The view from other worlds

Earlier this year, a friend sent me an essay written about a soap opera – in this case, DAYS.

It was a well written essay, one that appeared in an academic publication. And it poked fun at DAYS, which has certainly had its share of bizarre, unbelievable storylines.

But parts of it also reminded me of soap stereotypes that irritate me. These are the things that the media, and anyone who hasn’t watched a soap, always talks about, always brings up as if it equals “soap.”

The multiple marriages and divorces, the returns from the dead, evil twin sort of things. The stories that seem to capture attention when they’re taken out of context.

Those stories have more in common with an episode of Maury than with the kind of story I loved to watch, but they’re still considered canon.

God (and Irna Phillips) knows that those exaggerated ideas have some truth to them. Soap operas are like the last strands of vaudeville – no matter what, the show’s gotta go on, so if an actor quits, or dies, or decides to break his or her contract, then come Monday at 1 pm, another tap dancing singer has to step into that spotlight.

A few times over the last few years, I’ve talked with friends (and in some cases, strangers) about the connotations they have of soaps, I tell them about two other stories they might be familiar with, and why I think the shows I watched for years actually have more in common with those more well-known narratives.

The Potterverse

Is there anyone alive who doesn’t know the name Harry Potter? It’s doubtful.

Author J.K. Rowling crafted several books that galvanized the publishing industry, and the subsequent movies made stars of the actors and minted billions for the studios.

At its heart, though, the Potter stories tap into some very familiar territory. Harry had struggles with his own family, and found a chosen family in his friends, their families, and other students at Hogwarts.

Set aside the fantastic sci-fi and fantasy elements, and you have a group of people navigating through complicated relationships, through understanding their place in the world, and through the choices we all have in the fight of good versus evil.

When I compare the Potterverse and soaps, it’s all about their shared ability to create a narrative world that not only welcomes the characters, but invites the reader (or viewer) into that immersive world. There’s a reason I used to dream about Oakdale and Springfield, just as many readers and moviegoers dream of Hogwarts and quidditch.

Mad Men

Soaps have a few specific quirks about them, to be sure.

One is the tendency for many shows to repeat or reiterate what’s happened already. The idea, I guess, is that anyone who missed an episode can jump right into the action.

Sometimes this was done awkwardly, or in a dry, boring way. Douglas Marland elevated the recap – via eavesdropping – into an art form during his As The World Turns stint.

And the unusual thing about soaps – the older scenes, at least – is that they often swerve from an on-the-nose recap to a scene filled with subtext.

This is one of the things I loved so much, those small character moments that would let us get a glimpse into a character’s motivations. Sometimes, by not talking directly about a topic, the characters would tell us all we needed to know about their story – their fears, their secrets, their goals.

The modern show that captured this so perfectly? Mad Men.

There are a million examples, but probably the clearest illustration, for me, is many of the early Don/Betty scenes.

We could see their marriage was imploding, even before Betty learned more about her husband’s past, but it was all painted beautifully in small moments, what was said and sometimes, even more importantly, what was NOT said.

The setting – the world of advertising  – meant that symbolism plays a big role in the show, and that’s captured magnificently, too.

The season one season finale, “The Carousel,” tells one story in the words of the narrative, on the surface.  But underneath, it’s capturing the hunger and yearning for connection we all have.

It’s those kind of scenes – like the best soap scenes, the ones that capture those little moments – that stick with viewers.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let this be the one time I tell you: please, actually DO look at the comments on that YouTube clip. They are rapturous, and so many people mention the same feelings.



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