Susan Fleming Morgans
Soap Gets in Your Eyes
Years ago when I was on maternity leave, watching The Young and the Restless was my guilty pleasure. When I put the baby down for her nap, I automatically switched on the popular soap opera. (Well, of course I could have been reading War and Peace, but try that when you’ve been up half the night). The writer in me rationalized that in contrast to goofy game shows—the only other choice before 24-7 news—the soaps at least hired writers who created storylines and characters.
When I returned to work, I quit watching the show and rarely saw a "daytime story" for 30 years—until last week. Sick of the 24-7 political drama, I started channel surfing while ironing (one of the few times I've done that in 30 years, too). I stumbled on my old fave soap, where the residents of Genoa City—still restless but not necessarily young—continue to behave badly with some of the same actors still in the cast. Jabot Cosmetics remains the biggest game in town, and Victor and Nikki Newman (or is it Nikki Abbott?), played by Eric Braeden and Melody Thomas Scott for nearly four decades, continue to struggle with marital, financial and criminal drama on a grand scale.
I picked up right up where I left off—and that’s the genius of soap opera writing.
Back in the day, I paid no attention to soap opera writing—the stories were simply a break from Sesame Street, Mister Rogers and Mister Yuk. Now that I don’t need a break from anything (except CNN, Fox News, all three branches of government and robocalls), I can appreciate the complexity of writing a soap opera. Many old-time soaps have been usurped by talk show crones, scolding judges and pundits, but The Young and the Restless and others that survive have writers who know how to engage and retain diverse viewers in these divisive times, where an errant Tweet or Facebook post can end a relationship.
First, the writers have to ensure that a viewer tuning in for the first time or the first time in 30 years, can get right up to speed. This means that a simple, "Fine, thanks," is not the right answer to, “How are you feeling today?” Instead, the answer needs to reveal the characters' relationship, social status and current problem. A good answer? “Oh, you’re talking about when I tried to drive my Tesla off the bridge after I learned I was pregnant with triplets because your stepson Luca spiked my Old Fashioned with a date rape drug and left me alone in the frat house. I have a headache.” Now we get it.
Second, the writers have to keep the plots relevant. Today’s characters are of every age, race, nationality, social class, sexual preference and gender identity, sometimes all in the same family. In addition to old-fashioned lovemaking, cheating, backstabbing, amnesia and murder, characters now deal with challenges such as depression, autism, climate change and terrorism. This requires a lot of research for the writers, not to mention churning out socially aware dialogue without patronizing people.
Regardless of how skilled the writers are, cell phones, followed closely by fashion, might eventually kill off the genre for good. People don’t talk face to face anymore; we text, sometimes even in the same room. And unlike the soap stars, most of us look like slobs, even at church or in fancy restaurants. Is it possible anymore to write realistic scripts where characters wearing cocktail attire drop in at each other’s houses unannounced to discuss everything from going out for a brew to in vitro fertilization. (OK, they meet at coffee shops sometimes.) “Hey, how are things with Brianna going? Oh, you mean how does my fiancée feel about the fact that I had one too many Tequila shots and admitted I threw a greasy pizza box into the recycling bin. She's devastated, and I can’t find her, even though I’ve been ringing her doorbell for three days.”
So kudos and good luck to the soap opera writers. It’s a tough job, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. Once my guilty pleasure,The Young and the Restless has become aspirational. I'm going to keep track of breaking news and hot-button issues (NYT and WSJ, of course), change from my jeans into a vintage taffeta evening gown, fix myself a Moscow Mule (the "in" drink in Pennsylvania) and wait for the doorbell to ring. When my family and friends arrive (we’re very diverse, thanks to 23 and me), I’ll be "on tap" to discuss everything from vaping, plastic straws and the First Amendment to who is the real father of the Genoa City triplets, whether its better to roast, deep fry or order out the Thanksgiving turkey, or even good old-fashioned heartbreak.
I just hope I don’t get amnesia.