or is it?
After my presentation at the Popular Culture Association conference this past April, I was asked if it might be better for the future of soap opera if, maybe, soap opera was called something else.
My immediate reaction was “absolutely not!” Calling it something else means those who disparage soaps win. The example I gave was how parts of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered (GLBT) community (and academy) have taken back the word “queer” and claimed it as their own. But, I’ve come to realize there’s a substantive difference between “queer” and “soap opera.”
“Queer,” whether a badge of honor or epithet, there’s shared understanding that the word is referencing sexual orientation or gender expression. With “soap opera,” things are a little more complicated. When used as an adjective, either pejoratively or ironically, soap opera, or “soapy,” means protracted, over-the-top melodrama. As a noun, soap opera’s meaning is less clear, as I discussed in my PCA talk. So, maybe a soap isn’t a soap…
In any case, this latest round of my semantic hairsplitting was generated by one of my favorite shows, Men of a Certain Age. The media surrounding the show’s second season premiere on December 6th reinforces my belief that Men… is one of those primetime shows that embodies a number of characteristics of soap opera. But, should I mention this to someone not familiar with soaps in general, or soap opera prior to the 1980s, in particular, I’m met with confusion, which, looking at how Men… is being described by critics compared to the current state of daytime soaps, is perfectly understandable.
When asked by Los Angeles Times critic, Christopher Smith, why Men… was attracting slightly more women than men, series co-creator and star, Ray Romano, first dismissed “the cast's total sex appeal,” (acting chops aside, the man is a comedian), then got serious:
But maybe why they're watching is because we're not showing wild, unrealistic stuff. Our characters have recognizable jobs; they deal with family things. And since they're halfway through their lives, they're contending with the impact of what happened as younger guys and figuring out their next moves.
Smith described the interaction among the show’s three leads (Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) as “nuanced averageness,” which, in may ways, describes soaps before Luke and Laura (more on that later). Salon’s television critic, Heather Harvilesky, took it a step further, suggesting in Cool is Overrated that “youngish (under 35) skeptics will tell you that the men (in Men of a Certain Age) don't talk like men at all, they talk like post-menopausal book club members.”
Harvilesky went on to describe the charm of Men… as its “complete disregard for matching the breakneck pace, the action, the swooning romances, the spitty outbursts, the shiny thrills of other TV shows,” a description that sounds a lot like today’s daytime soaps. But, not at all like the daytime soaps of the early 1970s Horace Newcomb explored in TV: The Most Popular Art.
In his chapter on soap opera, “Approaching the Real World,” Newcomb argues that daytime soaps of that era so perfectly reflected the day-to-day reality, and complexity, of most viewers’ lives (minus the touches of humor, which Men... and other primetime serials do have) that ”people respond to these televised versions of their own lives as they do not respond to the more flamboyant fictional presentations on primetime (emphasis added)." Newcomb was more than prescient when he noted:
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.
And so they have, but not quite as Newcomb likely imagined, because prescient as he was at the time, he could not have predicted the impact the success of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura, along with primetime serials, Dallas and Dynasty, would have on daytime soaps in the early 1980s. So now, daytime soaps do resemble what Newcomb said they precisely did not in 1974: “the pseudo-hip world of teen-aged police officers or into the strange remote world in ultra-glamorous publishers and reporters” – along with the oil tycoons, high-powered CEOs, and European royal heirs I discussed in my essay for The Survival of Soap Opera.
In the LA Times piece, Romano mentioned that when he was shopping Men…, “FX was one place we offered it to. They said it wasn't 'loud' enough." When asked what “a loud Men… would be like,” Romano replied, "Instead of a party store, I'd own a video store with a big porn section." Co-star Andre Braugher’s take: “You [he points to Bakula] wouldn't be a porn guy, you'd be a thief. And [to Romano] your store would be a front for him fencing stolen stuff. And I'd be a loan shark with heavy interest rates. And we'd all have guns.” It’s been a good long while since I’ve watched General Hospital, but, from what I hear tell, things are pretty loud in Port Charles these days.
In an interview with Sam Ford for The Survival of Soap Opera…, Middlebury professor, Jason Mittell, downplayed the influence of daytime soaps on primetime serials, saying “In reading interviews with, and talking to, primetime creators, I’ve never seen any reference to soap operas as a point of inspiration or influence.” A fair point, but I would argue that there's a kind of cultural osmosis at work here; that daytime soaps have so deeply penetrated the cultural groundwater primetime creators may well have absorbed soaps' influence without being aware of it. Even if their mother didn’t watch soaps, they may have forgotten about the babysitter, cleaning lady, college roommate or best friend’s mother who did.
Or neglected to mention them, because there is the question of social desirability: how many primetime creators – especially men – are willing to admit they were influenced by daytime soaps? But in the mid-1960s, over fifteen million people were watching As the World Turns; through the 1980s, top-rated shows had eight-ten million viewers. So it’s hard to imagine how primetime creators weren’t influenced by soaps, even if they don’t remember, or won’t admit it.
I’m not just talking about simply the serialized narrative form; more important is the “approaching the real world” quality Horace Newcomb attributed to the daytime soaps of an earlier time. Of course, given Ray Romano’s candor regarding other areas of his life – gambling, for instance – it’s possible that he might be the exception to the rule and fess up. It would be nice to know.
© 2010 Lynn Liccardo
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