Yalı mise-en-scene and
frontality: an infrastructural
take on dizi aesthetics

by Baran Germen

Yalı structures along the Bosphorus across the Asian coast of Istanbul. Author’s own photo.

Yalıs along the European shores of the Bosphorus in the Sarıyer district. Author’s own photo.

The increasing popularity of the Turkish television serials in the format indigenously known as dizi has received considerable journalistic and scholarly attention since 2007. [1] [open notes in new window] This astounding phenomenon has mainly prompted geopolitical accounts and sociological assessments unraveling the sweeping impact of dizi around the world. Focusing on the circulation and the reception of Turkish serials across an expanse of local, national, and transnational contexts, scholarly analyses have taken careful stock of viewership habits, audience responses, public reactions, socio-political reverberations, and market data across dizi’s multitudinous itineraries. Dizi often figures less as a media object than as a cultural product with far reaching allure, thanks to its relatable content shaped by familiar values that are the product of comparable socio-historical determinants. 

Considering the dominance of U.S.-centric media scholarship in English, this turn to the Global South not merely as a media market subservient to the supply and demand metrics of the Global North is particularly significant. That is, most work on dizi now conceives of the Global South as an active media ecology rife with distinct historical conditions, local stakeholders, and socio-political dynamics; these mold an energetic flow of media production, exportation, and consumption. The undeniably important contribution of this work has been in providing a context to and putting in perspective the scale and scope of the dizi’s extensive commercial success beyond Turkey. Yet what remains notably obscured in the reception studies of dizi as a cultural commodity is the question of form, namely the melodramatic form that characterizes dizi productions.

As a transmedia cultural form of varied reincarnations throughout the world, melodrama offers an opportunity to expand on dizi’s transnationality by also reframing it as an aesthetic object. Foregrounding its formal and textual make up, I therefore propose that we consider dizi as kin to soap opera and telenovela in the family tree of serial television melodrama. In principle, all these variations use melodrama as an epistemological modality for rendering intelligible the crises of modernity in the domain of the personal; the genre magnifies the individual’s relation to their immediate environment. Dizis also share most technical and formal characteristics typical of television melodrama when it comes to their narrative structure, mode of address, cinematographic choices, style of acting, and reliance on music. Strikingly, however, the dizi aesthetics differs from the staples of televisual melodrama with its investment in mise-en-scene as a privileged site of significance.

Here I offer an examination of the dizi mise-en-scene and detail its significance in the context of the aesthetics of TV melodrama by inquiring into the relation between shooting locations and mise-en-scene. Based in real locations where dizi filming overwhelmingly takes place, the dizi mise-en-scene, I argue, shatters an enclosed a form like melodrama.  In that way it exposes melodrama’s imaginary to the direct impact of larger forces of life otherwise distorted within the genre’s personalized vision of the world. My focus will be on the particular shape this encounter takes—the surfacing of history in the fabric of melodrama—as it is set in one of the most iconic dizi settings known as the yalı, the glamorous waterfront mansions central to family dramas specifically shot and set in Istanbul. Thus, I conceive the dizi mise-en-scene as a site of opening up; it is where, in this particular instance, history interacts with and inflects the melodramatic with formative power.

My investigation of the materialization of history in the yalı mise-en-scene builds on the primal role the yalı serves as a site of filming and thereby I postulate its role as part of the infrastructure of media production. Using an infrastructural lens allows me to conceive the yalı mise-en-scene in dialogue with its architectural makeup as embodying an emergent regime of visuality dating back to the eighteenth century. Here, the mise-en-scene does not simply operate as the primary technical vehicle for world-making. The world-making the yalı allows gains further salience as the productive basis for a critical assemblage of dizi narrative and formal principles. I cluster these under an aesthetics of frontality, rooted in the sensibilities and practices of an urban culture that burgeoned in 1700’s Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire.

