The plots of soap operas are not only melodramatic; unlike any other kind of serial, they are written with no end in sight. This engages the viewer in an experience in which the pace startlingly mimics that of reality and plot itself is incidental. Like life, once a soap starts you’re along for the ride, never knowing how or when it will end. You focus on the characters’ daily affairs and less on the overall story. Soap opera characters act in real time — day by day by day, just as you and I do — but theirs are infinite, fantastic lives. To quote Guiding Light’s “Gus Aitoro,” “Everything’s easy for me. Although next year might be a problem because I was legally dead, partially, briefly.” It’s no wonder soap operas have been so loved by women who stay home all day. The incremental timing of the narrative mimics daily life, even if the events don’t. There’s an immediacy to all the melodrama. (This might be the reason why there were so many protests when networks tried to replace the ugly rawness of standard video with the gloss of high-def). And while the content of the narrative sounds outrageous when summarized, it doesn’t feel as strange when you’re watching it unfold over time. Maybe you haven’t yet been divorced six times, but try to write the story of your life in three paragraphs and I promise you will be shocked at the theater of it all. In structure, soaps are far different from a show like C.S.I. The latter is self-contained, complete. The plots are generally simple and focused. It doesn’t matter much whether you watch the episodes in sequence, and the characters’ development tends to be static. Serials, however, are different. Each episode concludes with loose ends, teases that lead you along. As the plots unravel, the characters become more complicated. You watch what the characters on Law & Order do, but you don’t grow with them. With serials like soaps, you learn characters’ dark secrets, watch them slowly fall in love. And out of love. And into love again. The way serials involve you completely in their logic is not just engaging — it’s magical.
more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.