Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Daily Serial: Signs of Life

To anyone paying attention, the signs are clear: if the daily soap opera is going to survive, something has got to change. What sort of changes, though, are called for? What will it take to make the daily soap a good investment for networks and sponsors, while ensuring good, solid storytelling that attracts viewers?

SuperSize Me

In the past, changes have mostly been about expansion. First was the move from radio to television. This was followed by an extension of episode length: soaps started at 15 minutes long, moved up to 30 minutes, and then an hour. (Another World actually did the 90 minute thing for a short time.) Then there was an expansion regarding sets and locations - where, once upon a time, the drama used to take part in a kitchen over a cup of coffee, soaps started adding work places, restaurants, country clubs, casinos. No longer happy to keep the action in small town America, soaps started doing elaborate location shoots in places like St. Croix and Santo Domingo.

The logic behind these changes was simple to understand: bigger is often thought of as better. In all fairness, many of these changes garnered positive results. The lavish sets of the 70s and 80s were aesthetically pleasing. The occasional location shoot can be a lot of fun to watch, and made it possible to tell a wider range of stories that attracted viewers who may not have been all that interested in the traditional domestic dramas that were the bread and butter of the genre.

Bigger, in my opinion, sometimes was better. Times, though, have changed. These days, bigger is just more expensive.

Backlash: the Peapack Model

When Guiding Light seemed doomed for cancelation, a drastic turnaround was made. The show that had once boasted some of the biggest and most beautiful soundstage sets on daytime and whose location shoots in Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico were the stuff of soap legend made the move from NYC to Peapack, New Jersey. Gone were the huge, lavish banquet rooms and oak-paneled executive board rooms that made it possible to shoot scenes with crowds of 20 or more. In their place: actual rooms in an actual house - none big enough to reasonably shoot more than four or five actors in one scene at a time. Gone, too, was the rich quality of film, in exchange for handheld, shaky video. Rich lighting? Buh-bye! Hello, harsh, overhead lighting controlled by an ordinary light switch on the wall.

Some people considered the Peapack model a bold experiment. Others considered it a mess. I think it was a little bit of both. Cutting back, in my opinion, was a move in the right direction. Whereas the trend, for many years, had been towards expansion, the choice to move towards something more compact and manageable was a wise one. The decisions about where and how to get smaller, though, could have been better.

Smaller AND Better?

There's a common rule in business: if you want to be successful, study what successful people before you have done, and take your cues from there. Best-selling books have been written about nothing more than the habits of highly successful people. Professional development trainers make a lot of money running workshops that pretty much take 4 hours to tell students just that: if you want to succeed, find some successful folks to copy.

Soaps became bigger than life because their smaller incarnations were successful. Now that the big-budget, lavish soap opera model is no longer financially viable, it makes sense to go back to basics, and look at what made these shows so successful, in the first place. The only elements that need to be in place in order for a daily soap opera to gain a loyal audience are:

  • A core of fully developed characters who relate to one another, brought to life by decent actors
  • Good, solid stories that people can care about
  • Continuity

That's it. The rest is all icing. A daily serial does not need a huge cast, elaborate locales, special effects, or special guest stars in order to be good or to capture the interest of viewers. In fact, if it has all of those things, but doesn't have a good story or decent acting, a soap is pretty much doomed. Soaps, after all, have their roots in radio. Television is a visual medium, but the television soap was born out of an audio medium. What happens and who it happens to are the most important things about a serial drama.

It may well be that the best thing the networks and sponsors can do, if they wish to rebuild viewer loyalty for their daytime lineup, is go back to basics, and return to a simpler form of daily storytelling: smaller acting ensembles, a handful of key, core characters who are connected to one another, very basic sets, and a half hour format.

