The Dying of the Light
Fear not, serial fans. The format existed before soap operas and isn't going anywhere.
By Stefany Anne Golberg
Rumor has it we’ve tired of trash. That people who watch soap operas — women between 18 and 49, married, at all levels of income — have become more sophisticated and are therefore less interested in melodramatic plot lines that revolve around tawdry love affairs and characters who disappear and reappear with little explanation. The soap opera is dying, some say, because court, talk, and game shows are cheaper to make; you can also syndicate and rerun these shows, which makes them even more profitable. The soap opera is dying because the influx of Spanish-speakers in America prefer Spanish-language telenovelas. So it makes sense that CBS has canceled Guiding Light, 72 years into its run; the last episode airs in September. And the bell surely tolls for others — All My Children, As the World Turns, General Hospital. The day of the soap is done.
Guiding Light first aired as a radio serial in 1937, produced then (as it is today) by Proctor & Gamble as a vehicle to sell soap to woman at home. The show’s creator, Irna Philips, could have little imagined she was creating a story that would run for four generations. Guiding Light was a pioneer of the soap opera, a genus of the serial form. Following its transition to television in 1952, Guiding Light centered on the Bauers, an immigrant, working-class German family. Its patriarch — shrewd, old-world Friedrich “Papa” Bauer — was great-grandfather to today’s only remaining Bauer, Dr. Frederick "Rick" Bauer, M.D., whose character was born on the show in 1970. Anyone watching Rick Bauer for the last 40 years has seen him through the six divorces, the drug addiction, the breaking and entering, the multiple kidnappings, the grave-robbing, the medical malpractice.
The plots of soap operas are not only melodramatic; unlike any other kind of serial, they are written with no end in sight. This engages the viewer in an experience in which the pace startlingly mimics that of reality and plot itself is incidental. Like life, once a soap starts you’re along for the ride, never knowing how or when it will end. You focus on the characters’ daily affairs and less on the overall story. Soap opera characters act in real time — day by day by day, just as you and I do — but theirs are infinite, fantastic lives. To quote Guiding Light’s “Gus Aitoro,” “Everything's easy for me. Although next year might be a problem because I was legally dead, partially, briefly.” It’s no wonder soap operas have been so loved by women who stay home all day. The incremental timing of the narrative mimics daily life, even if the events don’t. There’s an immediacy to all the melodrama. (This might be the reason why there were so many protests when networks tried to replace the ugly rawness of standard video with the gloss of high-def). And while the content of the narrative sounds outrageous when summarized, it doesn’t feel as strange when you’re watching it unfold over time. Maybe you haven’t yet been divorced six times, but try to write the story of your life in three paragraphs and I promise you will be shocked at the theater of it all.
In structure, soaps are far different from a show like C.S.I. The latter is self-contained, complete. The plots are generally simple and focused. It doesn't matter much whether you watch the episodes in sequence, and the characters’ development tends to be static. Serials, however, are different. Each episode concludes with loose ends, teases that lead you along. As the plots unravel, the characters become more complicated. You watch what the characters on Law & Order do, but you don’t grow with them. With serials like soaps, you learn characters’ dark secrets, watch them slowly fall in love. And out of love. And into love again. The way serials involve you completely in their logic is not just engaging — it’s magical.
The danger with serials, of course, is that you can’t look away. Miss a few episodes of a soap and you've lost the thread completely. It becomes a cycle — the more you miss the less interesting subsequent episodes are.
Enter the telenovela. Telenovelas are serials, like soaps, but with one big difference: They end. Telenovelas usually run five or six days a week in prime time for an average of six months. The contemporary version is a product of Latin America, but it’s become an international phenomenon. In fact, with over two billion viewers, it is the biggest television genre in the world right now. (The United States isn’t the only country to appropriate Betty la Fea, aka Ugly Betty in story if not in structure — it runs once a week for less than half the year, and will end when its ratings, and not its writers, say so. There’s Chère Betty in Canada, Estonia’s Inetu Betty, India’s darling Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin…). The constrained telenovela has recreated the ratings dominance the sprawling soap opera had in post-war America, when the 10 highest-rated daytime radio programs were soaps.
Telenovelas take plot even less seriously than soap operas do. They are fairly formulaic: an unlikely hero or heroine — poor or an outcast, with a dark past or none at all — becomes involved in a challenging romance that finally works out. The stock plots, limited timespan, and near-daily airing are key to the format's success. You know when you start watching that Juan will end up with Graciella, but you don’t know exactly how they’ll get there. Patricio Wills put it best in an article for Multichannel News called “Plot Twists for Genre”: “The plot is always the same….A telenovela is all about a couple who wants to kiss and a scriptwriter who stands in their way for 150 episodes.”
That scriptwriter becomes the captain of a trip, driving viewers forward with the promise of a kiss. The Spanish call telenovelas culebrón, which means “long snake.” Telenovelas wind and slither. They dodge and sneak and move sideways so that by the time you get to the end you already knew was coming, you are nonetheless satisfied by the journey.
