Much maligned soap operas are enjoying another critical renaissance — is Downton Abbey a soap? Game of Thrones? The possible soap opera-ness of these prestige TV shows is a hot topic, but traditional soap operas themselves are not. But what about General Hospital, Passions, Neighbours, EastEnders and K Dramas? These aren’t so fashionable to praise.
WWAC talks soaps of our childhood and teen years, soaps we watch even now, what makes a soap a soap, and why they keep us watching so long.
Do you watch any soaps or did you watch them as a kid?
Al Rosenberg: Yes, I was forced into watching quite a few as a child. Now I only watch them when I’m at home with my family on holidays.
Melinda Pierce: I did as a kid with my mom. She watched three and half hours every single day without fail. I don’t watch them now at all.
Claire Napier: No. Not now. I watched on and off throughout secondary school, because school exhausted me and all I wanted to do was sit on the sofa, then fall sideways, and watch people yelling about problems that would dissolve into other problems as soon as poss.
Cherokee Seebalack: I was the (self-proclaimed) queen of bunking in secondary school. Jumping over school gates, finding the best hiding spots away from patrolling teachers and pulling perfectly timed sickies was how I spent the last couple of years in full-time education before ~adult life~ swooped in and I had to fix up my shit. When I was in Year 9, instead of going to my the final class of the day, I sat at home watching afternoon soaps with my nan. Fifth period was my lesson in Neighbours and Doctors and my homework was EastEnders. I learnt a lot more from them than I ever did D.T. Fucking D.T. (If you’re reading this, Mr. Fry, I’m sorry I didn’t turn up to your class for three months, but know I regret nothing. Nothing.)
Desiree Rodriguez: Does catching glimpses of them while my stepmother cleaned count? As a child this was the only exposure to soaps I had, but as I got older some friends recommended me As the World Turns to watch for the Luke Synder storyline. I actually ended up really enjoying his storyline, and a few others here and there. After As the World Turns ended, I watched a bit of Days of Our Lives for the Sonny Kiriakis storyline, but I grew really bored when the recast the character of Will Horton – Sonny’s love interest—and stopped watching.
Angel Cruz: I watched a couple American soaps when I was around 12, 13 years old, watching them every day during summer vacations. I’ve caught them on-and-off the last few years (read: when I’m really, really bored on the very rare weekdays that I’m home). These days, I’m more likely to be watching Asian dramas.
What was your first soap? Do you still have fond memories of it?
Al Rosenberg: (Like sand through the hourglass, so are the) Days of Our Lives (DoOL) is the common denominator among the women in my family. On all sides of my family. I have been watching this soap since my eyes could focus on the television screen, and my grandmother has been watching it since the very beginning. She grew up with those characters; they are her TV family. She is sad when she misses “her soap.” My fond memories are in the moments I shared with my grandmother as we watched it together.
Melinda Pierce: Santa Barbara will live on in my memories forever. Cruz Castillo and Eden Capwell were the characters I rooted for the most. I knew I had to fall in love with a gruff police officer someday. The storyline of the Capwells vs the Lockridges never got old for me. I was devastated at the young age of thirteen when it went off the air. I felt so much was left unresolved.
Claire Napier: When I was really little, visits to my Gran would end when EastEnders was about to come on, because Gran needed (needed) to watch EastEnders. She still does this. I didn’t realise until a year or two back that her viewership is semi-ironic? It was always a puzzle to me! At home, it was Neighbours. Harold came back from having gone into the ocean, and I think my mum had been a viewer when he WENT into the ocean, so…somehow it stuck, sort of. I’d say Neighbours is, in my opinion, “the best soap”. But what does that mean.
Cherokee Seebalack: I’m guessing my first soap was EastEnders, since it was the only regular programme my mum kept up with. I tried getting into other British soaps—Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Coronation Street—but there wasn’t anything I found as a kid that gripped me more than the grimness of life in Walford. No one wanted to live there.
Desiree Rodriguez: As the World Turns was my first official soap, and at first it was a lot of fun. Both the show and the fandom—when fansites and LiveJournal were really big back in the day, I was a part of the “Nuke” fandom—were really fun. Then Noah turned into a huge jerk in the show, and Luke became Noah’s emotional punching bag, and the fandom slowly began to dissolve. Especially when Doctor Reid Oliver came on the scene, and got together with Luke. The fandom just imploded and a huge ship war happened—I thankfully missed most of, especially since I was firmly on the “Lure” side of things—and when the show was canceled no one went home happy. Reid died, Noah left for LA, and Luke was left all alone and in mourning.Did I mention that every single straight character or couple ended happily? So bitter memories fill me.
