Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Soap Operas: The Black Sheep of TV

You hear it quite often: "I felt like I was watching a soap opera!"

Soap operas (or soaps, for short) have been one of the longest running, most enduring genres in television. Starting off as daily radio programs in the 1930s, soaps got their name because companies such as Procter & Gamble were their sponsors. In those early days, radio soaps would be scheduled during the day, at times when the average housewife was available to listen. Thus, the main target were women.

From the offset, radio soaps proved to be extremely popular. Shows such as MA PERKINS and THE GUIDING LIGHT ran on radio for decades, entertaining multiple generations and bringing in strong numbers. Some of the shows eventually made the jump to television, most notably THE GUIDING LIGHT, which had its television debut in 1952 and continued to produce episodes until 2009, for a total of a 70 year run. To this day, GUIDING LIGHT remains the longest running drama in television and radio (credited as such by the Guinness Book of World Records).

                                                               Guiding Light

Since then, soap operas have been a genre that has flourished all throughout the world. Originally seen just in the daytime via shows like GENERAL HOSPITAL, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS and DAYS OF OUR LIVES, we eventually saw this particular dramatic form expand and move to primetime as well. Starting off with PEYTON PLACE in the 1960s, soaps then had their heyday with the uber-popular shows DALLAS, DYNASTY, KNOTS LANDING and FALCON CREST which dominated the ratings and popular appeal throughout the 1980s.

Since the success of the Big Four, primetime soap operas have been a permanent staple on TV. From MELROSE PLACE to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, one realizes that a big portion of series out there have been soaps, or have heavily used the soap format, which is open-ended, serialized storytelling, which is expected to last a span of several episodes.

And, yet, it is very interesting to note that soap operas have a very negative connotation attached to them. According to museum.tv, "the term itself signals an aesthetic and cultural incongruity: the events of everyday life elevated to the subject matter of an operatic form. To call a film, novel, or play a 'soap opera' is to label it as culturally and aesthetically inconsequential and unworthy." Despite the fact that such shows comprise a large portion of programming and are watched by millions of people, they are still considered lower-level entertainment, full of over-the-top antics, melodrama and bad acting.

However, it is worth to take a look at just how ridiculous such a notion is. I am not one to claim that just because something is successful also means that it is good, but the long history that soaps have had cannot be ignored. The mere fact that some have survived more than four decades speaks volumes about the sustainability of the genre.

It also cannot be disputed that soaps have not only been popular, but they have been the most popular offerings at various times. DALLAS, for example, was America's number 1 show for five seasons. DYNASTY was an international phenomenon. GREY'S ANATOMY was a media obsession. In the United Kingdom, early evening soaps such as CORONATION STREET and EASTENDERS are the most-watched programs in the country, seen by more people than primetime shows. That is not to say anything about Latin American countries, whose telenovelas are not only extremely popular but also dominate the airwaves and are bought and distributed globally.

So, why is it that soaps are looked down up in such a way? Some say that it is because they are still conceived as a "'women's' genre, and, it has frequently been assumed (mainly by those who have never watched soap operas), of interest primarily or exclusively to uncultured working-class women with simple tastes and limited capabilities" (museum.tv). There also seems to be the expectation, as mentioned above, that a soap opera will be unrealistic, badly written and badly produced. This seems to come in sharp contrast with a lot of reviews, however. Reviews for shows such as REVENGE, whose high levels of production values, writing and acting cannot be disputed. Shows like ER, with its medical soap format, that was heavily praised and awarded for its excellence. Critics feel the need to mention how "soapy" a show is and reassure their readers that, despite that fact, they are still good.

Another reason why this cultural hatred towards soap operas doesn't make sense is the paradox that they are being made fun of, when their formats have been copied and their staples haven been borrowed by the same people who degrade them. Despite the negative attitude towards soaps, it is quite evident that they have had a very big effect on the TV landscape today. Most shows that are on right now have adopted a serialized format, including character arcs, long storylines, and cliffhanger endings, all characteristics created for and typically associated with soaps.

Of course, one cannot deny the excesses that soaps often find themselves drowning in. No one can claim that a family going through kidnappings, bomb attacks, murders, blackmail, rape, shootings and fires is an accurate representation of how life is. While some of the most outrageous plotlines have been known to happen in real life as well, soaps do operate in a much different reality than we do. However, I do not necessarily find them much less real than other so-called "realistic" shows such as CSI, or BONES. Just because the procedural details are paid attention to does not mean that a show is more real. It just means that it is believably done, that one can believe in the situations and circumstances than he or she sees.

