“Nothing is more satisfying than the feeling that a show is about to perform a move in a new direction, something it has been conspiring to do all along.”
In 2006, during a bout of flu, I began watching The Young and the Restless and General Hospital, hoping for a couple of days of restful viewing. Within minutes, I was startled: these were not the soaps of my childhood in the late ’80s, which required bimonthly viewing at most. The dialogue was sharp, each transition was carefully crafted and expressive, and the relationships were sketched with a complexity and generosity that I have yet to see on primetime TV. Unlike the classical soap of the ’80s, in which a genteel Wasp clan fights off outsiders, these soaps seemed to delight in invaders and impostors. While General Hospital retained the outline of a grand, patrician family, its inhabitants had long been replaced by any number of upstarts and con artists — something the show seemed particularly thrilled about. It was a little like watching Beat the Devil (1953) or Sylvia Scarlett (1935) on warp speed, in that everyone seemed to be playing a kind of masquerade, switching between ruthless power plays and disarming moments of kindness.
As I continued to watch, I was taken aback by some of the oddest and most compelling story strategies I’d ever seen on film or TV. In the formerly snail-paced Young and the Restless, characters were now moving from plot point to plot point with exhilarating speed and precision. Instead of being contained in close-ups, they seemed to enjoy free movement all over the canvas: during one hour, a character might drop into a couple of other people’s stories, giving off no more than a wink or a nod, before taking on a surge of energy and driving the episode to a close. Central characters would appear at the periphery of an unrelated narrative, hovering in and out of view. The women, no longer confined to puzzled reaction shots, could often be seen walking and dashing between offices, studios and courtrooms. The editing was also a marvel: an unexpected revelation might be closed out with the gentlest of fades, turning a bombshell moment into a slow and reflective one. On the other hand, a romantic exchange could be dramatically sucked out of view, showing that even an intimate scene is part of a power structure. In each episode, diverse effects were woven into a rich and cohesive whole.
Even in a state of fever, I was consumed by the excitement of all these crisscrossing interactions. It seemed impossible that all this could be happening, day after day, with so little critical attention. Like many viewers who come to soaps after dismissing them for years, I had to ask: how long has this been going on?
For those of us who learnt to be power junkies by watching reruns of shows like Dynasty and Knots Landing, the current primetime landscape is arid. The recent ABC series Dirty Sexy Money went through the moves of having a corrupt wealthy family who all hated each other, but lacked either Latham or Aaron Spelling’s touch in creating heightened moments out of a complex web of relations. These days, a drama of power and expertise is hard to find, especially when TV culture has become obsessed with the prospect of “ordinary people having a go.” Slim pickings include the boardroom antics of The Apprentice — which does feature sophisticated and aggressive interplay, but without the emotional catharsis of a soap — and, for Australian viewers, the spectacle of star barrister-turned politician Malcolm Turnbull.1 What we miss is the rub of personalities, the sense of charismatic egos at play. But something of that sensibility can currently be found in soaps — if only there were enough viewers to arrest the decline in prestige and ratings.
The soap, along with the ’80s sitcom, is one of the most shunned and ironized of TV genres: both make use of an expressive, multi-camera format which is now considered dated. The stately ’80s and ’90s sitcom — which reached its height with the super-inventive NewsRadio — has been replaced by something less upbeat, and ostensibly less formulaic. Today’s acclaimed comedies such as 30 Rock and The Office are shot by a single, listlessly wandering camera which purports to have a closer relation to real time than the three-camera setup. This kind of editing claims freedom from cliché, but I don’t see how it serves the purposes of most sitcoms, apart from giving them a patina of indie style. Rather than cleanly delineated space, these shows have a look of generalized grayness and fatigue. That mood of dreariness was just right for the brilliant, self-loathing Larry Sanders Show, but what does it have to do with the glib one-liners of 30 Rock? Canned laughter has been replaced by something supposedly more hip: a kind of empty pause which takes place after a line has been uttered. But even a laugh-track is preferable to a series of dry gags which fall onto nothing; in the absence of a studio audience, jokes are pointed up with more obviousness than ever.
While today’s deluxe TV product has thrown out the techniques of multi-camera and melody, the soap is one genre where they continue to thrive. In my opinion, the ironization of the soap doesn’t give credit to the rigorous patterning and complex temporal structures embedded in its storytelling. What excited me about Latham’s take on Young and the Restless was the very careful attention to framing as a way of expressing personality, power and chemistry between individuals. The soap screen is a heavily fetishized space, with each frame cut to express specific relations between characters. In contrast to the single-camera series, which has the drone of omnipresent time, the soap presents dynamically shaped moments which are driven by a fast rhythm of intensity and flow. The critic Martha Nochimson has described the “visual texture” of ’80s soaps as a “pointillist technique of multiple cross-cut close-up shots.”2 The visual structure of Latham’s Young and the Restless is indeed pointillist: the editing patterns are consistently fascinating, particularly the subtle freezes and elongations, and the use of shots which fade out so delicately they seem like blushes. I’ve been wondering if some of these patterns could be applied to a film — for instance, the way that an episode can end on a very brief, faint close-up after several scenes of prolonged argument.
What started off as a structure of close-ups in the ’80s soap has become, in the 2000s, a beautiful multi-textured weave. This texture is what I picked up on my first viewings of the current soaps, and what I found so hard to assimilate and decode. The look of Latham’s Young and the Restless registers as a formally daring and suggestive style at first glance, but even its most striking effects are threaded into a smooth, impeccably patterned flow of scenes. When an image is seized from view, like a violently ripped page, this has implications for the show’s reality: the torn, flying image is a brief interlude in a “book” which represents the collected traits of the characters. Voiceovers leak from one scene to the next, suggesting a mode of surveillance which takes in every tic and detail of behavior. The constant variations in style make each frame worthy of analysis, from a range of aesthetic perspectives: the sensed flatness or depth of the image; the hypnotic effect of heightened and lengthened moments; a two-dimensional décor contrasted with ultra-vivid characterization; the crisp planes of daily life alternated with a rather more woozy reality of dreams and desire.
