I generally resist, indeed reject, the term soap opera when it's used as shorthand for those cheap and melodramatic plot twists that define soap opera as an adjective (discussed here ). Of course, if I had a dollar for every time the 2008 election has been described as a soap opera, I'd have a nice little nest egg. And I'm not even talking about the John Edwards affair and Bristol (a soap opera name if ever there was one) Palin's out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
But this year, the Democratic campaign for president was a soap opera in the very best sense of soap opera as a noun. The events that led up to the Democratic Convention contained all of the elements that used to make soaps great - if what makes soaps great is anticipation, the event itself and watching the aftermath unfold. The sad reality is that soaps could learn a lot about compelling drama from what unfolded in Denver in late August.
I really hadn't intended to write about the election, much less the election as soap opera. But when I checked in on Television without Pity's One Life to Live board during the Democratic convention, I came upon a series of posts analyzing the current Todd-Marty storyline; posts that examined every possible angle of the story along with the motivations of the characters, and those of headwriter Ron Carlivati. I was struck by how closely that discussion resembled the discussions surrounding the Obama-Clinton rivalry. I won't get into the specifics of the OLTL story here, click on the link above for the particulars. And for readers not familiar with the Todd-Marty story who read that thread before finishing this post: I'm not trying to draw a literal comparison between fictional characters and the real life candidates, just consider the parallels between how each story unfolded and was received.
The first connection between the Democratic presidential campaign and soaps is the narrative structure of soaps, starting with the buildup - nineteen months between Hillary Clinton's announcement in January 2007 and the release of her candidates in August 2008. This used to be the norm for a soap story. And just as soap fans love to complain about how long a story was taking to unfold - the classic example for As the World Turns fans was the "Who Killed Carolyn Crawford" mystery, which dragged on forever - the never-ending 24/7 media coverage made most of us feel as though the campaign would never end.
After the build-up comes the culmination - "the event" - then the aftermath; what is the impact of the event, who is affected and how. Of course, unlike soaps, political campaigns have built-in end dates (see Tom Casiello regarding the current pacing on soaps); once the primaries are over, there's a convention and an election, and this year, one way or another, a new president. But before I get to the next narrative element, I want talk about another characteristic (mostly in past, with the possible exception of OLTL) of the soaps: examining every possible aspect of the story from the perspective of every character involved.
That was certainly the case with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and of course, Bill. We heard, read and saw everything there was to know about these individuals, and what each represented as the first credible female and African-American candidate for president, along with the first former president to have his spouse running for his former job. What underscored and heightened the inevitable tensions were not just the obvious emotions, but the motives, real and perceived, of all the participants. And, let's not forget race and gender.
I've said more times than I can count that the higher one's tolerance for ambiguity, the more fully one can experience and appreciate soap opera. Because, rather than the showing the melodramatic opposition of good versus evil, the true power of soap opera drama "is created when all of the characters involved in a storyline are trying to do the right thing - the right thing for the situation, not necessarily the right thing for their character - and it's their efforts that come into conflict." That means no good guys, no bad guys, just complex, flawed humans beings, each struggling to balance their contradictory emotions and impulses, each trying to do their best - which, despite the protracted angst surrounding the conflict between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and the motives of both Clintons, is exactly how things turned out in Denver.
Now I will grant you that these days, someone tuning into most daytime soaps for the first time is not going to see much of what I've just described. Too many shows currently focus on the culmination of a storyline rather than its anticipation and aftermath, which is where soaps' real emotional payoff is supposed to reside. But while there was a great deal of anticipation in advance of Hillary's speech - and she certainly delivered - the true culmination came the next afternoon when she called for Obama to be nominated by acclimation. And this is where the real life drama of the convention trumped that of most soaps.
One Boston pundit dismissed the drama of the moment with, "We already knew what was going to happen." And we did. We knew that the Obama and Clinton campaigns had been negotiating for weeks. By that afternoon, the details had emerged: The New York delegation would bring the floor vote to a close. But there was nothing anti-climatic about the actual moment the Democratic Party nominated an African-American man for president.
While her speech the night before had been rehearsed - light and sound checks, her speech loaded into the Teleprompter, the director in the booth - the moment on the floor was raw, immediate and unpredictable. The final anticipation: how would this historic moment play out? Tightly surrounded by the New York delegation, a hand-held camera bobbing and weaving to capture the moment, would her voice, expression or body language betray any or all of the emotions - disappointment, anger, relief - that she must have been feeling at that moment?
Then it was over. Both sides had been right. No one could fault Obama's people for regarding the Clintons with suspicion; and, as it turned out, Hillary Clinton had understood perfectly the collective need for the cathartic moment. But, in a nod to the current state of soap opera storytelling, before the aftermath could begin to unfold a brand new character was on the canvas. And her name is Sarah Palin.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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