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Old December 23rd, 2012, 02:00 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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Love in the Afternoon

Confused? You won’t be, after this episode of… Soap!

The Announcer for Soap, at the end of every episode’s teaser

Daytime television had seemingly been the exclusive province of a few particular genres, through the late 1970s, and foremost among these was the soap opera. Their overall presentation (melodramatic, overtly romantic, serialized content and story structure) had largely existed only in the peripheries of popular culture – they had aired in the daytime hours ever since the glory days of old-time radio, and this had obviously continued with the transition to television. The analogous romance comics had initially thrived in the post-War years, but were spayed and neutered by the infamous Comics Code of 1954, and later rendered trivial and passé by the circumstances of the recent Sexual Revolution. Their sister comics in the funny pages were able to retain greater potency; but as the name implied, they were usually viewed as subservient to the comedic strips, such as Peanuts, which had emerged as a multimedia empire by the 1970s. The same could not be said of a Mary Worth or a Rex Morgan, M.D. Indeed, even on television, common sense reckoned that the primacy of the daytime soaps would soon come to an end; said Sexual Revolution had played havoc with their central conceit of a woman’s successes or failures being tied exclusively to romance, marriage, and family. The 1970s had also seen the core audience of housewives (or those who might have otherwise become housewives) entering the workforce, even in non-traditional vocations, in numbers not seen since World War II. The “Mini-Boom” of the early 1970s, which had died out by 1975, was seen as merely postponing the inevitable on that score, especially as some mothers of the resultant young children eventually sought gainful employment.

However, what actually became of these audiences was rather contrary to these imperious sociological predictions. Viewership continued to rise (even relative to the growth in population) throughout the decade, and the corresponding demographics grew increasingly attractive.
[1] In many ways, it was easy to see why soap operas were so popular; they offered a voyeuristic look into the lives of a wide variety of people (for soap operas were known for their large, ensemble casts), usually affluent and leading glamorous lifestyles, and always far more attractive than the average person (even by primetime standards); and the serialized storytelling encouraged the palpable desire to find out what happened next – several storylines were presented at once, typically in a “treadmill” fashion, with each new plot coming in just behind its predecessor in the overall story arc. Plotlines would be constantly interspersed throughout an episode, with entirely new scenes featuring unrelated characters constantly interrupting each other (typically, cutting away immediately after a dramatic, suspenseful question or declaration has been issued). With the conclusion of each one, yet another would be introduced, allowing for a constant narrative flow. The content was controversial and lascivious, featuring such topics as infidelity, sexual dysfunctions, familial discord, premarital sex, teenage pregnancy, and even abortion. The irony of the genre was that, despite being groundbreaking in confronting all of these taboos, it was all done in a very tentative, self-conscious fashion – everything was referred to in hushed tones and double entendres, which uniquely complemented the melodramatic acting style.

On the technical side of production, this famous “laggard” genre did generally catch up with the times, ceasing to shoot live and switching from the clichéd organ soundtracks of yore to more sophisticated (if equally wretched) strings and pianos. Inversely, their pioneering use of videotape instead of film would be adopted by many primetime shows, as it was an easy way to save costs (always an overriding concern in a field with minimal revenue potential). Finally, the late 1970s saw the lengthening of many (though not all) soaps from half-hour to hour-long episodes; for some of them, this was their second such expansion, the first having been from fifteen to thirty minutes in the late 1960s. [2] As episodes increased in length, so too did their narrative focus increase in breadth; shows that formerly followed only a single character or family would now chronicle the travails of the whole small, fictional suburban towns in which soap operas were almost universally set. Though this was done by necessity, it had certain advantages in that it created a more immersive world, if not a more realistic one; and it required the audience to pay closer attention, which prompted more frequent viewing on their part.

As noted, soap operas were a famously conservative business, changing as little as possible over time – but their aforementioned obligations to adapt their focus to suit their longer runtimes resulted in a new narrative strain that would have a massive impact on popular perceptions of the genre. Romances between specific characters, and audience investment in particular couplings, was a rising trend throughout the 1970s. The course of true love never did run smooth, and that was more evident in soap operas than anywhere else – even the most seemingly committed couples were constantly subjected to the most overwrought trials and tribulations, with the viewers eating them up and coming back for more. A pioneering example of this phenomenon was the relationship of Doug and Julie from Days of Our Lives, whose astounding chemistry was strong enough to rub off on the actors playing them, who married in 1974. When the news of this clandestine real-life coupling inevitably reached the fans, they became insistent on replicating those results on the screen as well, which (eventually) became a reality. The classic yarn of star-crossed lovers was an instant hit, and even propelled the couple to the cover of Time magazine. Soap operas were coming of age. People who had long ignored and dismissed them suddenly found themselves in rapt attention.

