The Story of Soaps: the good, the bad and the ugly

I had high hopes for The Story of Soaps, the special aired late last month on ABC.

I was cautiously optimistic that the special would be a more thorough look at things, and not suffer from the same fate of most media coverage of soaps. You know the ones: the hair flipping. The explosions. The discussion about characters who have returned from the dead ten times, or been married more often than that.

Those hopes were dashed – pretty much shattered – during the opening of the show, which featured a montage of various images – including those over-the-top elements of soaps – playing over an outdated shredded-guitar soundtrack.

But I thought the special mirrored today’s soaps, and recently cancelled soaps, in a very weird way: there were bits and pieces of the real reasons to watch, blended like a Dairy Queen Blizzard, into the larger mix of what TPTB *thinks* the audience wants to see.

I’m late in writing this up, so excuse me for being brief, but here’s my two cents on it.

THE GOOD

A number of talking heads had interesting things to say, both as participants and fans. I appreciated hearing from Bryan Cranston and Chandra Wilson. It was nice to see a few faces like Mark Teschner (GH’s casting director, and the type of industry professional we seldom see or hear from).

I was glad to see Abigail de Kosnik’s comments, as well. (Full disclosure: de Kosnik was one of the editors of Survival of the Soap Opera, where an essay of mine is featured.)

There was historical footage that was new for many of us.

The first hour managed to lay out some important pieces of the story: that it was a genre primarily aimed at women and created largely by one woman, Irna Phillips.

THE BAD

The relentless push to tie together daytime and nighttime got very, very tiresome after a while.

The editing was truly Short Attention Span theater.

Very light on the P&G shows, for sure.

THE UGLY

No. Just No.

I’m at a complete loss to understand why an enormous chunk of the show was handed over to Andy Cohen’s commentary.

He’s certainly had a ton of soap stars on his show, and reality shares a BIT of the same DNA so sure, let him say a few words.

What he did instead felt like driving nails in the coffin (and then dancing on the top of said coffin) of a patient that – in true soap opera form – isn’t all that dead.

Soaps are still a valued form in many other parts of the world. And if they would have been allowed to change and grow (or in the case of some of the hour shows, shrink back to the right size), we’d probably have more shows on the air, and perhaps still have some shows being made in NYC.

It’s been so evident, especially during this pandemic, that the audience for a simple, compelling true-to-life story with well-drawn characters and solid acting? Has never gone away.

But it’s kind of fitting, I suppose, that so much of the special focused on the 1980s soap heyday. The networks (and production entities) seemed to be stuck on the rocks, unable to see beyond those years to see the wonderful, rich tapestries that soaps could still be, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that the producers of this special had a hard time seeing those possibilities, too.

What soaps deserve is a multi-part contemplation, from inception to….well, wherever we are now. Two hours is not enough. Soaps are Americana, and they deserve that kind of examination from a team at PBS.

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