I begin with an introduction to the dizi phenomenon and an overview of its reception mainly as a cultural import abroad—socially, politically, and economically negotiated by various agents within different transnational markets. Providing an alternative angle on its globality, I then advance dizi as a televisual melodrama and thereby reframe it as a media object warranting further study. I expand the prevalent formulations of the dizi’s transnational reach with specific attention to its relation to the melodramatic form and that form’s televisual articulation. The rest of the essay builds a theoretical framework upon the dizi’s appropriation of TV melodrama’s conventions as I inquire into dizi aesthetics. The renewed significance of the televisual melodrama’s mise-en-scene that I connect with the dizi’s investment in location shooting provides the basis for the infrastructural lens I conceptualize in the third section. By means of an infrastructural take on the yalı, I first trace the roots of the formal composition of the dizi mise-en-scene across centuries-old architectural principles, cultural practices, and textual traditions. Then I present these traditions’ narrative and visual codification in dizi aesthetics under the rubric of frontality. I conclude with a brief close reading to illustrate the aesthetics of frontality at work as a gesture to formal analyses of the dizi that have thus far remained peripheral to the dominant trends dealing with dizi in extant scholarship on it in English.

The Dizi phenomenon

Dizi’s global expansion originated in 2007 from the MENA region via satellite TV with serials that were dubbed into Arabic in the Syrian dialect. In addition to the formal channels spearheading the spread of dizi-mania worldwide, the increasing availability of popular online video sharing platforms has substantially contributed to the growth of dizi audiences over the years. Dizi gained ground even in countries renowned especially for their melodramatic serial formats[2] For this reason, the Turkish TV industry today rivals competitors historically dominant in transnational media markets.[3]

For the most part, pundits and scholars have sought to explicate the dizi sensation by investigating the conditions, factors, and agents facilitating the format’s global success, with attention to the routes and processes of dizi circulation. Focusing specifically on the transnational appeal and reach of various dizi examples, these inquiries overall have situated the phenomenon of Turkish teleseries within the shifting geopolitics of an increasingly globalized mass culture. On the one hand, soft power has provided an essential socio-political framework to contextualize the favorable reception of dizi, especially in regions historically or socially connected to Turkey, notably the Ottoman hinterland and Muslim-majority countries.[4] On the other hand, given the vast geography over which it holds sway, the dizi has become a part of a larger narrative beyond the regional, here seen as another instantiation of the Global South’s resistance to the cultural imperialism of the Global North[5]

Such important studies have successfully mapped the dizi’s diverse itineraries while taking careful stock of the changing industrial, political, and cultural conditions in the flows of transnational TV in the new millennium. Inevitably this means that much of the discussion of form has been filtered largely through optics privileging audience response and public discourse. While I do not promise a comprehensive formal analysis of the dizi format—admittedly an impossible task given the availability of an enormous, ever-growing archive—I modestly propose that we can turn to the textual, more specifically, to the textual norms of the dizi if we consider it as a form of television melodrama.

Rerouting the discussion of the dizi via melodrama, as will be seen, involves an invitation to approach this newly globe-trotting format as having roots in a long, local cultural and aesthetic history beyond television. Rather than brush aside the transnational lens, I propose a simultaneous turn to the local as an invitation to also investigate dizi globalization along the lines of aesthetics. Situating dizi within an extended family of global melodrama on TV provides another angle to enframe its transnationalism in novel terms—outside of the idiom of geopolitics. This entails bypassing the question of cultural similitude or proximity that now guides much of the discourse on dizi.

The dizi form’s global popularity can also be understood vis-à-vis melodrama’s relation to modernity, which is a subject of considerable attention in the existing scholarship on the genre. As Jesús Martín-Barbero notes, melodrama as a cultural form has historically helped urban masses mediate modernity without the need to abandon their oral culture.[6] The success of Latin American soap opera, in particular, has a lot to do with “its capacity to make an archaic narrative the repository for propositions to modernize some dimensions of life.”[7] Given its will to render modernity palatable for masses, I would suggest that melodrama, in its various manifestations, in fact articulates an incomplete modernity—one that cannot be complete and thus is doomed to remain incomplete. In the Turkish context, melodrama is a vehicle to transfer ongoing tensions between secular laws of modern life and longstanding moral and religious codes onto the experience of the everyday.[8] Dizi’s boundless popularity may in fact lie in its audience’s long intimacy with melodrama as an astute cultural expression of a version of this irresolvable friction they enjoy across media. If we take the transcultural translatability of melodrama seriously, how the dizi format not only adopts but also, in this very adoption, inflects televisual grammar, melodrama emerges again as an important question for contemporary media studies.