All these techniques are merged, giving the feeling of a continuous weave which interlaces stories of different genres and depths. Soaps can fuse the operatic and the domestic, the corporate and the spiritual; they can combine tales of action, mystery and romance, as well as hint at odd presentations of reality through the varying durations of scenes. Where an old-school soap like The Bold and the Beautiful ends scenes with a slow head turn or bewildered look, General Hospital and Young and the Restless work with the effects of extreme compression and expansion. In Latham’s Young and the Restless, there was even the occasional pillow shot — the light lingering on a scene after an arduous dramatic sequence. These constant rhythmic shake-ups keep us in a state of suspense. Above all, there’s the feeling of an eye which watches as power relations move, shift and build to a crescendo.
From their opening credits, soaps teach us how to value and enjoy the play of power. Charles Pratt Jr., a veteran of all kinds of soaps, from General Hospital to Aaron Spelling’s Melrose Place, is especially good at creating systems in which the momentum of power — and thus our sympathies — constantly shifts between players. It’s no coincidence that Pratt and Latham, along with current General Hospital writer Robert Guza, have all collaborated with Spelling. When Pratt moved back to daytime after working with Spelling, the domesticity of soaps became spiked with the world of work and glamour as envisioned by Spelling. With Latham, Guza and Pratt at the helm, a nighttime power began to drive soaps.
The credit sequence is crucial in producing our involvement with a network of characters; it lays out a map of relations which is very effective on TV, because the implied two-dimensionality — the play with font, color, angles, dimensions — resembles a diagram of power exchanges. In Spelling, openings tell us more about tone and characterization than any given episode.3) When a new season of Beverly Hills 90210 was launched, the seriesshowed us it was heading into adult territory when the final image of the credit sequence, a high-five between boys, was replaced by a nuanced hand turn between women. The Melrose opening builds anticipation for its cast by creating a pace suggestive of L.A., with star images and graphics released at rhythmic intervals. With this template in place, slight variations over the years became very pleasurable to watch (the Melrose style has been co-opted by the title sequence of Celebrity Apprentice, which aims for a pulsing presentation of power, depicting its cast in past and future scenarios.)
All of these openings are designed to show a hierarchy of characters: male and female antagonists surrounded by a close network of confidantes and viziers. The schemers are the ones who shoot out story possibilities, while the other characters provide a bedrock of emotional warmth. The Melrose opening shows moments of intimacy contrasted with flashing exteriority (Amanda is all dazzle, but her smile shows a rueful humour and self-awareness.) The idea is to create an appetite for power-mongering, while working in close concert with our sympathies.
The day soap influenced by night is a genre of both power and intimacy: the relationship between power and a sense of connectedness is inseparable. Nochimson writes that “beauty in soap opera is the beauty of dialogue, mutuality, and connection,”4 but in today’s soaps, mutuality isn’t necessarily about caring and empathy. The aesthetics of connection can be present even when the actions of characters are selfish. In General Hospital, Guza and Pratt manage to create a familiar and centered dynamic within a pack of wolves. In soaps, the power play is an act of connection rather than separation: it is a way of drawing another player into a dynamic, and creating a force field around that active rivalry. Thomas Elsaesser has proposed that characters in melodrama reflect a “non-psychological conception of the dramatis personae, who figure less as autonomous individuals than to transmit the action and link the various locales within a total constellation.”5 No matter how ruthless soap characters are, they are not autonomous, since their power is understood in terms of their relation to the “total constellation” of the community.
Guza and Pratt have been criticized for moving their pins around far too quickly: the fact that characters in General Hospital seemed to leap from one place to the next, often appearing in three locations over one episode. However, I find ellipses one of the most interesting devices in soaps. A simple-minded soap like The Bold and the Beautiful tends to over-explain every motivation; in General Hospital, the mystery is in the elision — has there been a change of heart since we last saw these people? What took place in the gap?
Similarly, when Latham worked on Young and the Restless, there were numerous complaints that long-standing romances were being neglected and that most of her scripts existed only to service story. I have to disagree with these objections, since I think that servicing story is one of the most challenging things a writer can do! I watch soaps without being particularly attached to any one character, so much as the riveting sense of multiple narrative elements moving together, shifting to create new possibilities. The fluidity of narrative is enhanced by having characters who are perpetually busy and running from hospital to living room to park, in a blink. Such free movement means that anyone can pop up anywhere. Characters of a particular agency can pursue their interests into someone else’s story, moving from a group scene to an unexpected two-shot. The goal is to maximize permutations between characters while maintaining a crucial, emotional investment in all parties.
For all their plotting, soap characters are a relatively warm-hearted bunch, especially compared with the vapid and status-driven characters of Sex and the City, whose loyalties vanish the instant an affair is dissolved. Soaps have a focus on passionate platonic relationships. Even jealousy tends to be a subtle, conflicted emotion which the protagonist is aware of and tries to control. Soaps are a haven for complex and specific feelings which are rarely seen in film or TV (and which I like): alliances between adversaries; a grudge which melts in the face of unexpected generosity; and, most of all, the fond and genial relations between ex-lovers. Moreover, an enjoyment of stable relationships tends to counterbalance the rampant scheming. Young and the Restless occasionally features scenes between Lauren and Michael, a glamorous, 40-something couple, which do not advance any obvious plot point. These snippets only exist to show a moment of simple maturity between husband and wife — the fact that they are happy doing two different things in the same space, and that they are a model of mental independence as a couple.
