Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture / The Confessional Edge / Olivia Stowell

Image credit: Normform on Shutterstock. 

In a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, cast member Heather Gay narrates the intricate interpersonal drama between her castmates to viewers in a confessional. Decked out in a ruched, off-the shoulder emerald dress, complete with long, dangling pearl earrings and even longer bleach-blonde extensions, Gay presents her impressions of the argument between fellow cast members Lisa Barlow and Meredith Marks, declaring, “The words that are coming from Meredith’s mouth are not dirty or mean, but they cut a bitch.”1 In this moment, Gay’s confessional invites the audience affectively into Barlow and Marks’s feud, her gossipy commentary bringing viewers into the program’s circuit of commentary.

Gay’s confessional exemplifies the affective logics of confessionals within The Real Housewives franchise and reality television more generally. In this piece, I offer a preliminary theorization of the confessional in reality television as both a formal hard edge and a lost edge, analyzing how the confessional functions in reality television by taking The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City as a paradigmatic instance of the form. The reality television confessional, itself, is perhaps self-evidently an edge, a transition—it interrupts the linear flow of a scene’s action, however briefly; it displaces the action to a different location and a different mode of address. But what kind of edge is a confessional, and what is to be gained by taking the confessional as a potential rubric for the kinds of formal, affective, and ideological work that the “edge” can do as a category of analysis?

In a formal sense, we might imagine the confessional as a hard edge: it abruptly, sharply interrupts the scene through the filmic mechanism of the cut. On the other hand, if we imagine the confessional with an emphasis ontemporality and affect, it feels more like a lost edge: a moment of scrambled time that we nonetheless experience as at least somewhat linear, and a moment in which the affective boundaries of the program become messy or leaky. The confessional makes the break between present and future almost invisible, because the intrusion of the confessional (necessarily recorded later) operates not as the future, but as an internal monologue for the past, recasting reflection as immediacy. At the same time, the confessional directly addresses the viewer, making the “edge” of the diegetic frame—or even of the televisual screen itself—both formally apparent and affectively murky. Taking the reality TV confessional as a manifestation of “the edge” on television raises the question of what it might mean for an edge to be simultaneously hard and lost.

In attending to the formal, affective, and ideological terrain of reality television, I take the confessional as a moment in which production becomes “visible.” What I call “visible production” limns both the visible, on-screen presence of production teams within television programs themselves as well as the ways this on-screen presence makes television programs visible as produced, material objects. In these moments, the edge of the program becomes both harder and softer, through its multiple modes of address to its audiences, through the way the edge between the real and the artificial is both highlighted and eschewed.

Or, framed another way: visible production (as well as the contrived scenarios endemic to reality television formats) is one aspect of what Mark Andrejevic calls “the lab-rat element of reality television: the promise that certain forms of artifice are necessary to get to something authentic and true. In conditions of contrivance, sometimes it takes further contrivance to cut through the facade.”2 Andrejevic’s argument that reality television’s apparent artifice paradoxically lends it a greater sense of access to something like the “real” or “authentic” becomes manifest in perhaps the most pervasive instance of visible production in contemporary reality television: the confessional. The confessional almost always disrupts the chronological flow of a scene, giving us access to a cast member’s inner thoughts. The confessional is such an established aspect of reality television that it perhaps no longer immediately reads as visible production. Indeed, as John Caughie explains, television often “creates its ‘reality effect’ by a process of mediation so conventionalized as to become invisible,” and similarly “the documentary gaze depends on systems of mediation (handheld camera, loss of focus, awkward framing) so visible as to become immediate, apparently unrehearsed, and hence authentic.”3 As Caughie’s argument indicates, mediations of reality on television can become so conventionalized or so visible that they may no longer register as mediations at all.

However, I want to ask: what happens when we reinterpret the generic conventions of reality television (such as the confessional) as signs of visible production? By understanding the confessional as a sign of visible production that disrupts chronology to construct particular narrative, relational, and generic formations, we can better understand the crucial role constructed temporalities play in reality television. Those signs of visible production can be thought of as edges—breaks and marks that guide a viewer toward affects they would otherwise not have. I argue that, first, reality television depends upon a produced, nonlinear narrative, in which the confessional operates as a sign of narrativized time within a melodramatic generic milieu, and, second, that in this narrativized time, the confessional functions as a memory device wherein gossip, talk, and class/iness constitute the central aesthetic and affective concerns. Both of these functions hail audiences into an affective economy that feeds directly into a ratings economy. The more a viewer feels involved in what a housewife thinks, feels, and does, the more likely they are to tune in. Confessionals absorb the audience into the show’s drama, bringing them to the edges of their seats.

As Lynne Joyrich has articulated, “almost all TV narratives (prime-time as well as daytime) have adopted conventions associated with [melodrama]”4; further, Ien Ang outlines how melodramatic or soap operatic modes offer “television fiction without an end.”5 The seriality of reality television, like soap operas and melodramas, depends upon the affordances of television to facilitate endless narrative potential. Reality television’s narrative structures seem to contain an inexhaustible potential to roll on continuously, hovering forever in a state of un/resolution. Interpersonal arguments that seem settled in one episode can rise again, episodes or even seasons later. For example, in RHOSLC, a multi-episode (and season-spanning) narrative arc features cast members Meredith Marks and Jen Shah embroiled in a conflict in which Marks accused Shah of liking homophobic tweets about Marks’ son Brooks. Despite multiple apparent resolutions, in the season two episode “Friendship Roulette,” Marks declares “Jen has apologized before and the behavior continued. So how can I trust that this apology means that the behavior’s gonna stop?”6 The ebb and flow of the conflict between Marks and Shah across all three seasons of RHOSLC exemplify the intersections of serialization, scrutiny, and melodrama within the Real Housewives franchise. Conflicts can be endlessly relitigated and resolutions endlessly deferred, epitomizing Misha Kavka and Amy West’s claim that reality television is “confined to playing out a ‘perpetual now.’”7

