I contend that soap operas are important to our culture and have much to offer.

If you didn’t know, the art of daytime drama is slowly being replaced by unscripted talk shows.  As a writer, I find this offensive. But what does it say about our culture that we toss aside well-written, splendidly acted drama for the same old boring talk shows?  Can’t we think larger than that?

I know many people think that soaps are silly and fluffy and only appeal to stay-at-home moms who have nothing better to do. That they are definitely not cool!

It is true that these daily shows bring comfort and companionship to many. Soap Operas offer hours of entertainment, as well as great friends.  They have also spawned a number of huge acting careers; Demi Moore comes mind. And the fellow who plays Castle. The daily grind and far reaching emotions hones an actor’s talents.

When I was working in recording studios in the 90’s, I was hooked on General Hospital. Stories in those days were different from the traditional soap opera fare of who’s sleeping with who.  Instead we had a storyline about a secret formula for making diamonds hidden in the base of a large diamond on display across the country. Everyone wanted it, including the dashing Aussie agent Robert Scorpio of the WSB (World Security Bureau). And Mikkos Cassidine, eccentric Greek billionaire, who had discovered a way to use the formula to, dare I say it, freeze the world. Those were the days!  Robert bantering with Luke Spencer meant you not only missed some of the story, but also exciting and hilarious dialog if you skipped even one day!  I had musicians – do you get any cooler than that – finding themselves glued to the TV when GH was on. There was also, if I recall, a story about an alien that little Robin Scorpio found in the garage. And a political coup involving holograms and ancient regalia. There were some amazing stories back then! The Sci Fi was, I guess, not as appealing as sex in the afternoon. But it altered the way the writers told stories and the sophistication of the storylines. They haven’t given up on the partnering, but they try to tackle more current and controversial issues like AIDS, gay couples, diseases, and con artists.

The typical soap watcher is hard to pin down.  Recently, I’ve found that there are lots of people, from all walks of life, men and women, who love their stories and are willing to fight to keep them.

There is something about the daily-ness of soaps that generates a loyalty which regular, weekly television programming can’t touch.  We see our characters nearly every day, not once a week with season breaks, interrupting the flow of story and connection.  We’ve known these people for years. And we have an intimacy with them that is hard to reach with our carbon-based relationships. We are privy to private conversations and situations.  (Sometimes I actually feel weird watching something I shouldn’t.)  We know what makes them tick and what everyone else says about them. What happens to them matters to us.

And there’s always something happening to them. The characters themselves may be reality-based, but the situations are rarely. There has been talk lately about the unbelievability of the current storylines as the soaps end their network TV runs. I’ve been watching for a long time and I have to say, they have always been that way. It would be dull as dishwater if soap opera characters lead “normal” lives. The usual day-in-and-day out predictability of most people’s lives doesn’t play well in drama. We don’t want to hear about sitting in traffic, on the toilet or waiting in lines. Elevators are always there when they need them.

Surprise is the name of the game. You never know when a bomb will go off in a hotel, or there will be a hostage situation at the hospital, or someone will come back from the dead. A boring, happy life doesn’t last long in soap opera land. Characters can change overnight.  You can sometimes predict what a character will do, but they can easily shift gears without warning!  There is something about the ongoing nature of soap storytelling that allows for  a lot of freedom. They can cover a character over a lifetime. This person can have relationships or experiences of various kinds with everyone on the show. There’s an ability to explore the possibilities. What if Jessica and Ford were in love?  What would happen if Natalie’s baby really was Brody’s?

Soap operas taught me a lot about how to create drama and tension.  That’s what they’re all about.  A typical scenario involves a secret.  A secret that if told would have little consequence and be easily forgiven.  But kept hidden, this secret builds the tension and often creates a huge explosion when it’s finally revealed at the worst possible moment!  Soap writers know how to hold your interest and keep you coming back.