I also love the fact that antagonists may serve as unexpected mentors and counselors for each other. In a high-pressure situation, characters form temporary bonds with the last person you’d expect. Power may disrupt and subvert, but it constantly turns up surprising new groupings. In Latham’s Young and the Restless, the callous executive Brad sees his long-time foe Victor standing over the body of his premature grandchild, and (perhaps for the first time in the show’s history) experiences a moment of doubt about pursuing his own interests. He doesn’t make a big deal about this, but merely says quietly: “Victor is going through hell right now.” The hierarchy of characters shifts — and the world of soaps undergoes a “turn” — when people draw on long-standing relationships in a moment of despair. Both General Hospital and Sunset Beach (created by Pratt and Guza, and produced by Spelling) are often marked by “needless” acts of kindness: a character coming through for someone they had no reason to trust or like. The unexpected moment of generosity and grace is a Spelling and Pratt trademark.
While this kind of unpredictable warmth may be a way of ensuring open relations between characters for dramatic purposes, it also shows that power may be a means of connection rather than isolation. Soaps tend to deal in the kind of hate that is burning and passionate, rather than the inflexible, reptilian kind. They rarely explore cold, intractable anger, perhaps because it is dramatically harder to advance, but also because it destroys the feeling of interconnectedness. The only figure who exhibits this emotion is the rigid patriarch, whom the Latham and Pratt soap is keen to dispose of, if he exists, as quickly as possible.
In Spelling, the sight of the father may fill us with fear rather than comfort. However, in the world of Bill Bell, a series of grim patriarchs rule the roost. In Bell, women generally function as courtesans traded between fathers and sons; occasionally they are given token jobs in modeling or promotion, but for the most part they are hired to breed and decorate. Catfights are not especially enjoyable, since they tend to involve neurotic women quibbling over the rights to sperm. Nochimson has noted the “odd combination of mawkishness and ruthlessness” of the central father in Young and the Restless, which has the effect of “disenfranchising the female characters on the show”.6 Before 2006 and the introduction of Latham as head writer and producer, this was a hard show to watch.
Latham must have been reading Nochimson’s book, because in 2007 she created a chilling sequence in which Nikki Newman realizes that her husband Victor’s “protection” is a way of making his wives and children “weak and dependent” on him. The soundtrack continues unbroken into the next, final shot which shows Victor standing over his grandson’s cot, swearing to “always be at your side”, providing guidance on “being a Newman”, even though “people will hate you for it.” If that doesn’t sum up mawkish and ruthless, what does?
Children in soaps have always been the object of paternal speculation, but when Victor’s grandson is born, no fewer than three men huddle over the cradle, hoping to name the baby and start a dynastic chain (even though children born during Latham’s era are more likely to have names from the maternal line.) Instead of women fighting over sperm (business as usual for Bell), Latham shows fathers compulsively shaping the legacy of unborn and premature babies. One even wants to perform a test that may endanger the child’s life, in order to extract a triumphant claim of paternity.
One of Latham’s first acts as executive producer was to depose all the fathers! Taking over from Bell, Latham immediately set about killing off the grand-daddy of them all, John Abbott, before turning her attention to the “mawkish” Victor, so that this arrogant industrialist became an object of scrutiny. Victor’s previously unquestioned authority came to seem a pathology — he was implicated in a number of scandals despite his sanctimonious manner.
According to Nochimson, “soap opera imagines closure as a threat and in response involuntarily constructs an aesthetic that resists repression”7, and with Latham, Young and the Restless certainly seemed to be on a mission to eject the repressor. Many of Latham’s storylines are marked by a desire to get rid of the spoiling father — the figure who shuts down narrative possibilities — and to let the games begin. This decentralized the canvas to create free movement, leaving all characters in an exciting state of flux.
Under Latham, the Newmans’ daughter Victoria became a new creature: sharp-witted, ironic, and an ethical force to be reckoned with. Nikki, formerly a trophy wife (albeit one who resembles Lana Turner and is adored by Camille Paglia) was now an impressive senatorial candidate, staunch in her alliances with an older matriarch, Katherine, and her ex-lover Brad (under Bell, Nikki would never have mentioned her sexual history in front of a current partner.) Finally, after years of incomprehensible sidelining, black actors had a shot at star power. Young and the Restless may have had more black characters than most soaps, but this quartet of African-Americans, nicknamed “Four Square”, were generally reduced to sleeping and socializing with each other, and their transactions had no heat, no power. Latham broke up Four Square, allowing these characters to enter into the passions of the entire series, promising a new generation in which relaxed, “interracial” friendships and couples would form the base of all interaction.
In a masterfully executed storyline, Jack (Peter Bergman), who has had a long rivalry with Victor, finally sees a way to clinch a decisive but morally questionable victory. His friends and family all object; therefore, one by one, he finds a way to run them out of town or drive them from his life, including his sister Ashley. Jack has always been the haunted, losing male in relation to Victor, so he risks everything to destroy Victor, without realizing what he is doing. Finally, he returns to the mansion he shared with Ashley and her daughter and finds it low-lit and empty. There is a single shot of Jack looking at his large house, reflecting darkly on what he has accomplished; having seen off all his opponents, he finds himself alone in a house he cannot fill. This scene carries the bleak power of Roger Michell’s The Mother (2003), in which an aging woman returns to an empty home, perhaps for good. The framing is austere, showing Jack isolated in the estate he longed to gain control of. Bergman’s look of shocked hollowness in this scene is reminiscent of James Mason’s performance in A Star is Born (1954), and the depiction of his predicament — a man of extreme hubris facing abandonment — is worthy of Sirk or Nicholas Ray.
During the Latham era, Young and the Restless was able to convey the impact of storylines like these by creating an expressive variation on soap’s stylistic traits. In a genre which features couples in shot/reverse shots, the use of ultra-short scenes and surprising transitions is extremely arresting. Under Latham, the show’s unexpected rhythms of cutting — even the writers’ credits were carefully dispersed within a scene — created the feeling that anything might happen. The old-school soap was full of interminable adulterous affairs, by which wives might soulfully escape repression (Days of our Lives does countless variations on these, in which a woman betrays her stodgy husband with a young lover, similar to the premise of a Mariah Carey video.) In contrast, Latham created a network of characters linked by unusual and specific situations rather than token triangles. In particular, she made use of inferential storytelling — the leap from scenario to consequence — as a way to short-circuit predictable rhythms.