The same can be said of a soap. I do not watch a series because I expect it to be realistic. In fact, US TV is known to be anything but realistic. But what matters is that the characters, the dynamics, the relationships are believable and that you can subscribe to them, despite those people apparently living in an alternate reality. And that's what the appeal of soap operas has been to millions of people, throughout many decades: The emotions, the pain, the happiness, if done well, can feel real, something you can relate to and totally understandable under the circumstances. There is a certain suspension of belief that has to be created when watching anything, even the most "realistic" of movies, and that can be achieved if the writing is in place.

Regardless of one's personal taste, the cultural bias that confronts soap operas is very interesting. I have always had a strong feeling that if it were considered a "male" genre, most of the negative connotation associated with them would not be so prevalent. Furthermore, various soaps have proven to be popular and critical darlings for years at a time, which only shows that it's more of a reputation issue than an actual grievance with quality. Plus, if they are so bad, why did everyone copy them? Isn't that supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery?  

A TV Viewer in America

TV viewing is a very vast landscape. With the myriad of options available to us, and the vastly different tastes exhibited by viewers, it's nearly impossible to pinpoint what it is that entertains the fans. Therefore, the next best thing would be to hear from a randomly selected avid TV viewer, and get an idea of what she thinks concerning various topics regarding TV:

Q: What are your favorite types of series? What genre do you enjoy the most?
A: My favorite series are ones that aren’t blatant love stories, or about teenagers. I love good sexual tension between characters, but if the whole point of the show is for the characters to find love, I’m not going to enjoy it. I also cannot enjoy shows that take place in High Schools. It’s because my school was nothing like the portrayal of high schools on TV. I cannot get into them because I cannot connect with it.
I feel like I enjoy Sci-fi the most. It is so creative. Every episode is another creature or another planet, or even another language, and it’s just so brilliant. So much work goes into one episode.

Q: In what way do you watch TV? How often do you watch live, or catch up on the computer/laptop? Is it more preferable to just watch on one’s personal computer?
A: I usually catch up on my shows via the computer. I usually miss my shows because someone is watching something else, I don’t get the channel it’s on or there is either a hockey or football game on that I want to watch. If the station re-airs that night I usually watch the show later. I call it West Coast watching. I prefer watching on my computer. I really don’t have the attention span to watch something on TV, and most commercials are annoying. I like watching on my computer because I can pause it, and go do something else, and I don’t have to worry about missing an important moment because someone talked, or I was reacting to something.

Q: Is TV more entertaining than movies to you or not? Why?
A: I find them both entertaining. However, I would rather watch a TV show than a movie. I like the slow building of a character, and the lengthy plots and the shorter subplots of a TV show.  I can get more attached to TV shows. I love how TV shows aren’t always confined to one genre. ‘Weeds’ started out as a comedy, as it’s progressed it has become more of a drama. It is still funny, but it has more dramatic moments than it did when it started. TV shows also have cliff-hangers. There is nothing better than a season ending and the only thought running through your head is “how am I going to wait for this to get resolved.’

Q: What is it about the narrative form of a series that appeals to you? Do you appreciate the developing of story and character throughout a span of years?
A: I love character development. I watched the first season of ‘Walking Dead’, and I was very tempted to not watch the second season because of the lack of character development. It really will make or break a series for me. I also enjoy it when there is a story arc that carries through a season, especially in shows that have a different story every episode. The plot will be unrelated to the story arc, but there will be that one moment in the episode that reveals a bit more about main story. I really like going back and re-watching shows after the end of the main plot to pick up on the subtle things that I missed the first time.

Q: There seems to be the impression that cable TV is the place to go to for quality programming. Do you feel that cable TV is better than network TV?
A: Not in all circumstances. I prefer network comedies to cable ones. The cable shows usually have mostly swearing and sex, and those things are funny; however, they are not that creative. I enjoy comedy where the writers have to be creative in order to get the point across, and still make the audience laugh. The only Cable comedy I watch is ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, and do not think it’s that funny, I just enjoy the situations they get into. Most of the network shows that I watch are comedies.  I do think, for the most part, dramas are better on cable. I feel that they are more able to encapsulate real drama, because they do not have to restriction that network TV has. To me, the restrictions cause the network drama’s interpersonal relationships to appear soap opera-esque. That’s great for a soap opera, but if I’m watching a cop show I don’t want the personal lives of the people to come off as if they are in a soap opera. House and Bones are both like this. They were great when the characters were sticking to the cases, and were dosed with awkward sexual tension. After the main characters got together, they became soaps with a touch of illness and death sprinkled in.  I believe that the Cable shows are freer to explore the interpersonal working of people, where as the network shows are not. This is why I prefer network comedies, and cable dramas.

