STORYLINE AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IN KENYAN PROGRAMS IS WANTING
I remember John Black. He was a hairy man with a husky voice. The one true love of his life was Marlena, a woman prone to kidnappings and demon possession. Villain number one was Stefano Dimira, an immortal who had a thick Russian accent to boot. And around them were the numerous secondary characters all living in the fictional town of Salem, acting out their drama in strictly PG 13 fashion. That my friends, was Days of Our Lives, and I used to spend my weeknights catching up on its latest exploits circa 2004.
But a lot has changed in television since then. For one, Mexican soap operas dominate our airwaves from morning to night. American legal/medical dramas, comedies, supernatural, teen and romance series as well as soppy reality shows are now a thing of a long gone past. There used to be E.R, The Bachelor, Charmed, the tedious Seventh Heaven, and many others. Understandably, a lot of these shows either ended or were cancelled, but our stations did little to replace them. Hence the two remnant genres of which we are supposed to choose: local programs or salacious telenovelas.
Local shows have been on a terrific rise in recent years. Sadly, they vanish almost as soon as they appear. The most popular ones are showcased on Citizen, NTV and KTN with audiences sharply divided on their opinions of the content. Some of them die-hard loyal fans, defending their favorite shows through thick or thin while others are bitter, cynical and jaded, convinced that we deserve better than what is being supplied.
Personally, I'm dancing between the two extremes. I am all for supporting local talent, but sometimes I can't be bothered. I'm also pretty sure that I'm not alone in this. I can say with great certainty that I have closely watched three local shows in the past say ten years, and I'm always disappointed not by the technical mumbo-jumbo; but by the lack of continuity in the story lines.
One of the first to try its hand at pleasing modern viewers, myself included, was Better Days. When it first came out on KTN, everyone was curious because there was nothing like it. The acting was good but the script could be enthralling at times. It was like watching a fairytale, our own version of One Tree Hill or the OC. Rich people and poor people in Nairobi coming together through cliché plot twists, drawing parallels between the problems faced by classes in our country.
Better Days was nice in that it brought an aspect of realism to the mix. Basically, it showed that while poverty in Kenya is not as pleasing as it looks in say a telenovela, the wealth some of our citizens luxuriate in is amazing. Sadly, the script writers lost their way, actresses were changed, and when it got to bringing the drama on screen, cheap theater tactics were employed. Better Days left our screens never to return.
Changing Times I mostly watched because it appealed to me aesthetically. It was yet another show aired on KTN with a good looking cast. What irked me about Changing Times was the way it had a soap opera theme—take for instance the evil girlfriend always winning at the expense of the other girl's dignity and self respect bit as was seen in the Patricia-Lisa-Arnold storyline. Thankfully this was remedied over time with the introduction of the Patricia-Lisa friendship dimension. However, there were many tired story lines that continuously tried to exploit the themes of murder, crime, cheating and even medical ailments only for them to flop after a few weeks of trying to bring out a credible tale.
Changing Times had a bad habit of forgetting about some story lines for a long while or discarding them altogether without bothering to offer a credible explanation. This brings to mind one of the very first story lines of the secretary witnessing a murder in the parking lot and her eventual escape to a European country. After that, nothing. What happened to her?
Another story line that was badly handled was the Jason drug affair and the confusing George-Sherry love, as well as Baba Jamo's orphanage scam. Let's not forget how Sean's sister disappeared for ten million episodes only to show up near the end with little to no reference to her past drama with her mzungu friend-who-is-a-boy Chris. As a result of this I was left feeling cheated when the last episode rolled about so spontaneously and was wrapped up so carelessly.
And finally comes Mali, self-proclaimed first soap opera in Kenya. Acting? Check. Filming? Check. Aesthetic appeal? Check. Story lines? Fail.
Like Changing Times, what bothers me about Mali is the way it seemingly forgets important story lines for the benefit of others. Although I could quote numerous examples, the one that really stands out to me is the burning of a slum under the orders of Usha Mali, and the loss of life that resulted. What struck me about this specific plot was the easy manner in which the producers treated serious real life scenarios. It suggested a disregard for human life. The characters were almost plastic in their mourning. The only credible person was the house-help Selena, and even she disappeared eventually. I would have thought that the scriptwriters would use the slum fire to pursue themes of justice, guilt or even redemption (in the case of Usha,) but in the end I was left sorely disappointed because it had hit to close to reality. Our reality of don't ask don't tell. Soon enough, all the characters had moved on, focusing their attention on politics, throwing themselves into frenzied campaign mode.
Honestly, I can't be bothered to watch Mali these days precisely due to its lack of comprehensive continuity. You may defend it by saying it's still only a soap, to which I reply by saying that even Mexican soaps follow things through to the bitter end. Even those terrible ones that air on KBC or Kiss TV.
Perhaps our local programme story lines are telling us something. Art imitates life, and at the moment, I don't think practitioners in the film and TV industry have realized their full potential. This is quite a pity since a lot of us are still waiting, hoping for more. The filming may be good, but if the content doesn’t match up, don't expect much from us as viewers. So scriptwriters’ best get things moving for all of our sakes. Or as I like to say, either go big or bring back those American dramas. Truth be told, I quite miss them at times.
By Nadia Darwesh,
follow on twitter @naddzz93