Angel Cruz: My very first soap was Port Charles, which was probably not the best thing for a 12-year-old to watch. The Livvie/vampire!Caleb storyline was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying to my tween brain. I was very afraid of vampires when I was a kid, so I can’t explain how I got through watching Port Charles. I’m pretty sure part of me wanted to be Livvie Locke when I grew up, but it was very much like, “I want my hair to look like her hair, I want to be irresistible like she is to Caleb.” And then a year passed and I realized that was a pretty unhealthy relationship, so I dropped the show.
What are some things that you look for in a soap? How do soaps satisfy where other storytelling modes don’t?
Al Rosenberg: As a preteen I loved Passions. It felt more like the telenovelas that I enjoyed at my friends’ houses than the ever repetitive DoOL did. I loved how outlandish it was, the magical elements, the extreme drama. It was so different from my mundane life. Soaps are free to construct and reconstruct realities in ways that other television isn’t.
Claire Napier: I feel alarmed to realise it, but I think that I favoured Neighbours because it was the most Middle Class? It’s about all of the people who live in one cul-de-sac. Or it was. I’d dip into the bizarre American stuff occasionally, just for kicks, but: too silly. Home & Away wasn’t relatable because everybody lived at the beach. The beach is a place to visit; this seems to be solid in my mind. I could never really watch EastEnders because it gave me panic symptoms. But now that Angel’s got me watching K-Dramas, I think that what I’m looking for in a soap is absurd melodrama…with an ending. I.e, what I’m looking for in a soap is: nothing. Something they canna give. It’s a paradox, which is why I never stick at it properly.
Melinda Pierce: Santa Barbara had a very “have” vs “have not” feel to it. As a tweeny on the “have not” side, I related to the characters who were either scheming to become a “have” or falling in love with the “have” characters.
Cherokee Seebalack: Revisiting the same characters on a near-daily basis in shows like EastEnders gives me a sense of comfort. The best way I can describe it is like an ongoing manga serial. You’ve been following the same characters for years—you know their arcs and their history; you could probably even write their dialogue given the chance. Will their stories ever end? You don’t know, and that’s why you keep reading. The only thing you can be sure of is that there are always consequences—nothing goes unanswered.
One of the main criticisms soaps get is their prolonged formula of storytelling, which manga thrives off—they tend to go on for a few years, at the very bare minimum. For me, though, that is what I find is the strength of them. People change; they evolve and are privy to making terrible decisions. Soaps have the opportunity to take their characters on life-long journeys in ways that condescended TV shows can’t. It’s not just a slice of life you’re getting, you—quite literally at times—watch people grow up.
I try to find that same feeling I get in EastEnders with other programmes. The now-defunct BBC show Waterloo Road, for example, (which is about the life of school teachers and students) was absolute trash, but no other programme could touch the ridiculously brilliant heights it got to in its prime. Think Morning Glories-ish but replace the murders with a lot of screwing —most of which involved teachers. Waterloo Road had all the makings of classic soap opera material (it even ran in conjunction with school terms, airing at the start of a new school year and breaking up for the summer and Christmas).
Desiree Rodriguez: I think soaps are very similar to comic books, but without—mostly—superpowers. The characters exist in worlds beyond logical reality, there’s always a dead sisters-brothers-cousin who’s a twin out there somewhere, people die and come back a few years later, epic romances happen, fall apart, and happen again. Soaps, in a way, are one of the highest forms of fictional escapism. They are unashamed in their own illogical storytelling, yet still create characters that people grow to love and become attached too. There are wacky storylines, storylines that make you cringe, storylines that you just shake your head at, and storylines that are beautifully done.
During Luke’s storyline, the character had been on a few years before coming out as gay, and when Noah arrived on the scene, they shared the first same-sex kiss on a soap in history. At the time I was still in high school, dealing with various inter-personal problems of my family. Luke was a character I heavily related too, since he was the emotional pillar of his own family like I was mine. His status as one of the first and most prominent gay characters on daytime TV didn’t go unnoticed either. I’ll probably always be bitter about how his storyline ended, but I’ll always hold Luke Synder in a special rank of my favorite fictional characters. And I’m sure that’s how a lot of fans—especially if they’re long time fans—feel as well.
