tv history

How Soap Operas Changed TV Forever

Luke and Laura's wedding on General Hospital.
Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital. Photo: Courtesy of ABC

The Story of Soaps, which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC, is a rare example of a broadcast network bankrolling scholarship that also happens to be entertaining. Moving back and forth through nearly a century’s worth of media, this is a real documentary, not just a cynical repurposing of one network’s intellectual property. It covers the evolution of daytime soaps on rival broadcast networks as well as ABC, plus the radio soaps that preceded them and the nightime soaps (notably CBS’ Dallas and ABC’s Dynasty) that followed. It also links soaps to the so-called “prestige dramas” of ‘80s and ‘90s and beyond, which drew on the soap opera tradition of open-ended storytelling and complex, contradictory, sometimes antiheroic characters.

There are even sections about the similarities between storytelling on soap operas and TV news coverage (with O.J. Simpson’s trial cited as the event that made the connection official), as well as the way that unscripted TV raids soaps for inspiration, making sure each new episode contains plentiful trash-talking, a crowd-pleasing confrontation or two, and a “shocking” twist at the end. Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, Vivica A. Fox, Jon Hamm, and Bryan Cranston are mixed in with daytime acting fixtures like Susan Lucci and Genie Francis, as well as showrunners whose work channels the daytime spirit (such as Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry). In cases where actors appeared on daytime soaps and the entertainment that borrowed from them, major credits are cheekily listed as if they’re all just soaps. (Cranston, for instance, is cited as a cast member on Loving, One Life to Live and Breaking Bad.) The documentary makes a strong case that soaps — which had been dismissed over the decades as “trash” and “melodrama,” and gendered as “women’s entertainment” — are a legitimate but underappreciated popular art form. And it lays out its arguments so potently that after seeing it, it will become impossible to watch the Marvel franchise, the Godfather saga, professional wrestling, or Donald Trump’s press conferences without thinking about the soap opera’s knack for getting viewers on the hook and keeping them there.

Ahead of The Story of Soaps’ premiere, I talked to executive producer and director Rebecca Gitlitz, who previously made primetime specials about Princess Diana and the British royal family, about the enduring legacy of soaps and its impact on the world beyond television.

What prompted you to do this special?
When I pitched this to ABC, I was looking for a topic that bit into our deeper consciousness and that I could take a deep look into. I was never a big soap opera fan, but as I was looking at reality TV as a subject, and as I got deeper and deeper into that process, I started to realize the extent to which reality TV is just carrying on what soaps started. And so I started looking at soaps, and I realized that in terms of storyteling, this is where a lot of everything started. Soaps are looked at pejoratively in this society, but there was so much richness there. We wanted to unearth it.

One of my favorite things to say on Twitter — because it makes people mad — is, “Any show I don’t personally like is a soap.”
A hundred percent. Whether you are in agreement or not about whether a show you like is really a soap is irrelevant. There are certain principles and practices that mark it as a soap, and the only question is whether it’s your kind of soap.

Yes. Like The Sopranos or Mad Men, which happened to star Jon Hamm, who appears in this special and seems very enthusiastic about the connection. I’m like, whaddaya mean, you don’t like soaps? Mad Men is a soap. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a soap. The only question is what the writers and filmmakers decide to do with that soapiness.
What daytime serials brought to everything else in the culture were these twisting, ongoing plotlines, serialization, open-endedness, and larger-than-life characters filled with huge contradictions. I mean, obviously there was a precedent for that too, particularly serial writers like Charles Dickens, but I’m talking about the radio and television incarnation of that. That’s still what defines TV today.

It’s not just primetime dramas. It’s news programs, it’s reality programs, it’s these streaming content shows about real people that everyone lives for now. All of these things are completely built on what was already done in daytime.

When do you think daytime soaps started to migrate from daytime TV?
In the special, we talk about the rise of nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty and Falcon Crest, which were huge in the 1980s. These were a big deal because up until that point, soaps had a predominantly female audience because so many women were at home during the day or worked in homes. Men watched soaps, too, but it wasn’t something they could admit doing, and a lot of them were away during the day at their jobs. The nighttime soaps aired when men and women were at home, and they were written in a way that drew men into the stories.

Because they were more focused on power and money and domination and stuff like that? The fantasy of it?
That’s part of it. They blurred the line between “soap” and “not a soap” in the minds of men who watched them, even though they were totally soaps.

So: Breaking Bad is a soap, deal with it?
Yes. Abigail de Koznik, a professor who’s an important source for us, wrote this amazing book called Survival of the Soap Opera, and she explains how soap plus western equals Breaking Bad. These things don’t have to be one-dimensional. They can be more than one thing at the same time.

The first time I encountered this way of thinking was in a media studies class in the ‘80s. They had us read essays that argued that where so much fictional entertainment was tailored to the needs of straight men — who preferred definitive stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, goals that were achieved or not achieved, and characters who either changed permanently or failed to — the soaps were truer to a woman’s perception of life. Things are more open-ended, patterns repeat, people come into your life and go out of it, and some things never get resolved. I have no idea if that’s true, but it got me thinking.
That’s the entire reason I got into this subject. Once I got into telling the story of soaps, I kept telling our team, “There’s gotta be something bigger, there’s gotta be something broader.” And what eventually emerged was a sense that soaps are a feminist manifesto, in a way. They were taken on by women, they told stories centered on women, many of the key writers and producers were women. They were profitable, but they weren’t considered a prestigious part of TV, so the network executives tended to leave them alone to do their thing. As a result of that, they became this oasis that reflected more of a woman’s experience of life. Irna Phillips, who was known as the queen of the soaps, was the Orson Welles of television, in that she perfected a way of telling a story that impacted the rest of the medium.

That was a bold statement, and I’m glad the special makes it, because it knocked me back and made me think.
We didn’t make that statement lightly. At every step, looking at all of these different kinds of entertainment, we kept asking ourselves, “Did soaps really do this? Are soaps really responsible for that? Is reality TV reality TV because of soaps? Is cable news coverage what it is because of soaps?” The answer was always yes, and so we felt secure in saying that about her. Dickens got there earlier, but in terms of electronic communications, mass media, radio, television, and now streaming, absolutely, it’s the soaps that perfected this kind of storytelling. They gave birth to these narratives that we now can connect.

These women who drove the soaps were told, “This is not important, this is women’s entertainment,” and meanwhile, over all these years, they were making an empire because they were able to, almost, wash down the storylines and draw on real life. If you were telling a story about rape in the news, or in a movie, it would be bold and brash, but in a soap it might creep up on you, often because the person committing and the person victimized were strangers. On the soaps, it was about somebody you and the other characters knew personally. When the characters are people you’ve lived with for years and that you invite into your living room five days a week, the writers are able to tell bold stories in a toned-down way that makes it all more human.

Which of the guests most surprised you?
Alec Baldwin. Not only was I surprised that he even agreed to be in this, I was amazed by how genuinely excited he was about soaps as a storytelling form, and talking about how much he learned from working on them as an actor. He also talked to us about how television storytelling is different in how it is consumed from movies, particularly in theaters. When you go to a movie, you remember the experience of that specific event: where you saw it, who you saw it with, buying a ticket, getting popcorn. With television, all that stuff tends to disappear in the memory, and the story becomes a part of your life. You wanna get back on that wheel every day or every week, in the same way that you want to brush your teeth or the way you need to eat dinner. It becomes part of the rhythm.

How Soap Operas Changed TV Forever