Audacious List (7 of 10): Tearing apart the tapestry

In any narrative form (be it a book, film, or soap opera), you have to tell the story you’re going to tell through characters. And all of those individual people have to come together in some way. Maybe they’re related, or maybe they share being in the same place at the same time having a shared experience (think Crash).

On soaps, the stronger the tapestry is – the more ties there are to a thread in the rug – the stronger the story is. Things that happen to that one thread (or one person) affect the rest of the canvas, and make for a compelling story.

Most of the shows have followed trends over the last 20 or so years that have been counterintuitive to this concept. These trends may have caused immediate spikes in ratings or audience interest, but in the long run, I believe they’ve done more harm than good.

Supercouples

I am hardly the first person to write about supercouples, and several people way smarter than I have taken a look at them from an academic viewpoint.

Soaps have always had couples that were star-crossed and filled with high drama  – Jeff and Penny on ATWT are an early example. Doug and Julie on DAYS are often considered the first real example of a supercouple – that storyline (and the actors’ real-life marriage) landed on the cover of TIME in 1976. 

But the concept really took off with Luke and Laura on General Hospital.  This is one of many changes ushered in by Gloria Monty that changed daytime forever. (And perhaps not for its ultimate best interests.)

Supercouples can be great for ratings, but they bring some baggage along with them.

(1) The characters tend to get stranded on a storytelling “island”. Fans are reluctant to see changes to their favorite couple or their story. Often, this means those characters get isolated from other action on the canvas.

(2) Because they’re islanded, the stories that focus on the couple tend to be filled with more plot than character. They also tend to be over-the-top. After all, to make up for the fact that the characters aren’t moving horizontally, the plot and the action has to move them vertically. Eventually, this is a monster that’s very hard to feed, and topping oneself becomes a challenge.

This is what I call the Moldavian Paradox (after the Moldavian massacre on Dynasty): Once you have shot everyone in the room, or thrown lit matches at them, or whatever…..what can you possibly do to top yourself?

(3) Okay, haters: I know this one will get you angry, but it’s true. The simple fact is that supercouples often (not always, but often) draw fans to them who are fans of those characters but not of the show as a whole. Those fanbases often want their favorites to stay completely static and happy, which isn’t always a great thing for the show. 

Focus on youth stories

This isn’t a bad idea per se. Young love, and the struggles that characters go through in their teens as they grapple with becoming adults, can be utterly compelling. Douglas Marland and Agnes Nixon were masters of these kinds of stories.

But the shows have, in recent years, pushed the overload button on youth stories. And most of those stories aren’t dealing with real teen issues per se, but instead feature young actors playing age-inappropriate stories and spouting Dawson’s Creek-esque dialogue. (I am still not sure why ATWT looked at Gwen – an interesting, fantastically edgy character – and ALL they could come up with was, “Baby crazy!”)

These stories are often played out without parents around. Sometimes that’s a storytelling choice, and sometimes the bad, bad network suits sent Mommy or Daddy home for good, because they wouldn’t take a show and a half guarantee or go on recurring. Either way, it’s becoming increasingly unbearable and uninteresting to watch.

Barebones cast

This is a recent phenomena which relates to the above paragraph (and to my previous entry on the list about pruning the tree). It’s an unfortunate reality that some shows have had to cut the ranks of their casts because of budgetary concerns.

As a result, shows have often had to tell stories with big, ugly, gaping holes in them. The worst offender is Guiding Light, which took a big hacksaw to its cast in 2004 and 2005.

I have to hand it to GL: they’ve managed to tell an entire chunk of story about Phillip Spaulding using only Grant Aleksander’s headshot. (I’m sure The Headshot doesn’t require a break or a lunch, or ask for overtime or extra pay.) However, this doesn’t really work for the audience in the long run.

So what?

I think all of these trends have contributed to all of the shows being far more segmented to the audience.

What I mean by that is this: Creatively, the show as a whole used to be more of a unified work. You may have liked some stories more than others, but you generally moved to town and STAYED in town because you really interacted with all of your “neighbors”.

Now, the shows are broken into small pieces, and each piece is aimed at a particular audience. But often, in the rush to get the audience’s rapidly diminishing attention, those pieces don’t relate to EACH OTHER.

Which definitely weakens the tapesty.

About 1000worlds

A Thousand Other Worlds - A blog about traditional daytime serialized TV that ran from 2008 to 2010.
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2 Responses to Audacious List (7 of 10): Tearing apart the tapestry

  1. Elana Levine says:

    Dead on, as usual, Patrick. This is one of the things I’ve actually liked about OLTL as I’ve caught bits of it these days–a more tightly women tapestry than I’m used to seeing in soaps of late. I do have one quibble, however, and that’s about the Monty years at GH. Here, the tapestry was not primarily one of blood relatives, but it was indeed a tapestry, a community of characters whose lives were all intertwined w/ one another’s. Think of Bobbie’s brownstone–sigh. I really wanted to move in to that place because it was really a place of family, of community, even though not all of the relations were technically familial. Supercouples indeed contribute to the problem you name, but I think the Monty years alone aren’t the source. It’s probably more the poor attempts to imitate the Luke and Laura phenomenon without keeping in mind those characters’ deep connections to their community.

    Elena, thanks! I don’t mean to bash everything that Gloria Monty brought to GH. And I agree, as long as there was community there (like the brownstone) family connections were not (and are not) a requirement. But I do think some of Monty’s changes weren’t as beneficial as others (something I’ll talk more about in the final entry on the list).

  2. Great post Patrick. I do agree with Elana though that one of the things I’m finding refreshing about OLTL at the moment – a show I never watched before this year – is the way that they’re weaving the tapestry more tightly than most other shows at the moment. Even if there might be issues with individual stories, things are having canvas-wide impact and characters interact across the canvas. It’s refreshing because you’re so right that you see it less and less these days.

    Agreed – OLTL has done a better job of this than other shows. I think one of Ron Carlivati’s strengths is that he understands this idea and applies it to his stories.

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