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Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Brilliance Of Turkish Soap Operas–Human Foibles At Their Melodramatic Best

‘Love is in the Air” is a 120-episode series that aired on Turkish television beginning in 2010.  It chronicles the life of a wealthy Cappadocia (Ürgüp) family; the ambitions and expectations of a much more modest family which hopes to become members of the Hanciogulu patriarchy; and the villains, jilted lovers, wicked aunts, gossipy servants, and complicit tradesmen, lawyers, jailors, and defenders in both.

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The story is simple – Havva, the ambitious, venal, and amoral daughter of a family without means, opportunity, or chance for social advancement sees the chance of a lifetime in the eldest son of the Hanciogulu family, a handsome, generous, but hopelessly naïve heir to the family fortune.  Her sister, Toprak, is an innocent, trusting, warmhearted girl who, contrasted to her duplicitous sister, sees only good and the goodness in people.  She becomes the selfless, loving wet nurse to the supposed son of Yusuf, the head of the Hanciogulu family.  Although Yusuf falls in love with the serpentine sister, Havva, he has deep affections for Toprak.

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The wicked sister conspires with her even more wicked and ambitious aunt, head servant in the Hanciogulu household, to catch Yusuf and  the family name and fortune.

The path to marriage into the Hanciogulu family is not simple.  Havva has been engaged to an equally ambitious but violently jealous man whom she conspires to send off to jail.  More importantly she has to conceal the many lies, tricks, and chicanery she has used to gain the hero’s attention and favor.

Havva’s story is not the only one in the series.  The hero’s sister, Münevver  is forced, because it is a good social match,  into an engagement with the governor of the province, a likely wife-murderer, and a violently misogynistic autocrat.

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An innocent, naive young man, the son of the Hanciogulu head servant, himself gets tangled in a web of jealousy, misunderstanding, passion, and disconsolate loss.

Soap operas have earned a bad name among the literati. They are, say the critics,  no more than cheap melodramatic entertainment for the idle – housewives, out-of-work layabouts, and frustrated y0ung women who cannot navigate the waters of their own lives and prefer to see love, passion, desire, jealousy, and family conflict played out on the small screen.

Yet these television series are much more, and slices of life at that.  What could be more true to life than family ambitions and jealousies, unrealistic hopes and dreams, and the nasty, greedy, and unconscionable ways  that we hope to attain them?

Most importantly is the overlooked talent of the writers and directors of these melodramas, forgotten in the race to Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker, and Academy Award prizes.  It takes an intimate understanding of incestuous, jealous, and bitterly competitive families to write these shows; and a special talent to know how to capture and later keep the interest of an audience desperate for but critical of television drama.

The key to successful soap operas is viewer complicity – i.e. the viewer knows the tricks, deceptions and lies the serpentine heroine has played, but the naïve, unaware, and generously loving hero does not.  At every encounter between them, we wait for her venality, greed, and deception to be exposed; but it never is.  Lies are mounted upon lies, tears upon tears, and the hero – in a willful suspension of disbelief ignores all clues, suggestions, and innuendos.

We know of the vile, abusive nature of Münevver’s fiancé, but none of the Hanciogulu family do and are blind to the obviously abusive nature of the Governor.

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We know of the righteousness and righteous love of Münevver’s lover, Yigit, but no one else does; and we understand his fidelity to her despite his melancholic affair with her best friend.

There is nothing mysterious or surprising about soap operas – they are predictable, formulaic, and expected.  No one is surprises at the family  suspicions, jealousies, and backhanded reprisals.  Of course daughters-in-law are compromised, spurned lovers after revenge and retribution, mothers-in-law determined and territorial.  It is the genius of the screenwriters which always surprises.  They know exactly when to suspend the plot and the dialogue; exactly at which moment to shift the story from heroine to ignored suitor; from murderous husband to calculating cousin.

They juggle ten different characters in as many dramas with as many unsuspecting results for heroes, heroines, and associate players alike to fill fifty soap operas; yet they balance, calculate, measure and finally produce show after show of suspense and curiosity.

We all hope that the serpentine comer will be outed and will have her comeuppance; that the sweet Toprak and the innocent, trusting Yusuf will marry.  That the psychopathic governor will be sent the the gallows; that the absurdly, defiantly mercenary Remzi will be discredited and isolated; and that all villains sent to their proper gallows.

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It is not to be, or at least as of Episode 74 out of 125.  We will have to wait to see if justice, honesty, and righteousness triumph or whether the villains, their dirty tricks, and their amoral ambitions succeed.

The tension created by the screenwriter is the result of his technical experience, his familiarity with the genre, and his gift of dialogue and character.  But m0re than anything else it take an intimate understanding of inevitable unwanted pregnancies,  competition between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the psychic and social importance of inheritance and legacy, and the normal, expected conflicts between generations.

Watching Turkish soap operas is a guilty pleasure for anyone learning Turkish.  Not only can the serious student begin to understand the vernacular, but he can immerse himself in popular culture a la Edward Albee.

Albee hated families and felt that they were as restrictive as any social institution; but he also understood that they were the crucibles of maturity.  There is no way, he said, for anyone to grow up without the demanding constraints of family.  George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) appear to be the couple of the devil, so intent they seem to be in destroying each other; but the opposite is true. They need each other desperately, and ‘flaying to the bone’ is the only way to strip their marriage of pretense, sham, and idealism.

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Watching Virginia Woolf or reading Henry James’ Washington Square gives perspective to Turkish soap operas.  The inelegant, slow, and unattractive daughter of Washington Square is pursued just as Havva does Yusuf.  Both Havva and Catherine’s suitor are opportunists hoping to take advantage of innocents’ wealth and privilege.  Martha married George for the wrong socially aspirational reasons, and has to live with a weak, calculatingly man.

Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is all about family fortunes and their pretenders; and how money, entitlement, and ambition are always and ineluctably the sine qua non variables  of marriage negotiations.

The screenwriters of Love is in the Air are brilliant because they understand the same essential family dynamics perceived by Hellman, Albee, and O’Neill (A Moon for the Misbegotten) and are able to translate them into a popular, and compelling melodrama.

Their talent and their efforts are no way diminished by the show’s airing on daytime and primetime television.  In fact they are highlighted and even more acknowledged.  It is one thing to understand family dynamics, another thing to translate them into drama (Aeschylus, Shakespeare, et al), and another thing altogether to transform them into the vernacular.  Few viewers can stop watching ‘Love is in the Air’.  They have been enticed by and involved in the drama because of its universal themes, its deliciously suspenseful pacing, its high quality acting, and by the beauty and allure of its stars.


The point is that it does not take an Aeschylus, an Albee, or a Hellman to highlight family drama.  While these artists’ language, tournure de phrase, contest, and plot may be more elegant, less predictable, and more subtle, Turkish soap operas are at least their equal in empathy.  No viewer can finish the 120 episodes of ‘Love is in the Air’ without some sense of universality, a common melodramatic bond, and a similar future.

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