea, or watched by people like her, or, maybe, even pirated here. For example, I asked, “Have you ever seen Days of Our Lives, or General Hospital?”

She hadn’t, of course.

This led to an interesting point: one of the interesting things that had come up earlier was the question of why the student believed American TV shows were superior to Korean ones. She cited the longer-running seasons, for one thing. I raised the point that British TV series are often shorter, too, and that I’m not alone among North Americans who think this is one reason the good BBC series are really good. Meanwhile, daytime soap dramas — which more than superficially resemble Korean prime time dramas, by the way — are very long-running, but it doesn’t make them, er, “good.”

After we talked a bit about daytime soap dramas, I happened to observe that what little I’ve seen of prime time Korean TV shocked me primarily because it reminded me of soap operas. The student made a connection that, as she thought, the individual in the household would would be making the decisions as far as TV viewing was likelier to be a wife than a husband, especially given the higher concentration of housewives in Korean, and the higher likelihood of them caring what’s on TV than a husband who, if he even is home from work yet, is likely too tired to care.

My thesis is that the average Korean man doesn't want to smash any TV he sees this on, like your average Western man, because he's either not home to see it, or is too worn out to care what's on TV.

I’m not sure this flies, of course — I know Korean men, and even, yes, really, Western men who are into Korean drama programs. Still, it’s an interesting question: to what degree is Korean prime time TV catering to the interests of women more than the interests of men, when compared to the USA?

That said, images like this make it hard to disagree with the notion Korean TV caters to women:

This is one palace I'd love to nuke... if it were real.

Of course, I had to go in and complicate it for her, though, with a crack I made about both Grey’s Anatomy and whatever Korean medical drama had come up. If you’ve not seen any, this is both amusing and, well, feels for me like the one medical drama I saw once here:

I was comparing both to E.R. and noting how Grey’s Anatomy and the Korean medical drama were both more like, well, a romance drama that happened to be set in a hospital and featuring people in funny white coats, while E.R., for all that its characters have arcs and backstories, is primarily about people being doctors, treating this or that medical case.

It reminded me of something I’d read or heard somewhere — I’ll likely not remember where for ages, though it feels like something Vernor Vinge brought up in Seattle, maybe? — about how Kipling was one of the first writers to really, extensively, seriously write about work. Actually, Melville did it too, right? And Shakespeare didn’t, unless you call being a king work, and I don’t. Melville was all up in sailing and stuff; Kipling was all up in various types of administrative work. I see glimmerings of it in Wells, like in the massive reconstruction program towards the end of In the Days of the Comet, which I reviewed here.

But in earlier English literature, unless your work was being a king, searching for the holy grail, or killing horrid beasties (as in, say, Beowulf) — which is to say, unless you were a sort of “Great Man” character — your work was something likelier to be, well, at best, a backdrop to the drama surrounding your nuptials, your family crisis, or whatever. In a lot of what we seem to consider canonical literature, work is something characters wouldn’t be caught dead doing, at least “onscreen.”

But look at American TV drama: it’s saturated with work, not just as incidental backdrop but as the driving force of the narrative. Police dramas. Lawyer dramas. Forensics dramas. Gangster dramas. (The Sopranos basically was about the psychological tensions resulting from the disconnect between Tony’s work  and his family life, as one of the promotional images directly dramatizes:

Note how the mobsters are in gathered in one group, Tony's family in the other, and Tony id seated, brooding, apart from both groups.

… and the fact that he just happened to be a big mob boss doesn’t mean it wasn’t about his work.) Weeds and Breaking Bad likewise are about the nitty-gritty business of work in a criminal arena. Even quirky shows like Monk and House are profoundly concerned with the work being done by their quirky, odd characters. And don’t tell me you never noticed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer how much like a career (over-demanding as it was) the eponymous character’s crusade became — she was even made to work in a burger joint to highlight the parallel.


Hell, we even have turned the most boring, soul-destroying types of work into sitcoms and dramas: office work features prominently my current new favorite show. And even in a straight-ahead romance-/bromance-focused sitcom in a show How I Met Your Mother, career issue come up with a surprising regularity — Ted’s architecture and teaching jobs, Robin’s job doing the early-morning news program, Lily’s work as a kindergarten teacher, Marshal’s struggle to work as a lawyer in a way that makes money but retains some relation to his ethics and his interest in environmental issues; even Barney’s corporate gig come up often enough for us to remember his workplace when we think of it — especially since he and Marshal work together. Star Trek (pick whatever series you like) is also about work, with each character assigned a job and often shown doing it. Hell, if you considering “trying to make it” in show business as “work,” suddenly everything in reality TV from America’s Next Top Model on down seems to fit this. And if you consider getting by as an illegal immigrant (while trying to bust into show biz) work — which I’m sure it is, very hard work — then even Flight of the Conchords is profoundly concerned with this theme.

Like I said, American TV drama is absolutely saturated with work. Hardly surprising, but it is an interesting thing, when you first notice it. Industry, industry, industry. Exactly what you’d expect entertainment to quietly promote and lionize, in a society as ardently capitalist as the USA.

(Interestingly, the American sitcom that’s most popular in Korea, Friends, is one of the few examples that come to mind (along with Seinfeld, though the memory of that show is less clear) in which work is a minor theme, as far as I remember; the characters theoretically have jobs, but the jobs are really peripheral to the characters’ relationships most of the time. I suspect part of the reason the show is popular in Korea because the narrative isolation from “real life” is familiar to Koreans, similar to Korean TV narratives. Another example very popular here is Sex and the City, but I’ve never seen that and have no idea how central or peripheral work is, beyond the fact that the main characters are women who have “good jobs.”)

I asked whether she could see any parallels to this in Korean literature, but she wasn’t sure. I backed off, then, because I think it’s worth letting her think about the various possible causes for all of that. When dealing with students, one really needs to know when to push a little, and when to back off and let them go try to formulate their own theories about how and why things are as they are. It’s a hard skill to learn, and I still have to consciously remind myself to give them that space.

I'm not saying Korean TV isn't easy to dismiss: posters like this disincline me to even plug the cable into the back of the TV that I now have.

What sticks with me now, though, is that maybe, when a society has really digested all of social and structural changes that come with leaving the agrarian, family- and village-based way of living and identity, when a culture has caught up with the society’s technical and structural modernization — wherein women needn’t obsess about “marrying well” and are even free to choose not to marry unless or until they want to, and when more and more people seeking entertainment are from that class of people for whom work is just a normal, accepted part of life, and as much a foundation of society as is family in the older system… then it seems only natural that work would become a major theme in that society’s entertainment, right?

Or maybe it’s just an oddity specific to American culture, and not the modernized West in general? I’d be curious to hear what those who know British, or other non-English-speaking European countries’ media better than I do have to say about this.

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