Monday, December 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: SOAP

(or "Confused? You Won't Be, After This Week's Column")

When it comes to needing a storytelling engine, there's nobody quite in the same position as a soap opera. I've talked in the past about the volume of stories needed for a monthly comic or a weekly TV show or a series of movies, and how a good storytelling engine can help provide ideas to a writer who desperately needs them (because deadlines don't wait for inspiration)...but a soap opera puts all of them to shame. Sixty minutes a day, every day, every week, every year for decades. (There are some soap operas that actually predate television.) Even granted that most soap operas will stretch out a plotline over multiple episodes to keep people tuning in tomorrow, that's a heck of a lot of ideas.

When you realize that, it's not too surprising that soap operas get so bizarre, so quick. Evil twins? Alien abductions? Affairs, cults, returns from the dead, ghosts and hypnosis and amnesia and murders? Some soap operas have all of the above in one episode. The soap opera is the storytelling equivalent of mulligan stew, where everything and anything that can be used will be used.

And it's that approach that forms the basis for the series "SOAP", which ran for four seasons in the late 70s/early 80s. It's kind of difficult to call it a parody, since parodies are generally over-the-top versions of the source material, and it's frankly impossible to be more over-the-top than a typical soap opera. Let's call it a soap opera with jokes. But whatever you call it, "SOAP" tried to consciously emulate the chaotic, borderline absurd atmosphere that soap operas have adopted more or less out of necessity. They crammed as many soap opera standards into the opening set-up as they could (a rich family, a poor family, marital infidelity, impotence, mob connections, and a gay son, although "SOAP" decided to be more open about that one than any of the soap operas that preceded it...which means that "SOAP" actually gave soap opera writers a whole new area to be convoluted in. Wow.)

Then it was just a case of grabbing whatever soap opera tropes came to mind and slotting them in as fast as the plot would allow. Demonic possession? Got it. Amnesia? Got it. Alien abductions? Got it. Long lost secret sons and missing mothers? Got it. Characters having affairs with convicts on the run from the law while on the rebound from their affair with a married congressman? Got it. Distilling the forty years of traditional soap opera plotlines into a single half-hour weekly series gave the writers of "SOAP" more to do than they could ever fit into four years of their series, which may be why "SOAP" ends on a cliff-hanger. (Or it may just be time-honored tradition; a good soap opera never wraps everything up. You have to end it on a shocker to keep people coming back.)

The particular storytelling engine of "SOAP" gave its writers two key advantages when coming up with stories; one, they were working with source material that had already churned out loads of potential storylines to parody, and two, they were working in a genre that held, as one of its genre conventions, that no plot twist was ever too unbelievable to be used. These two things combined meant that "SOAP" just needed to keep delivering the jokes, because the writers never had to worry about their characters (a man who talks to his ventriloquist's dummy?) or their storylines (Jessica falls in love with a South American revolutionary?) becoming too implausible to fit. It was a godsend for any comedy writer.

But the truly important thing about "SOAP", and by extension about soap operas, storytelling engines, and indeed writing in general, is--


Mory said...


Anonymous said...

Did you know that they took Perry Mason out of the Perry Mason radio show and turned it into the soap opera Edge of Night? That became a popular radio soap and eventually moved to TV.

Anonymous said...

forgive the inner geek and SOAP fan completist for posting this :

basic concept of the series + tone =
A parody (not a satire but a parody -- they're not the same thing at all!) of American daytime soap operas, one which revels in the absurdities of soap opera reality rather than treating the reality as serious and downplaying its more absurd extensions.

Much of the humor comes from treating in the compressed style of a weekly sitcom plot those developments that are occur in the decompressed style of a daily soap opera, so that a development which might not seem odd as it slowly takes place over several months in a daily soap opera now comes across as bizarre because it takes place over three half-hour episodes.

SOAP has not aged well because most soap operas have actually come to resemble its celebratory embrace of absudity (such as Passions, with its witch characters, and General Hospital, with its secret agent and world conquest storylines) and because what was brilliantly daring in the 1980s is dully commonplace in the 2000s (for example, there is nothing particularly courageous or remarkable about having a gay regular character in a series).

The series justifies most of its characters falling for the obvious by giving them feet-of-clay character flaws which blind them to what less self-deluding characters would notice.

main character, with his motivations and backstory =
Jessica : whose loopy good heart endear her to the audience even as her undeveloped mind rationalizes for the audience why she falls for soap opera plots that she should have seen coming. She's the one whose family is characterized by lust. Her naivete achieves heroic levels when she takes on a demon over its possession of her grandchild and wins through simple love, sincerity, and innocence.

Mary : whose resolutely practical nature refuses to let her acknowledge the madness going on around her and therefore causes her to repeatedly fall victim to it (not a condemnation of sensibility but a condemnation of bourgeois self-blinding). She's the one whose family is characterized by mental instability. However, her tough nature enables her to avoid the sturm und drang of the rest of her family, so she is usually the one to cheer up the others when they become emotionally overwhelmed.

the supporting cast : a daughter blinded by lust and rebellion; a daughter blinded by lust and pretention; a husband blinded by lust and greed; a wanna-be gangster son blinded by a subpar intelligence; a ventriloquist step-son blinded by his multiple personalities condition ; a husband blinded by mental instability

also, a son who can usually tell what is going on but no one listens to him because he's barely high school age (being “the sane man” eventully drives him into joining a cult); a butler who can usually tell what is going on but no one listens to him because he's staff (being “the sane man” eventually drives him into leaving for a government job in another series); and a son who can usually tell what is going on but no one listens to him because he's gay and they haven't yet gotten past their homophobia (being “the sane man” eventually drives him into toxic love affairs in an effort to find another “sane man”)

the setting=
Dun's River, Connecticutt, as generic a soap opera setting as possible with whatever the plot needs at the time, including both organized crime and a Wild West sheriff's office

the antagonists=
each other?

Anonymous said...

"It's kind of difficult to call it a parody, since parodies are generally over-the-top versions of the source material"

However, there are also parodies which revel in the absurdity of their subject when the subject itself often downplays its absurdities or tries to cover them up with gravitas and sobriety.

In that sense, yes, SOAP is a parody.

And a lampoon of social mores of the time as well, though not a lampoon of soap operas.