Q: What types of characters do you find yourself associating the most with? Are you more drawn to hero-like personalities, or characters with more shades of gray and a certain level of villainy?
A: I love flawed protagonists, and villains. The only time I feel like I don’t like the villain is if the show is about a really flawed main character(s), because then the villain is the one on the moral high ground and I’m just not as able to associate with them. I rarely dislike a character. I can never associate with a solid hero character, or a non-flawed main character. I find the more flawed the character the more I like them. In True Blood, I am really not a fan of the main character, because I feel like the supporting characters have more gripping back stories. The only characters I always dislike are those that are whiny, poorly written, and teenagers. I always hate teenagers in a show, mostly because they are pushed into stereotypes.

Q: American TV is quite censored, especially when it comes to network channels. Do you agree/disagree with censorship and why?
A: For as much as I am against censorship of music and speech, I actually agree with it when it comes to television. I feel that without it, there would just be a gratuitous amount of sex and profanity on TV. I feel like the quality of TV is better with the censorship. I do watch shows on Showtime and HBO where they can swear and show the sex, and I enjoy it. However, they aren’t necessary elements for a successful show. In the books that ‘True Blood’ is based on, the main character doesn’t really swear, and she even tells people not to. In the TV show, she is swearing just like everyone else, and I feel like the profanities detract from the character. I’m all for sex scenes; however, I like that most channels cannot show too much. I really don’t want porn to break out in the middle of my programming. If I wanted to watch Porn, I’d go watch porn. So, I guess, I am thankful for the censors when it comes to TV.

                                                                Enough with the swearing, Sookie!
Q: Do you feel that there is too much violence in shows or too little? How about the depiction of sex?
A:  I think it depends on the show. There are some shows that have a plot overview that calls for the sex and the violence. However, there are times that those shows go too far. Similarly, there are shows that do not call for it, but when they imply things and don’t show them it does not feel right. I watch Sons of Anarchy. It’s a show about a Motorcycle gang that runs guns for the IRA and drugs for another motorcycle club. I feel like it would be missing something without the viewed violence and sex. However, the domestic violence scene in the most recent season was ridiculously graphic. I feel like it was too much violence. Reversely, Bones last season didn’t take it far enough. In the one episode she was crying on Booth, and in the next episode she was pregnant. They could have at least kissed. There was nothing to even imply that anything happened. The whole Network censor thing cannot even come into play because I’ve seen more on daytime television. I really do believe that every show has an expected amount of sex and violence. Some do show more or less, but that really depends on the nature of the show. My only problem is with ‘reality TV’, especially the ‘house shows’. I know they are supposed to capture human nature, and there is violence in that. However, I think it is a bit much when the staff just lets it happen, and participants end up bloodied and bruised.

Q: Reality TV is an often debated subject. What’s your view on it?
A: I really dislike about 90% of what is considered reality television. I do not like the ones where they put a group of people together in a house, an island, or any situation that they wouldn’t normally find themselves in. I, also, do not like the one where people are being exploited for some mistake or flaw, like Teen Mom. I don’t watch them, and I honestly do not understand how people do. I enjoy some of the competition-reality shows. I cannot watch the ones where the people audition, and the show the bad ones. They offend me on some level.  I enjoy the ones where camera crews follow people around while they are doing their jobs, like Pawn Stars. I feel like those are the only true reality TV, and that the situational ones should be given a different title, and genre.

Q: What would be the ideal TV landscape to you?
A: I really think Doctor Who is my Ideal TV landscape. It has a space and time traveling alien, random and not overpowering romance, and every season has a big story arc. He travels to different planets and different times in Earth’s history, and it really is just lovely.

Thank you very much to this avid TV viewer for the answers!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Obsession

Some say that writing is a form of release; an expression of emotions and feelings; the physical representation of thoughts. To me, it's an obsession--a healthy, consuming, constant obsession.

I started writing my first story when I was five. Unfortunately, I don't remember what it was about, but I think it had to do with a rabbit (first stories always seem to). Blessed with parents who were always supportive and understanding, they encouraged my writing and enthusiastically read the poorly strung-together sentences I wrote.