Angel Cruz: I loved Passions and Port Charles when I was younger for the gothic melodrama. The storylines that stuck with me in those soaps were always supernatural in nature—I got really bored when Theresa’s pregnancy took up half the time because she was just so uninteresting to me. I tend to pick a couple characters that I get attached to fairly quickly (Charity in Passions, Livvie in Port Charles, Keri in One Life to Live). That’s held true for Asian dramas I watch now as well. If I don’t watch myself, I’ll zone out during subplots that don’t involve my favourite characters.
Soaps are satisfying to me because they’re constantly asking “what if?” and you think they’re not gonna go there, but they do, and it’s always a mixture of surprise and emotion and frankly, hilarity when you can call out plotlines before they do them. The predictability can be comforting too, I think.
Soaps get a bad rap for being outlandish and melodramatic, but that’s the whole fun of soaps. What is the most outlandish and melodramatic soap storyline you adore?
Al Rosenberg: Oh, I sort of answered this above! But, other than Passions, I think the most ridiculous storyline I’ve ever enjoyed in a soap is actually one I wrote with a friend in middle school. We wrote like thirty pages of TV that centered around a bar that served flavored air to drag queens.
Claire Napier: I already told you: Harold went into the ocean. And then years later he came out. His wife had been fetching him an ice cream. I think they even got the same actor back.
Melinda Pierce: Anytime you put twins on a soap and had them pretend to be each other, I drooled with anticipation of them getting caught. Like Vicky/Marley from Another World.
Cherokee Seebalack: This is hard. EastEnders awoke a part of me that craved melodrama. Having internet access as a child only made that craving worse. I quickly tumbled down a rabbit hole of Japanese and Korean dramas, trying to replicate that same feeling I had when watching EastEnders. K-dramas, in particular, had very soap-like plots, tropes and characters, but keeping up with Korean soaps was a lot harder. (Usually awful translations/non-subtitled uploads.) So I settled for the anything and everything I could get in Asian dramas. Short answer to the question? I’m picking EastEnders for this one. Shocker, right?
Anyone who lived in Britain in the early 2000s would have heard about the Who Shot Phil? saga. EastEnders viewer or not, you couldn’t get away from it. Now hailed as one of the show’s best stories—and most memorable ‘whodunnits’—keeping up with the murder mystery as it aired was a significant moment for childhood me.
Phil Mitchell is Walford’s local hardman (I say “is” because, of course he survived). No one fucks with Phil. At the time he was shot, he was the most hated person on the whole of The Square aside from the cretin that is Ian Beale. Not a surprise that someone tried to bump him off then. The consequence? It set off a nationwide (fictional) hunt to discover the murderer.
Desiree Rodriguez: Oh gosh, that I adore? I’m not sure this storyline is especially ridiculous, but I really enjoyed Reid Oliver, the super brain surgeon from Dallas, Texas, sweeping Luke off his feet while performing a surgery to give Noah back his eyesight. It was utterly silly, in that I’m pretty sure none of the medical jargon was realistic in any way, and Luke blackmailing Reid into coming to Oakdale was totally illegal, but who cares cause Luke’s dad was an Italian mobster! I think. Reid was the best, snarky, blunt, crude, and willing to point out all the zaniness of Oakdale and it’s characters.
Angel Cruz: Any storyline with Charity in Passions had me riveted, but never did I cheer for her harder than I did when she was Zombie Charity. Granted, I wanted her to take revenge on her cousin Kay for messing up her life and encasing her in an ice block, but that didn’t happen.
Let’s talk time. Soaps are never-ending serials: no endings are permanent, not even deaths. Does this affect how you relate the to the material? Is it a bug or a feature?
Al Rosenberg: There’s something comforting in knowing that every time I return to my grandmother’s house I can turn on DoOL. Like, those characters continue to live long, somewhat prosperous lives without my viewership. I can visit them the same way I visit my cousins. If I was more invested in the TV shows I would probably want endings, but the storylines change up so drastically that I’ve learned to roll with the overwrought punches.
Claire Napier: It affects me TERRIBLY. When I spend much time with a soap I feel like I am covered with wool string, all dribbled on, and now it’s stuck from friction and I can’t get free or tidy ever again.