At a time when story construction and narrative surprise seem beyond the range of most movies — even a team of script doctors struggled to move us through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) without telegraphing plot points way in advance — film directors could learn something from these soap “hacks.” Latham and Pratt excel in basic story skills such as exposition and the meet-cute (Pratt has always been great at writing “sassiness”, and he comes up with charming and inventive meet-cutes which would be the envy of any studio film.) With these writers, there is a constant amping of dramatic possibilities. Climaxes and intensities are carefully paced, interspersed with brief rest periods. The tempo is unpredictable: there is the ability to create a series of high moments which over-top each other, so that we ride them like successive peaks. Soap writers must have precise control of viewer expectations; they must ostensibly retard the narrative drive, only to speed it up in an instant. They need to find ways to wriggle out of stock situations; they must face down what would be an impasse in a less intelligent show (Dirty Sexy Money) and neatly leap over to a new set of consequences. The excitement is in the modulation of parameters, making cuts in the traditional episodic structure to reach a new level of expressive style.
For Camille Paglia, soaps are the descendants of the Lana Turner woman’s picture of the ’50s. While the familial community of soaps is indeed similar to that of the classic melodrama, there is one key difference: the modern soap does not generally feature weeping women. If there’s one emotion the power soap has mastered, it’s the catharsis, but rather than an outpouring of empathy or grief, the satisfaction of the new soaps is power-based. Relief comes from a long-anticipated meeting of adversaries, or the formation of a pact between schemers. Fulfillment is now achieved through narrative organization: the near-collision of two fast-moving stories, or a long-dawning plotline rising to fruition. The precision of these timings lends a tart, engaging energy to the dynamic of the woman’s picture. In the last decade, most soaps have simply gotten smarter, especially at the level of conversation: characters who previously spouted euphemisms now speak fluently about archaeology, performance art and Korean cultural traditions. An abundance of new influences have entered the domestic territory of soaps. In one sense, the modern soap can be viewed as a woman’s picture done up with expert, precise research: Young and the Restless is a melodrama which can also talk, with pleasure, in the language of academia and legalese. The new-school soap has the emotional force of the woman’s picture, but many of its relationships are coded in terms of power and work. In comparison with the soft, curving lines of the ’50s melodrama, the relationships between women on power soaps are nearly vector-like.
Spelling, who saw actresses as his “lucky charms”, had a tendency to repeatedly cast female actors on different shows (Heather Locklear, Jamie Luner), using them to rescue an ailing series. Savannah would be deadly dull if not for its scheming vixen Peyton (Luner), an upstart determined to unsettle the complacency of rich Southern belles. Spelling shows became female-dominated to the point where, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, his male figures seemed nearly interchangeable, operating as points of transaction between female characters. With a few exceptions, men were cast as the straight sticks (dull, brittle, indistinguishable) in a binary code of oppositions. This gender dynamic was present in a whole slew of shows influenced or created by Spelling: not only Melrose and Dynasty, but Falcon Crest, Models Inc, Pacific Palisades, Central Park West, 2000 Malibu Road and the very intriguing, gay-themed Australian soap Pacific Drive. Knots Landing, although initially conceived as a Dallasspin-off, did not replicate the original show’s set-up of women waiting on a tycoon; it gradually shifted its energy towards the pioneering style of corporate women played by Donna Mills and Michelle Phillips. Even late episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 moved from moralising teen drama to high-powered soap. This was no cultural blip — the “vixen” ruled primetime for almost two decades, gaining traction in the era of Sharon Stone.
Where did this archetype come from? It wasn’t present in earlier TV, radio or much of cinema — the only precedents I can think of are the short run of Gainsborough pictures in which Margaret Lockwood played a racy adulteress, or the novel and various adaptations of Vanity Fair, where Becky Sharp betrays her sweet best friend. Omnipresent for over 15 years, it has vanished without comment. The Latham period of Young and the Restless is a distant echo of that era, but otherwise the female-centered power dynamic has never returned, and is rarely referred to except in a camp context. Killed off by the craven and dependent women of Ally McBeal and Sex and the City, it’s as if it never existed.
Part of the mystique surrounding these women was the authority with which they talked. They inevitably seemed to be in the midst of a power play, laying out a plan or forging a merger. If, as Robert Warshow has suggested, films have made it appear as if success consisted of “talking on the telephone and holding conferences”9, then these women were an absolute visual success! They were constantly on the phone, giving all the appearances of power and acting out a range of managerial styles. Warshow may have seen these habits as evidence of insecurity rather than strength, but they were undeniably impressive. In Dynasty, Joan Collins’ Alexis was frequently on the phone, where we could hear her on the tail-end of what sounded like top-level dealings. On Melrose Place, Amanda could most often be seen snapping shut a mobile, wrapping up a conference call or closing a deal; she always seemed on the verge of negotiating and transacting. Such displays may not constitute the ownership of real power, but they are extremely attractive!
In addition to talking, Spelling’s women often walked, in high heels and with an air of intentness. His Girl Friday (1940) is famous for its scene of Rosalind Russell walking through an office — gliding in effortlessly, liked and respected by all. That image holds up well, but the women of soaps move with an even greater ease and suppleness, through a world which seems geared to the exposition of their power. Admittedly, some of the focus on walking may have been a desire to show off legginess, but the overall effect was one of intimidation. Women in Dynasty and Melrose presented a powerful, squared-shouldered image in the boardroom: an archetype now shuddered at by a generation of young professional women. Women on TV (and in life?) these days are much more reluctant to take up space; they are anxious to soften the appearance of angularity. However, the image of the walking (and telephoning) woman was most persuasively put forth by Spelling, and continues to be a model for corporate gestures on TV. The characters played by Lucy Liu10 in Dirty Sexy Money and Cashmere Mafia are compulsively rapid movers: both shows feature numerous scenes of Liu walking through the city, dashing through doors, plonking handbags on tables.
