Audacious List (10 of 10): Complete loss of identity

Yes, the List is finally drawing to a close.

All of the other things I’ve mentioned have been contributing factors in what’s ailed the soaps creatively (and ratings-wise) but they all lead up to one core idea: soaps ain’t what they used to be.

That’s not just complaining by a bunch of negativistas on some message board out here in the Interwebz. The serialized drama, as presented on daytime television for many years, has changed.

And I understand some of the changes. After all, soaps today could never live by a scene of two people talking with a pot of coffee in the background. But “updating” has, more often than not, provided license for people who are in charge creatively to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Soaps have always been a quirky mix of genres that needed a special brand of alchemy to really come to life.

  • If the story did its job really well, the fourth wall would disappear and it would feel like you were reading a good book – the people in this fictional town would feel like people in your world, or friends, or family.
  • When you watched, if it were done correctly, you should feel almost like you were a voyeur, peering through their windows to see what really happened in their kitchens or bedrooms.
  • It would be like real life, but slightly more dramatic – or melodramatic.
  • The people we saw would be great actors, primarily from the tradition of theater, who could play characters that were us, or at least what we perceived us to be: individuals with hopes and dreams….people who were attractive but not necessarily models or mannequins.
  • There would be sorrow, death and evil, but – as in life – there would be love, joy, and humor.
  • The town would have elders, as well as quirky characters who added light and texture to our world.
  • Love and romance would be a main ingredient, but family ties were as important, if not more so.
  • Perhaps most importantly, narratives were woven with great care. Two-and-three-year arcs ensured a beginning, middle and end. If a show had four stories, one could view them using a stove as a metaphor: one should be coming to a complete boil, two should be simmering, and one should be newly placed on the stove.

There has always, ALWAYS been a stigma about soaps, both as a viewer and as an art form. In radio, the shows were considered “women’s weepies” and were, indeed, probably melodramatic to the nth degree.

When the shows expanded to TV, some of the “trademarks” became things to poke fun of them for – the inevitable back-from-the-dead story, or the new-face-new-actor story…..or the eight or so marriages a character might have. (Of course, these days, that’s how many times B&B’s Ridge and Brooke marry each other in a year).

And there have always been quirky things like that on soaps, mostly to answer the needs of a business that never stops and a show that must always go on. Actors get replaced, or decide to return, and reality bends a bit. But we embrace it. And frankly, I never much paid those things any mind.

I loved the towns, the families, the relationships and the friendships. During a time of particular conflict in my life, it was not too much of an exaggeration to say I was kept afloat by seeing ATWT, where Bob and Kim Hughes were the ideal parents and Oakdale seemed like such a safe place. Watching GL’s Reva Shayne fight her way back from wanting to end her life was inspiring to me.

The shows expanded in story, theme and time significantly in the 1970s, but even as they enjoyed their biggest ratings (with Luke and Laura) and their biggest show of public affection and acclaim, there was an active self-loathing of the genre happening. After all, it was no less than Gloria Monty who said, “I hate soaps,” to Anthony Geary. Her creation of GH-as-soap-hybrid was a huge success.

But as more and more shows shed those serial standards, they tried – DESPERATELY – to become anything other than the soap opera that they were.

It’s true that changing viewing habits and extended interruptions (like the O.J. Simpson trial) may have had some impact on the shows. But by the time those events were happening, many shows were doing all they could to shed their identity as a soap. And who wants to visit a show that doesn’t even know what it is?

I mean, it’s kind of like country music.

Huh? Country music? 

The clearest analogy I can make here struck me the other night, as I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors on CBS. One of the people they honored was George Jones, a legend in country music. Now, I’ve always been a New Wave/indie kid, but I do love and respect some of the “classic” country music. (Hook me up with some old school Loretta Lynn any day, or some bluegrass, and I’m happy.)

After all, country music – like soap operas – is an art form that sprung from many traditions of art, but was born here in America and is an American art form.

And like soaps, country music was enormously entertaining as it was, but had several specific quirks that became easy targets to parody. Country music was a more rural cousin of the blues, and as such, the music generally shared tales of woe. Country crooners would have that sad howl in their voice (much like George Jones).

In the 1970s, the country industry was chugging along at a great pace. But like soaps, some of the people in it didn’t like how confined they felt there. The world thought they all sang twangy songs about throwing a frying pan at their spouse, cheatin’ or drinkin’.

And as a result, the industry went through a few identity crises. It molted that sequined skin it had, went through a few updates, and now looks… awful lot like most pop music.

What made country music special and unique is COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY GONE. In its place is something that looks and sounds a whole lot like pop music or adult contemporary music, and the only thing that makes it “different” is that it happens to have a steel guitar playing in the song. Country music singers (and producers) are as likely to come from New York City as they are from New Orleans.

Sound familiar? Most daytime soaps have gone out of their way to mimic nighttime shows. General Hospital tried first to become an action/adventure show, and then, once The Sopranos became a hit, decided to emulate THAT show and focus on the Mob to an extreme that has nearly wiped out the show’s original focus and characters. (Alan Quartermaine? Really?)

Most shows have shed their serialized, soapy identities in the process. (It must be said here that although I was never a huge fan of James Reilly’s work, he at least understood and respected some of the most important parts of a soap. His original stint at Days of our Lives would be a great example of how to update the theme and content of a show without completely destroying its structure.)

Writers and producers need to pay attention to the recipe and all of the contents I listed above. It’s understandable, even sensible, to update the framework or the format. But the basics must be there. Tell us a story, a serialized story like so many stories told since the time of Scherezade. Tell us the story that, as Agnes Nixon says, makes us laugh, makes us cry and makes us wait. Use actors we like to play characters we care about, and keep the story going.

Soaps aren’t dying, people. We still tell stories to each other, all over the world. We just need to tell a great story, and respect the history of the story that was passed down to us – as well as the intelligence of the one who’s listening to the tale you’re telling.

3 thoughts on “Audacious List (10 of 10): Complete loss of identity

  1. I don’t think the country music analogy is strange at all even if I am not a fan of that genre. Where I live, it is so popular, and work with people who listen to it.

    It is apt, as that genre has gone through such an evolution with crossing over to other genres to appeal to a larger audience base being more important than the traditions of the songs. Artists with the more “traditional” sound aren’t even played anymore outside of certain hours of the day. So just like soaps, the music still exists, but one has to look for it outside the radio to hear it.

    I think part of the soap stigma goes back to them not being high art for stay at home moms. They weren’t part of the cultural programs that aired on the radio way back when where it was normal to hear broadcasts of orchestra concerts and other events on commercial stations.

    PS Happy 2009!

  2. Once again, a stellar column. I totally agree that soaps need to pull a Scherezade and move back to the classic serialized story that keeps us all entertained, intrigued…and free from boredom. To borrow from the 1001 Nights analogy, if you can’t tell any stories that are clever and entertaining enough (and motivate the listeners to want to know what happens next), you’re signing your death warrant.

    Happy 2009 to you!

  3. Hi Patrick! I’m late weighing in here, but I just wanted to say how much I love and agree with this column. The daytime audience was bound to erode in the ’90’s, but did the soaps themselves have to play such a complicit role? When TPTB show such disdain for their own product, the audience was bound to turn out.

    I think most of us on these blogs were introduced to our shows by parent or relative. The best thing TPTB could do to guarantee that young people would not watch was to get their elders to tune out. My mother never would’ve watched the shows that are on now, she thinks they are a waste of time. But miss an episode of DAYS in the 1970’s, that never happened.

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