Academic journal article CineAction

Melodrama, the Americans, and the Global Television Imaginary: The International Language of Espionage

Academic journal article CineAction

Melodrama, the Americans, and the Global Television Imaginary: The International Language of Espionage

Article excerpt

"Genre first and foremost is a boundary phenomenon'"

--Christine Gledhill, "Rethinking Genre"

"This country is weak. I can feel it"

--Elizabeth, The Americans

This paper will evaluate the efficacy of melodrama as a method for realizing the global and local potentials of the mode, and as a critical tool for creating openings of cultural currency and political potential. Existing scholarship on melodrama relies heavily on rhetorics of bifurcation and categorization, but I am more interested in the question of how melodrama actually traverses these boundaries. Specifically, what is unique to melodrama that allows it to exist as a mode that is simultaneously global, in terms of cross-cultural legibility and the perpetuation of particular tropes and aesthetics, and local, existing in very specific regional traditions that are not easily translatable? This paper will look to the idea of "melodrama as method" as a means to potentially answering these questions of cultural legibility and specificity--to test the idea that to talk about a transnational melodramatic current is to talk about the work of melodrama, the potentialities. In other words we are speaking of questions of directionality and flow, between the public and the private, the affective and the political.

What is the work of melodrama and to what degree does melodramatic scholarship mirror its object? This paper will consider different theoretical frameworks that either circumvent, repurpose, or disprove the traditional evaluation of melodrama according to Peter Brooks' influential though reductively western The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), looking instead at melodrama as a critical tool in a global context, focusing on how we use melodrama to do the active work of knowing objects, thinking about morality, and enabling affective currents. The idea of "melodrama as method," a phrase used by Anupama Kapse in an eponymous article, in my formulation relies upon a reversal of the Brooks-Elsaesser tendency to map public unrest onto the private family stage, a construction so often touted by melo-dramatists. Rather, I consider the implications of an inverse formulation by which the private and quintessentially melodramatic realm of emotions and personal experience instead influence or shape the public, political sphere. It is this specific flow reversal that is necessary for thinking about a global melodramatic current, insofar as we might analogize the global and the local to the public and the private respectively. This is neither a one-to-one relationship nor a categorically imperative claim, but a rhetorical tool for imagining the transnational contexts and possibilities of a global melodrama, rooted in the search for the active work of melodrama in producing affective bonds.

I will use as a case study the television show The Americans, which aired on the FX network in January 2013, and is currently in the middle of its second season. The show follows two Russian spies, alias Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, who live undercover as typical American parents in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. during the late Cold War period of the 1980s. This case study is not necessarily a symptomatic reading; rather, I treat it more as a metaphor or an exercise in thinking about melodrama as method, and melodrama as doing the work of mediating borders and (national) identities. The spy is an inherently transnational figure, traversing physical and figurative boundaries of the state. The Americans presents a constant scenario in which melodrama serves as a conduit and as a mediator, linking Phillip and Elizabeth's identities as American suburbanites and highly trained Russian agents--love of country and love (or lack of love) for each other constituting equal parts in dictating the plot and decisions made in the show. It is in this way that the Jennings are a manifestation of the public/private reversal--the personal perpetually dictating the political. …

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