PRIME-TIME SOAP OP­ERAS POP BACK UP

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Christy Grosz cal­en­dar@latimes.com

Although ev­ery tele­vi­sion for­mat and genre has been de­clared dead only to be tri­umphantly re­vived sev­eral times over, the prime-time soap opera is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a resur­gence like no other, par­tic­u­larly on net­work TV. With such shows as PBS’ his­tor­i­cal cos­tume drama “Down­ton Abbey,” ABC’s “Nashville,” Fox’s new­est hit “Em­pire” and ev­ery se­ries Shonda Rhimes has cre­ated (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scan­dal,” “How to Get Away With Mur­der”), melo­drama, in­trigue and ro­mance are back. Un­like the ’80s glory days of such rat­ings-grab­bing se­ries as CBS’ “Dal­las” and ABC’s “Dy­nasty” and the ’90s re­vivals from Fox — “90210” and “Mel­rose Place” — none of which earned much award at­ten­tion, Emmy vot­ers are tak­ing no­tice of this new gen­er­a­tion of guilty plea­sures. Both “Down­ton” and “Scan­dal” have earned mul­ti­ple nom­i­na­tions and wins, and “Em­pire” has the po­ten­tial to fol­low in their foot­steps.

“There is a huge ap­petite for soaps,” says “Down­ton” pro­ducer Gareth Neame. “Mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple were watch­ing ‘Dal­las’ in prime time back in the day. What we’re able to do is to com­bine that ba­sic love of se­ri­al­ized drama with on­go­ing char­ac­ters and pro­duc­tion value.”

But in a land­scape filled with dra­matic arcs that are no longer con­tained within a sin­gle episode, mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween se­ri­al­ized drama and full-on soap can be tricky.

“Ev­ery­thing is se­ri­al­ized,” says “Nashville” show run­ner Dee John­son, who also hap­pened to get her start on “Mel­rose Place.” “It’s an old-fash­ioned term, ‘soap opera,’ based on the old days of those day­time shows — not to dis­par­age those in any way, but it’s a very dif­fer­ent medium. Where do you draw the line?”

“Most dra­mas are soap op­eras and most soap op­eras are drama,” adds Mark Sch­wahn, cre­ator of E!’s monar­chy drama “The Roy­als.” “You ex­pect not only a height­ened sit­u­a­tion but a bit of fash­ion, a bit of style, a bit of glitz and glam­our.”

Even be­fore ABC’s “Des­per­ate Housewives” com­peted at the Em­mys in the com­edy cat­e­gory in 2005, the line started blur­ring. “Down­ton” writer Ju­lian Fel­lowes cred­its Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion for push­ing TV fur­ther into se­ri­al­ized ter­ri­tory.

“Shows like ‘The West Wing’ and ‘ER’ and even ‘NYPD Blue,’ [with] 16 sto­ries per episode, some of them span­ning the whole arc, that was re­ally de­vel­oped on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion when Eng­land was still do­ing the sin­gle-story episode,” Fel­lowes says. “That pace had a kind of energy in­evitably. Be­fore that, you could get up and go to the kitchen and make your­self a cup of cof­fee and a sand­wich and come back and you hadn’t re­ally missed any­thing.”

The se­ri­al­ized pace also al­lows the au­di­ence to en­gage with char­ac­ters as they grow and change, which has al­ways been the pri­mary ap­peal of soaps. The trick is avoid­ing clichés.

“There are cer­tain de­vices that we have be­come fa­mil­iar with over time be­cause we’ve grown up with tele­vi­sion,” Sch­wahn ex­plains. “Just say ‘evil twin’ and ev­ery­body laughs be­cause if you’re do­ing ‘evil twin,’ you’ve lost your way. We’re ask­ing the ques­tions of, ‘What haven’t we seen? What haven’t we done?’ There are two rea­sons we haven’t seen it be­fore: Ei­ther it’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary and great, or it’s re­ally hor­ri­ble. We al­ways have to be mind­ful of which side of that we’re on.”

John­son agrees, say­ing it’s un­likely “Nashville” will sud­denly in­tro­duce a zom­bie coun­try singer, but he adds that “un­der the right cir­cum­stances, most peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of al­most any­thing. We have cer­tainly done some darker things and some in­tense things, but we try to stay true to the char­ac­ters’ par­tic­u­lar jour­ney.”

Re­main­ing rooted in re­al­ity also helps keep “Down­ton” from veer­ing too far into soap ter­ri­tory.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a soap char­ac­ter is pretty ex­treme, whereas se­rial drama strives to stay on the other side of that line from un­re­al­ity,” Fel­lowes says. “When you do have an ex­treme cir­cum­stance in a se­rial drama, you try to give the other char­ac­ters the re­sponse that they would have in real life. That gives them a di­men­sion that peo­ple iden­tify with and al­lows them to be taken more se­ri­ously.”

Stay­ing true to char­ac­ter and the real world could help soapy se­ri­als like “Em­pire” gain Emmy at­ten­tion, but Sch­wahn says the la­bel is still an ob­sta­cle.

“We’re con­sid­ered fast food, like we’re not tack­ling im­por­tant is­sues,” he says. “You’ll see some great per­for­mances and you’ll see episodes that are Emmy-wor­thy, but I think the pre­vail­ing thought is, ‘Oh, that’s a soap opera. It’s not Em­my­wor­thy.’

“It’s an ar­chaic point of view.”

Se­ri­al­ized ro­mance and in­trigue re­turn to pop­u­lar­ity

Chuck Hodes Fox

THE FOX HIT “EM­PIRE” has po­ten­tial to score big with Emmy vot­ers.

Ni­cole Wilder ABC

“SCAN­DAL” has earned mul­ti­ple Emmy nom­i­na­tions and wins.

Mark Levine ABC

“NASHVILLE” tries to stay true to the char­ac­ters on the show.

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