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:: N I G H T T I M E  T V  A W A S H  I N  Q U A L I T Y  S O A P S ::
By Matthew Gilbert
The Boston Globe
April 8, 2004

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 sophisticated viewer.

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."



The L Word Online has been designed by Oz and Slicey.  Unique images designed by Oz.  Site maintained by Oz & Slicey.  This website is intended to be fun and informative, and was created with respect to show appreciation for the women and men involved in the creation of TV's first real lesbian drama.  This site is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with Showtime Networks Inc., the television series "The L Word," or any person involved in the making of the show.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Images and other borrowed content are copyright their respective owners.  Credit is given where due.  All original content is the sole property of  the creators of The L Word Online copyright October 2003.