Dizi format as melodrama

In her ethnographic work, Arzu Öztürkmen shows that the dizi format epitomizes hybridity as a “metagenre” that, while borrowing from many other local discursive and cultural genres, blends recognizable features of other teleserial formats into its unique mold.[9] Indeed, the dizi format markedly differs from other formats of teleserial melodrama as a product of a particular industrial composition within a distinct socio-historical framework. For instance, the lifespan of any given dizi, a critical marker used to determine the distinction between telenovelas and soap operas, marks a significant point of divergence. Because soaps are quite literally endless, dizis may initially be deemed more like telenovelas. However, a dizi’s longevity depends strictly upon its standing in ratings and thus is unpredictably erratic, resulting both in the precarity of the workforce behind production and in the emergence of its own star system; these are seen as safety nets to secure viewership. Thus completely driven by market demands, the expanding international markets to which they are exported notwithstanding, dizis are developed principally for prime-time TV audiences in Turkey who ultimately decide on a show’s expiration date. Even so, perhaps the dizi format most notably stands out for an episode’s extensive runtime. Each weekly episode runs more than two hours, further exacerbating demanding working conditions with prolonged shifts in a tight production schedule. With the addition of commercial breaks alone—not including the extended recaps prefacing each new installment—the typical screen-time of a dizi episode exceeds the three-hour mark, challenging our conventional demarcation of primetime hours with a broadcast window that occasionally stretches up to midnight.[10]

Keeping these industrial determinants molding the format in mind, we can also see that dizi nonetheless shares with other teleserial melodramas—such as soap opera, telenovela, and musalsal—a commitment to melodrama as its modus operandi. Despite its generic diversity, running a gamut of genres from those emphasizing action to others foregrounding pathos, dizi ultimately invests in “personalization,” what Ana M. Lopez describes as “the individualization of the social world,”[11] as its epistemology. Like telenovela, dizi too “ceaselessly offers its audience dramas of recognition and re-cognition by locating social and political issues in personal and familial terms”[12] in its attempts to make sense of the complexity of the modern world. This melodramatic epistemology manifests itself through stories of impossible love. Indeed, to varying degrees, every dizi, can be viewed as a variation on the theme of impossible love— romantic as well as motherly—melodramatically conceived. Regardless of the genre’s inflection, the shared motor of the main narrative overwhelmingly tends to be the destiny of a couple’s formation beset by an array of intrigues with roots in the past. Pushed into concealment as a secret or having its fulfilment inhabited by a secret force, the romance in question is at the same time the pivot around which the narrative is dramaturgically organized. The serialization of a dizi depends on a series of deferrals to keep the affair in question unrecognized or unconsummated through varying measures of improbable challenges that usually sprout as subplots.

In the dizi world, on the surface any other social relation is reframed through the prism of romance in question. More than anything else, it is this reframing as a particular kind of response to modernity that invites us to put dizi in the global family tree of melodrama. Like other teleserial forms steeped in the melodramatic mode, here too, the sentimental emerges as the repository, but specifically as one in which the throes of modernity are transcribed to register, in the language of love, larger issues as well as differences that are embedded in the social fabric of a post-imperial secular nation. In “the Republic of Love,” to borrow the title of Martin Stokes’ influential study of Turkish popular music, sentimentality in a sense provides an affective epistemology. It is a way of conveying the public experience of modernity and response to the demands and challenges of a rapidly transforming society adjusting to the neoliberal phase of global capitalism.[13]

No wonder then that the dizi relies on a repertoire of techniques conventionally associated with melodrama and commonly found in its televisual forms. Driven by melodrama’s ideological commitment to the personal, to which it allows access emotively, dizi expressively works these aspects of melodrama. It

Different from soap opera and telenovela, however, the mise-en-scene does more than serve for audience emotions in the making of dizi worlds. Perhaps the most striking feature of the dizi format is that shows are almost exclusively shot on location. Sitting between profilmic and enframed spaces, dizi, as I will demonstrate, infrastructurally forges a relation between the televisual and the social that in ways expand the aesthetic significance of the melodramatic mise-en-scene.

