"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 16, 2019

Life As Tedious Melodrama–And How Soap Operas Help Us To Get By

As The World Turns which ran from 1956-2010 was one of the most popular soap operas of all time.  It like many others (Guiding Light, Another World and The Edge of Night among them) was formulaic and entirely predictable.  Of course no one knew exactly how Harold would deceive Martha nor with whom, but everyone knew he would.  Laura would always be shrewish and unmanning, but would she get another man? How long would Adele put up with her husband, trapped as she was in a marriage to which she never consented but agreed to out of family loyalty and respect for her father, one of the wealthiest men in Boston?

Image result for images soap opera as the world turns

Women hurried home from the hairdresser’s, cooked dinner early, sent the children outside to play, took the phone off the hook, pulled the blinds, turned on the television, and waited for the opening bars of the theme song they knew so well and had waited a long week to hear.

Soap operas are not uniquely American – Brazil, Mexico, and most recently Turkey produce them regularly – but they feel American.  They are the perfect combination of Hollywood beauty and melodrama and real life.  Husbands always cheat on their wives, but are never as handsome and alluring as those on the soaps.  A woman might just might put up with her derelict husband if he looked like Lance Sebring, the surgeon on Our Lives, Your Lives.  She might even forgive her sister for beguiling her dying father if it meant keeping a house like Fair Oaks, the family mansion in A Brighter Day.  A world of troubles if led by beautiful people is always far better than the routine, boring lives that most of us lead; and that has always been the key to the success of soaps.  They reflect the same deceit, arrogance, greed, and selfishness as real life, but they bundle all of them in an irresistibly fanciful package.

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.

There is nothing mysterious or surprising about soap operas – they are predictable, formulaic, and expected.  No one is surprised at 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.

Image result for images soap opera days of our lives

We all hope that the serpentine comer will be outed and will have her comeuppance; that the sweet ingenue and the innocent, trusting suitor will marry.  That the psychopathic governor will be sent the the gallows; that the absurdly, defiantly mercenary villain will be discredited and isolated; and that all villains sent to their proper gallows. There are many episodes to a series.   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 genius of the British series Downton Abbey is that it allows good, democratic-minded Americans, salt-of-the-earth and intellectuals alike to enjoy themselves.  They can admire, desire, and romanticize about the lives of the rich and famous, and revel in their fall.  We Americans idolize our movie stars.  Although their glitzy, glamorous lives are far beyond our reach, they are not that far. Thousands of women have looked in the mirror and seen a face as classically beautiful as Angelina Jolie or as pouting and sexy like Scarlett Johansson. With a little luck and a few connections, one might be in Hollywood too.

Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier.  English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us.  We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford.

Downton Abbey is America’s “Gone With the Wind.”  Viewers enjoy the wealthy’s excesses because they know they will not last.  Either by their own aristocratic arrogance or the inevitable intrusion of history they will have their comeuppance. Better still, when it comes to class, privilege and wealth, “Downton Abbey” lets us have our cake and eat it, too. The show gives us a voyeuristic peek at the pleasures of being an Edwardian aristocrat, but it also allows us to feel smarter and better than the blue bloods of that period.

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?

Is the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is educational and instructive for its careful representing of a changing Muslim society.  It is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is certainly compelling.  The series is most certainly moving.  There is no way not to feel intense dislike for the vixen, sympathy for the wronged wife, hatred for the evil-minded, greedy, and manipulative father, happiness at the goodness of the hero.

It is probably time to let go of labels and academia and be moved and entertained.

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 many episodes of the Turkish soap opera  Love is in the Air without some sense of universality, a common melodramatic bond, and a similar future.

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Like it or not, we all live lives of boring predictability.  Not only are our lives circumscribed by boulot, Metro, dodo but our problems are depressingly all the same – deceitful husbands, ungrateful children, greedy, thankless relatives, abusive bosses, disease, disability, and incontinence.  There is no remove from the cycle; and the views are always the same whether at the apogee or perigee.  Not surprisingly we like to see the our lives repeated on television if  dressed up in beauty, glitz, and glamour. 

Winter’s Bone is a long and depressing movie about an Ozark family struggling through poverty, cold, and inbred mountain family jealousies. This was no Eugene O’Neill country – the brutal terrain of Mourning Becomes Electra where the Mannon family destroys itself in a melodramatic grand guignol and explores the dynamics of greed, jealousy, spite, and power – but a slog through the mud and cold.  Each character was backward, ignorant, and dumb; and their attempt to find some kind of reconciliation and meaning was implausible and impossible.  The family goes through the same predictable crises as anyone else; but why watch this hopeless drudgery when we can see the same misfortunes played out with servants, boudoirs, and silver candelabra?

There is all too much realism in the world and all we really want to do is escape it.  For all the political activism, commitment to causes and progress, and persistent worry, nothing is much fun.  Nor is a two-job, night-shift food stamp family; but at least there are the soaps to get us through.

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