Soaps vs. Real LifeBy Michael Karol Posted: Jun 1, 2009
Ever wonder why you love soap operas so much? Why we, as a culture, have embraced the form for centuries? While the real world flies by at an ever-increasing, disturbingly fast pace, soap time has always, well, taken its own time, the better to dissect the issues and dramas for which we routinely turn (and return) to the genre. And, to paraphrase the old Life cereal commerical, Mikey likes it.
There are reasons for the unique way time passes in the soap genre. The stories are repetitive, just like life, and feature characters who aren't action heroes and don't have superpowers, just like you and me. Most prime-time shows offer self-contained stories, especially the police and detective procedurals that have escalated in popularity since the original CSI debuted. They have a clearly delineated beginning, middle and end. Soap stories have beginnings, for sure, but they tend to get stuck in the middle, sometimes for what can seem an eternity, and the endings, when they actually occur, are usually, in reality, the beginnings of new stories.
On ALL MY CHILDREN, the current "Who killed Stuart?" storyline is rooted in the grand tradition of soap operas' fascination with matters of life and death. True to form, it took many months of building up to the climax (the actual murder) — time that was spent creating motives for most of the show's major characters, establishing why almost everyone in Pine Valley wanted vile business magnate Adam Chandler (David Canary) dead. Unfortunately, Adam's beloved identical twin Stuart took the bullet. But it was not unfortunate for viewers, since this will mean many more months of drama as the investigation plays out. The consequences will be many, perhaps affecting every character on the show.
Since prime-time soaps have always "borrowed" conventions from their daytime cousins, it was only fitting that AMC recently took a cue from one of my favorite prime-time soaps, UGLY BETTY. BETTY used a telenovela (a Latino soap that featured cameos from the series' executive producer, Salma Hayek) in seven of its early episodes to help viewers make the soap connection. AMC used a telenovela to help Jake and Amanda bond early on in their relationship.
Let me tell you about my love/hate affair with UGLY BETTY. On the one hand, it's colorful, often hysterically funny, beautifully shot (in high-def) on location in my favorite city, New York, and is set within the publishing industry, something I know a little bit about, having worked on magazines all my adult life.
On the other hand it's infuriating: sad, bittersweet and repetitive. It's lead character, Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), seems to have not learned a thing in her four years working at Mode magazine; she remains too trusting, unable to read others' personalities, and thus too willing to help those who are only going to stab her in the back in return. She is frustratingly unaware of the fact that there's a fine line between being a sweet naïf and being a doormat.
And what about those braces?! How many children wear them for four years, much less adults? (According to one source, the average adult brace-face time is 18 months to two years.) And if you must wear them, don't they have "invisible" braces now? Wouldn't that seem a logical solution, especially for someone working on an up-to-the-minute fashion magazine?
Still, Betty is, at heart, lovable. Yes, she's annoying naive, but her faith in the idea that somehow things will work out, that people will, in the end, do the right thing, is ultimately endearing. And most important, she's human. That's why, in the series finale (May 21), when old boyfriend Henry (Christopher Gorham) turned up in Manhattan (looking better than ever and with obnoxious girlfriend Chloe in tow), Betty couldn't help but be transported to the time she and Henry dated.
Their relationship was bumpy to say the least, but something about Henry still moved Betty: Their farewell kiss revealed they still loved each other. Unfortunately, Betty's current boyfriend, Matt (Daniel Eric Gold) saw that final kiss. He revealed, at the finale's end, that he and Betty wouldn't be moving in together — and, by the way, he's her new boss. Such drama!
Each major character on the show also suffered a devastating blow, leaving viewers to ponder their fates until next September. Except for the length of the wait, constant viewer, sound familiar?
Yes, UGLY BETTY is reassuring and comforting, and exasperating and aggravating. Just like life. And just like the best soap operas. Perhaps that's why, even as people ring the death knell for the traditional soap opera, they survive. And likely will for the foreseeable future.