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Thursday, April 20, 2023

April 20, 2023: Soap Opera Studying: Parodies

[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 what a few pitch-perfect parodies can add to the conversation.

1)      Soap (1977-81): One way to be sure that a genre has really entered the cultural zeitgeist is when parodies start to emerge, and for soap operas that seems to have particularly happened with TV parodies in the late 1970s, including both the short-lived Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77) and the far more successful Soap. Soap undoubtedly satirized the most extreme elements of the genre, including such plot elements as alien abduction, amnesia, demonic possession, mafia murders, and plenty more. But what made the show genuinely controversial (at least with the Catholic Church and various parent groups), and what has likewise helped it end up on various Best-of TV lists over the years, were its groundbreaking portrayals of identity and social issues like homosexuality. Soap operas have long balanced familiar formulas with envelope-pushing choices, and this satirical soap was very much a case in point.

2)      Soapdish (1991) and Delirious (1991): One of the first films to send up the genre was Tootsie (1982), about which I wrote in that hyperlinked post. But in that film soap operas were part of the setting and context for the main story, while in this pair of 1991 films soaps were the primary subject. They did so through two very distinct kinds of stories: Soapdish is a realistic depiction of life, career, relationships for a group of actors working on a hit soap opera (led by Sally Field but supported by an all-star cast); while Delirious is a fantasy film in which a soap opera writer (played by John Candy) awakens from a car accident to find himself inside the world of his show. But both films are aiming for laughs, and so both, like Tootsie, play up and exaggerate the most outrageous kinds of soap opera stories. There’s nothing wrong with that goal (it’s a primary one for parodies, after all), but it can miss out on the kinds of cultural and social innovations that Soap knew could be part of the genre as well.

3)      Tender Touches (2017-20): It seems to me that the 1980s and 90s were in many ways the heyday of the soap opera genre, including not only daytime soaps but also the popular primetime ones about which I’ll write in tomorrow’s Spelling Birthday Special post. Over the first decades of the 21st century I believe the genre has lost a great deal of its prominence (just too many ways to entertain ourselves, maybe, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon), but that shift has also opened up new territory for parodies and satires to take the genre itself in different directions. One of the most innovative is the Adult Swim animated series Tender Touches, a boundary-pushing satire that featured (among other striking choices) both a regular and a musical version of every episode across its first two seasons. Another feature of the 21st century is that the line between satires and the things being satirized have become increasingly blurry, and so perhaps it’s simplest to say that Tender Touches is one of the only new soap operas to emerge over the last decade.

Last soap-post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other soap opera contexts or stories you’d share?

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