The rule of the Spelling/Pratt soap is that the bitch will never pay: no diva gets her comeuppance, unlike the suffering heroines of ’50s dramas. In Spelling, women who suffer are a chorus of virgins. While the heroine of sensibility creates a feeling of community and continuity which is essential to the soap, women of this type generally have little power. In an inversion of the Crawford/Turner melodrama, catharsis is obtained from seeing the good girl wronged, while the “bitch” remains cool and untouched. The power soap has no particular objection to the housewife — she offers a touching maternal warmth which unites all the characters — but she is often a mopey figure who will be romantically betrayed. In this kind of soap, mobility is power, as evidenced by busyness and constant walking.
The whippet-thin, fast-talking Amanda on Melrose Place is the prototype of TV’s walking woman (in the mid-90s, the fetish for extreme thinness had not yet taken over TV, so that being sleek only indicated an aesthetic of velocity and efficiency.) If, as Nochimson says, “it’s power that you have to watch”11 on soaps, then the most watchable and natural of protagonists is Heather Locklear’s Amanda. With her metallic coloring, spike heels and compact figure, Locklear is visually right for television, especially the high-definition world of soaps. The heroine of the power soap is a villainess with redeeming features. Amanda’s position on Melrose is something like that imagined by the Michael Curtiz pre-Code film Female (1933): she’s an empress who presides over love interests and slave-girls. Taking a cue from Kate Moss and Benjamin Disraeli, she’s from the “never complain, never explain” school of emotions, although her glamorous heartlessness is offset by the odd act of charity. Off-duty she can be droll and even light-hearted, but lacks patience with simpering or coy women. From the point of view of the series, Amanda is seen as clear and logical (Melrose is obviously committed to logic, with its immaculately clean graphic style), in contrast to the show’s secondary female characters, who fret over their looks and cry over men.
As a teenager I delighted in the destruction of the nuclear and the homely, and loved watching Amanda as the cuckoo spoiler who wedges herself between couples and siblings. The Melrose finale has Amanda escaping to an island, an ending which has echoes of Body Heat (1981). A short time earlier, she was engaged to the staunch Jake, building a house and planning a family, but in the end she decides to leave the business of children and construction to others. Fearing restriction, Amanda wiggles out of that predicament; she needs another antagonist to pair off with, the like-minded (though somewhat less formidable) Peter. However, in a signature Pratt move, ruthlessness is tempered by a nice touch: the episode closes on a final gesture of kindness towards her ex-fiancé.
We never doubt that the energy of the series relies on a character like Amanda. Where the old-school Bell drama focused on a family endangered by flashy outsiders, the ’90s primetime and current daytime soap sides with the schemer. Soaps have a very great interest in the home-wrecker, the interloper, the double agent, because this figure can shift story and generate narrative possibilities. The genre supports the one character who can ensure its future — thus the new-style soap welcomes the invasion of the central family. (In a similar way, the recent remakes of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 started off with new actors, but were increasingly taken over by the former cast until one expected that the shows would be repopulated by all their original actors. By re-installing the past, and successfully expelling the future, a TV ecosystem replenishes itself with the elements it needs to survive.)
The power soap wants to eject the original family in favor of a series of charismatic invaders, who marry into the clan and divide it up. These figures burrow so deeply into the central family that they can’t be dislodged. In General Hospital, the prestigious Quartermaine house has systematically been restocked with a cast of impostors and suspicious half-children; these characters become a kind of patchwork family under the umbrella of the Quartermaine name. The Wasp family exists largely to be corrupted by interlopers, although it’s revealed that the patriarch Edward Quartermaine is himself a trickster who has long been pulling the strings. (Refreshingly, there is no sentimental view of the elderly here, as old foxes like Edward are merely more wily in their plotting.) In the past decade, the show’s ruling elite have not been the old-money Quartermaines, but a bunch of elite, snarky executives and mobsters. A judge presiding over a case involving most of the town decries them all as a motley band of conspirators: exotic, overheated, inbred, and somehow “not real.”
While women in Bell are presented as debutantes, ready to be groomed and selected, female characters in Spelling, Pratt and Guza are more likely to be introduced as hotshot prosecutors, grifters, wise-cracking music producers, edgy waifs. Women come intoGeneral Hospital loaded with story potential: they are figures who can quickly project themselves into the narrative and make themselves indispensable to a range of plots. These are women who love the rush of power: in General Hospital, even the pretty young lawyer Claire models herself on the middle-aged cutthroat attorney Diane. In a Pratt or Guza soap, the most exciting scenes occur when a new female character enters the canvas, as it’s a pleasure to watch this figure try to drive a story, make it hum a little quicker.
This is not necessarily because of some explicit feminist agenda; it is more that soaps depend on an antagonist to create tension. The messy energy given off by a new, rootless figure gives a kick to proceedings. Given the success of female-driven soaps, it might be tempting for writers of a new show to create a “vixen” character from the outset. This strategy doesn’t usually work. One rule of soaps appears to be that they can’t start off campy. Melrose Place, Central Park West and Knots Landing all began in earnest; their first seasons examined issues such as infidelity and marital tension. This provides a solid structure, a calm bed, which the vixen can subsequently rock; the community needs to be held together by integrity and structural ties, which the femme fatale turns into a power grid. When shows start off with nominal bitches and catfights — as in Desperate Housewives — the results are generally dismal. A bitch needs to have variation and coloring; the good girl must be a figure of nuanced sensitivity, not a paper-thin caricature of Doris Day. High-impact drama is something a soap has to grow into; characters who are unnaturally forceful disturb the serenity of the soap ecosystem. Nevertheless, there are occasions when just such a disturbance is required, and the results can be perversely watchable.
