The great reveal

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“Soap opera” has always been a dirty term, shorthand for our guilty pleasures. But the episodic world of TV drama is very like the respected opera house: the masks are never finished falling.

I keep seeing more and more period dramas on TV. Shows like Downton Abbey, The Hour and Mad Men are popular. I find it interesting to see contemporary audiences so eager to project themselves into the past, to emotionally attach themselves to characters and events set 40 years, 50 years or even a century back in time.

I imagine the writing of a period drama like manoeuvring Hitchcock’s dolly zoom, where the camera moves physically backward while the lens zooms forward. The writer has to move the audience back in time while projecting their characters forward. They must have one eye on the past and one eye on the future. Their subject, right in the middle, is transformation.

These shows are created out of the writers’ earnest desire to reveal to the public a piece of history that has been largely overlooked. They want to show us what life looked like for those involved in the birth of the American advertising industry and British television broadcasting, or the decline of the Edwardian aristocracy. This desire to share reveals new facets of historic events that, for many of us, had previously been but dates in a textbook or vague stories.

When I first saw Mad Men, I was impressed by how unapologetic it was. It seemed to be confronting American audiences with the blatant sexism of the country’s past. It wasn’t pointing any fingers, but the writers made no attempt to create a single character without ethical shortcomings. I respected the way they focused on a specific historical setting and pulled all the cobwebs away, even if what they were revealing was unsightly.

The period drama writer works like a magician. It is their job to show us the commonplace, something we have seen before, and then pull something new out of it, often with a dramatic flourish.

A large part of the writers’ and producers’ jobs is to make their series continually appealing. More so than in any other genre, each period drama character is required to constantly change. And that change, so that it may be all the more satisfying, must be revealed. Certain key facets of each character’s personality must be unveiled as if they have been there all along, even though we know this to be impossible.

As viewers, we know that the show is being written as it goes. The first time we meet Don Draper, in Mad Men’s opening episode, he is just another slick-haired suit smoking in a bar, all subtle hints and foreshadowing. We only gather a sense of who he is slowly, by observing the way he interacts with others. In fact, this revealing process is still underway as we await the sixth series.

It’s typical of the ensemble drama that the characters continue to be shaped and moulded even until the finale. The writers are peering into their characters’ futures with the same expectancy as us. Does this not make their job all the more miraculous? To reveal something that they themselves, as creators, did not know was there?

In watching the ensemble cast, we are asked to follow the exploits of a collection of very singular heroes. We see them evolve, manoeuvre; we witness their changes, confident that we are getting to truly know them. But we also ask that they have secrets. We ask that they expose themselves to us even when they seem to have exposed all. It’s like lying in bed with someone you’ve known intimately for years, pressing them affectionately to divulge another secret, something they might have held back. With television, it is all the more appreciated when the secret is scandalous; when each episode unfolds like the tragedy of Oedipus.

In the beginning of any ensemble drama, we have no characters. We are presented merely with a situation and a system of relationships. The writers are working away with that one eye on the future, looking for the great reveal. Each character develops as their relationships do, slowly becoming themselves. The cast enters and their faces are a series of masks falling slowly, theatrically away.

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