Dickens of a formula cleans up
THE US press coined the disdainful term soap opera in the 1930s to describe the popular serialised domestic radio dramas dominating daytime listening hours. Some condescending critics even called radio soaps ‘‘ serialised drool’’. Created as advertising vehicles, they were called soap because they were sponsored by household cleaning products ( their characters had dirty secrets, after all).
The soap opera is arguably the most significant art form created by advertising, as culturally singular as the 30- second commercial.
The ironic word opera was tacked on because domestic daytime serials were performed in an over- the- top, stilted style, seen as a parody of the serious art of acting.
These days soap serials the world over are the most popular and resilient form of television storytelling. Their wonderfully overblown, endlessly talking characters still chase their happily- ever- afters and exercise prodigious self- possession in the face of eternal calamity. ‘‘ They offer us worlds in which the unthinking decision, the chance encounter, the accidental occurrence, the meaningless tragedy all seem connected to some deeper but obscure pattern of significance, some moral order,’’ wrote media critic Robert C. Allen, a soap specialist.
The crafting of the universal soap serial involves compound climaxes and unexpected cliffhangers, open- ended stories and parallel points of view.
All of them, regardless of the country in which they appear, are linked by their distinctive serial narrative structure and exhibit infinitely greater stability than any prime- time genre.
Telenovelas, for example, as Los Angeles correspondent Robert Lusetich makes clear, are soaps with a Latin scent, charged with desire and tension, that have kicked up their heels for the past 40 years. The more recent new- wave narratives have even created a space in Latin America for critical and realist dramas punching away at issues such as police corruption, influence- peddling and urban violence.
Serialisation is a device that echoes the beginnings of the modern published novel in the mid 19th century. Soap addicts are little different from the readers of Charles Dickens’s early books, originally published serially in newspapers.