There is an uncanniness that can only be found in the middle of the day. When the world is at work, the space is open for teenagers, college students, and stay-at-home moms to experience the intensity of soaps on their own. A weekday at noon, safe from prying eyes, is an ideal time for the transmission of the unaccountable.
Patton’s fans — not generally known as soap viewers — continue to dissect the episode to this day, describing it as “epic” while scratching their heads. Why did this reference occur? How? For whom? The Faith No More incident seems to have nonplussed audiences in a unique way. Rarely have I seen so many viewers pore over a cultural blip that doesn’t involve some kind of celebrity humiliation or scandal, but instead a moment of true weirdness. Part of the mystery seems to be that such a moment violates the implied rules of soaps. Why does Faith No More exist in the fictional town of Llanview, when so many other cultural objects do not? Acknowledging Faith No More turns Llanview into a reverse, bizarro world in which pop cultural references are chewed up and reconstituted on the other side (it also draws attention to the fact that we regard soaps as “the other side” of the real.) A similar, lesser event occurred when General Hospital featured a skit parodying American Idol. Again, our incredulity is directed towards the characters rather than the writers. Does American Idol even exist in your world? What exists in your world — what else have you got that we don’t know about? Even though the universe of soaps resembles our own, we know the two are not quite alike; the fact that Mike Patton lives on the other side forces us to rethink the dimensions of soaps. This means inventing a new set of proportional relations: a way to make Faith No More fit into the same society that produced villainess Erica Kane.
Soaps can behave like Hong Kong films, riffing lightly and satirically on Hollywood tropes while remaining far removed from their concerns — and the enclosed world of soaps seems about as distant from Hollywood as Hong Kong. But in soaps, allusions to recent events land with a thud: they are visitors from the land of pop culture. When writers work in references to gubernatorial politics, it feels as if the topical has been dropped into the timeless. The “real” comes across as a surreal intrusion into the world of daytime; an accidental text is formed when soaps move outside of their demographic to link to the obscure and marginal.
The second major enigma in soaps was more orchestrated. The film star James Franco requested a recurring part on General Hospital; he plays an artist named Franco who works with murder scenes. The episodes he appears in will subsequently be displayed in a gallery. Seeing Franco, an A-list star, on a soap prompts some strange thoughts. For one, how did he get inside the screen? Franco looks miniaturized: like an apparition or hologram set inside the workings of a daily drama. He appears to have broken the fourth wall and entered a self-sufficient, ongoing reality — this would not be the case if he were to appear on a crime procedural or a game show.
Soaps have the advantage of seeming unbidden and uncontrolled, unlike the auteur shows of Joss Whedon and David Lynch. They carry a feeling of protective enclosure from the outside world; they might play at noon but generate a feeling closer to 2am. Even in daytime scenes, soaps have an aura of night: they represent the sleeping, dormant half of TV, wrapping us with their focus on intimacy and privacy. General Hospital grabs the odd topical reference while keeping its emphasis on an ongoing texture, a feeling of endless night, in which life is marked by ongoing pressure and dramatic stress. By maintaining this daylit but undercover reality, soaps can be the vehicle for great rupture moments.
The mysteriousness of Franco’s appearance on General Hospital is also linked to the construction of his character. Franco plays a man named Franco; he is a performance artist playing a performance artist; the character restages murders and is an actual murderer. In other words, what we’re seeing is what we’re seeing: every aspect of the character is overly literal, as in Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1970), where the man who wields the knife is patently the killer. That literalness makes it hard to characterize what it is we’re watching: the “subtext” seems too blatant to theorize. Soaps tend to play with these connotations of overtness: should we be suspicious if what we’re seeing is too obvious?
The character Franco has absurdly high-flown reasons for killing, but they are logical. Franco is a rigorous formalist who insists on text without context. When looking at shots of his victims, he insists that the reading of a photograph doesn’t change depending on whether the corpses are real (true by some standards of textual analysis.) Thus his appearance takes the form of a secret transmission to the audience — every phrase signals another level of textual commentary. We are told that everything Franco does is significant: “he doesn’t do anything that doesn’t mean anything.” The same could be said of the actor’s performance.
James Franco could not have performed his stunt on any other medium: he needed the register of daily-ness and apparent placidity to bring up the bizarre. Soaps, perhaps more than any other genre at the moment, are capable of producing surrealist manifestations. This may increasingly be the result of an eclectic writing team with unusual approaches to narrative. Several years ago, the writers of a CBS soap embarked on an experiment to “throw out the rule-book” one day a week: a kind of Casual Friday, in which all events would be seen from the point of view of a specific place or character, so that the multi-angled structure of soaps would temporarily be skewed one way.
It should not be surprising that injections of the personal and the idiosyncratic regularly appear in this genre. Scriptwriters rarely set out to work on soaps: many writers find their way into daytime after pursuing a career in journalism, theatre, music writing or academia. With such a diverse crew, it’s inevitable that strange things are going to happen on daytime. The Yale academic Michael Malone was enlisted into soaps when a producer began cruising universities for the “American Dickens”: someone who wrote “huge canvas novels” with “lots of characters and interlaced structures.”12 Malone, a specialist in the Victorian novel, found himself appointed head writer of One Life to Live without ever having watched an episode. More famously, one of the directors of Dynasty was Curtis Harrington, creator of the great Night Tide (1961). Dynasty reminded Harrington of MGM pictures of the ’50s; he liked the idea of “recreating something like these films” with all the requisite attention to framing and tone.13 Harrington often supervised first cut on Dynasty and cast actors from the ’50s in cameos, inserting his own version of the past into a mainstream product.