Desiree Rodriguez: Not really. As I said before, soaps are like comic books. They are forever on-going, with changes, retcons, rewrites, and you just have to flow with it. I’m not a long-time soap fan, so I imagine some changes would upset some fans. I know when watching As The World Turns I was really annoyed with the way Noah developed—he’s the Scott Summers of the show except I hated him—and the way the show recast Lily Synder, Luke’s mom, near the end of the show. It threw a lot of things off, and because they recast the original actress, who had been on the show for years playing the same character, they couldn’t even use the flashbacks of her in the final episode. It made the ending of her storyline less poignant, and honestly, the new actress didn’t have that same long-term chemistry with the cast.
I would say the recasts are what bother me the most. I can handle retcons in storylines, or characters magically coming back from the dead, but a recast can throw an entire character and their storyline off. I was really invested in the Will and Sonny storyline on Days of Our Lives until they recast Will. His new actor didn’t have any of the same chemistry with Sonny’s actor, nor the charming aspects that the original actor who played Will had. It threw the entire storyline off, and I quickly lost interest.
I find that I can only stick with American soaps for a specific story arc, and not much longer than that. I want some closure in my stories, and after the third “Character A comes back to life!” plotline, I’m likely to bow out just to find something new to consume. It’s why Asian dramas work well for me, I think, because they have to do so much in 10-20 episodes. Sometimes the stories feel like they could go on longer, sometimes it drags until the last few episodes. Finding that balance is really interesting to me.
Soaps are in trouble in the US, thanks to their business model becoming outmoded, but they’re doing fine elsewhere! What could US soaps learn from similar fare around the world?
Melinda Pierce: I think soaps should go miniseries style. Link the stories but every three months change up the plots and characters.
Desiree Rodriguez: I don’t watch other soaps, but I imagine a good update of content that includes a wide set of stories. Soaps, from what I noticed, retell the same stories over and over again. They also tend to drag out stories to the point where you go just, ‘oh what’s the point?’ and walk away. An overhaul in how writers and producers tell the stories on soaps would probably help a lot.
Angel Cruz: Shorter series are what I look for these days. I want to know that a story will commit to an ending, and even if the ending isn’t exactly what I want, it’s there.
Finally, do you think of soaps as a guilty pleasure or just another form of entertainment?
Al Rosenberg: Soap operas are primarily viewed by women, and it seems to me that the drive to belittle them into “nonsense stories,” or pure guilty pleasure is slightly misogynistic. That said, I think all TV is a “guilty pleasure” and have a hard time drawing the line between “TV drama” and “soap opera” occasionally (ie: Grey’s Anatomy??).
Melinda Pierce: I think a guilty pleasure is something you get a thrill from but don’t necessarily want others to know about. Like how I ate a tub of cookies and cream ice cream in bed last night. It was damn good, but I’m not posting on Facebook about it (I’ll out myself for WWAC though). I agree with Al, soaps are another form of entertainment. I can’t watch hours upon hours of prime time television and look down my nose at someone who watches hours of soaps, cartoon networks, or reality dramas.
Cherokee Seebalack: Like Al mentioned, it can be hard to draw the line between what is a drama vs what is a soap. The only distinction between the two, I think, is the fact that soaps are ongoing—they don’t work off seasons (at least in the UK) and they’ll only ever end when they’re axed. (The amount of K-dramas I could have talked about for some of these questions would have been unreal.)
Empire is one such show that has all the makings of a soap opera, but it’s labelled as a drama. Do people consider it a guilty pleasure? Probably less so because of its lack of soap status. Programmes such as Dynasty may have heavily inspired it, but we still have an elitist attitude when it comes to discussing soaps the way we do other TV formats or genres. They’re seen as a ‘lesser’ form of storytelling. Even WWE (which is nothing but a soap) is rarely ever called one, which goes back to Al’s point on the critiques of soaps and the the underlying misogynistic treatment of those who enjoy them.
When I mention EastEnders to other people and talk about it on a more critical/social level, the reception is always the same—it’s “just a soap” and I’m “reading too deep” into it. There is so much more to soaps than the trashy nature. Sure, that is a big part of why I like soaps and find comfort in it, but they also speak volumes on the way we engage with their unique style of telling a narrative. EastEnders, for one, has put some of their most popular characters—particularly women—in eye-opening, realistic storylines which audiences have identified and related to. Shit can get real—far too real in fact. Guilty pleasures soaps are not.