I'm finally finishing up my essay comparing primetime and daytime soaps. Including the references, it's going to be pushing 5000 words. Since Friday Night Lights is one of the examples I consider in the essay, I was intrigued by this little nugget I found at We Love Soaps (many thanks to Roger Newcomb for continuing to provide this invaluable resource for serious soap fans):
The plot twists might be soap-like, but the acting is in a brilliantly naturalistic style. Deep emotions are projected quietly. This is soap-opera of the highest order - and maybe the best-acted show on TV.
My first thought when I saw "maybe the best-acted show on TV" and "soap opera" in the same paragraph - with "soap opera" not used as a pejorative - was a piece I wrote last year about New York Times television critic, Ginia Bellafante. But, I digress.
The 35-word snippet is from Lansing State Journal TV critic Mike Hughes's capsule recommendations for 6 February 2009. The entire piece isn't much longer - 133 words - but Hughes captured perfectly the underlying premise of my much longer piece: Soap opera, daytime or primetime, is about relationships and emotions. I was also pleased to see Hughes differentiate between soap opera as a noun and soap opera as an adjective; not everyone understands the distinction, which I discussed here.
I was curious. Since many of today's TV critics grew up watching the soaps of the 80s, the odds of their have seen the kind of "naturalistic acting quietly project(ing) deep emotions" Hughes describes were... Well, let's just say the odds have been declining for quite a while now - in fact, the younger the soap opera viewer, the lower the odds. As it turns out (Google having eradicated all semblance of privacy), Hughes is in his early-60s - a few years older than me. Sigh...
This fact was really brought home to me last year when my friend, Sam Ford (who, I'm sure won't mind my sharing, is in his mid-20s), was teaching a class, The American Soap Opera, at MIT. When I spoke to the class on March 5th, they had been watching As the World Turns for about a month. I mention the date because it happened to be the day before the 15th anniversary of Douglas Marland's death. Marland had written the show during its glory years, 1985 until his death in 1993, and I thought it would be a nice tribute to talk about the importance of character in soap opera storytelling.
However, thinking back over what the students had seen the past month, I could find but one example of "naturalistic acting quietly project(ing) deep emotions" - a tiny scene with Lucinda (Elizabeth Hubbard), Bob (Don Hastings) and Kim (Kathryn Hays). The scene was really nothing - no plot - just a brief mention of Bob's recent stay in the hospital and a reference to Bob and Lucinda's visit during her first breast cancer occurrence in 2005. Sam had that video, and included scenes from a second, related episode.
In the second episode, Lucinda's granddaughter, Faith, is brushing her grandmother's hair, and asks why Lucinda's hair is coming out in the brush. There are so many ways that scene could have been written and played. The "soapiest" would have been for Lucinda to have a total emotional meltdown in front of Faith, followed by the requisite, and heart-rending, explanation and apology between grandmother and granddaughter.
But that's not how it happened. Not even close. The drama of that scene was all in Elizabeth Hubbard's face as Lucinda struggled mightily not to let Faith see the pain and terror she was feeling, willing herself not to let go of her emotions until her granddaughter was safely out of the room. It was a powerful moment, and as the students watched, all I could hear was their breathing, punctuated by the occasional sniffle. Nothing illustrates the sorry state of daytime soap opera these days more than the fact that one must be of a certain age to remember when these kinds of moments were not so few and far between.
© 2009 Lynn Liccardo
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