I guess I was lucky because I was met with really positive response to my writing early on. Teachers would tell me how impressed they were at what I was able to do and would ask to keep personal copies of various essays I had written. Looking back, I cannot believe that anyone would like them. But it was exactly the type of encouragement a little boy with a lot of fantasy needed.

Writing has a lot to do with fantasy, technique, knowledge and experience but a certain kind of belief in one's own self is required before you can let go of the doubt and just create. It has nothing to do with being conceited, or thinking you are the best. It has everything to do with believing and trusting in yourself.

It was not long before I started writing my own book. A fantasy book, the untitled project was 282 pages long, a feat considering I was ten years old when I completed it. Again, it felt like a milestone. I wouldn't do anything with it now but, back then, it was the whole world to a young boy full of dreams.

When I was first introduced to the (sometimes not so) wonderful world of TV, it took my breath away! As silly as that sounds. I was not allowed to watch a lot of TV while growing up (certainly not during the weekdays) but, as soon as I was old enough to make the decision for myself, I went into it with a passion. It was a whole new side to writing that I had never considered while reading hundreds of books. Most people do not see writing when they watch TV, but to me it was my first point of reference. It was another world, certainly a different genre, a different type of writing.

I never looked back.

Fascinated by the intricacies of serial plotting, I created a number of original shows from scratch, wrote episodes for them, dialogue, everything. In the following years, I surpassed three thousand hours of television. I continue to write my own shows; one can never be enough. I have to write at least three at the same time (which might be suicidal). For me, it wasn't something extraordinary; it was my life. It was what I wanted to do.

You see, I mentioned at the beginning that writing is an obsession. It is. It is what you think about all day, every day. The character's stories, voices, dialogues are in your head constantly. You plot the next development while you're going grocery shopping, and you work on a specific exchange between two people while you're doing laundry. It's actually quite dangerous if you are prone to talking aloud while working on lines--people give you weird looks as if you are demented. And who has the time to explain about this character and that character and what has happened to them and what is happening and what will happen?

I will never understand so called writers who claim that they get into a "writing" mood every now and then, and expect to make a career out of it. How can you? If it's not your whole life, how can you create? While writing this, I was thinking about the book that I'm writing (this time, hopefully, for real. Cross your fingers). It  never stops. If it doesn't literally burn like a fire inside of you, what's the point?

Obsessions do. It's somewhat shocking to be typing about this. I'm still not sure I should. There is always the possibility that people will think I am completely demented.

But that's the nature of the beast. And on and on I'll write....

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Is Evil Necessary on TV?

I came across a very interesting blog post recently while looking for information on reality TV.

In a blog called Reality Blurred, Andy Dehnart posted about a recent interview with Jeff Probst, the SURVIVOR host and executive producer, during which he claimed that only "evil" and "immoral" people are fun to watch on TV.

The post explained Mr. Probst's opinion that it is only the villainous characters that we like seeing on TV. While, in real life, we want to be friends with the good guys and have them around us, it is different when it comes to our entertainment. He brought up the example of shows like WEEDS, THE SHIELD and DEXTER  to support his argument.

The blogger then went on to explain how he could definitely see Mr. Probst's point of view, with which I agree. It is true that a very large part of our entertainment consists of villains and characters with a lot of grey shades and they have most definitely proven to be ratings-grabbers. In fact, if we take a look at some of the most popular shows of our time (and, in general) we see that characters you love-to-hate were extremely prominent in airtime and storylines, if not outright the stars.

In reality, we do want the nice people around us. The people who are kind, considerate, thoughtful. But that can equate to some very boring TV if that's all that there is offered. A "nice" character can be very appealing and interesting (if well-played and written) but there always needs to be an antagonist, who moves the plot along and creates the drama that we are expecting to see.

That's not to say that a show that consists of nice, everyday people cannot be appealing (which is also a point Dehnart makes). He brings up shows like MODERN FAMILY and THE COSBY SHOW as examples. There is a point to be made about TV that showcases situations and realities closer to what we experience, as long as the characters are rich enough to support that.

Still, there is no denying that a great villain can really be the centerpiece of a show. Characters like J.R. Ewing, Amanda Woodward and Jack Bauer proved how popular such characters can be and how they can really drive the story in ways that would be unimaginable if they did not exist. I think, in the end, that it is very important to just remember that both "nice" and "evil" characters can be of great service to shows and that you can achieve great entertainment with either side, but especially with both.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How To Get Through So Much TV

It's often said... so many options, not so much time.

