The nighttime soap opera is inextricably bound up with the 1980s, the decade
that saw Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan trying to drive poor
Krystle out of her blond-helmeted head on "Dynasty." But while Aaron
Spelling's classic and "Dallas" were intrepid pioneers of the genre,
ushering the addictive, open-ended melodrama of "General Hospital" into
prime time, they certainly don't represent the genre's finest moments. With
their penchant for girl-on-girl mud wrestling and it-was-all-a-dream
cheating, their truly great achievement was in the realm of camp.
Right now, though, we're in the middle of a
golden era of lather, as the nighttime soap has quietly morphed into one of
TV's most creatively vital and popular formats. From "The L Word" and, yes,
"The Sopranos" to "Six Feet Under" and "Nip/Tuck," both of which return in
June, the new wave of evening soaps takes full advantage of TV's most
distinctive virtue: ongoing storytelling. With their ever-expanding casts,
Byzantine story lines, gradual character development, and playful
cliffhangers, these serials are perfect products for a medium that doesn't
run out of time. We speak of the '00s as the era of reality TV and its
Stupid People Tricks, but they're also notable as a heyday for the less
exploitative, more traditional yarns.
The most old-school of the new school is "The O.C.," a sometimes comic but
always emotionally heightened hour of story line. A ratings hit for Fox,
"The O.C." mixes the frenzied generation-gap angst of "Rebel Without a
Cause" and casual Southern California irony with the operatic melodrama of a
Pedro Almodovar movie. Marissa is a tormented teen, currently stressing over
her ex-boyfriend's affair with her mother, and the bottled-up Ryan is her
own personal James Dean. Meanwhile, their parents weather high-stakes
financial and marital catastrophes worthy of the Ewings.
"The O.C." is quite obviously a nighttime soap, even when -- thanks to the
wry asides of Seth, Ryan's buddy -- it playfully mocks its own genre. So is
the more humorless but no less emotionally ostentatious "Everwood." Today's
other serials, however, aren't typically soapy on the surface. Indeed, some
of them -- "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," in particular -- are more
commonly thought of as "quality drama." In the American cultural hierarchy,
soap operas and their prime-time descendants are generally placed on the
lower rungs, while the likes of "Six Feet Under" make critics' Top 10 lists
and win award nominations. Soaps are still viewed with a degree of classist
prejudice, while "The Sopranos" is seen as entertainment for the
But the dramas on HBO, Showtime, and F/X are nonetheless soap operas, albeit
with an added layer of psychological knowing, cinematic stylization, and
R-rated content. Their roots are in the same daytime radio and TV stories of
yore that sold soap products to housewives, as they plow ever-forward with
narrative complexity. "The Sopranos" is not too far from "As the Underworld
Turns," strange as that may seem. The power of Tony and Carmela's kitchen
face-offs is just as cumulative and melodramatic as the offs and ons of Bo
and Hope on "Days of Our Lives." And "Six Feet Under" could be "The Dead and
the Restless," as the clan at the Fisher & Sons funeral home make up and
break up amid reminders of their mortality. Forget about "Who Shot J.R.?"
What happened to Lisa?
Along with "Nip/Tuck" and its diva doctors, "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet
Under" are psych operas. In the less artsy homo-novelas category, which has
been championed by Showtime, we find "The L Word," which finishes its first
season on Sunday, and "Queer as Folk," which returns on April 18. Both of
these gay-oriented series rely on the soap-opera convention of turning on a
family axis, but their featured families are families of friends. On
"Dallas" we had the Ewings, and on "The O.C." we have the Cohens; on "The L
Word" and "Queer as Folk" we have an extended family of choice that exhibits
all the dynamic tensions, grudges, and loyalties of blood relations.
The homo-novelas rely on timeworn plot twists of adultery and workplace
predicaments, but they're also quite cutting-edge, as their gay and lesbian
characters struggle with ordinary human pathologies and issues -- and not
with being gay. These shows are not as artfully written as "The Sopranos,"
"Six Feet Under," and "Nip/Tuck," but they create engaging and elaborate
worlds of their own. During its three seasons so far, "Queer as Folk" has
been notably successful in building a family of best friends, ex-lovers, and
gay parents with Sharon Gless's Debbie as its fierce matriarch.
The popularity of TV stories that extend across the years goes against the
common thinking of our day. On a purely business level, TV outlets tend to
prefer series built on self-contained episodes, since they repeat well. The
franchising of prime time, with the "Law & Order" and "CSI" shows, is a
symptom of that preference.
And American culture is famous for its ever-decreasing attention span. We're
not supposed to be patient enough anymore to track the details of a saga
from episode to episode, year to year. And yet even our most popular sitcom,
"Friends," weaves soap-opera elements into its fabric, as fans loyally
follow Ross and Rachel's romantic cycling's and Monica and Chandler's
struggle to become parents. Many of our action-genre shows, too, require
devoted viewing, as both "Alias" and "24" unfold their
family-and-world-in-crisis tales slowly and intricately. The power of
storytelling, it turns out, is undiminished -- and perhaps even greater --
in the face of "My Big Fat Obnoxious FiancÚ."