Tami Taylor is my Imaginary Friend, or Adventures in Codependent Television Viewing

Editor’s Note: in this final post, guest blogger Anne Moore goes “downmarket”– leaving behind the 19th-century novel and the “quality” TV drama to talk about the feminized form of the soap opera and its codependent female fans.

The esteemed Steve “Patch” Johnson

In my last two posts, I spent a lot of time thinking through the relationship between narrative closure and narrative “addiction”—the boundary of closure is the thing that offers the promise of the high that the reader is chasing. In soaps, however, closure is radically different. Unlike novels or mysteries, both of which are structured around a final limit, soaps operate on the assumption that closure will never arrive. Specific plots come to a tentative end, but even the hard limit offered by a character’s death or an actor leaving the show is not enough to permanently tie up a storyline. Whether it’s Steve “Patch” Johnson returning to Days of Our Lives after a sixteen-year absence or a brief blurb on the bottom of the screen informing us that “the character of Jack Abbot will now be played by Peter Bergman” on The Young and the Restless, the narrative momentum of daytime soaps overpowers any limit that might force closure in another genre.

There’s a clear division in terms of prestige between the “addictive” narratives I’ve been examining over the course of the last two weeks: if The Wire is like AA, daytime soap operas are Al-Anon. And just like it’s much cooler to be an addict than a codependent, soaps are definitionally excluded from Quality Television. “Soapiness” is used as a negative term for melodrama or a marker that a show has deviated from the commitment to gritty realism that is the marker of “quality.” Soaps are excessive, over-the-top, and, since they were designed for housewives to watch while also doing chores, don’t demand the same kind of close attention or intellectual engagement as their nighttime counterparts.However, viewers’ devotion to soaps demonstrates that the “addiction” metaphor makes as much sense for soaps as it does for a show like The Wire. The question then becomes this: if there’s no promise of narrative payoff, what keeps the viewer/addict coming back day after day, week after week?

Aristotle’s model of narrative never anticipated the soap.

This is where the model of addiction offered up by Al-anon starts to look more relevant. Within a traditional model of addiction, the drug user pursues a final limit that might offer some relief from craving: if only I had enough drugs/alcohol/money/food/answers, I’d finally be satisfied. For the codependent, the limit isn’t a place to reach, but something to be transcended: if only I could break down the boundary between myself and the addict, I would be perfectly understood, could control his behavior, and would finally be satisfied. Within this feminine model of addiction, the distinction between self and other breaks down and ultimately loses its coherence. 

Since soaps are not directed toward closure, the experience of viewing them is more focused on immersion in a fictional world than answering narrative question. The “bad boundaries” of the narrative itself—the lack of episodic unity, the impermanence of traditional points of closure such as marriage or death, the assumption that the show will never end—lead viewers to watch with similarly “bad boundaries,” projecting themselves into the fictional landscapes of Llanview, PA or Port Charles, NY. As devoted viewers, we develop imaginary relationships with these characters, and find ourselves projecting our own experiences onto theirs. The section from How Al-Anon Works on boundaries might be taken from a parody of an overly devoted television fan: “We have become so enmeshed with another person’s life and problems that we have lost the knowledge that we are separate individuals.” Is this so different from any imaginary housewife who is overly invested in her “stories”?

Change the narrative structure, gain new ways of thinking

But here’s the thing: if, as we saw in The Moonstone, the structure of drug addiction can be used to open up new ways of thinking, can’t this also work for the structure of codependence? The immersive quality of long-form narratives is a large part of what make them so appealing—particularly the sense that you can lose yourself in something bigger than you are, especially in the relationships among this big group of imaginary people. Part of what makes serials unique is the way that they offer the opportunity for character development, and it’s our attachment to these imaginary people that keeps fans coming back to these stories again and again. When we’re really caught up in a story, we “become so enmeshed with another person’s life that we have [hopefully, briefly] lost the knowledge that we are separate individuals.” This is why we feel so angry at TV villains, or why we experience a real sense of loss when a series ends.

One series that has inspired a great deal of this feeling of loss in its fans after it ended is Friday Night Lights. In much the same way that The Wire focuses on Baltimore, the central character of FNL is the small Texas town of Dillon, where football is king. While Friday Night Lights is a prime-time drama, not a daytime soap, it bears a greater structural resemblance to Days than Dickens, especially in the story’s focus on relationships over plot, and process over outcome. Furthermore, the show’s current availability streaming on Netflix makes it possible to watch the show every day, and viewers can thus integrate the narrative into their daily lives in a manner historically reserved for soap operas. Moreover, the show’s network roots mean that it was constructed to (hopefully) last forever. One of the marks of a “quality” series is a presumed finish line—even if the network keeps extending that finish line, as in the case of The Sopranos, the presumed end of the series is the mark of narrative craft. Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, followed a model more like ER, with new characters being introduced over time and an ever-expanding narrative universe.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

If The Wire and The Moonstone are preoccupied with drug addiction, it’s safe to say that Friday Night Lights is preoccupied with codependence. The main characters on the show are Eric and Tami Taylor, a coach and a high school guidance counselor who have a deep sense of parental responsibility that at times seems to encompass the entire town.  In one AV Club review, the Taylors are described as two people who “try to play parent to an entire town full of teenagers, but find it hard to raise their own daughter.” And if The Moonstone inspires “detective-fever,” then FNL might be said to inspire “soap-drowning.” Dillon is a deeply immersive setting—fan artifacts such as this tumblr suggest that fans aren’t just interested in what happens to the characters of Dillon, but that they project themselves into the narrative, even if it’s only to be scolded.

The best example of Friday Night Lights’ immersive nature is the break between the second and third seasons of the show. As a result of the 2007 writer’s strike, the second season was cut short seven episodes before the end. At the opening of the third season, viewers discover that life in Dillon has been going on without them: characters have paired up and split up, been forced to reevaluate their future plans, etc. The standard model for a prime-time series that follows the “real-time” calendar is that the summer is a surprisingly boring time—minor elements might have shifted in characters’ lives, but there are rarely any substantial changes to the show’s defining relationships. Although the fictional break between seasons is a bit longer in Friday Night Lights (each season follows a football season), the character shifts are rarely so dramatic. The break between seasons two and three of Friday Night Lights shows how “soapy” the show is, in terms of the melodramatic shifts that have occurred in the lives of almost all the characters. At the same time, the implication that time goes on in Dillon with or without our attention makes the setting feel even more like a place we can lose ourselves in, and we’re more devoted to these imaginary relationships than ever, reminded of how much we’ve missed, and more importantly, how much we’ve missed them. There’s no better example of codependent “bad boundaries” than investment in a one-sided relationship, and shows like Friday Night Lights demonstrate the pleasures of uneven attachment: losing ourselves in a fantasy.

By way of conclusion to this series, I want to briefly address the utility of considering addiction and narrative in the same sentence. Historically, the addiction metaphor has been used to simultaneously trivialize addiction and make television-watching (or novel-reading) seem like an activity for degenerates. But my hope is that taking this comparison more seriously might open up new, less absolute ways of thinking about addiction. Since the real-life stakes of “narrative addiction” are so low, it becomes easier to see the ways that addiction makes us come face to face with the inexorability of desire and forces us to recalculate the boundaries of the self. Narrative offers a kind of playground to explore the pleasure and price of addiction—and if you get hooked, the only dealer to whom you’ll find yourself accountable to is your local cable provider or librarian.