In a vast television landscape, with so many options, it can become quite a challenge for the average TV-viewer to watch everything that has caught their fancy. And, while it is true that a lot of sub-par entertainment is offered, good TV is available everywhere; if one is willing to seek it out.

So how does one go about making the choice? Especially in the September and January months, which is typically when a myriad new shows debut, one can feel at a loss with all the new options. Scheduling conflicts between shows, busy social schedule, kids--a plethora of reasons can get in the way. So, there's a few easy suggestions that can help out:

1. Choose the two or three shows that interest you the most. 
The truth is, most of us do not have the time to watch as much as we may be interested to. So take a look at the options and select based on personal preference and availability. Also, look into various reviews in an attempt to get an idea of how the show is being received. Naturally, critics often have very different opinions than the general public, so it could be helpful to find a critic or two that you usually agree with. Also, good word of mouth may be a great help in deciding.

2. Take advantage of the free screenings online
Not everyone can afford a DVR or a TiVo so a good way to catch up and not have to worry about being in front of the TV at a certain time would be to go online and catch up like that. It's free, it takes less time (because of shorter commercial time) and is easy. It also helps with the show's ratings, which can definitely be a plus when one likes a show.

3. DVDs
A lot of people tend to not watch a show for the whole season but wait until the season is released on DVD. Once they have it, they devote 1-2 days in order to watch the whole thing at once, thus catching up and not having to worry for another year. While marathon viewing can be tiring (and, not to mention, time-consuming),   it is a viable solution to keep one up to date.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reality Sham

It dropped like a bomb just a few days ago: Kim Kardashian is getting divorced from her husband Kris Humphries after only 72 days of marriage. It was surprising, though I'm not quite sure why. Celebrity weddings have never been the most solid unions, and there was absolutely no reason to believe that Kim and Kris's marriage would be any different.

The news that it was all a scam--a publicity ploy--was a bit more shocking. It was just too much to think that someone would go to such lengths to achieve attention and earn money. Granted, $17 million is not an amount to be scorned, but it is still reprehensible that this would happen.

It was very interesting to read Victor Solis' blog post about this topic, Kardashian Kover Up.... While I definitely didn't have any illusions that reality TV was a real and honest representation of life, it was quite different to read concrete examples of how things are faked by someone who worked in the business. It can be very eye-opening to move on from generalities to examples that clearly show what everyone has been talking about.

As is described in the blog post, Kardashian's camp would plant paid extras in order to make it look like she had hordes of fans, and Kardashian herself would make sure that her fans were aware of the locations she would go to, thus ensuring that she would get an audience wherever she went. While this is (almost) expected from reality shows, the lengths she went in regards to her marriage were definitely a step too far.

There has been a lot of talk in regards to the sanctity of marriage and how disrespectful it was of Kim Kardashian to marry someone for the sake of money and publicity. While I am not a fan of her brand to begin with, to read about this just infuriates me further. I don't count myself as a conservative person in any measure, but I do agree that this was taken too far and completely deplore her actions. The saddest thing is that this publicity stunt probably worked and will bring more attention to her, and her reality show, whose second season debuts in November. 

REVENGE Has Never Been Sweeter

It started off doubtfully. Before REVENGE premiered, there was a heavy promotional push behind the show. Billboards and magazine ads of the upcoming show could be found everywhere, and TV spots were repeated ad nauseum. It definitely got some buzz for the show. On top of all this, ABC and Amazon's Kindle offered the pilot script for free as well as gave Kindle users the chance to watch the first episode before it was shown on TV. 

When the show debuted on September 21, 2011, it was described as essentially unconvincing and also quite likable. However, it debuted to an audience of over 10 million people and some very positive reaction from the people who watched it.

REVENGE was quite the ride; Emily Van Camp transformed completely, playing against type, into a vengeful, hurt young woman out to avenge her father. Her main enemy, Victoria Grayson, the Queen Bee of the Hamptons socialite scene (portrayed brilliantly by Madeleine Stowe), was equally bitchy and scheming. The concept was intriguing, but also seemed limited; how much could be milked out of this?

Turns out, a lot. Despite some initial hesitation, critics started to slowly come around in regards to the show. The same could be said of the TV audience. After a few weeks of slowly declining ratings, the show managed to turn it around and starting posted bigger and bigger numbers. Indeed, the show found its footing pretty fast and, with solid and entertaining writing, started to win back its viewers and to actually grow, which is definitely  not a common occurrence in today's TV climate.

The final, victorious piece of news came when ABC renewed REVENGE for a full 22 episodes. It seems like Emily will keep on getting revenge after all.