Imagine if, instead of the Peapack model, TPTB at GL had decided to slash their cast of characters down to the Bauers (they could have brought back Ed and Michelle, given Rick more of a story, and integrated both Mel and Leah), Spauldings, and Lewises, with just a couple of other characters who were connected to these families (yes, Otalia.) No Edmund, or Remy. No Christina. No Coopers (an extraneous family that it made no sense to hold on to.) No Cyrus. No Doris Wolf (sorry, Orlagh, but you were not necessary.) Imagine, too, if the drama had been limited to the Spaulding and Lewis offices, the Bauer kitchen, the farm house living room and Cedar's. No more Towers. No convenience store. No Company. No wobbly, noisy outdoor shots, full of traffic and airplane noise. Just compelling stories (no clones, or magical Bosnia) about people we all knew and loved, driven by strong dialogue, solid acting, and quality cinematography. Imagine if this version of GL had been doled out in 30 minute episodes, five days a week, with a chance to catch up on all five days via late-night and/or weekend marathon. Imagine, too, that this version of GL had been seasonal, running for 13 weeks, and airing reruns while the show was on hiatus.

Is it crazy to think American audiences would watch a show structured in such a way in 2010? They already are.

A Flicker of Hope: In Treatment

Any lover of serial drama who hasn't caught seasons 1 and 2 of HBO's In Treatment really should get the lead out. Based on Hagai Levi's highly successful Israeli series, In Treatment is the closest thing we now have to the old fashioned, small scale, 30 minute daily serial. (Do not send me emails about B&B. Seriously - don't bother.)

The show revolves around Dr. Paul Weston, a psychotherapist. It airs five nights a week, with each episode coming in at under 30 minutes. Each night of the week focuses on Dr. Weston having a one-on-one session with a particular patient. (He also sees a couple or a family, now and then.) Friday episodes usually revolve around Paul's own sessions with his mentor and psychotherapist, played by Dianne Wiest. The patients and their lives provide a series of mini dramas, but the main focus is Dr. Weston - how his work and personal lives have collided, how he finds himself at a crossroads in both his profession and his marriage (to a wife played by soap vet Michelle Forbes,) how his relationship to his children is effected by his relationship to young patients. It's about the demons Paul lives with, both as a man and a doctor...his obsession with events of the past, his struggles to maintain appropriate boundaries with his patients, and his midlife crisis.

For all intents and purposes, In Treatment is classic soap opera. If you miss an episode, you've missed something important, because each episode builds on the next one. Each patient's issues somehow touch on issues Paul is struggling with in his own life.

Shooting locations are basic: Paul's patients see him in his home. Paul sees Gina (his therapist) in her home. No board rooms or banquet halls. No television station or light house or foreign locales.

There are no gimmicks here. No evil twins. No clones. No secret cities or time travel or plots to control the world via weather machine. No car chases or hostage situations. In Treatment is about people talking. That's it. And it's compelling. What's more, HBO has renewed it for a 3rd season.

The Old and the New

While In Treatment is throwback to the way serial dramas used to be made, it's also fresh and modern. Episodes are available on-demand and for download via Itunes. The show is seasonal, which gives new viewers a chance to pick up during down time, and loyal viewers a chance to catch up or re-watch episodes. It's also available on DVD. Just last week I spoke to someone who'd just discovered In Treatment, watched seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, and is now eagerly awaiting season 3. This is virtually impossible with a soap opera that runs 52 weeks a year, with no breaks.

The people involved with making In Treatment have noted how exhausting the process is. Who would be better equipped to work within the grueling schedule than soap opera veterans? If anything, actors and crew who have cut their teeth on the one-hour-episodes-five-days-a-week-52-weeks-a-year schedule that is de rigueur in the production of American soaps would find the shooting schedule of In Treatment a walk in the park.

If the people who develop programming for daytime television are truly interested in fare that will attract viewers (and viewer loyalty), that they can sell to sponsors with confidence, they should take a look at the model HBO has adopted for In Treatment. It has all the elements of classic soap opera, in its barest form: short episodes, minimal sets, a small cast of interesting characters. By relying on the classic elements of soap opera, and putting some thought into the way people get their entertainment these days, the makers of In Treatment have created what represents the first glimmer of hope for the daily serial we've seen in a long time.

© 2010 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves


Robert said...

Great comments! You make a very solid case for daytime looking at this kind of model. (And you're right to disqualify B&B; with its bloated cast -- seriously, they have as many cast members as an hour-long soap -- and repetitive stories, not to mention no attempt to be remotely realistic about the industry the show is supposedly set in.)