Televisual melodrama, location shooting, and

An incompatibility between the film-studies-based, Sirkian mise-en-scene framework and the teleserial melodrama was first proposed by Jane Feuer in 1984.[14] Due largely to the TV monitor’s limited visual scale, the mise-en-scenes of the domestic serials like Dallas and Dynasty, while opulent and luxurious, did not afford a site of textual excess for a ciphered counter-commentary running against the meaning on the narrative level.[15] Rather than ironizing the text’s literality by embodying an emotional chaos abstracted from the surface, teleserials simply pushed to the fore a familial hysteria that now was communicated primarily through acting and cinematography.[16] In rightfully calling attention to the need for a medium-conscious analysis, Feuer advanced what became the prevailing view on how the studio-based soap mise-en-scene on U.S. TV functioned. Here, the mise-en-scene recedes to the background, bringing that notion in proximity to the original sense of the stage term where the action unfolds in the foreground. Mise-en-scene’s main function is to render the setting recognizable for a large viewership, especially with the aid of legible, familiar symbols and stereotypes,[17] at times even nearing naturalism.[18]

The mise-en-scene in this shot from Dynasty’s “The Two Princes” episode (1982) stages the main action to unfold between Krystle and Fallon.

In its iterations outside the United States, however, teleserial melodrama often steps outside the controlled environment of the studio, and such a shift in the production model results in the redeployment of the mise-en-scene. Attending to the variegated uses and functions of the teleserial melodrama’s mise-en-scene around the world, scholars of global media have long noted relations between reproduced spaces and their social contexts. The social realist British soap, for instance, commonly relies on location shooting to emphasize everydayness and strives toward ordinariness as opposed to “the non-specific fictional geography of American soaps.”[19] Similarly, in the realist Brazilian soap, the mise-en-scene organically participates in the construction of plausible life-worlds reflective of social and cultural differences within the nation.[20] The Mexican telenovela, in contrast, sustains its primordially emotional and inordinately Manichean world through the baroqueness of its mise-en-scene without much temporal and spatial specificity.[21]

Among the diverse roles that location shooting can play for teleserial melodramas, an Italian case is particularly noteworthy for thinking about the centrality of the mise-en-scene in dizi. Very much like the family dramas set in Istanbul, albeit toward a different end, the first Italian soap, A Place in the Sun, exploits its setting in Naples for rich scenic and iconic offerings, as compellingly demonstrated by Milly Buonanno.[22] The series’ audio-visual piecing together of the Neapolitan milieu and its selection of a historic landmark, Villa Volpicelli, a palazzo, as a primary social setting are, she argues, strategic maneuvers to indigenize an imported format and an adapted serial for Italian audiences. In particular, they were strongly resistant to a genre, melodrama, that they aesthetically and culturally devalued.[23] Pointing to the multiple meanings a word takes in the title of the serial, she comments on the significance of “place” as a method for habituating estranged audiences in the process of cultural domestication:

“‘Place’ is a crucial component of a soap’s identity and an acknowledged strategic resource both as a narrative device and a cornerstone of viewer’s sense of familiarity.”[24]

Another example of a konak dizi, Sıla (2006-2008) explores the feudal custom of berdel, bride exchange, with a story of an unlikely romance born out of female captivity set in Mardin. The dizi spatially conveys the reach of the ancestral, patriarchal codes of eastern Anatolia infecting urban modernity. Inescapably subject to her familial past, Sıla is forcibly married to feudal lord Boran and moves into his family konak from her parents’ yalı.

