Can Daytime be Saved?

First of all, I’m probably not the best person to be writing this essay. I don’t watch any soap but Days, and there’s a 15 year gap in my Days watching. Also, perhaps more importantly, when it comes to fiction I’m not a revolutionary. You’re not going to read here any exciting, groundbreaking ideas for how soaps can revitalize themselves (much as I would love to be able to do that). My focus, when it comes to analyzing fiction—and writing this blog—is assessing how well the work is doing what it is trying to do. If a show is adhering to a tired old formula, I am more inclined to focus on the execution of that formula than to question the formula itself. I would not be a good headwriter.

Going back to the 50’s and 60’s, when television genre conventions were first being established, sitcoms and primetime dramas were episodic. Perry Mason solved the case every week, and everything went back to the status quo. Perry never got sick of the law and became a mechanic instead. He never jumped Della’s bones (though he surely wanted to). Daytime dramas filled a gap, a need in the human psyche for continuing stories, more like the ebb and flow of real life.

Now practically every primetime drama is a continuing drama, with story arcs and relationships that grow and die. Even sitcoms like Friends and Sex and the City got in the game, with their life events (Miranda’s baby, Samantha’s cancer) and rootable couples.

So what were soaps left with? The over-the-top plots, for one. And even those are being co-opted by the train-wreck oh-no-she-didn’t fascination of entertainment journalism and reality TV. (For more about this, see an earlier essay about the possible cancellation of Days. In particular, read the comment afterward by Jason.)

One of the first things that people think of when they think of revitalizing soaps is social relevance. Let’s do interracial or gay romances, drug addiction storylines, abortions. And soaps have dabbled with these things off and on over the years, but I would guess (though I could be wrong) that most soaps are still mostly white with a sprinkling of African Americans, 99.999% heterosexual (except for some yummy subtext), and treat drug use or abortions from a conservative viewpoint.

And yes, I’m all for changing that. Sure. But the problem is, that’s not a new idea anymore. That ship has sailed. Queer as Folk is a wonderful gay soap. Grey’s Anatomy is a great modern mix-and-match patchwork of diversity, among its other strengths. Any soap that does this (and again, I’m all for it), isn’t being groundbreaking, just catching up to reality.

James E. Reilly, with his work on Days and Passions, did try something truly new (well, not so new, if you look at Dark Shadows). He embraced the craziness of soap plots and took them to their farthest extreme. He introduced devil possession and other supernatural plots. And for awhile there, he was rewarded with high ratings. But JER’s problem was he neglected every other area of storytelling (character consistency, internal logic) in favor of the sensational story. (I’ve written about this before, too: The JERk who almost killed Salem)

The trouble with soaps is that, since the genre is ailing, nobody is rushing out to create the Next Big Thing, a historical soap like Upstairs, Downstairs, a sci-fi soap like Reilly’s vision but with better execution, a Sex and the City-type soap, etc. And with the existing soaps, there’s a limit to how much you can change them at this point. Re-inventing your show is a gamble, because you might scare away the few viewers that you have. How can you attract new viewers, but still retain the old ones?

So that brings me back to how I started this essay. Does daytime need a revolutionary or a tinkerer? I think Hogan Sheffer is a tinkerer. There’s no doubt that the execution of plots is better under Hogan than it was under Reilly, but Hogan is not doing anything dramatically different with the genre (at the moment, anyway, he’s not even doing anything dramatically different with Days). In a sense, a tinkerer is what Days needs right now. Characters need to built back up. Plots need to cohere. The canvas, the variety of characters, needs tweaking. It’s like Days was on its deathbed, and it’s just now sitting up and sipping weak tea. It’s not time to jump up and run a marathon.

But, looking to the future, Days will probably need to do something more than what Hogan has done so far (if there is a future past 2009). All the soaps will. The one thing that primetime cannot take away from soaps is time, and history. We have time to hang out with “our” characters, because we see them five days a week. We develop relationships with individual characters, actors, and families. Soaps can respect that—which most of them don’t, at least according to what I see on the message boards. I think one thing Hogan does have going for him is a respect for history, and, perhaps more importantly, respect for the genre itself (except when it comes to Marlena dream sequences). If you can build from that kernel of good faith, perhaps you can build something new on top of it. I hope so.

10 thoughts on “Can Daytime be Saved?

  1. It grieves me to think that Days (and other long running soaps) could be canceled. Even if Days was still being written in the horrific, reality bending world that was JERk, I still don’t want it canceled.