Telenovelas and soap operas may have different futures, but they share a common past. They are descendants of the popular serial fiction of 19th- and early-20th century American and European periodicals. Many of Europe’s Great Works began as piecemeal vignettes wedged between advice columns and recipes for Bath buns — Vanity Fair, Lord Jim, Ulysses, Eugene Onegin, and most of Charles Dickens’ and Henry James’ novels began as serials. The roman-feuilletons of France gave us The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mysteries of Paris, The Phantom of the Opera. Without them, the scatterbrained Balzac may never have published at all.
These were the classy rags, but you also had the ubiquitous “story papers.” Cheap, disposable, and aimed at the working classes, they have almost completely disappeared into publishing memory. But not so long ago, story papers ruled. Alley boys would pass around “penny dreadfuls” with respectable names like The People's Periodical and Family Library, The Family Friend, and The Family Treasury of Sunday Reading, eager to discover the freshest victims of Sweeney Todd or Varney the Vampire. You could also find “sentimental” or “women’s” fiction — serials written primarily by and for women — which included everything from dime novel trash to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Serialized fiction in the 19th century did have its drawbacks. It took hours or days of typesetting and long boat trips just to get the next bit of story. Long before people asked, “Who shot JR?, they could agonize for weeks waiting to know “Is Little Nell dead?” Writers needed something to keep readers involved between installments, which is why we have the cliffhanger.
The cliffhanger is an essential facet of the art, with each chapter ending not in completion but anticipation:
“Come in, don’t be frightened. Papa won’t do you any harm.”
or, “’Gad, I’ll pop the question at Vauxhall.”
or, “He stood transfixed for a moment; then, leaping from the window into the garden, called loudly for help.”
The cliffhanger isn’t just a neat literary device that marks the end of a chapter — it affects the whole structure of the chapter, directs the writing, and shapes a character’s development the way a character develops. It also affects the way a reader experiences the entire story in time.
That experience matters. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines the novel as “a short story padded:”
As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced…Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone on before.
Bierce was trying to be funny, of course. But this definition of the novel — and the funky, fractured way it tries to achieve completeness — perfectly explains why serials continue to be so popular (even though the daytime soap opera is not), and why the serial is still television’s most successful form. People like drawn-out narratives that arrive in pieces with cliffhanger endings. They’re absorbing and give more to their viewers than a show like, say, Murder, She Wrote.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that almost everything on television these days is a serial. The trend has been growing since the 1980s. Then, the soap found prime-time success in over-the-top shows like Dallas and Dynasty and Falcon Crest and Knot’s Landing, which in the ’90s begat the tawdry Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place and Dawson's Creek. Today we have Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl. Even some reality shows — those that follow the same people week after week, like American Idol and Survivor and The Biggest Loser — have a similar draw. “Who will be the fattest next week?” You must know.
I’ll admit these more recent serial shows are supremely entertaining. Formally, though, the serials produced on cable in the past decade are leading the form to an exciting terra incognita. It began with The Sopranos and continued with programs like Deadwood and the pulpier Weeds, Dexter, and True Blood. They were the inspiration for network shows such as Lost and Heroes, and basic cable fare like AMC’s Mad Men. Far from being deceased, the televised serial is bustling into a Golden Age with the New Serial.
What distinguishes the New Serials is their relative indifference to completeness. When one storyline opens up, five others blossom around it. They snake from episode to episode without resolution. Unlike telenovelas, kisses don’t solve anything, but just cause more confusion. The New Serials are all about middles. They generate an almost constant sense of anticipation, and never give you a satisfying finish. They are pure cliffhanger. A show like The Wire mesmerizes the entire way through, tricking you into thinking you’ll get answers if you just keep watching. Of course in the final episode, all you get are more questions.
All serials ask that you watch or read them from beginning to end. But because each episode is so complex, the New Serials demand it. Trying to watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica from the middle of the third season was mindboggling. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. And I was aware at every moment that the writers simply didn’t care whether I got it or got lost. They were writing for the viewer already enmeshed in the story. Watching the series Deadwood mid-season is like watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Yet when you begin methodically from the first episode, watching each in order, the veil is lifted, and inside the fog of Shakespearean profanity and endless whiskey consumption is a brilliant narrative that’s still very accessible.
With the advent of On-Demand viewing like Netflix and Hulu, one is able to watch serials from start to finish without missing a moment. What’s totally different than the video rentals of yore is that you can also watch many episodes in quick succession, just like reading the chapters of a book. In a way, you’re having your cake and eating it, too. Each episode is a complete story and also adds to a greater narrative. I don’t know if it achieves totality of effect the way Bierce would have liked, but it comes pretty close. TV serials now give you the never-ending yet true-to-real-life experience of the soap opera with the satisfaction of the telenovela’s completeness. Combined with damn fine writing, you’ve got an experience worthy of a novel. • 24 July 2009
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photograph from Getty Images.