Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Monday, May 15, 2017

In Defense of the Soap Opera

Soap operas are more or less responsible for how we tell serialized stories and don't you forget it. Austin McConnel released a video pretty much lampooning soap operas. But the truth is most of the stuff he says could be applied to all commercialized storytelling. You'd be surprised at how much fiction was created because a broke writer in a room wanted to get paid. Seriously almost every negative thing he says about soap operas could be said about comics, manga, anime, pulp novels, radio serials, and yes prime time television.

Now I'm not going to pretend I love soap operas. I never really got into them but I appreciate them.

For a long time, soap operas were one of the only places you could find serialized fictional television. Which is kind of a big deal right now?

Now soap operas aren't the only place to find serialized stories hell part of the reason The Walking Dead has gone on so long has to do with the medium it was transplanted from. And comics themselves were greatly influenced by radio serials and the pulp novels that inspired them. Also while I've cited a lot of science fiction shows they owe more than a little to theatrical serials in the same genre.

But I digress. I've said it before one of the major differences in what has been called the golden age of television, is that writers are more comfortable telling serialized rather than episodic stories. They are more comfortable assuming that the audience has watched and will more than just this one episode.

And for the "classics" that's rare. Most of the vintage TV I watch was structured to be self-contained. In the United States up until roughly the 90s just about the only places that weren't scared to death, they would confuse their audience with continuity were soap operas.

Moreover, television production is complicated. Production issues ALWAYS interfere with story. How many episodes can the studio guarantee? How much money is budgeted for each of those episodes? How complicated would the set and costume design be? How long can you keep the actors before they start wanting to do other projects? How many scenes do you need each actor to shoot? Hell, what if in the middle of it all a showrunner leaves and you just have to wing it.

A serialized story makes all of those issues more complex. Everything has to run like clockwork.

Soap operas may have their issues but they were also one of the first genres to actively try to regularly work around all of those issues on television, which McConnel acknowledges.

Furthermore they weren't afraid to do camp.

I am not an expert on melodrama. But I will acknowledge that as a form it has a long tradition in almost every medium and overtime has more or less come to permeate EVERYTHING at least a little.

Let me tell you about some of the stuff Jack Kirby was putting out.

And hey look as fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and shonen anime I could use some reciprocity. Just because you don't understand the tropes of a genre doesn't mean the genre itself sucks. And let's face it any hot blooded anime/comic where the hero gives a long winded speech about justice or the power of friendship or whatever is basically indulging in melodrama. Just melodrama coded for guys.

My major problem of McConnel's video is that he's judging soap operas as an outsider. He doesn't see the narrative point in them. But when looking at media you have to judge things based on what they are narratively trying to do and whether or not they succeed or fail on those terms (I'm telling you it's better than you think.) And I would argue that if they were trying to create melodramatic over the top stories where their audience could stay invested for years or even decades on end they must have done something right.

And as for whether the genre is dying, he's looking in the wrong place. First off like I said, in the United States the basic form of the soap opera style serialized storytelling has migrated to primetime and streaming bingable stuff but if you're looking for thriving traditional soaps, try Univision and Telemondo.

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