Explain ‘narrative’ and ‘genre’ as related principles of analysis for television drama, with reference to at least three (3) set unit readings on these terms. Illustrate the main points of your explanation with an example from a television drama program of your choice.
Genre and narrative are terms that get bandied around with regularity however the terms are not as clear-cut as they seem. Human experience is able to be “reconstructed, rearranged, and reimagined” (Newcomb 2004, p.143) through genre and narrative, but to fully appreciate their importance they need to be understood. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007), described as a “television landmark that leaves other landmarks in the dust” (Shales 2006, para.3), has a hybrid approach to both genre and narrative. The programme is unique in that it blends “long-form serial narrative for television in a genre hybrid” with production values “at a quasi-cinematic level” (Nelson 2007, p.38), which fit David Chase’s claims to being more interested in episodes that are stand-alone mini-movies as opposed to “the connective tissue between” (Carter 2001, para. 15). In this essay I will define genre and narrative while applying the terms to The Sopranos episode, ‘Whoever Did This’.
For Newcomb, “Genres are systems of classification or grouping” (2004, p.423). The Sopranos, listed as a crime/drama (iMDb, online), can perhaps be better described as a “hybrid genre of post-Godfather decline-of-the-mob movie and soap opera, with plenty of sex, violence, domestic melodrama, and comic irony” (Willis 2002, p.2). While the classification of drama is accurate, gangster, “a subgenre of the media crime story” (Nochimson 2002, p.3), should perhaps replace crime. According to Patricia Keeton, people watching the pilot of The Sopranos, “expected a conventional gangster narrative, but what they saw did not match their expectations” (2002, p.132). According to Selby and Cowdery, “When we watch a TV programme we bring to it a considerable amount of knowledge and understanding about media texts in general” (1995, p.6), and it is this prior knowledge that allows the audience “to operate with an understanding that transcends and cuts across genre” (Casey et al. 2002, p.110). Perhaps the biggest anomalies with The Sopranos being labeled a gangster are Tony’s depression and love of animals. However, while these are unusual for the gangster genre, they comply with drama.
The episode being analysed is a clear example of the gangster genre: Corrado’s RICO indictments; heavy-set Italians milling about; oversized jewelry adorning sausage-like fingers; shared meals; and of course the murder and dismemberment of Ralph. Tony is often framed by himself indicating his ‘boss’ status and when he is framed with another person, he is positioned in a way to express his power. An example of this is when his (naked) mistress is dressing in the background when he takes the call informing him of Pie-Oh-My’s death. Lighting varies between low for scenes in Tony’s office or at the Bada Bing and high for scenes in the various houses. This contributes towards the separation of Tony’s two families – his biological one and his crew.
The episode includes aspects of family drama (Justin’s near-fatal accident and Tony’s roughhousing with A.J in the family kitchen) and melodrama (Pie-Oh-My’s death). According to Nochimson, “the domestic melodrama of the gangster subgenre is muscularized” (2002, p.4) which is demonstrated by the brutality of Ralph’s reaction to his son’s accident, the physicality of the play fighting and Tony’s eventual killing of Ralph in retribution for Pie-Oh-My’s death (and that of Tracee in Season 3). These examples support Casey et al.’s assertions that “television programmes are likely to combine across genres” (2002, p.110).
According to Alan Sepinwall, The Sopranos “doesn’t play by the rules of serial narrative; some episodes are about nothing but advancing subplots, while others are nothing but what they’re about” (2002, p.67). Narrative, the way “content is structured and ordered in quite systematic ways” (Casey et al. 2002, p.138), is “so fundamental to television that it is easy to overlook its significance” (Selby and Cowdery 1995, p.5). The Sopranos narrative follows the “Aristotelian dictum that all narratives have beginnings, middles, and ends” (Newcomb 2004, p.416), but is done so in a hybrid approach achieving a balance between stand-alone and serialized storylines that can be enjoyed by casual or regular viewers: “The Sopranos went from having a strongly defined narrative in the first series to adopting a more self-contained, episodic narrative structure in subsequent series” (Creeber 2004, p.11). ‘Whoever Did This’ incorporates eight narrative threads, five of which are concluded, with the remaining three being left open-ended to encourage further viewing.
