[April 22nd will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the king of primetime soap operas, Aaron Spelling. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Spelling and other soap opera contexts, leading up to a crowd-sourced cliffhanger of a weekend post! So share your soapy responses and thoughts, you evil twins you!]
On a fine line that primetime soaps have to walk, and how the genre’s king perfected it.
As I hope this week’s series has illustrated, there are various elements which help define the cultural genre known as the daytime soap opera. But high on the list is a particularly unique and complex characteristic, a trait that is shared by just one other genre that I can think of, the syndicated daily comic strip: works in both these genres have to be created in such a way that each individual episode/strip tells some sort of story, has its own beginning and endpoint; and yet their creators recognize that audiences will often dip in and out, return to the work after some time away and expect the familiar things they’ve come to (hopefully) love, and so not a lot can ultimately change across those multiple episodes/strips. With the one exception of actors leaving soap operas and thus their characters needing more of a definitive end (unless they’re just going to be recast, as frequently happens and as proves this point with particular clarity), daytime soaps feature seemingly huge events that quite often don’t end up changing a thing about the characters, relationships, overall dynamics, and so on.
There’s good reason for that: daytime soaps are designed to air every day and to stay on the air for as long as possible, with the four longest-running all having long since surpassed fifty seasons! That’s obviously quite different from primetime TV dramas, most of which not only have a much shorter lifespan, but the creators of which also don’t necessarily know whether they’ll be renewed, and so need to tell distinct and definite stories in their individual seasons. So what happens when these two distinct and even contrasting TV genres come together, as they do in the form of the primetime soap? The result is often a pretty delicate balancing act, shows that feature season-long storylines a la the best dramas, yet that are designed with some of the same layers of repetition and stasis that we find in daytime soaps. When that balance goes awry, it can be quite frustrating for audiences, as illustrated by one of the most famously controversial TV plotlines/gimmicks of all time: the long-running primetime soap Dallas (1978-91) ending its third season on the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger and spending the entire offseason hyping up that question, only to reveal the culprit relatively early in the fourth season and with no significant consequence (J.R. lived, no charges were pressed, basically everything went on as if there had been no shooting).
That fourth-season Dallas episode drew one of the largest TV audiences to that point (and remains in the conversation overall), so maybe the gimmick was a success. But I would argue that it’s the creator and executive producer of many of the other most famous primetime soaps, today’s birthday boy Aaron Spelling, who really figured out how to walk that particular genre’s fine line. Across countless mega-popular shows, from The Love Boat (1977-86) and Dynasty (1981-89) to Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and teenage Ben’s personal favorite Melrose Place (1992-1999; what can I say, like America itself I am large and contain multitudes), among many many others, Spelling brought the repetitive and thus pleasantly familiar rhythms of soap operas to the explosive plotlines and seasons of nighttime dramas. A show like Melrose Place aired 226 total episodes in its seven seasons, which is not that far off from the number of episodes a daytime soap might air in a single year. A great deal happened and changed across those 226 episodes—and yet viewers could nonetheless tune in to pretty much any single one of those episodes and see Heather Locklear’s Amanda acting in precisely the high-powered, back-stabbing, irresistible ways she always did. Few American artists have achieved greater success in their chosen genre and medium than did the king of such tightrope-walking primetime soaps, Aaron Spelling.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So once more: what do you think? Other soap opera contexts or stories you’d share?