In a television landscape of reality programming and endless news coverage, what is it that keeps viewers tuning in week after week to dramatic television shows? Individual tastes? The tension of the good guys versus the bad guys? Or perhaps there is something more to it.
A better question might be: Why do we like drama TV?
In order to answer that question, one must first understand what drama is and what it is not. In literature, drama is synonymous with conflict. The protagonist – or main character – wants something; something the rest of the world doesn’t want him to have. This is a concept to which everyone can relate.
Therefore, by definition, drama encompasses all forms of television programming. Think about the old Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam cartoons. Yosemite Sam wanted to shoot a rabbit and our hero, Bugs Bunny, wanted not to be shot so he could eat his carrot in peace. While few think of cartoons for children as dramatic pieces, in a way, they are.
If most television shows can fit into the category of drama then what is excluded?
Though dramatic television can have moments of comedy, laughter is not the endgame, just a means to an end. Reality television also does not fit well into the drama category because so much of its drama is manufactured through editing techniques. Of course, reality shows tend to lack a clear-cut protagonist as well.
Conflict alone cannot drive a dramatic storyline. There must also be a character, or cast of characters, with whom the viewers can identify. The villains and obstacles must be believable. The prize for success should be substantial and the cost for failure must be catastrophic.
A perfect example of drama was the ABC drama, Alias. Each week, viewers tuned in to find out if Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a CIA double agent, would succeed in defeating the evil forces of SD-6. Millions of people cheered during the episode that aired after the Super Bowl when Sydney succeeded and was able to share a kiss with her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). Fans wept when he was shot before her eyes.
Unfortunately, Alias broke a cardinal rule of drama in the series finale, causing even the most devout fans to declare it a disappointment. The most important rule of drama is that action must be plausible within the scope of the reality set forth by writers. This means that when the characters find themselves painted into a corner, they must find their own way to safety. The Calvary cannot ride in on white horses to make everything better. While the writers of Alias did an excellent job of this by and large, making a character immortal in the final episode was well outside the constraints of what is acceptable. Had Alias been set forth as a paranormal drama from the onset, viewers would have seen this as the only logical conclusion.
Simply put, so many love drama television because they care for the characters on a personal level. Through these familiar strangers they get glimpses of worlds they would otherwise never know. They get to see how ordinary people much like themselves cope when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
Sometimes, they get to see the good guys win. Occasionally, love conquers all. Once in a while, these dramatic works of fiction even give us hope. That’s why we love drama TV.