Invasion Of The Series Snatchers: How Soaps Adapted, Assimilated, and Succeeded

A friend of the family is a locations scout for television shot in New York. He has worked on Law And Order and a couple of the more recent ABC dramas to be cancelled. That’s the life of the scout, he readily admits. It is a career that’s only as stable as the audience that accepts (or rejects) the series. His most recent work had been for a show about the rich and nasty, and he lamented that the show didn’t get nasty enough. Cable has upped the ante for over-air broadcast productions, and there are just too many things they simply cannot do without drawing fire from the FCC. That, however, wasn’t the central theme of why he was agitated by the show. He said that the network complained that there wasn’t enough of a romantic element.

Well, that was the point of the show, he said. These are spoiled, horrible characters. They use sex as power tools, not out of love or even soft lust. But the series went under, with the internal epitaph that even in a program designed to drip with foamy, rancid schadenfreude, you still need some saints in love. That got me to thinking.

Soaps.net recently relaunched some of the daytime soap operas ABC axed. The network felt that a block of infotainment would work better (which is probably code for: much cheaper to produce). Whatever, say I. I’m still of the mind that whoever the genius was that said, “We have a show called The View. Let’s have a show about food called The Chew!” should have half their pay cut. But did people get so bored of characters’ dalliances, proclivities, and bedroom peccadilloes that this was the driving purpose behind all these networks taking soaps off the air?

Hardly. In my opinion, it wasn’t that the interest had died out as much as it was that there were too darn many soaps on in prime time for the daytimers to compete. The days of the nighttime soaps per-se are over. Although Dallas returned on TNT, its resurrection did not enable the returns of Dynasty, Knotts Landing, etc. The CW took a gamble with bringing Fox soaps 90210 and Melrose Place back to life, but neither did the kind of business their Vampire Diaries did, and that is my point in a nutshell. Almost everything that survives well on broadcast TV lately is based on the soap opera model. Vampire Diaries is a supernatural soap. How I Met Your Mother, while being a sitcom, is very much a soap opera, with the hook-ups, break-ups, deaths, and births all intact. Bones is about a super-techno forensics group, but is known better for the sexual tension and eventual barrier-breakdown between Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). Gray’s Anatomy = doctors in love and lust. Heck, if a soap is about the making and breaking of alliances, then throw Survivor and Big Brother in for good measure.

Will they/won’t they has been a TV trope for as long as scripted TV has existed, but there is a growing trend that finds that aspect dominating the narrative. Going back to Bones, the relationship between Bones and Booth was always going to happen. It was a baked-in inevitability. A predecessor, The X-Files, had Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) consummating much later, and therefore the show had a longer span of time being a supernatural thriller first, then about the love story. But as these things go, because the relationship was tangential when the series veered headlong in that direction, the audience started drifting away. Fox’s harder-edged later supernatural show Fringe valiantly fought the love war and wound up never getting more than a small cult of extremely loyal viewers.

The bald-faced co-opting of the soap opera angle into a profoundly different milieu is best remembered in the 1980s series Moonlighting which was a detective show (a very popular genre of the period), a drama part of the time, a comedy most of the time, and was a soap from day one. Will Dave (Bruce Willis) and Maddie (Cybil Shepherd) hook up? Of course they will, and show creator Glenn Gordon Caron likely knew that from the start. What he didn’t know was where it would go after that. (The answer was “downhill.”)

But to get back to the main point, if you find yourself watching a program now, you’ll find not one, but many romantic options placed in front of multiple characters so that suicidal monogamy doesn’t do it in. You will find this in fantasy dramas, sci-fi dramas, horror shows, and almost any programming subspecies you can flick off the top of your head. In the long run, the soaps never died; they adapted, they assimilated, and they became the difference in what causes a show to succeed.