The main, stand-alone storyline of ‘Whoever did this’ is the demise of Ralph Cifaretto. While some sympathy can be accorded Ralph in the episode due to his son’s near-fatal accident, transgressions by the character in previous episodes are revived and given closure. Although Justin is a new addition to the narrative, Pie-Oh-My was introduced earlier in the season (S04E05) with Tony’s relationship to the horse being quickly established. The horse’s death, occurring in the first half of the programme, is the catalyst for most of what occurs after it. Ralph has been previously linked with the arson of Artie’s restaurant (S01E01), so Tony is immediately suspicious with the accidental fire that kills the horse. Tony’s probing leads to the fight that ends Ralph’s life and unites the narratives of Justin and Pie-Oh-My. Ralph’s plea that his son “never did nothing to nobody” is repeated by Tony (“What did she ever do to you?”) as he strangles him. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the episode is when Tony wakes up in the Bada Bing the morning after Ralph’s death, walks over to the mirror, and sees the photo of Tracee. While Ralph’s death can be understood by a casual viewer, Tony’s reaction to the horse’s death might be perplexing without prior knowledge of Tracee, Ralph’s pregnant, stripper girlfriend (S03E06), whom he beat to death.
The longest running episodic narratives are Corrado’s court case (introduced in S01E08) and Christopher’s heroin addiction (introduced in S01E01). Artie’s suicide attempt (S04E06) and subsequent falling out with Tony, while more recent, is another example of episodic narrative. All three of these narrative threads remain incomplete at the end of the episode.
The Sopranos is an example of a hybrid both in terms of genre and narrative. David Chase “knowingly engage[s] in the playful disruption of generic conventions” (Casey et al. 2002, p.110) by combining elements of gangster, family drama and melodrama, showing how “genres evolve, cross-cut and parody themselves” (Casey et al. 2002, p.110). The Sopranos exhibits what Newcomb believes is one of the most significant facets of narrative, “malleability” (2004, p.419), shown through the alternating between stand-alone and serialized storylines.
- Casey, B, Casey, N, Calvert, B, French, L, & Lewis, J, 2002, ‘Extracts: Code, Convention, Drama, Genre, Narrative, Reality Television, Representation and Soap Opera’, in B. Casey et al (eds), Television studies: The key concepts, Routledge, London, pp. 71-76, 108-111, 138-142, 196-198, 222-226.
- Carter, B, 2001, ‘On Television; Stringing Together Taut Episodes, Not Codas, on ‘The Sopranos’, in The New York Times, 16 July 2001, viewed 24 July 2012,
- Creeber, G, 2004, Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: BFI, p.11.
- iMDb, ‘The Sopranos’, viewed 26 July 2012, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0141842/
- Keeton, P, 2002, ‘The Sopranos and Genre Transformation: Ideological Negotiation in the Gangster Film’, in Atlantic Journal of Communication, 10 (2), pp.131-148.
- Nelson, R, 2007, “HBO PREMIUM: Channelling distinction through TVIII”, in New Review of Film and Television Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, April 2007, pp. 25-40.
- Newcomb, H, 2004, ‘Narrative and genre’ in J Downing, D McQuail, P Schlesinger, and E Wartella (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage, pp.414-29.
- Nochimson, M, 2002, Waddaya Lookin' At?: Re-reading the Gangster Genre Through "The Sopranos", in Film Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Winter 2002), pp. 2-13.
- Shales, T, 2006, ‘Back With a Vengeance’, The Washington Post, 12 March 2006, viewed 24 July 2012,
- Selby, K and Cowdery, R, 1995, ‘Studying television’, in How to study television, Macmillan, London, pp. 1-19.
- Sepinwall, A, 2002, ‘It’s whine season for The Sopranos’, in TheStar-Ledger, 11 October 2002, p.67.
- Sopranos, The, 2002, television series, HBO, United States, directed by Timothy Van Patten and starring James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico, Steve Van Zandt, Joe Pantoliano,
- Willis, E, 2002, ‘Our Mobsters, Ourselves’, in D Lavery (ed), This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos, Wallflower, London and New York, pp.2-9.