In theory, at least, a soap should go on forever. This is a priceless gift that TPTB on soaps don’t fully value. In fact, they tend to squander it, acting instead like movie executives aiming for a big opening weekend. The term for a movie that continues to pull in audiences after the opening weekend is that it “has legs.” Well, a soap is nothing but legs.
Now, I know that soaps don’t really have the security of never being canceled. Just ask fans of Another World, Santa Barbara, and Ryan’s Hope. It’s true that, through a combination of factors, the whole genre is ailing. Some are predicting its total demise within the next five to ten years.
But I think that, despite all this, soaps do have more job security than almost any primetime show. Even a very successful long-term show like ER is perceived as having a shelf life. No one expects it to still be on forty years from now. But Days could be.
What other type of TV show could start with one cast of characters and still be around with not even one of those characters a functioning part of the cast? Passions is the baby on the block, a flash in the pan in the world of soaps, and it was on for nine years. What primetime show wouldn’t LOVE to be on for nine seasons?
We have time, five hours a week, through years and years and years, to hang out with these characters, get to know them, their histories, their children. No other form of entertainment—no primetime show, no reality show, no talk show—allows us to do that. That’s why showcasing family relationships and other “atypical” interactions is so important. We want to see family members reacting to what happened to their sister last week, instead of being isolated in their own plot. A soap is the only type of show that really has time to do this.
A soap also has more flexibility with their cast. It’s true it’s easy to run out of stories for characters after they’ve been on the show a long time (especially when, as in Days’ case, they are paired off with their soulmate, never to be permanently sundered), but a soap has incredible leeway in introducing new characters and backburnering, recasting, or firing old ones.
Daytime fans can be fractious, demanding, and short-sighted, but they can also be incredibly loyal. I have been watching Days since the cradle, off and on, and I have a helpless love for it that no horrific plot point or character departure has been able to fully kill. I have enough emotional investment in this show that I am willing to watch less than stellar material in the hopes that it will improve. That doesn’t mean I give TPTB a free pass to pawn shoddy material off on me, but I am certainly much more willing to give the show a second, a third, a fourth chance than I am with any other show I watch.
So how can soaps capitalize on these assets of time, longevity, flexibility, and loyalty? Use the history, use the cast, use the vets, let the plot points for one character resonate with the stories of another character, explore backstories, let us see those quiet moments between plot points, explore the resonances and implications of those plot points before moving on, go slowly with redemptions and love stories, plant seeds for the next story within the old one, and introduce new characters through old ones (not necessarily blood ties), by integrating them into existing storylines and establishing a web of relationships. And then continue to draw on those relationships.
But what soaps could do to really set themselves apart from other genres, what no other type of show can do, is very long-term stories. Like Mike not finding out who his real father was until he was grown up. Like Doug and Julie’s torturous path to the altar, eight years in the making. This is the type of story I am longing to see. Of course you have to do the stories well, you have to have a plan, you have to stick to your plan, and you have to give a payoff. That’s what will make the viewers trust you when it’s time to introduce the next new story, the next new character.
But given the way TPTB and the viewers are locked into a dysfunctional cycle right now of bad stories engendering distrust of any new story and then TPTB abandoning a story because of fan response which in turn engenders more distrust … I despair of ever seeing that kind of long term storytelling ever again. And that to me is the biggest tragedy.