To the extent that the popularity and influence of any phenomenon could be measured by its parodies, soap operas appeared to have come of age in the late 1970s. No less a visionary producer than Norman Lear attempted to confirm his clout with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – all things considered, a surprisingly affectionate parody of the genre, given the source. It starred Louise Lasser, an actress known for having been married to Woody Allen and (after divorcing him) appearing in many of his early films; she played the titular dowdy, small-town housewife living in the fictional Fernwood, Ohio [3], and her characterization was… highly peculiar. There was no doubt that everyone involved in the production considered Lasser the ideal choice for Mary Hartman, because she played the character in a profoundly stylized fashion, seeming constantly bewildered by her surroundings, though simultaneously bored and disaffected – about as direct an inversion of stereotypical “soap opera” acting as was possible. Perhaps to emphasize this, the other actors in the show behaved in a more naturalistic fashion, typical of (primetime) sitcoms of the era, the genre in which Lear had made his name. However, what the other characters may have lacked in affected acting styles, they made up for with their quirky personalities and highly skewed priorities. But the meat
of the show was in eschewing the euphemisms of the daytime soaps and referring to everything using proper terminology. This “hyper-realistic” style was both jarring and unforgettable; indeed, despite being a parody, the show itself was memorably spoofed on The Carol Burnett Show, as “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman aired five nights a week in syndication – much as soap operas aired five days a week on the networks – for three seasons. The cancellation of the series came at the end of the 1977-78 season, alongside Lear’s far more famous creation, Those Were the Days. Louise Lasser, who had been roped into participating in a third season against her better judgement (but with the promise of more money for less work), declined to appear in a fourth, and the syndicators had no interest in continuing the show without her (as for better or for worse, she had become synonymous with the program) [4]. It was a major blow for Lear, who along with the show
’s writers had hoped to continue (under the title Forever Fernwood). Replacement plans, perhaps for some form of spinoff centred on a formerly peripheral character (the late-night timeslot inspired the writers to suggest a talk-show parody) were also rejected, which was further humiliation for the man who was once the hottest producer in television.

Though perhaps not quite so ambitious as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the primetime parody called, simply, Soap was certainly far more widely-seen, generally more acclaimed, and had a much greater influence on popular culture beyond each show
s respective cult audiences (whose passionate fervour charmingly echoed that of the fans of that which they parodied). Soap was also in many ways more conventional; it was very much a half-hour, once-weekly sitcom, complete with laugh track, and the actors committed fully to the outlandish plots featured in each episode (which, even in spoofing the genre, went way over the top, and included alien abduction, demonic possession, and a man living in a symbiotic relationship with his ventriloquist dummy). However, continuing storylines – a rarity in any genre other than soaps at the time – were very much in evidence. As such, the series employed a comedic announcer, voiced by Texan disc jockey Robert “Rod” Roddy, who narrated the opening titles, and introduced and closed each episode (reminding the audience of previous events and teasing about future ones) in a bizarre combination of deadpan and stentorian.

Soap was the story of two sisters, Mary Graham [5] and Jessica Tate, both daughters of a character identified only as “the Major”, who had served in World War II and lived his life as if he were still fighting in it. Both Mary and Jessica were married, the former to a blue-collar professional, and the latter to a wealthy stockbroker; both husbands had far more foibles than their wives. The breakout roles, though, belonged to the show’s only two minority characters: Benson, the wisecracking African-American butler to the Tates, played by Robert Guillaume; and Mary’s gay son from a previous marriage, Joe Austin, played by newcomer Tom Hanks. [6] Although not the first recurring gay character on primetime, as with so many other pioneers on television, he was the first that mattered. Ironically, both characters were generally the “straight men” to the goings-on around them, though Hanks in particular mined his character for as much over-the-top comedy as he was able, up to and including some uncomfortably
“stereotypical” gags, such as transvestism. Many of the women on the cast often wryly noted that none of them could pull off a dress quite like the “statuesque” Hanks did. Benson, meanwhile, was also decried as “stereotypical”, being regarded by racial advocacy groups as “falling back” into the “demeaning, subservient” characterizations of yesteryear; this despite the fact that Benson was defiant, self-assured, and ridiculously well-compensated (as nobody else was willing to work for the Tates). [7]

At first, liberals and conservatives alike were united in their opposition to Soap; indignation could make for some strange bedfellows indeed. The liberals hated the stereotypical depictions of characters based on their race and sexuality, whereas conservatives hated the salacious storylines. (Soap prided itself on being an equal-opportunity offender). Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of complaints on all sides came before the show had even aired. Letter-writing campaigns were organized, with thousands of them flooding network offices. In its way, Soap was even more controversial than Mary Hartman, if only because it aired in primetime on a network, and therefore had to answer to Broadcast Standards & Practices. And the censors, true to form, had many
“suggestions” for the writers, and the perennial dance of creative expression vs. public decency was on.