Buonnano’s astute conclusion can help explain the relation between filming on location and the mise-en-scene in teleserial melodrama’s travels around the world: location shooting overall crucially transforms the spaces of teleserial melodrama into a “place” both narratively and visually for its audiences. Along the same lines but seeing different values at stake, Ana M. Lopez provides another example that illustrates not only the criticality but also the complexity of this transformation in the context of multinational Spanish-speaking audiences of the telenovela genre.[25] In her comparative analysis of two Mexican productions shot on location but building fictional settings, she identifies the configuration of the mise-en-scene as what separates the failure of Valentina from the popularity of Dos mujeres, un camino for the U.S. Latino community. Observing that “the national is melodramatically articulated in relationship to the other” in telenovela, she suggests that Valentina’s setting, Isla Condida, did not strike a chord with its transnational viewers because “it was too fictionally arid, too composite, its hybridity too out of context.”[26] Unlike the fictional space in Dos mujeres that took a life of its own through its characters’ actions in it, Isla Condida “figured primarily as backdrop and not as a practiced signifying context.”[27] In reference to Michel de Certeau’s renowned formulation, Valentina’s “place was not a space.”[28]

As opposed to Valentina’s (1993-1994) fictional, idyllic Isla Condida, Dos mujeres (1993-1994) develops its authenticity through its investment in the mise-en-scene.

Indeed, this vein of scholarship very much paves the way for reconsidering the significance of the mise-en-scene for the teleserial melodrama outside the United States, but it does so only in limited terms in relation largely to its addressees. A visual layer in which time and space are encoded through select locations for filming, the teleserial melodrama’s mise-en-scene is posited primarily as a marker of verisimilitude for its audiences. What animates this conception seems to be an emergent friction between “space” and “place,” a dichotomy that Priya Jaikumar effectively calls into question at the beginning of her social anatomy of India as filmed space.[29] She suggests that using the filming location as an analytical point of departure is inherently premised upon a conceptual antagonism between place and space, even as the materiality of place runs the risk of outweighing the notion of spatiality, thereby relegating filmed space to a philosophical abstraction.[30] However, the filmic space, she shows throughout her monograph, is not merely indexical but also always artifactual. Furthermore, its assemblage entails historical processes that are overshadowed by, yet integral to the materiality of place as we understand it. The project for Jaikumar then is to root, tease, and sort out these intricate histories that reveal how place is always already spatial in its very materiality.

To conceptualize space as an analytic of relationality—social, systemic, and organizational—that is constitutive of the very historicity of the filmed location has valuable insight for approaching dizi spaces.[31] Indeed, the dizi sites like yalıs and konaks[32] present a favorable case to examine the spatial imbrication of their historicity; however, my interest is not primarily historiographic. While the historical formation of the dizi spaces carries significant weight in the analysis below, I rather turn to the present in pursuit of understanding what the filmed space produces in relation to its own historical accretions. More specifically, I am concerned with how, through its historicity, the yalı participates in the production of a certain kind of aesthetics that we so often understand in terms of “mise-en-scene.”  In this respect, my analysis extends the notion of spatiality into form and genre; the mise-en-scene can be broadly considered as the spatial organization of the visible, and genre as spatialization of time.

In what follows, I investigate how the historicity of the yalı shapes dizi aesthetics through the mise-en-scene with an eye to its implications for the melodramatic form. As the survey above implicates, mise-en-scene in the context of television melodrama has been largely understood as the intended effect of a series of technical manipulations of location filming on viewers. Instead of the view that keeps mise-en-scene within the bounds of a creative team’s vision and labor, the dizi space, I argue, affords an alternative conceptualization of the impact of the filmed location that is more capacious through its historicity. A dizi space like the yalı is where the infiltration of the uncontainable structural force of history materializes and thereby re-signifies the sanitized mise-en-scene of conventional televisual melodrama. I formulate the spatial work of the yalı as a place through the notion of infrastructure, whereby this historical excess, to invoke a key term for melodrama, manifests itself as an aesthetics of frontality that quintessentially characterizes the dizi form at large.

Camdaki Kız (2021-2023) deftly approximates the oppressiveness of the urban with that of the rural with its explicit rendering of yalı as a site of trauma and torment, psychological and physical alike. Destructive familial secrets are pushed into the basements of its dual setting, paving the way for a doomed marriage between the son of a köşk, stand-in for a konak, and the daughter of a yalı family.