Audacious list (9 of 10): Supercouples, or soap kryptonite

More than any other post, this one will get me flamed. I can almost feel the burning now.

After all, we’re in a era where “shipping” is commonplace. Many shows have couples – err, supercouples – that people focus on and vociferously debate on every message board on the Web. Zendall, Nuke, CarJack, Jeva, Scrubs – these are just a few names that avid fanbases know and love.

But I think the focus on supercouples has been detrimental to the long term health of the shows.

I’m hardly the first person to say this. I’ve read several books and academic texts that have analyzed soaps. Many of these books, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, came to similar conclusions.

And it’s not couples per se that I’m suggesting are a bad thing. Romantic pairings will ALWAYS be a big reason why people watch all of the shows. They have been since Day One, and will be until the end. In fact, having a strong couple is a good thing, and can keep viewers involved in the show and in all of the stories.

What I’m talking about, though, is an environment where supercoupledom is put at the top of the list of priorities, above every other creative need the show might have. This has two negative impacts on the narrative:

  • Any natural, organic path that the characters in the supercouple may take, alone or together, is set aside, and all of the writing for the couple takes wildly divergent paths from where the characters were or should be.
  • Characters on the canvas are no longer considered for their individual worth, or what creative energy they may bring to the canvas – but instead, their value is based largely on how compatible they might be in a supercouple. As a result, exciting standalone characters and fun quirky characters are often pushed to the sidelines. Veterans characters who aren’t coupling up with the new tartlet or stud are pushed to the back burner. These moves weaken the show.

I think it’s a shame that someone as popular as Deidre Hall is leaving Days of Our Lives, but to me, the character of Marlena has been stuck in the supercouple bubble for several years now. Her entire existence seems to focus largely around the fact that she loves John. I can’t help but wonder if this contributed to the character’s period of “rest” – whether the show felt Marlena was dispensable.

I think supercouples (and their fanbases) can be a great boost for shows in some cases. Certainly, the support for the Luke/Noah romance on As The World Turns has really helped increase interest in the show, the story and the characters.

But more frequently, there are creative limitations that come out of supercouple status. Fans love the couples, but vociferously object to either character going through any personal journey on their own. I think that this can backfire on fans, because it sometimes leads to a lack of story for their favorites.

The most negative impact is that I think in many cases, the drive for supercouples has led shows to promote uninspiring pairings, and set aside individual characters we want to see.

We don’t see friendships portrayed as much as we used to, because it would take time away from the focus on couples, couples, couples. It is nearly miraculous that the friendship of Alexis and Diane on General Hospital exists, especially since neither one of them is a mobster, criminal or sleazebag.

I’m not dismissing anyone’s enthusiam for a particular show, a particular couple or a particular actor or actress. I just want all of us to watch a show objectively and try to enjoy the story as it’s being told. And I want the shows to appreciate their strongest couples and write captivating, engaging stories for them, without compromising the show’s history (or the character’s history) to do so.

6 thoughts on “Audacious list (9 of 10): Supercouples, or soap kryptonite

  1. Are these really the same phenomena, do you think? It seems to me like supercoupling is something TPTB do (and it certainly can be aggravating, tedious and disruptive for those of us with no interest in the couple in question and/or who would like to see more balance, ICAM). But shipping is something fans do–as often as not in direct disavowal of canon and the “you will be trained, you will be trained” mentality that seems to go hand in hand with supercouples, the concept. I mean, historically, shipping has been about fan investment in couples who don’t even exist, let alone attain supercoupledom, no? Kirk and Spock? House and Wilson? Bobby Goren and that British chick who plays Professor Moriarty to his Holmes? Or am I missing something here? Do soap fans not do this, too?

    • Anon, I think you’ve pointed out some good examples of couples where fans respond to subtext. I know there’s been a homoerotic subtext to House and Wilson since day one.

      And I think that sometimes recognizing and acknowledging subtext in an onscreen pairing can make a show recognize those two actors as a viable couple.

      But I think more often in daytime, “shipping” is all-encompassing and about existing couples. Some nighttime shows “ship” existing couples too – witness the overload of Meredith/Derek fans for Grey’s Anatomy.

  2. But maybe the problem is not so much that soap fans ship too much, but not enough or incorrectly? Or that there is some sort of silent majority issue at work (I mean, how can we tell who lurkers ship)? Or that there isn’t the automatic overlap between soap fans and technophiles that you often find in a genre like sci-fi; and so we don’t get the fanfic and the fanvids and the vociferous online communities that they do because there are still a lot of closeted soap fans sitting at home, alone, not participating. Or, conversely, where we do have these artifacts, they’re less likely to be representative of the viewing audience as a whole and, as such, more subject to the undue influence of fanclubs/network interns/etc.? Or maybe they are representative of the viewing audience and the problem is that TPTB don’t have any respect for their fans (unlike a genre like sci-fi which seems much more inclined as an industry to embrace the crazy). I don’t know. Obviously, I have more questions here than answers.

    I totally see your point about the overlap. And I’m definitely onboard with taking issue with the whole “when supercouples attack” thing. But shipping is fan investment and I think maybe it’s not such a good idea to discourage people from being invested or from voicing their opinions. Because viewers are going to ship couples regardless of whether or not they give voice to it. And it is going to affect their viewing habits–just because something is unattested doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (I shipped long before I was ever on the Internet or knew what “shipping” was–long before I ever knew what “unacknowledged subtext” meant, for that matter.) And it seems to me like maybe daytime–an industry that’s been hemorrhaging viewers for decades now–needs to pay more attention to shipping, not less. But I don’t mean by that wholesale embracing of supercouples, I mean taking advantage of the world of free demographic information available to them courtesy of shippers and writing shows that answer rather than dictate fans’ desires.

    • All good points, Anon, and I don’t mean to bitch about investing in couples per se.

      I just think that there’s a fine line between shows writing for an obvious asset to the show, and shows putting a supercouple ahead of any and all other considerations.

  3. Oh I bet you don’t get flamed for this! You’ve made some excellent points. I do *love* my supercouples (I mean, I grew watching DAYS which to me was the ultimate supercouple show), but they don’t make or break a show for me. Worse, I think TPTB are so desperate for the next Supercouple (what will their squish name be?!) that pairings oftentimes seem forced (and as you said, uninspired) and have the opposite effect on the audience.

    And I think you’re right, there are times when it hurts a character.
    An example: On GH I absolutely adored Sam and Jason, yet when the show started breaking the couple up I realized how much the character of Sam (who I loved) had been limited by the pairing. Her entire existence on the show had revolved around being in that pairing, her relationships with other characters had never fully developed, the character hadn’t even had a job in years! So I completely understand where you’re coming from!!

    Another great piece, thanks!!

  4. I think there are differences between shippers and soap couple fans and usually people don’t even use the term shipper or shipping when referring to soap fandom. I’ve done both, though that isn’t a surprise.

    I agree with much of what you said. I think couples are important to soaps (understatement), but the individual characters that make up the couple are even more vital. Sometimes shows force things just to try and make a new couple and it doesn’t work. They create a couple like a former couple that is no longer on a show, which usually fails and can be alienating to viewers who liked the other couple.

    With Days during the super couple era, most of the time if one actor left the pairing was ended and couples weren’t kept together for as long. It was two or three years, and then new things would cycle into the forefront. There would be courtship, break up, make up, wedding, maybe another break up, then another wedding or a baby and then either one or the other would leave. Another World was the same way for the most part in that time frame. This helped things from getting boring, and the support characters who were outside of these pairings remained consistent.

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