Outcry on all sides naturally died down once Soap was actually airing, but
– in accordance with the adage that any publicity is good publicity – ratings for the premiere and throughout the first season were a smash, making it the highest-rated new show on ABC, and yet another triumph for the Alphabet Network, continuing their hot streak in this era. [8] Both liberal and conservative special interest groups continued to be dissatisfied about certain aspects of the show (Joe Austin and his homosexuality remained a rare sticking point with both sides, though obviously the nature of any complaints varied dramatically depending on the source), but – their initial salvos having been adroitly evaded – these were mostly ignored by those in charge. Soap existed to satirize the conventions of the genre, embracing them as well only because they had potential far greater than how they were presently being employed. Perhaps Soap was also meaner and more detached from its characters than Mary Hartman, though it was the style of the time and place that even then, it had great difficulty maintaining this cynicism. This was almost wholly attributable to the superlative cast, who were widely praised even in negative reviews, and who would go on to be remembered as one of the all-time great sitcom ensembles, with a number of them achieving considerable success as individuals.

One of the more interesting parallels in production details which linked soap operas and their parodies were the particulars of the personnel involved; namely, that women played a major creative role in all of them. Irma Phillips and her protégée, Agnes Nixon, were the two most significant writers in daytime television; two of the co-creators, and the two main scribes, of Mary Hartman Gail Parent and Ann Marcus – were women as well; and the creator, showrunner, and principal writer of Soap, Susan Harris, was also a woman. Harris was sufficiently inspired by the legitimate work of Phillips and Nixon that she plotted out a five-season story arc for her series, with the added challenge of having to keep her planned labyrinthine storylines comedic, a far more exacting task than writing for melodrama. And then, of course, there was the matter of staying on the air for five years, which was a considerably greater challenge in primetime, even at only half an hour long. Could Soap remain a ratings hit? Would it keep running for all five seasons? Did Susan Harris have the talent and ability to keep up the pace of juggling storylines for that long? And which supporting character would get a spinoff?

These questions, and many others, will be answered in the next episode of… Soap!

The Announcer for Soap, reciting the last line of every episode.

---

[1] ITTL, a larger proportion of young women remain housewives (or become housewives, as they graduate from school and marry) both because there are more children underfoot, and because the economy is much stronger in the early 1970s compared to OTL, allowing the single-income family to remain viable for a longer period. The societal changes taking place IOTL that drove women into the workforce still exist ITTL; their effects are simply not as immediate or as forceful earlier on. What this means for the purposes of daytime viewing is that absolute ratings are even better than they were in the 1970s IOTL, which further bolsters the soap opera.

[2] The 1970s expansion naturally killed many of the other shows in the network daytime lineups, including some of the lower-rated soaps, and some game shows; IOTL and ITTL, one of the most notable casualties was Jeopardy!, which was cancelled in 1975. However, the (original) syndication version, which premiered in 1974, survives ITTL.

[3] Though there is a Fernwood in Ohio, it is not an incorporated settlement; the town featured in the show was named for a street near the studio where it was taped.

[4] Lasser left after only two seasons IOTL, and the show did indeed continue without her for another year as Forever Fernwood. Also not coming to fruition ITTL is the talk show parody Fernwood 2-Night (which itself was later retooled into America 2-Night), starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard.

[5] IOTL, Mary Campbell; the network wanted to change the surname to avoid association with the Campbell Soup Company, and ITTL they won out.

[6] Joe Austin was IOTL named Jodie Dallas, the first name being unisex (chosen for obvious reasons), and the last being available ITTL due to its disuse by any other character; he was played by Billy Crystal (who, ITTL, is chosen to play Curt Henderson on American Graffiti in lieu of Richard Dreyfuss, who stars as the Meathead on Those Were the Days in lieu of Rob Reiner). Hanks obviously has OTL experience with homosexual and transvestite characters, which influenced his selection for this role.

[7] Benson is portrayed roughly as he was IOTL
– and between Soap and later his own spinoff, Benson, he emerged as a wonderfully well-rounded, fully-realized character of his own, beyond the satire of black servile types he began life as, but ITTL, there are more complaints against the very notion of a black servant working for a wealthy white family, as a demonstration of the more earnest egalitarian tack many sides are working toward. (People ITTL complained about Florida in Maude for the same reason, helping to contribute to its downfall; even though – as on Soap Maudes hypocrisy about Florida is repeatedly the subject of ridicule on her own show).

[8] IOTL, Soap (airing at 9:30 on Tuesdays) received a 22.0 rating for the 1977-78 season (translating to just over 16 million households), good for #13 overall. ITTL, airing in the same timeslot, it instead received a 23.0 rating (the competition didn
t have M*A*S*H as a lead-in, because it didnt exist), good for #11 overall, just outside the Top 10.

---

Thanks to Andrew T for his dynamite suggestion of Tom Hanks to replace Billy Crystal in the pivotal
“Jodie” role on Soap!

I apologize that this update may not have answered all your questions, but come now, seriously. You expected all of your questions to be answered right away in an update about soap operas? Surely you jest! We shall, of course, revisit these topics repeatedly in the future, with each post having a detailed recap at the beginning, and a thrilling cliffhanger at the end (Well, maybe not, but except to see more of soaps and of Soap in the coming cycles, as we
re entering the peak period for both of them.)
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Last edited by Brainbin; December 23rd, 2012 at 02:35 AM..
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