    As a viewer who watched many a soap opera in the day (Days, SB, AW, AMC, OLTL, GH) I think one thing that all the soaps seemed to shift in during the 90s was focus on model actors and look alike recasts. That trend pushed me away actually not just the over the top stories. Luckily, I think Days has corrected this by dismissing AP and CC while backburning the two DHs. Will it do any good? Time will tell, but probably not I’m afraid.

  2. Excellent analysis. Like you, I’ve been gone from soaps for quite awhile. I left Days for good in 1992 with MBE (although I left emotionally in early 1991). I had a brief fling with GH in the mid-to-late 90’s but never really got THAT attached.

    But, as an avid soap viewer in the mid-to-late 80’s it pains me to see what has happened to them lately. Somewhere along the lines, they chose pretty over compelling and that’s where they lost me. Shirtless hunks are nice, don’t get me wrong, but when I watch a soap, I want to feel emotions and connections. I can deal with the occassional WTF storyline and overlook blatantly unreasonable scenarios if the characters are taken care of properly.

    I think there is one other problem that affects soaps these days which is cultural rather than technical or substance driven. We are all used to instant gratification — if you want something, jump on the internet, or cell phone, or whatever. Nobody has any patience for storylines anymore. It seems that fans want every moment of drama resolved quickly and with a neat little bow. If it’s not, then everybody complains that the story is dragging and boring, etc. It’s hard to develop a great dramatic storyline when everybody wants it resolved next week.

  3. There’s no doubt soaps sabotaged themselves in the 90’s by going for style over substance. When you go for the quick fix, what do you put on tomorrow’s show?

    I too am surprised by how often people complain about storylines dragging, or being boring. On Days, what concerns me sometimes is that storylines move too fast (never thought I would say that about a soap). For example, I thought Sami working with EJ and Kate was going to be a lot of fun, but she only worked for them for one episode. There have been other moments like that, too, where I actually wanted the show to stop and linger in a particular situation, and it didn’t.

  4. I agree on Days pacing is like the Kentucky Derby. Between the horror of slow pacing of Reilly and the sonic speed of Hogan, surely there is a happy medium between the two extremes?

  5. I often wonder what todays viewers would have thought of the Stockholm story back in the ’80s. It played out over a couple of months at least I think (starting with Marlena’s disappearance through the return to Salem from Stockholm).

    It was an excellently written umbrella story, but I have a hunch that today we’d have a whole bunch of people complaining about it always being Victor that is doing the bad things, that the story is dragging, and looking for some stupid treasury bonds is boring.

  6. The pacing is all over the place. Some things move way too quickly – like Sami, EJ and Kate working together. Other things drag on – and it’s not that they’re taking a long time, it’s just that the writers don’t seem to know how to linger without getting repetitive and boring. Maybe part of it is because nothing else but the “big story” is going on for the characters. We don’t see these people at work or doing anything that distracts a bit from the drama of the major SLs. It gets monotonous.

    The revolutionary/tinkerer point was a great one, mp, and one I completely agree with.

  7. lascuba, thanks for stopping by! There’s definitely a rhythm to good soap, which sometimes I can feel Hogan getting into (December was a good month, pacing-wise, if I recall), but sometimes, like this week, everything is so choppy, with things rushed that shouldn’t be (Max? Abby? WTF?), and other things—I won’t say dragging, but moving at a more sedate pace. Your point about people not going to work is a good one. We don’t need big storylines set in the boardroom, but the texture of everyday life is missing.

    esp13—heh, you’re right. I think about storylines I’ve loved in the past and imagined them chewed over on the message boards. Stockholm would be no exception, I’m sure. I thought the “three knives” clue was genius for pulling Steve into the story, but it was never clear how those tattoos were crucial to finding the bonds. I’m sure people would be saying, “This tattoo thing is STOOOPID!”

  8. The pacing thing is interesting with Days at the moment, I agree. Because I watch a few different shows, Days pacing under Reilly used to be the thing that drove me most insane: there was none. Even Y&R, which is notoriously glacial, at least does it with some consistency, while GH, always faster has sped up to light speed pace which I still preferred to the way Days went about things. Days has improved on that front, but you’re right, it’s kind of all over the place at the moment. That’s one thing I’m willing to give them some slack about though, because it’s still so much more watchable than it was 12 months ago.

    As to revolution verses tinkering, with the current shows I think it’s got to be tinkering, because they’ve got to maintain the current audiences plus think about bringing new ones in. But you never know, if the fever to longer arcs in prime time cycles away again, it may bring more people back to daytime for their fix.

  9. Hello, Zara! We can certainly hope so.

    Speaking of Reilly’s pacing, I watched the first two minutes of Passions today, and it brought it all back to me. Days has come a long way since last summer.

    ETA: Just realized you’re the Soaps by Remote blogger!

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