The main “plot” is frequently intruded upon, edged into, by both the conversational or visual remembrance of prior events and by the generic device of the confessional, which often emphasizes future reflections on the “presently” occurring events, as in the case of Marks casting doubt on the validity of Shah’s apology. While Marks accepts Shah’s apology in the scene, her confessional—which was recorded later—offers a sense of her “inner monologue,” in which she questions Shah’s credibility. In this way, the past and future cut into “the present” and disrupt a sense of straightforward chronology, instead presenting time as recursive, always already involving past memories and future reflections. Formally, the confessional seems to appear here as a hard edge; Marks’s interview is separated from her conversation with Shah via abrupt, sharp cuts, the action is interrupted, the scene is clearly “broken” by the confessional’s visible, produced intrusion of the narrative’s own future into the narrative’s present. The confessional both epitomizes and employs itself as a moment of sharp demarcation between pristine or whole and shattered. It is a perfect instance of televisual narrative dis/unity, in which it both shatters and gives form or wholeness to the scene.

And yet, in the confessional, a hard edge is not a break, but an address, even an invitation. In RHOSLC, the viewer is directly hailed to join Marks in her scrutiny of Shah’s behavior. The confessional functions as a formal hard edge, yet affectively, it operates as a lost one by occluding the boundaries of involvement so that the viewer is entangled within the action. The confessional aims to make the confessor relatable enough so that the viewer no longer perceives an edge between themselves and the person on TV. When Marks’s confessional intrudes upon the scene of Shah’s apology and asks “how can I trust that this apology means that the behavior’s gonna stop,”8 RHOSLC invites the viewer to ask the question alongside Marks, allowing the viewer to speculate on cast members’ loyalties, but also asking who the viewers want to ascribe their loyalty to. When viewers are hailed to engage with these questions of evaluation and judgment, if their attention is captured by the program’s affective economy, that attention feeds right into the program’s ratings economy. Despite the fact that confessionals both disrupt the scene’s linear temporal flow and also “break the fourth wall” via direct address, the confessional creates feelings of intimacy and connection between viewers and the people and events depicted onscreen.

The confessional’s lost-edge blending of past, present, and future creates reality TV’s melodramatic sense of a perpetual now, of an endlessly extending narrative. In the confessional, the cast members—as narrators and rememberers—aim to claim the primary understanding of a past event. Essentially, the confessional operates as a site of authorship of the narrative of past events for the cast and viewers. The employment of proleptic and analeptic narrative structures similarly involves viewers themselves in the remembering of events; viewer engagement is not only facilitated via evaluative judgment of the housewives’ personalities and behaviors, but also via recursive flashbacks and portentous flashforwards, hailing viewers to keep tabs on the various events that occur.

Viewer investment, created in part by the hard/lost edge of the confessional, then spirals outward from the show itself, extending to the discursive arenas that swirl around it, from trade press reporting to online thinkpieces to social media, further blurring the edges of what “counts” as the program or its frame. From the Salt Lake Housewives getting into Twitter fights or making accusations via Instagram story, to episode live-tweeting between cast members and audience members, to tabloid reporting on the latest antics of the Housewives (or, in the case of RHOSLC, the latest updates on Jen Shah’s prison sentencing for defrauding the elderly), RHOSLC facilitates extratextual engagement by cast members, journalists, and audiences.

The potentially endless loop of gossipy parsing exceeds the diegetic boundaries of the show, constructing a never-ending feedback loop in which audiences (even scholars!) publish articles and social media posts about reality television, which are then folded into the action of the programs themselves, only to spawn more articles and social media posts. The excess of gossip then further entrenches the affective-ratings-financial economy of the programs themselves, as the fulfillment of viewer desires is continuously capitalized on to solidify the programs’ profitability. Confessionals hail viewers into the show’s never-ending circuitousness, encouraging audiences to confess their own feelings, desires, and judgments too—ultimately enfolding us into an endless and endlessly deferred arena of disputed authenticities and mediated desires for the real, a system of hard cuts and lost edges.

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This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here. 

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Endnotes

  1. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, season 3, episode 3, “Courtside Conundrum,” aired October 12, 2022, on Bravo, www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-salt-lake-city/season-3/episode-3/courtside-conundrum.
  2. Mark Andrejevic, “When Everyone Has Their Own Reality Show,” in A Companion to Reality Television, ed. Laurie Ouellette, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2014): 45.
  3. John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 111.
  4. Lynne Joyrich, “Going through the E/Motions: Gender, Postmodernism, and Affect in Television Studies,” Discourse 14, no. 1, (Winter 1991-92): 27.
  5. Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, (London, UK: Methuen, 1985): 6.
  6. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, season 2, episode 4, “Friendship Roulette,” aired October 3, 2021, on Bravo, www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-salt-lake-city/season-2/episode-4/friendship-roulette.
  7. Misha Kavka and Amy West, “Temporalities of the Real: Conceptualizing Time in Reality TV,” in Understanding Reality Television, ed. Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn, (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2004): 137.
  8. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, season 2, episode 4, “Friendship Roulette,” aired October 3, 2021, on Bravo, www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-salt-lake-city/season-2/episode-4/friendship-roulette.