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.