Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Soaps Deserve More Respect

Time Magazine
Naturally if anyone wants to be taken seriously today the last thing she’d claim is a love of soap operas. Even in this day and age, when TV critics and fans are praising their favorite cable drama as Dickensian (an adjective based around that most melodramatic of English writers), soaps, which are arguably the missing link between Dickens and cable TV, continue to be the red-headed stepchildren of pop culture. They’re a dying breed (only four air now on broadcast networks; All My Children and One Life to Live, cancelled only a few years ago, have now been reborn as webisodes on Hulu and iTunes), but the style they helped develop––serialization––is more popular than ever. 
Dating back to the 1960s since the premiere of the night time soap Peyton’s Place, prime time serials have always had a niche on TV. Throughout the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s programs like Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty, and David Lynch’s whacked out take on the genre, Twin Peaks (which itself hails roots from the daytime serial Dark Shadows) followed in the footsteps of their daytime counterparts. But starting in the 1980s, hour-long dramas and sitcoms as diverse as Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Wise Guy, The X-Files, and Homicide: Life on the Street began utilizing aspects of serialization in their storytelling arcs, greatly expanding the definitions of episodic television. Yet serialized dramas didn’t really take off until HBO began airing original programming during its Sunday night schedule. Shows like Oz and The Sopranos helped change the face of night time television, proving that audiences could embrace complex narratives about anti-heroic characters (though ironically the first anti-hero[ine] that audiences really embraced was As the World Turns’ Lisa Hughes Grimaldi, a character so loved to be hated that a fan once slapped actress Eileen Fulton as she walked out of a Manhattan department store). After the critical and commercial success of The Sopranos, HBO ordered more serialized dramas like The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Luck and others. While the subject matter of HBO’s dramas are as disparate from one another as they are from soaps (with the possible exception of Big Love, which would truly have made an arresting daytime sudser with its tales of marital bed hopping and corporate and familial intrigues), their glacial-moving plot lines and multiple character story arcs are a direct influence from soaps.
Other cable and broadcast networks followed HBO’s lead with shows like Mad Men, Homeland, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead (based on the graphic novel, a medium that has a lot in common with soaps), and Breaking Bad. But this isn’t an example of HBO influencing a genre as it is of the cable network’s borrowing from daytime and successfully broadening its critical appeal.
Yet while cable has brought respectability to serialization, the actual serials which developed the genre from the 1930s to the present, gets, like Rodney Dangerfield, no respect at all. Does it have to do with the stories---the multiple marriages, outlandish plots, the melodrama? Perhaps. But unlike most television dramas, soaps allowed a space for women’s stories to flourish. Even today, on cable dramas like Mad Men, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, where women characters are as complex as their male counterparts, the conflicts are still largely male-centered and -oriented. Not so on daytime where women and their issues were front and center. Soaps addressed the problems women faced in the latter half of the twentieth century with far more finesse and detail. Stories that dealt with love and sex, the position women faced in choosing between work and family, their ambitions, fears, and joys were the grist of many a soap story in the 1970s and 1980s. And while soaps can be accused rightfully at times of slipping in quality (soaps churn out five episodes a day for fifty-two weeks a year as compared to cable dramas’ thirteen-week yearly cycle), I can honestly say that in all the years I’ve watched them and seen their highs and lows, they’ve produced quality programming that were equal, even––dare I say it?––superior to night time dramas.
I’m not interested in dredging up the usual arguments of soaps’ artistic quality by how they have tackled social oriented stories. While true (even when night time television avoided them, soaps dared to bring up topics like rape, STDs, drug abuse, abortion, etc.), I’m less interested in that than I am in looking at how soaps deserve credit for their role in expanding television’s artistic growth. I will concede that currently soaps have surrendered to self-parody and irrelevance, but that does not diminish their historical and artistic value. 

Guiding Light, CBS, Proctor & Gamble 
In the 1970s soaps were as inspired by changing tastes as much of popular culture. Like film, daytime became grittier, more character-oriented. Soaps, like the now defunct Guiding Light, told compelling, tightly-drawn dramas around the rot that can build up in dysfunctional marriages. Few of these stories were equal to the Roger and Holly Thorpe saga.
In the winter of 1979, Roger Thorpe raped his wife Holly. The story which led to this tragic set of events is, like most soap stories, elaborately woven. Teenaged Holly Norris was obsessed with Roger Thorpe, the show’s resident anti-hero, but he had designs on other women, namely Peggy Scott, who would become his wife. Holly instead married good guy Ed Bauer, trusted doctor and son of the town’s most respected family, but Holly couldn’t put Roger entirely out of her mind. The two had an affair which resulted in the birth of their daughter, Christina, whom Holly passed off for a short time as Ed’s. When the truth of Christina’s paternity came to light, Ed divorced Holly and Holly married Roger. But their’s was not a happy union. Roger’s insecurity, in both his place in Springfield and in his marriage, led him down a treacherous path which included an affair with Ed’s kid sister and another rape, also involving Ed’s new wife, with whom Roger had shared a past. The walls began to close in on Roger as Holly, fed up with his infidelities, prepared to take their daughter and leave.

