where the writers are
a few words from soap opera’s single mother…

As regular readers know (perhaps, too well), I’ve long believed that the elements of early soaps contained in shows like Friday Night Lights and Men of a Certain Age, to name but two, are one of the reasons – arguably, the reason –  these shows are so celebrated by critics. But, describing those elements in ways that can be understood by those who never watched the early soaps is, well, challenging. So, who better to turn to than soap opera’s single mother?

Irna Phillips died in 1973, years before primetime serials would become the cornerstone of “quality television” and “television’s second golden age.” But, shortly before her death, she wrote an essay (part 1, part 2) in which she laid out the three factors she believed underlay soaps’ enduring popularity: “meaningful and accessible escape and identification,” along with a sense of conviction. Juxtaposed with this recent post, Irna’s observations help to clarify the connection between the primetime and daytime serials

While escapism is often used as a pejorative, that’s not how she’s using the word here  (although I'm sure some might argue that “meaningful escape” is an oxymoron). Irna acknowledged that all of our lives “contain a degree of tedium and monotony,” so “the soap opera listener, therefore, ought to be given some insight into other lives and life-styles...to be offered the chance to participate vicariously in problem solving…The listener should be asked to think a little.”  I’d love to know what Irna would have said to those who believe that not asking viewers or listeners to “think a little” is the purpose of escapism.

According to Irna, it's the asking listeners (or viewers) “to think a little” that leads to identification, “It is a perilous practice among writers to allow their situations to become too remote from the average listener…I’ve tried to keep my characters on a life-size scale…There must be that element of universality in everything – that something that causes the listener to say, ‘Yes, I have felt that way, or ‘I have know someone very much like that.”

As for a sense of conviction, Irna addressed the critics who ask, “But why then do soap operas convey such a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of lives gone wrong.” While Irna took exception to the description, she went on to say, “Those troubles, or tragedies, are a kind of crucible in which I try to expose the inner strengths and weakness of my characters. I ask myself what forms escapism should take – on television or in real life. Many people today simply do not want to face reality, and they look to television to escape it. I believe that answering their need is part of my mission as a writer.”

I doubt that Horace Newcomb knew Irna Phillips, or had read this essay; if he had, he would have mentioned it in his chapter of soap opera in Television: the Most Popular Art. But he didn’t, yet, toward the end of that chapter he noted, “Human frailty and human valor are the province of all complex art,” then went on to say, “Soap operas have managed to deal with both aspects, with the entertainment function of the popular arts and with the crucial human functions of responses to problems. They stand between most of television and a number of new television productions that are reaching for a newer version of popular art.”

© 2011 Lynn Liccardo

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only. Lynn Liccardo

 

 

 

Comments
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Soap or Soapy?

Is it a requirement of Soap Opera to have a running time of several hundred hours, spread out over a season that lasts so many months?

In this age of abbreviated but still effective communication and media, could the experience be condensed into 2 hours?

I just saw "The Kids are Alright" and it seemed like a Soap Opera to me. There were subplots, seductions, a hidden affair, an unrequited romance, a crisis in the core relationship. I got angry at some characters, tried to figure out the motivations of others. I went through all the usual ups and downs, all in the space of 120 minutes. The feelings were there, the whole process just happened faster. I didn't get the feeling that events were stretched out, nor was there a cliff-hanger.

So - was this movie Soap Opera, or just Soap-y?

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it's a huge question you're asking...

one that that i've been thinking about for a long time. although, i do believe that serialization is a fundamental element of the soap opera form. i've included a few links to previous posts addressing this question. looking forward to your thoughts. http://www.redroom.com/blog/lynnliccardo/not-your-mother%E2%80%99s-soap-... http://www.redroom.com/blog/lynnliccardo/cracking-code%E2%80%A6 http://www.redroom.com/blog/lynnliccardo/what-we-have-here-a-failure-com... (scroll down to the paragraph that begins ", but, was dallas really a soap opera")

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Time + characters = great drama

Hope y'all don't mind, but I wanted to jump into this discussion.

Daniel - I agree that "The Kids are All Right" (a movie I liked) had some similarities to "soap opera" as it's commonly defined. It did deal with universal themes (love, trust, family, defining who we are, coming of age) in a new, refreshing way.

I don't think that its short length was a negative, and the viewer could walk away fully satisfied with the story as it was told.

However, what traditional soap opera gave us with those hundreds, or thousands, of hours of history that isn't found in ANY other form I can think of (beyond novels) is context and subtext based on history.

For me, it was truly the best thing about watching soaps. Cliffhangers and denouements might have caught my attention in the short term, but what really resonated was seeing a character that you'd watched for 5, 10, 20 or more years. Knowing who they had been, who they'd loved, who they'd lost....all of that adds a great deal to the richness of the viewing experience.

I think those days are largely gone....partly based on the abbreviated media consumption attention span you speak of, and partly because few shows are featuring any stories that draw on histories longer ago than a decade.

And for me, most people's perceptions of "soapy" (as Lynn's blog entry, re: Was "Dallas" really a soap opera? points out) usually ends up being a cartoon - all action with no repercussions and no continuity. The thing I liked best about "Kids" was that there were repercussions for every character. That's another part of that "best" reason to watch soaps. You watched for the fallout, the reactions, to see how some character's life was changed.

I think it's interesting, and telling, that Annette Bening was quoted in Entertainment Weekly that she loved the story in Kids are All Right, and would definitely tell another story about the same characters. So perhaps it is a continuing drama, after all......

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good storytelling, whatever the form...

should leave us wanting to know what happens to the characters in the future.

and patrick's also right about characters' actions having consequences. that used to be one of the things that daytime did better than primetime. "used to be" being the operative phrase now that so much of daytime has abandoned its roots. as for daniel's observation re "this age of abbreviated but still effective communication and media," i've found that for certain kinds of show -- "friday night lights," "mad men" and "men of a certain age" -- there's a real hunger to see characters and stories fully fleshed out. how much of a hunger, and among how many viewers is an open question. the challenge cable networks face is not alienating, or even losing, these viewers during the increasingly long waits between short (1-13 episode) seasons.

right now serialized storytelling is in flux (the topic of my next post). viewers bring certain expectations to these kinds of shows, but the storytellers and outlets (be it cable or web) are still in the process of figuring out how to make the money work.

so, as they used to say at the end of soaps, tune in tomorrow.