'You Wind Her Up, She Bakes'...The (Increasingly Sparse) Moments Longtime Soaps Fans Still Watch For

Curator's Note

The soaps industry and fandom generally agree that alongside dwindling ratings has come a deterioration in quality.  However, the lowest rated soap still draws higher ratings than many cable television hits, and DVR viewing, SOAPnet replays, online episodes, and shared video clips prove that these shows are still relevant.  As primetime series borrow increasingly from the soap opera model, why should scholars remain interested in daytime dramas?  This As the World Turns scene, in which farm family matriarch Emma Snyder shares a diner table with executive powerhouse Lucinda Walsh, helps illustrate one of the U.S. soap model’s unique capabilities.   Kathleen Widdoes has portrayed Emma for more than 20 years; Elizabeth Hubbard has played the role of Lucinda for even longer.  In the 1980s, the two were often set against each other, Emma’s simplistic and sometimes narrow-minded pragmatism offset by Lucinda’s ambitious energy that too often bordered on ruthlessness.  Both Lucinda and Emma have been consistently depicted as strong women, left to raise children alone.  We’ve seen them, despite their differences, come not only to tolerate but even share a friendship through their shared tribulations.   This scene includes both overt and subtle moments that reflect on their relationship.  Lucinda’s slightly embarrassed to be seen in a greasy spoon; she’s surprised to see Emma here because she’s "supposed" to cook her own food, a stereotype the show has often forwarded but which Emma reveals she’s sick of.  There’s awkwardness and tension yet relief and comfort in their rapport.  Despite their differences, they’ve found themselves in the same place, both literally and figuratively, as supporting characters in their children’s lives and the narrative, doling out unheeded advice. Note that "nothing happens," but we do learn new information about these characters which simultaneously gives us deeper perspective on the show’s recent events .  We’ve come to know Emma and Lucinda through their appearances on thousands of episodes a year for multiple decades.  These little moments seem like rare finds these days, but they are the differentiators that set soaps’ unique storytelling abilities apart; on this scale of frequency and longevity, this is a moment only a soap can provide.

 

Comments

Erin Meyers's picture

Daytime to Primetime?

I enjoyed this perspective on the continuing endurance of soap opera narratives. 

 

It makes me curious that more attention is not being paid to these forms in this new age of serial television.  Shows like Lost  or Battlestar certainly demand that audiences keep with with narrative developments from episode to episode or else be left confused.  But these shows also open space for fans pour over the small details, including emotional responses of characters (in particular I’m thinking of trying to read Ben from Lost as to whether he is lying again to further his own agenda (probably) or actually telling the truth about something) as a way to increase enjoyment of the show. 

 

Soaps are slower to build in narrative action for sure, but the emphasis on the minute details of characters’ emotional responses to events and the awareness that their audience has years of backstory to build upon in reading these responses seems to have more in common with many popular primetime dramas.  In other words, the more you know, the more you are able to find pleasure in the current events.  Doesn’t this seem like a fan model for a show like Lost

 

—Erin

Sam Ford's picture

Great Points

Hey Erin,

 

I apologize for the extreme delay in responding, even though I read your comment immediately.   I’d suggest the big differences is that soaps are less dense but gain their complexity over time. In some ways, the complexity is much like sports…remembering every move from every game is an impossible task, but the more you can remember the more context you can draw from the text, both that which might be intended subtext from the actors and writers but also that which the fans can provide from their own memories. For longtime fans on message boards and in living rooms alike, that’s the kind of discussion that makes soaps so enjoyable: remembering when the characters on screen feuding were once lovers, catching hypocritical comments from someone because we know what they themselves did a few years back, etc. Soaps have traditionally been about the inflection in someone’s voice, the expression on someone’s faces, they way they choose to re-tell a bit of news…The minute emotional cues that provide resonance for stories.  Although there are certainly mysteries to be solved, soaps are much better when those are mysteries of the heart rather than of murder or islands…(Unfortunately, soaps don’t leave such subject in the much more appropriate purview of primetime genres…)

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