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
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