I could name five more cases: soaps are known for their unusually varied stable of writers. With a large number of artists quickly feeding ideas into production, the world of soaps is comparable to the “dream factory” of ’30s Hollywood, when the high turnover of scripts caused flashes of ingenuity to end up in films. If anything, soap writers work at even greater speed, turning out 70 pages of script per day — could anyone work at such a rate without “unconscious” influences coming into play? As in the early studio system, all kinds of niche interests get spun into the finished product. Nochimson has reported that writers on soaps are often “harried and frantic”14; they can be “people of great vision who are sensitive to the medium” but also “desperate hacks whose sole purpose is to get an image on the screen every day.”15
But what gets shoved in by a “desperate” writer in a moment of panic may turn out to be unexpectedly compelling, even if it is less oddball than a reference to Faith No More. On Young and the Restless, what fills in dead time could be a dissertation on a Jewish reliquary, a discussion of environmental performance art, or an appreciation of drum-bass bands. The series has been particularly beautiful in its throwaway moments. Neil (Kristoff St. John), the African-American executive who was previously a bit of a stooge, was transformed by Latham’s team into a reflective and sensual man; his interest in a Mingus elegy led to a storyline which had half the characters riffing on jazz moments, with the writers weaving music references into every scene. The actors carried off these digressions with style; the show had never been this gorgeous.
Cultural references in soaps may be from the present or the distant past, as increasingly diverse phenomena are swept into scripting. Adrienne Barbeau (herself a John Carpenter fixture) appears on General Hospital as the tough-as-nails “Suzanne Stanwyck”, some half-remembered hybrid of ’40s melodrama. Constance Towers, the marvelous Samuel Fuller actress, has been reigning for over a decade on the show, as the gothic matriarch of an ancient family. Obsessed with bloodlines and poisonings, her character claims to be Greco-Russian royalty and is dismissive of people and concepts which are merely American. Towers is cast with reference to her storied past; a queen in her crypt, it’s as if she never left a Fuller movie, and has remained as peculiarly sexual as ever. Well over 70, she enjoys a subtly erotic banter with the leading man Luke.
It’s not clear what kind of demographic would be inspired to tune in for cryptic takes on Fuller or Stanwyck, other than film buffs. Perhaps that’s the point of daytime drama: the writing moves so quickly that references aren’t supervised or precisely targeted at consumer groups. There’s so much in this “disposable” product that is hard to account for. However, U.S. soaps are in their dying days; some critics predict that in five years, they’ll all be gone. I hope that in the time left, they attract attention as a relentlessly concentrated source of ingenuity. Things are rarely odd on TV at the moment, and are ever less likely to be, with the rise of focus-group testing and the minutely plotted and scripted HBO series. Television is losing the means by which ephemera and offhand gestures get pulled into production. Most shows do not provoke a genuine sense of mystery in what they present. We rarely ask: why is this onscreen? What is it we’re really seeing here? In the meantime, soaps will provide us with close-ups to be looked at over and over: activating the surreal while giving us meaningful patterns to analyze.
If the goal of soaps is to generate a never-ending story, writers must avoid closure as well as contrivance. In addition to writing fast-spinning plotlines, soaps may choose to go deeper: they can mine a feeling over a period of days and weeks, trying to determine its character and essence. The use of sustained close-ups takes a show into surreal territory, but the repetition can also be psychologically suggestive. When it comes to violence, Nochimson states that soaps will “analyze over and over again why people are attracted to it,” so that when a woman becomes involved with a mobster, the “story will keep repeating over and over and returning to the questions: ‘What is it, girl? Why do you like him?'”16. That feeling of a character being looked at again and again, turning this way and that, like a figurine, is a key motif for soaps. The world revolves so that we can study its subjects more closely, even if we can come to no conclusion about their impulses.
This conversation marks a turn in our understanding of events: it throws into relief the degree to which soaps are about unknowability. It is a shock to have the show acknowledge that its real subject is complexity and our partial knowledge of other people. Soaps are about fascinating characters of whom we have an incomplete understanding, some of whom (like Brad) remain inscrutable for years. General Hospital‘s lead actor, Maurice Benard, is particularly hard to make out. He has a Takeshi Kitano-like stillness which acts as a provocation to hotter heads; he appears contained but is ready to blow. The constant scrutiny of an unreadable person — in the form of close-ups which reveal only a little — is a landmark form of character studies. The characters in General Hospital tend to make deadpan, provocative statements like “I like being rich” — what does it mean to enjoy being rich or pretty? What do a person’s looks mean — how do they structure everyday life in terms of communication as well as status? People on soaps are always characterizing each other’s mental type, trying to assess the predictability of actions.
Soaps spend a lot of time attempting to define intangible thought: a conversation on General Hospital may be dedicated to finding out whether a stated goal is really a wish, an idea or a delusion. One of the most effective impulses a soap can express is curiosity: there is every chance to look at what is happening from a new angle as characters analyze each other’s behavior, despite the knowledge that this is a never-ending task. With the soaps’ current interest in work, we may move from a close domestic scene to re-take the same situation from a medical or legal standpoint.
On Young and the Restless, a young couple’s relationship was destroyed by the man’s obsession with looking at pornography, but before then, there was an investigation of what that look meant. Some characters had a no-tolerance policy, while others found Daniel’s attraction to porn valid and relatable, even sexy. There is always a way to see actions from a different ethical viewpoint. Victor Newman may be patriarchal and pathological, but he negotiates illness in the family with a deft humour and courage. As the situation turns, so does our perspective: the implied world of soaps is truly a sphere, a model of in-the-round characterization. As we rotate through stories, front-facing action becomes averted from us, while situations we can’t initially identify with move closer and closer. Hence there is an emphasis on people redeeming themselves with kindness: a good “turn” is literally something which shifts us to a new perspective of character, and implies a corresponding rotation of the outer world.