I'm sorry now GL didn't pare down as you suggested; it could have saved the show. Paring down costs somehow always translates to hiring too much cheap talent, and no one wanted to see the final months of GL taken up with the likes of Remy and Christina, for example.

And the level of hubris among daytime production folks is astonishing. Nowhere else in TV are people able to discount fan response as stupid.

TestaBlog said...

Interesting thoughts:

Didn't Port Charles try the 13-episode arc? Each arc was a book. All shooting for a year was completed in 6 months.

Prior to Peapak, GL did NOT use film. It used traditional analog video. Peapak saw the move to digital, smaller cameras.

This was almost a throwback to similar cameras used on ABC's The City.

Snapper said...

I watched Port Charles a only a few times - did they go on hiaitus between story arcs?

I didn't realize GL was being shit on video before Peapack - either way, analog video still has a much richer look than digital, and there's no substitute for good lighting.

Yes, the Peapack model did have that same shaky, cold look that The City had. When Loving was cancelled and The City popped up, it made so little sense to me. It was a mess, through and through. Like the Peapack model, The City was a bold experiment at doing things a very different way. Like Peapack, it failed miserably. Maybe if the writing had been better, it could have survived. At least the Peapack model of GL had a *a few* decent stories and some very strong actors.

weltatem said...

As someone who also devoured 2 seasons of "In Treatment" on DVD, I completely agree with you about how compelling it is. But I'm not sure the pared-down production costs associated with small sets and limited set-ups that make sense for "In Treatment" would really work for a soap I'd like to watch.

What I loved about the Peapack model, when it was technically accomplished, was the realism, visual interest, and yes - beauty - that it added to the mise-en-scène. I find that totally lacking in the only other soap I've watched, DOOL, and that contributes hugely to the overall boredom I often feel watching it. The visual monotony becomes especially obvious because the drama lacks tonal variation. "In Treatment" still has interesting sets that one finds meaningful detail in each time one watches, despite how few sets there are. But the drama is so compelling that one's attention rarely wanders.

That's where I think "Venice" has it backwards, but in an encouraging way. They've managed a production model that seems both scalable and highly successful, visually. Now they just need more compelling drama, which HBO and Shotime demonstrate repeatedly is achievable. If Venice was being produced in "Weeds"-like seasons, more like a telenovella, perhaps the soapy, inter-related character arcs could be written in a more coherent and compelling way. Perhaps HBO is showing us that the 10 minute webisode model is to short without brilliant, lapidary writing, but the 5 day/week traditional soap model is overstuffed and stale.

Snapper said...

I think just the opposite -there's nothing stale about In Treatment, and it's so much like a traditional soap of yesteryear, that it might as well call itself one.

Back in the glory days - the early and mid 70s - shows like The Doctors had only a few sets: a hospital, a few living rooms. It was compelling, because the storytelling and acting were THAT GOOD.

The production values on Venice are much better than what came out of Peapack, but they also took over two days to shoot what amounts to about an hour of footage. And the script is pure shit. I thought Peapack often looked awful, but they did the best they possibly could with such limited resources. They were filming one one-hour episode a day, five days a week. Not a hell of a lot of time to edit, and almost no second takes were allowed. Actors didn't get a chance to rehearse. If aplane was passing over when they shot, they just kept going. Not so on Venice. The show looks better, visually, but it damned well should, considering.

If daytime soaps are stale (and they mostly are) it's not because the medium is no longer relevant, but because of who is making them and what is and isn't going into them. I know you weren't a life-long viewer of GL, so I can tell you - there were times during the end of GL when it was clear the writers had no clue how characters were related to one another, what their histories were, or how they should and would be expected to interact. That's sad. Character-driven drama is doomed to fail if the person writing the drama doesn't know the characters.

weltatem said...

I don't see "In Treatment" as a soap, though I don't have experience watching soaps in their glory days. To me, what makes a soap a soap is the open-ended nature of family melodrama. "In Treatment" doesn't merely use psychotherapy as the conceit for staging character drama. It is in a very real way about the therapuetic relationship itself.

