And the news is mostly good. Last year around this time, I wrote about how disappointed I was that the CW cancelled Privileged, a show ostensibly about the filthy rich, but with storytelling grounded in “in honest portrayals of the emotional complexity that drives human relationships” So I was pleased, and surprised, when the network picked up Life UneXpected, which had solid reviews, but shaky numbers, for a second season.
LUX, which is both shorthand for the show’s title, and the name of the lead character (the only precious thing about the show), tells the story of the teenaged Lux, who tracks down the now-grown parents who gave her up for adoption when they were teenagers. Actually, her mother (now involved with another man) gave her up without telling her father (the former lovers confront old, unresolved feelings). And therein lies the emotionally rich story and ensuing complications and consequences of a long-ago decision, which, happily, will continue come fall.
Below are a few more examples of elements of “your mother’s soap opera” in primetime.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Castle described as a primetime serial, but it really does embody a number old-time soap opera elements, not least of which is the protracted, unresolved sexual tension (known as UST on the boards) between the leads, mystery writer, Richard Castle, and police detective, Kate Beckett, who through two seasons have flirted and teased, but not yet… And what really evokes the soaps of old is that what keeps these two characters apart is a function of character, not simply overt plot devices. Everything that happens makes emotional sense.
The season finale was a classic example of Agnes Nixon’s oft-cited axiom for successful soap opera couples: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” Things between Castle and Beckett are just about to come to a head, but before she can tell him that she’s broken up with her boyfriend, he shows up with ex-wife #2 (who’s also his editor), on their way to his beach house in the Hamptons to finish his overdue novel.
The result of “making them wait” until next season mostly “made them mad.” One TWoP poster was really, really mad: “God, this is so pissing me off. Why, oh why do they have to do the ‘will they or won't they’- storyline. I so don't care.” But another poster, while not mentioning soaps, clearly grasped the soap opera gestalt underlying the delay, “I'm glad she (Beckett) didn't finish what she was going to say from the story standpoint. I just wanted to know because I'm impatient. It'll be much sweeter when they're both on the same page and hopefully in a more private setting.” That the poster did not mention the soap opera origins of the observation is a perfect example of just how deeply soap opera storytelling has permeated the cultural groundwater, while at the same time remaining invisible; there are many more.
But it’s another soap opera convention that prevents the UST on Castle from becoming as tedious, frustrating and annoying as it did on shows like Moonlighting and Bones. Both leads are fully developed characters who, while vulnerable, are emotionally functional, and whose other relationships are stable and grounded in reality. Watching Rick Castle interact with his mother and daughter as a son and a parent allows viewers see a multi-faceted character, and, helps to deflect viewer frustration with the UST. Same goes for the fact that the writers don’t allow the attraction between Beckett and Castle to undermine her authority in the station house.
So, wait fans must, and wait they will.
Friday Night Lights:
“One thing soap operas do not do is flinch. They simply bring things home, not as issues, but as part of the manic-depressive cycle of the television set. And what they bring home is the most steady, opened-ended sadness to be found outside life itself.”
That’s how Renata Adler described daytime soaps in a 1972 New Yorker essay titled “Afternoon Television: Unhappiness Enough, and Time.” But she might well have been describing the first few episodes of the 2009-2010 season of Friday Night Lights. And the irony is that while the sadness of early soaps was dismissed by high culture gatekeepers (among the first, and again, ironically: James Thurber, also in The New Yorker) with derisive terms like “washboard weepies,” it’s clear from comments on sites like TWoP, many fans embrace, even revel in, the sadness.
And, many FNL fans also long for slowly unfolding, fully realized stories that, up until recently, were the foundation of daytime soaps – an aspect of soaps also derided and mocked – “the stories drag on forever.” For a fan on TWoP, “one major issue with this season: the fact that each episode has felt a bit overstuffed. The show is dealing with a lot at once, which was to be expected, but they need to trust the audience and slow down the pace.” You really have to appreciate the irony of FNL, and other primetime serials, being celebrated for the very attributes for which the early soaps were denigrated.
Serious television criticism began with Horace Newcomb’s 1974 book, TV: The Most Popular Art, in which he had a lot to say about soaps. Newcomb talked about human frailty and human valor as “the province of all complex art,” and went on to suggest that soaps managed to reconcile, ”the entertainment function of the popular arts and with the critical human functions in response to problems.” Newcomb saw soaps as “stand(ing) between most of television and a number of new television productions that are reaching for a newer version of popular art.” And althought he couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, FNL is perhaps the apex of what Newcomb had envisioned back in 1974.
Even Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times agreed, calling FNL, “soap opera for the ages,” and posing the clearly rhetorical question, “Does it seem like overstating things to say that ‘Friday Night Lights' is the greatest television soap opera of all time?”
Next time: how the storytelling dilemmas vexing the daytime soaps contributed to the downfall of Ugly Betty.
© 2010 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
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