One of the things we have as a legacy of the glory days of General Hospital is humor.  Most soaps have some comic relief in the form of a funny character. An egotistical con man, an obsessive computer nerd who gives everyone a nick name and speaks in riddles. Snappy comebacks abound. I like humor in soaps and wish they’d do more of it.

The longevity of characters gives a wide berths to develop nuances and depth. You take an interesting character and give it to a good actor, with time to develop and you never know what you will get!  None has done it quite as well as Todd Manning on One Life to LiveRoger Howarth began the job as a day player. “Frat Boy #3” or something like that.  He was so dynamic on screen they gave him a reoccurring role as Todd Manning, victim of an abusive father and with ties to the legendary Lord family. 

Todd was a rapist, a scoundrel, a con artist, a cheater.  But Roger had a way of playing him with such pathos, we all fell in love with him.  Sure he was all those things, but he was abused as a child, and he did have some redeeming qualities.  There was good in him, we could all see it.  He cared deeply about the people he loved and was capable of immense sadness and glimmers of regret. The women in his life all forgave and loved him. After all, the woman he raped was a tease and a lush.  Todd was always misunderstood and just trying to survive. Roger was brilliant at showing us the many sides of Todd Manning. Including an Oscar-worthy performance as Rod, the romantic, Tom, the scared little boy, and Pete, the violent and angry, in a case of multiple personalities.  Sometimes he’d switch mid-scene.

Roger left the role several times, feeling uncomfortable with fans who would write to him and say, “You can rape me.”  Who wouldn’t be upset by that?  But in his wake he left a well-carved character making it easier for Trevor St. John to step into his shoes.

Soap operas have gotten better in recent years about replacing actors. After all, as viewers we come to know and love a character and then you expect us to accept them with totally different faces and ways of acting? But, if you want to keep the character going, you have to do it sometimes. To get over this with Todd, they told us that Todd had extensive plastic surgery. (I always thought it odd that surgery made him smaller, left no scars and changed his taste in clothes.)  I’d rather have an unbelievable story than be asked to accept a new face without explanation.

It would be such a shame to lose the unique form of storytelling that soaps bring us.  Wonderful, believable characters that we know so well and care about so much.  Lavish sets, great acting and sometimes scintillating writing.  (I often feel sorry for the writers when viewers complain they don’t listen to them.  But we’re so passionate about our likes and dislikes.  I absolutely hate Brody. I think he’s vapid and boring and should not be with Natalie. But someone else thinks he’s exciting and gorgeous and wants to see more scenes with Natalie. How do they keep up?)  What will become of us if we can’t see our stories and worry about our characters?

I, personally, think the networks have it all wrong.  I have come to see there are throngs of people out there who care deeply about this medium and what it brings to their lives. But, maybe, like me, they have been recording the shows and fast forwarding through the commercials.  So, we don’t register with ratings or ad revenue. There has been a large outcry among the throngs about the cancellations of many soaps over the last few years.  Most recently, All My Children and One Life to Live. Seems there are a lot of us who prefer scripted shows with fine acting.

I have hope, though.  Soap operas made the leap from radio to TV and were better for it.  Now, there’s a production company called Prospect Park who have taken on the case of the daytime dramas. What they will do with them is anyone’s guess.  Will they be on Internet or cable?  Will we all have free access to them? Will they still have our favorite actors or characters?  Will we have the production value we’ve come to expect?  I believe this company wants to do right by the soaps and the viewers. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But what if soaps turn into something more than we imagined? We may no longer be limited to air times. On cable maybe, new vistas will open, allowing for topics that might have been too controversial for network TV. (I find it hard to believe that Todd never swore!)

If you’ve never watched a soap, I suggest you try.  Granted, like baseball, it’s a lot more fun if you know the players.  But there’s much to this world that creates excellent entertainment and it’s not too hard to pick up on the action.  Maybe next year you can watch them on your phone.

So, long live continuing dramas whenever and wherever they will be!

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