One of the brilliant things about "In Treatment" is that it is structured in a very clever and effective way to explore narrative and character, a way that only seems obvious in retrospect. It's not really a daily serial in the sense that a soap is. Perhaps it's closer to a telenovella, in that the stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. In fact, one of the most poignant aspects of "In Treatment" is the nature of time. The endless narrative of traditional soaps had their own poignancy in the way they mirrored vast cycles of real-life time, and perhaps part of "In Treament's" success is its ability to achieve this poignancy in minature, using radically proscribed and structured time. But it's point isn't to tell life-stories so much as it is to see what is possible between people engaged in this very odd and powerful thing called psychotherapy.

Snapper said...

Once again, I have to disgree.
First off all, while the mini dramas that we see in Paul's practice may come and go,there's a thread that runs through, from episode to episode, from season to season. That thread is Paul, himself, and his struggle. Not at all unlike someone like Ed Bauer who dealt with people and situations that may not have been part of the greater landscape of Springfield on a long-term basis, but served as vehicles for him to work through his various obsessions/failings/struggles. The events in Beirut really had nothing to do with the day-to-day events of Springfield, and notice that Beirut was never mentioned, again, once that story wrapped up...but Ed, Maureen, Fletcher and Claire were all still key characters in Springfield. Paul's patients may come and go, but his personal, professional an family drama continues.

The business of mini dramas that are close-ended, and sit within an open-ended setting is nothing new to soaps, anyhow. Edge of Night's structure dependend on this device, both on radio and on television. Crime stories that had a beginning, middle and end...usually revolved around characters brought in just for one, particular crime, and then were resolved, cleaned up, and over forever. Think Law and Order meets Perry Mason meets As The World Turns.

Having grown up watching Spanish language telenovelas, I don't really see a connection between them and In Treatment. The telenovelas I grew up with never bothered with mini dramas, at all - it was the overarching story that had a beginning, middle and end...with everything being bigger than life. In a classic telenovela, and entire series would revolve around Paul's affair with his patient and the breakdown of his marriage. That, alone, would be enough for a series. It would play our for months, as a central theme, and then be resolved and the show would end its run forever(probably with the main characters all dying.)That would be it. No season 2, where we see Paul living on his own, dealing with visits from his kids. No finding out about Paul's past relationships. IMO, something like Babylon 5 was a lot more like a telenovela than In Treatment is - it just had a much longer and more complex story arc. I haven't seen any of it, but I keep hearing Battlestar Gallactica had a similar structure. Of course, I haven't watched a telenovela in over 15 years,s o I have no idea what they look like in 2010.

bl said...

I think part of the reason they extended the soaps was back in those days they made a lot of money. Once the shows got longer they needed more cast members (GL creating the Spauldings), they needed more sets (wasn't the Ed/Rita house of the hill created in that time frame too)... I'd love to hear more of your point of view about how soaps changed when the expansion happened, since other than reading texts from that time frame I don't know all that much about it.

I do have to disagree with you on one point, compared to west coast shows, the sets of none of the P&G shows were seen as all that grand, but compared to the last production model GL had the old sets were lavish.

Smaller and better is what should have been done well before Wheeler came into the picture. Conboy spent way too much money on ridiculous stuff (like the baseball field for one show) and the longest running characters were ignored (until that MAC lunacy). Then when Wheeler came in the show continued with strange concepts like the three women focus on Harley, Cassie and Reva, who are all the same "type" of character and Phillip being crazy (which ruined Alan for me). With all the budget issues, only the Cooper family remained in tact, which IMO was a choice of TPTB that left me perplexed. Stories were no longer truly cycling among the characters.

The only way GL could have been "saved" was if different choices had been made in 2003-2005, (like what you suggested) but alas short term goals were more important than long term objectives in story and/or character focus. Once GL went to the new production model in 2008, there wasn't enough talent, money or time left to fix things. The production model for some was the last straw, but even before then people I never thought would stop watching GL turned it off as they were no longer enjoying the program.

I've never watched In Treatment, but the idea that a serialized show in a limited format (meaning not running all year round), was successful is a good thing. HBO though is a different animal that daytime television, but what is on daytime now most likely won't be able to sustain itself in the future.