Thursday, July 21, 2011

Soap Operas And The Art Of Longing

Recently I learned that Roger Howarth, one of my favorite soap opera actors, had returned to One Life To Live for their last few months on television (OLTL and All My Children will be moving online). I haven't watched a daytime soap in years but hearing that Roger was back was enough to get me to set my DVR and pull up a few old Youtube videos of his past performances to boot.

I stopped watching soaps for the same reason most other people did. The storylines are repetitive and go well beyond the suspension of disbelief, the acting is uneven (which is not to say some of the actors aren't amazing, it's just that some of them really, really suck), they're time consuming and so on and so forth. But there's one thing that soaps can do better than almost anybody else, they can make you passionate about a couple.  I loved Roger Howarth not just because he was one of the best actors on daytime...or any other time of day, but because of his incredible chemistry with Kassie DePaiva who played Blair to his Todd. Their storylines were as silly as all the other soap storylines but the push pull between the two of them was totally engrossing and flat out spectacular.

It just didn't matter what they were doing.  Hating, laughing or loving, it was all good. They were great even when their storylines were far from it. Now obviously Todd and Blair weren't everyone's cup of tea. Some viewers preferred Todd with Tea (Florencia Lozano). On Guiding Light there were Josh and Reva fans and Beth and Phillip fans but the point is that no matter what soap you're watching, the chances are you are dying to have a certain couple get together. You see shades of that with primetime shows but the fans rarely have the same intense emotions about the whole thing. In fact the only shows that mirror that kind of devotion for their couples are nighttime soaps like True Blood (the 21st century's answer to Dark Shadows). 

As an author of women's fiction I feel like it's important to understand how soaps, for all their bad storylines and frequently clich├ęd dialogue, inspire that kind of devotion from their viewers. It's not just that they're on every day and it's not just that the people who watch these shows are romantics because romantic or not the viewers won't see the romance in the many primetime shows that try to play that aspect up.

I personally think it's the longing.  No matter what the setup is the one thing you know on a soap is that every character is going to be longing for something. It's all they do. They long to find their real parents. They long to get revenge on the ones who hurt them, they long to have their memories back (because they have amnesia...again) and so on and so forth. They have fine tuned the act of longing so it should be expected that when it comes to romance they know how to load it up with extra longing. And if the actors know what they're doing they can make their viewers share in that longing.  I've heard so many soap fans say they want this or that couple to get together and just be happy but honestly, that wouldn't really work. What works is to have them get together and then break up and then fight to be together again. Moments of happiness are fleeting in soaps and although that frustrates fans it also feeds into their longing.  

Sex, Murder and a Double LatteI'm proud of the fan base I've been able to build for the protagonist in my book series (Sophie) and her love interest, Anatoly. Yes, their relationship has grown over the years and yes it continues to move forward but it's so incredibly volatile that there's plenty of room for arguing, hating, wooing and most importantly, longing. In life we want to keep the longing under control but there's no need for that in fiction. I learned that from daytime TV.

When it comes to make-believe we can "long" as much as we like and those of us who want to tap into that are wise to take note of what has been achieved in Soap Operas. Their ratings may be down, the shows may be canceled but no one who has ever watched a soap will forget about that couple whose longing they felt. 

It's a soap opera legacy to be proud of.

--Kyra "Fashionista Fatale" Davis


Anonymous said...

Surprisingly I haven't been sucked into a daytime soap, but I do watch bad prime time TV shows like 90210 and Gossip Girl because of all the crazy love triangles and melodramatic love stories. I never thought to watch soaps for story ideas, but it's actually a really good idea!

Christie Craig said...

I don't watch them, but I remember on the days that I was young, sick and missed school and had to stay with my grandmother and granny. They were hooked on all of them. And I can still remember the excitement they had when the shows came on and the frustration they felt when they went off and left them with a clifthanger. I think we can learn a lot by watching the soaps.

Hooks, hooks, hooks.


Rich S said...

Considering how many shows lose viewers after couples get together it would seem that people long for couples to get together more than they long for them to actually do it.