The rape scene is difficult to watch. Unlike a similar rape on General Hospital involving Luke and Laura, which the show’s writers would later revise as a seduction when the actors’ on-screen chemistry proved too hot to ignore (they’d revise it again as rape years later), Guiding Light left no doubt that what occurred between husband and wife was a horrific violation. The scene begins with Roger arriving home just as Holly was about to leave him. Surmising the situation, Roger prevents her from leaving, taking her suitcase from her and throwing it across the room, then physically threatening her as she tries to get away. The scene ends with Roger assaulting Holly. The shot lingers only long enough to show him pinning her down on the bed while she pleaded for him to stop before the scene fades.

Two things come to mind whenever I watch this scene on YouTube. First, the acting between actors Michael Zaslow and Maureen Garrett was superb. As Holly, Garrett was confident and assertive, determined to take control of her life, but as the threat of violence asserted itself, her confidence withered away until she was reduced to a frightened child. Throughout the scene, Garrett moved back and forth between both dichotomies. As she desperately attempted to reason with Roger, she lowered her voice and spoke in a slow, deliberate manner. But after Roger slapped her and threw her down on the couch, her demeanor changed. Her body stiffens and appears to fold inward as though she is anticipating more blows and her voice becomes a high-pitched whine as she begs Roger to leave her alone. The scene is all the more compelling and difficult to watch because we are watching more than just Holly’s physical violation but a spiritual and psychological one as well. Rarely, has rape ever been portrayed in a painfully truthful way. 

Zaslow, likewise, did a terrific job. His Roger Thorpe was more than a one-note monster. While his behavior was monstrous, he was also a damaged soul, a man whose ambitions and talents could never match the societal constrictions that denied him personal and professional success. As Roger berates his wife and callously asks her to compare him to his nemesis Ed Bauer in bed---“You probably wouldn’t be in such a hurry to cut out from him like you’re cutting out from my miserable life”---he comes across less as a two-dimensional villain and more of a man who knows he has reached the point of no return. His ambitions and insecurities have created a fatal mix that crushed whatever good was in him. Zaslow’s masterful performance makes it easy to sympathize with Roger. At one point, he’s barely able to get his lines out, his voice breathless and huffy. Whether this was done by design or because Zaslow himself got caught up in the scene, I can’t tell, but it does lend Roger a poignant vulnerability on the level of a tragic, Shakespearean character. Because of Zaslow, Roger became a character fans both hated and pitied.

Roger and Holly Thorpe
The production values are impressive too. Videography, by 1970s standards, were fairly minimal, with camera angles limited to close-ups and master-shots. But the rape scene set new standards for daytime. A hand-held was used for some of the scenes, the first ever for soaps, and was utilized in such a way that allowed viewers to not only step into the scene but into Holly’s point of view. In one shot, where Roger slapped his chest and asked Holly why she never looks at him the same way she looks at Ed, the audio was somewhat distorted, the image softened, disrupting the fluidity of the unobtrusive set-ups. It’s disorienting and almost surreal, capturing the surge of adrenaline people often experience during violence. Along with the score, which is both menacing and understated, the scene puts viewers in a frightening and uncompromising position, pretty daring for daytime TV. Women watching this at home didn’t have to imagine their worst fear (if they had not already gone through it before) but were experiencing it vicariously through Holly.

The scene made such a huge impact that by the time Holly had Roger charged for marital rape, another first in television history, Garrett received tons of fan mail in support. 

The rape story line was before I started watching the series, but when both Garrett and Zaslow returned to the show ten years later, their strange, neurotic and tragically painful relationship became one of my favorite story lines. While the show’s gender politics was questionable at times (the writers danced around a romantic relationship that didn’t really exist the first time around), there was no denying the chemistry of both actors and their ability to breathe life into some of the most complex characters to ever hit television.
Soap operas are by no means perfect and, at times, have told stories that are questionable when it comes to gender, race, and class. They’ve had their fare share of stinkers, both story- and acting-wise. And yet, there were times, more than I can relate here, in which they were delightfully subversive, broke the rules and reset them again, and reached for moments of transcendence that television would not fully embrace until both primetime and cable began churning out more challenging fare. And, while most contemporary viewers and critics turn their noses up at a medium that is sadly going the way of TV westerns, shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad owe a great deal of debt to the daytime serials of the past.  

1 comment:

  1. it's always troubling for me to have to write or say this to others, as much I did continue watching "Guiding Light" after the rape, which aired while I was in high school and gave a lot of us fans of GL a lot more to talk about then what aired on "General Hospital" at that time -- plus it was great writing out of the writing married couple Jerome & Bridget Dobson (at least at times, I watched nearly all the way through 1982 -- leaving off sometime in October, shortly after Doug Marland's writing ended and then I picked up again in the fall of 1983, except for Nola and Quint's wedding in June 1983, until the fall of 1984, and then didn't watch again until the fall of 1988 to fall 1998, and then in fall 2001 - spring 2003) -- I would have to say the marital rape of Holly by Roger not only defined that couple for years to come (as written and aired in November 1990 episode, after Roger's return from the dead in May 1989) it also defined the life of this show. The writing and acting and directing, etc., was so great at the time of the rape and until October 1982 between the Dobsons and Marland it was difficult for this show, for some reason, to get back to that. The only time GL even came close to that in all three of those categories plus, was part of Pam Long's time of being head writer (mainly sometime in the fall of 1983 to September 1984 -- when she let Hillary Bauer get killed off, which was a major blow to the show's heart) and the writing regimes (which included Pam Long for a while) from the December 1988 (after that year's writer's strike) to January 1993 when the then writing and production teams let Maureen Reardon Bauer get killed off (yet, another blow to that show.)