John Cawelti points out that “melodrama typically makes us intersect imaginatively with many lives … subplots multiply, and the point of view continually shifts in order to involve us in a complex of destinies.”17 It is this constant shifting of hours and days which provides the momentum of soaps, and it’s the characters who make the show turn with their emotional energy and demands. If God was originally considered to be the moral basis for this revolving world, now it is the characters who cycle us through the narrative: the walking women, and the ambiguous personalities who drive the world of work and home.
On one level, the uncertainty of motive exists to service narrative, so that a show can keep multiple readings alive indefinitely. The soap re-interprets the classical melodrama as a story of continuity, with catharsis achieved at the moment of narrative regeneration. Nothing is more satisfying than the feeling that a show is about to perform a move in a new direction, something it has been conspiring to do all along. Under Latham, the economy of storytelling on Young and the Restless became dazzling: plots moved at break-neck pace, but just as all implications seemed exhausted, a new possibility would flood out, rich with story potential. The show’s team was particularly skilful at manipulating multiple storylines. In soaps, primary and secondary stories are known as frontburners and backburners; ideally, there will be a swift alternation between burners, so that latent plots can brought into play when the opportunity strikes. Rather than concentrating power in a few figures, the most effective soaps constantly switch between different characters as drivers.
Soaps are in search of forms that promote endlessness: families who represent dueling modes of tradition, and characters who are inescapably tangled in each other’s histories. At its best, a soap will find visual metaphors for this eternal prolonging of story, where a single theme is darted through multiple plotlines. Latham’s Young and the Restless came up with the ingenious structural device of having each character walk through everyone else’s stories — sometimes the passing character might wave and acknowledge the others, but often we would only just register them, flashing at the rim of narrative.
I once had the opportunity to watch the illustrator Mel Silvestre work on a children’s book, about a day in a young boy’s life. Silvestre created a series of clay models to represent the events of the day, which took place in a number of different rooms and locations. However, rather than constructing the scenes in a linear sequence, he built all the rooms as parts of the same house, linked by a consistent décor. One could peer through a window to see a past scene being acted out. You could look into one of his mirrors and see, at an oblique angle, a future scenario taking place (a very cinematic device, recalling the magic mirrors of Cavalcanti and Ruiz.) All the key sequences of the book were molded together as a composite structure, with every room containing the seeds of past and future action. Silvestre’s feeling was that since the book’s scenes were all closely related, it would be a “lie” to construct the rooms separately, in chronological order.
I would argue that soaps are founded on a similar structure — and Silvestre’s models are close to my ideal storyboard for TV. In soaps, flashbacks and flash-forwards comprise an ever-present reality; what we think of as the present is an assemblage of moments from different times. Although the characters move around busily, the spaces themselves are eternal, emptying and filling, containing the flow of action. With this calm, consistent décor in place, even the tiniest gestural shift rocks the world as surely as it does in the films of Rohmer or Bujalski. Like Silvestre’s house, the soap is a rotating world-stage which we examine for patterns and usages, as well as clues to upcoming plots. That flash of a face by the window — is that a glimpse of next episode, next season? Or is it the tail-end of a past we’ve already witnessed?
In the U.S., soaps are often referred to as “stories”, as in: “I’m going home to watch my stories.” In effect, the “stories” operate as a cluster of interconnected rooms, like a house which contains the passage of a day, year or life. It is because of this singular temporal structure that the new soaps demand to be watched daily. Soaps encourage us to glance back and forward in time in order to re-constitute the present; they allow us to peer into the past, and wonder what scenes are being played there. This makes some strange images possible. Outside the window, we can see a tomorrow which looks through to yesterday.
- The Australian political analysis show Lateline is a treat for those who enjoy watching interviewees expertly dance around questions. No-one savors the opportunity to be elusive more than Malcolm Turnbull, who was riveting in a 2007 interview, discussing the notion of verbal “firepower” and finessing every one of presenter Tony Jones’ questions. [↩]
- Martha Nochimson. No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 194. [↩]
- The significance of credit sequences can be seen in the editing of “minisodes”, which condense an episode of Charlie’s Angels or Starsky and Hutch to five minutes. Each minisode regards most of the plot as disposable, but it never skips the opening and closing sequences. This is because the dramatic meaning of these shows is packed into the credits rather than the script. Charlie’s Angels benefits from this minimization, since its opening, with its ascending melody and the heroic outlines of its female stars, continues to soar. (Although the show has been criticized for its premise of three babes controlled by a male tycoon, the flipside of this scenario is that the stern paternal voice is reduced to a machine. Charlie’s stand-in is a jovial uncle figure, Bosley, who doesn’t cramp the Angels’ style. [↩]
- Nochimson. No End to Her, 194. [↩]
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” Monogram 4 (1972) 2. [↩]
- Nochimson. No End to Her, 197. [↩]
- Ibid. 159. [↩]
- James Wolcott, “Lovers Come Back,” Vanity Fair 476 (2000) 51. [↩]
- Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 102. [↩]
- The fast-moving Lucy Liu is a throwback to the reign of Heather Locklear, Joan Collins et al. Despite giving warm and lovely performances in Lucky Number Slevin (2006) and Watching the Detectives (2007), Liu has spent most her career running, wearing catsuits and reciting one-liners — as seen in Rize (2005), and as the sharpest and most athletic of the new Charlie’s Angels (2000). Aaron Spelling would have loved her — what was once a cliché of femininity is now a welcome and much-needed anomaly. [↩]
- Donna Greene, “Q and A/Dr Martha P. Nochimson,” New York Times, November 8, 1998. [↩]
- Kathy Henderson, “Daytime’s Dickens,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1992. [↩]
- Jostein Gripsrud. The Dynasty Years (London, New York: Routledge, 1995) 46. [↩]
- Nochimson. No End to Her, 197. [↩]
- Ibid. 191. [↩]
- Greene, “Q and A/Dr Martha P. Nochimson,” New York Times. [↩]
- John G. Cawelti. Adventure, Mystery and Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 45-46. [↩]