Deep Soap: Too Hip For The Room

by | March 2, 2009 at 10:00 AM | Deep Soap

Llanview Is The New Santa Barbara

There are two soaps that almost every critic loves right now: One Life To Live and The Young & The Restless.  Y&R is soaring in the ratings, hitting 4.0 in Households for the second time this year last week, while OLTL is floundering.   Some fans argue that its because the show is focusing on newer characters at the expense of veterans, the characters of Marty and Todd have been severely damaged by the rapemance, the teens are getting too much airtime, and the David paternity storyline has been poorly paced.   I agree with many of these criticisms but I still find the show quite enjoyable on a daily basis.   However, I’ve noticed that OLTL shares a number of characteristics with another critically acclaimed but low rated soap, Santa Barbara.  Like OLTL, SB was the hip, sophisticated, modern soap.  It was known for playing with the form, occasional forays into fantasy (Mason’s visit to heaven where God was played by *shudder* Brian Frons, Patrick Mulcahey’s brilliant Twilight Zone inspired “The Capwell Zone” episode.  Most important, both shows were deliberately quirky and comedic in ways that often served to encourage the audience to acknowledge that they were watching a television show rather than eavesdropping on other people’s lives.  As someone who enjoys analyzing the genre, I appreciate that tone.  But that may not be what the majority of daytime viewers want.

In contrast Y&R is a very serious show.  There’s plenty of witty dialogue, and the occasional campy scene or character, such as Marcia Wallace’s wacky nurse.  But the overall tone is high drama.  Consider the dramatic contrast between the way Y&R is handling its two DNA test related storylines and the wackiness of OLTL’s David-is-a-Buchanan reveal.  Y&R’s tone makes it seem important, like it is truly a program viewers must watch every day.  Many daytime viewers tune in because the soaps tend to be make them cry as much as they laugh.  It’s a unique strength of the genre.  (Think fast: name one primetime show that genuinely moves you on a regular basis.)  Daytime is not about irony.  It’s about heightened emotions and romance.  Very few forms of entertainment are so unabashedly sentimental and emotional.   Yet those works that do are often huge hits.  Think of Titanic, The Notebook, Mitch Albom books and even Slumdog Millionaire.  I enjoy both the classicism of Y&R and the silly humor of OLTL.  But I think most people tune into soap operas for the emotional catharsis that they can’t get anywhere else.

Great Minds Think Alike

I’m not the only one obsessed with ABC’s Campbell’s Soup obsession.  Last Friday I ranted about it.  To my surprise, on the very same day, Gail Collins wrote an op-ed about the very same subject in The New York Times.  What are the odds?  While this blog is of course every bit as prestigious as the Times, my mind was blown.  I feel like I should write something about the stimulus package to even out the universe. Even stranger than my apparent mind meld with an op-ed writer for the paper of record is the fact that the NYT saw fit to publish a serious editorial about daytime.     I applaud Ms. Collins for semi-owning up to being a soap fan.  I take her  statement that:

“I do not actually spend my afternoons watching “One Life to Live.” Do we have that clear? O.K., let’s move forward.”

as a tongue-in-cheek technicality.  I bet she TiVos and watches it at night.  Collins goes on to treat both the genre and soap fans (internet soaps fans, no less) with respect, deftly connecting daytime’s budget crisis with those of the nation.  I knew there was a reason why I liked her better than Maureen Dowd.  Collins notes describes a poster on a message board as savvy and philosophical about product placement. That means that Collins, a columnist for America’s most prestigious newspaper, reads soap message boards, or at least checked them out for this article.  She portrays soap operas as a legitimate form of entertainment worth saving, recognizing that daytime is the canary in the coal mine for the media industry, including the equally endangered print journalism.

The NYT has, of late, written a surprising number of articles about soaps.  A few months ago they published a lengthy profile of Eric Braeden. (Not to be outdone, today’s Los Angeles Times features an article about Drake Hogestyn.) It isn’t all respectful.  Here’s NYT’s Ginia Bellafonte, known for her condescending articles about daytime, on SoapNet’s Being Erica:

This brings us to “Being Erica,” another Canadian series, on SoapNet (Thursdays) that manages to redeem both the efforts of its home country and the channel that exists to ensure that there is virtually no time of day when it might be impossible to watch “One Life to Live.”

I think Gail Collins would argue that OLTL 24/7 is a good raison d’etre for the channel.  Perhaps the Times should assign her to the soap beat.  I will be disappointed if OLTL, meta distant show that it is, doesn’t acknowledge Collins by having Todd remark that he’s so infamous he merits coverage in the New York Times.