Friday, July 22, 2011

CAN BASIC CABLE SAVE SOAP OPERAS?

Next summer, TNT will be bringing back the iconic TV show "Dallas," as a regular series for the first time in twenty years, and with members of the original cast, including Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing, Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, J.R. brother, and Linda Gray as SueEllen Ewing, J.R.'s wife. To those who might be too young to know, "Dallas," was the first primetime soap opera, the first TV drama that had a continuous storyline structure, similar to the way soap operas work. When I was young, the big primetime soap operas were "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place," and "Party of Five". (Neither of which, I ever lasted an entire episode of.) Today, while two of those show have, to my disbelief, been brought back to TV, I would say the best example of a modern primetime soap is "Desperate Housewives," which is a parody of the genre (Not the first, that belongs to the great sitcom "Soap.") and it's basic plot about families that all live on the same little cul-de-sac street, is blatantly borrowed from the longest-running of the primetime soaps, "Knots Landing". (Which was actually a loose spin-off of the "Dallas") And while I do have grave reservations about the reboot of "Dallas," I actually am looking forward to it. To those who know me, might be surprised to know that I am a fan of "Dallas;" it certainly doesn't fit in to my normal typical viewing choices, and also being a Philadelphia Eagles fan, it's unusual for me to even say the word "Dallas," without it being preceded and followed by about half a dozen 4,6,7, and 12-letter words you'd usually find in the most famous of George Carlin routines. But I am a huge fan of "Dallas." I've seen the first couple seasons on DVD, and I consider the infamous "Who Shot J.R." plotline to be one of the most ingeneous storylines ever formed on television.

We all make fun of the soap opera, and it's easy to do. My favorite one-liner complaint about them is that all the characters on "One Life to Live," have come back from the dead at least twice. (Probably an exaggeration) However, the daytime genre is quickly dying out. I know some of you might say, "Who cares?", and to a certain extent, I don't disagree with the sentiment. There's no soap I've watched on a regular basis, ever. They are melodramatic, often consist of lots of badly-written dialogue that's about what the characters just did or about to do, which can be spread over dozens of episodes, and often cuts between these seemingly random scenes can be awkward at best, and over a typical series, the storylines can be over-the-top and at times ridiculuous (Whether machine, anyone). Yet, frankly, I think I'd argue that daytime soap has been just as influential over the current primetime TV lineup as any other genre has been, and I'd also argue that they're be know J.R. Ewing without their first having been an Erica Kane on "All My Children". (Or as her full name is now, Erica Kane-Martin-Brent-Cudahy-Chandler-Roy-Roy-Montgomery-Montgomery-Chandler-Marick-Marick-Montgomery. Whew!)  And what about this soap opera continuous storyline structure, where loyal viewers have to tune in everyday to see what happening next? This isn't limited to daytime and primetime soaps anymore. Most dramas not named "Law & Order," or "C.S.I.", half of reality television, and frankly most sitcoms are basically soap operas. You can watch a random episode of many show and possibly enjoy them, but for all-intensive purposes, the era where one can watch a random episode of a TV show for a half-hour or an hour, and knowing that the end of the episode is the end of the story is over. To watch a random episode of, eh, what's a good example, let's say "True Blood," or "Fringe," or "Mad Men," is practically irresponsible, even with a highly-detailed recap of everything beforehand before the episode (and God help you if you miss an episode "24"). Even sitcoms like "Weeds," "The United States of Tara," "Nurse Jackie," even basic TV shows like "The Office," have been basically following a long-form storytelling formula created years ago when "Cheers," came up with the radical idea to have Sam & Diane take a long time before getting together, and then breaking up, then get back together.... Previously, the only times there'd be even a marginal storyline in sitcoms that wasn't completed in half-an-hour was because a character/actor either left the show, died, or was pregnant. Some soap operas had been around before television was invented. Now there's only about a handful on the air, they're ratings have been in steady decline for years, and if they aren't being cancelled, they're at least moving from TV to some alternative, ("As the World Turns" and "All My Children," have just announced they're going to continue making and airing episodes online next year), and are being replaced mostly by talk shows.

And now I return to basic cable and "Dallas." TNT is certainly taking a big risk with this, but they're already starting with a core fanbase, and a TV show that has a history of success. On top of more talk and judge shows on basic TV, there's lots of alternative cable channels as competition, that didn't exist thirty years ago, and weren't even concieved of sixty years ago. Many give these and other reasons why the soap operas is a dying genre that on it's last few death nails, but I'd argue that if there's some cable channels willing to take a shot, they could reinvent the TV soap. The soap opera has been basically stagnant for decades now, and is being replaced by what maybe high or low-concept talk shows, but they are a progressive extensive of TV as an art form. The soap has basically struggled to adapt, and often if it even tries, the core audience of soaps have often backlashed drastically. In the last decade, the only new soap to air that I can even think of was the short-running "Passions," on NBC. Also, soaps are limited in being on basic TV. Basic cable has some limitations, but they have more creative freedom than basic TV. I'm curious to know why Cable doesn't jump on the market, and start calling out for scripts and ideas for new soap operas to air in the mornings on cable? They wouldn't be beholden to the same restrictions, or fan expectations that other soaps created, and they can be adapted to the networks they're on to find a new and different audience, and possibly more opportunities for viewership if it's a network like Bravo, that might be willing to air reruns of their shows in marathons on a regular basis. Channels like Bravo, Lifetime, Oxygen, FX, OWN, MTV and SpikeTV have a opportunity to completely reinvent an entire genre of TV, if they only take a chance on it. If at all possible, most cable channels try to spend much of their lineup on reality programming, if nothing else because it's cheap to produce and even with decent ratings, it can earn back its money more easily. Soaps are relatively cheap to produce as well though, so even if a channel only tried one, the risk wouldn't be great. And, it's not like there's that much on basic cable in the morning to begin with. Reruns, attempts to challenge the two-to-four hour block basic TV uses for "The Today Show," and it's copies, news, the same "Sportscenter," shown about a dozen times, maybe a decent old movie if your lucky, cartoons and other children's television, and that's basically about it. I'm not saying I'm gonna starts staying home and watch these hypothetical soaps on basic cable. I mean, they could still suck, but hell, half of television sucks, and that doesn't stop people from watching. There's a chance for all of basic cable to at least take a chance if nothing else, a relatively inexpensive one as well, in a market that's suddenly lacking in competition, and there's room for innovation and reinvention from the traditions of the medium. Normally, all of cable would jump at opportunities like this, but because it's the dying and unrespected genre of the soap opera nobody even bothering. Or, maybe they just haven't even thought about it. In a way, TNT's "Dallas," might be the one sample that determines whether any of the other cable channels will take any shot at the Soap Opera genre in primetime or daytime, and it could be a new age of basic cable TV. It could be....
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