Even if I wanted to, there is no way I could possibly watch General Hospital in its entirety. Earlier this year, the daytime soap aired its 13,000th episode (an impressive number even in the world of decades-long soaps), but no one really cares about General Hospital in the age of prestige television. Soap operas are synonymous with awful, melodramatic TV; plots feature scandalous affairs between family members, mysterious reappearances of loved ones thought dead, and convoluted murders plotted by vengeful and incestuous ex-lovers. Because of their reputation as ridiculous and over-the-top, they are an easy target for mockery. It’s no surprise then that there are entire TV shows whose central premise is to parody soap operas, and despite their dubious source material, these parodies are some of the most remarkable shows on television.
Decades before The Spoils of Babylon, Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann was the prototypical example of a soap opera parody. While it was creator Norman Lear’s follow-up to his hits Happy Days and All in the Family, anyone expecting a straight sitcom was in for a surprise. The show follows Mary (Louise Lesser), a housewife whose daughter witnesses a mass murder and whose grandfather is a serial flasher. By the end of the first season, Mary has a breakdown on national television and winds up in a mental hospital. There’s really no better way to describe it.
This sort of plot sounds like the typical day to day of a soap opera housewife, but the show’s bizarre, absurdist tone is what makes it a brilliant parody. In one famous scene, Mary becomes preoccupied with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her floors. She and her sister argue about whether the buildup exists, repeating the phrase “waxy yellow buildup” over and over until the phrase loses meaning (there is an oft-quoted claim that Lear wanted to mock the way soap operas tend to repeat information multiple times). Throughout, both actresses make fun of soap acting by staring directly into the camera through long, awkward moments of silence. The show successfully combines a self-aware, high-brow absurdist humor with the low brow aesthetics of a daytime soap.
But beyond its offbeat humor, what really set the show apart was its format. The major networks rejected Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann because Lear wanted to air a new episode every single weekday night. As a result, it aired in syndication, relegated to the late night slots of obscure UHF channels. Lear delivered on his promise of daily episodes; the show aired over 300 episodes across two years. According to Ann Marcus, the show’s head writer, “There were only three of us writing the five scripts each week and what with participating in marathon story meetings, reading the transcripts, writing the outlines and then the scripts we were always in a state of hysterical exhaustion.” That kind of feat would be impossible today.
Nothing like MH2 (a nickname coined by its writers) had ever been done before and it became an instant sensation, dominating the ratings and driving viewers away from network television. “Critics were comparing it to the best of Chekhov, Cervantes, James Joyce, John Updike and Ingmar Bergman,” Ann recalls. Ted Morgan, of the NY Times Magazine, waxed poetic about the show: “No longer merely a television program, MH2 has become a cultural event, in the same league as those other sociological signposts that culture-watchers and think tanks and Whither America specialists are always on the lookout for to help us explain ourselves.” This is the kind of thing a critic would write about Mad Men today.
Nearly thirty years after MH2, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace wound its way onto Channel 4’s airwaves. Created by Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness, the show follows – bear with me – the fictional horror author Garth Marenghi (Holness) and his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade), who create a soap opera called Darkplace. The soap opera is the show itself, and we only see its fictional creators occasionally in interview featurettes. It’s basically a show within a show with a complicated framing story (if you’re confused, don’t worry, because Channel 4 purposely wanted viewers and critics to believe the characters were real people). The soap follows Rick Dagless, a doctor who combats supernatural forces at Darkplace Hospital. Unlike MH2, Darkplace only aired six episodes due to its low viewership, which is unsurprising given that it was also relegated to a late night timeslot.
If you were just scrolling through your channels late at night, you’d probably stumble upon a scene like this one in which Matt Berry’s character, Dr. Lucien Sanchez, is chased by a filing cabinet. Like a typical soap opera, it’s full of continuity problems, poor dubbing, and overly dramatic music. Most of the scenes could easily be mistaken for actual soap opera scenes from the ‘80s. Other scenes incorporate gaudy special effects, terrible wigs, and exaggerated character deaths. The genius of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace comes from the way in which the show juxtaposes outrageous scenarios with ordinary soap opera tropes to draw attention to the innate absurdity of soap operas.
Where Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace becomes truly unique is in the way that Channel 4 marketed its fictional creators. Leading up to its premiere, The Guardian posted an article allegedly written by Garth Marenghi in which he takes a “vow never to work in TV again.” It’s hard not to appreciate the multiple levels of satire that take place; not only do Holness and Ayoade satirize the self-absorbed, Tommy Wiseau-esque creatives of the ‘80s and ‘90s, they prove their love for the source material they mock in their dedicated attention to its details. One would have to be intimately familiar with these soaps to fully understand their look and feel and know how to convey it onscreen.
That’s what’s so great about successful parodies. Not only do they send up their source material, they also maintain a fondness for it. It’s that kind of heart that makes these TV shows successes. They are not just empty mimicry; behind the humor, there is a genuine affection for the characters. When The Guardian asked David Lynch whether Twin Peaks was intended to parody soap operas, he responded with “No, no, no, no, no. It is a soap opera.” Anyone who’s seen the show could quickly lump it in with the likes of Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann or Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but according to Lynch, “Soap operas grow out of life and because they’re continuing stories you get to go deeper into the characters’ lives… It just triggers more and more and more – and happy accidents come.” By re-purposing the unique storytelling style of soap operas, these shows allow their viewers to go deeper into their characters’ psyches, letting them laugh at the absurdity of their tragic lives.
Olga Lexell is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter.