I’ve been thinking just how much successful (or relatively successful) SciFi series resemble soap operas, if not in content, definitively in the fanaticism of their followers. Most people who follow Heroes, BSG, and Lost (to name a few) might not characterize the shows as soap operas, but that’s what they seem to me. I look at Angel, Buffy, any of the Star Trek series (except the first), and I see the same thing; you have are a set of characters who live, love, hate, make war, deal with family and friends, sometimes die, often come back from death in one form or another, and whose stories span multi-years in the telling. That is what differentiates soaps from other television drama program; the open-ended nature of the narrative… am I off the mark here?
I’m not saying this is a bad thing… OK, I am saying it’s a bad thing, but that’s just my own prejudice shining through. I prefer series with very loose narratives and strong self-contained stories. I’ll buy into a two or three show arc exploring characterization, but by en large I prefer to sit, watch, and get up at the end of the hour having reached some sort of closure. I don’t mind the occasional teasing mystery, event, or secondary plot point that makes it interesting to come back the following week, but I hate cliff-hangers, especially before a break of any kind.
“Be sure to stay tuned to see if the main character, the one the show is centered around, makes it through their latest predicament alive!”
“Come back in three weeks to see some semi-important, but not essential, character die because they asked for too much money at contract renewal.”
“Join us next fall to see if the writers have come up with an interesting way to get the hero (heroine) out of the impossible situation they placed him (her) in!”
Perhaps it is not evident to someone immersed in it in real time; perhaps it is only obvious to someone coming to it after the fact; or perhaps it’s just me becoming impatient over the years, and unwilling to sink years into a narrative. It became evident to me when I was semi-retired for a few years, and decided to check out what all the fuss was about with regards to some of the popular series I had missed while I worked. So I added them to my Netflix queue, and my wife and I began exploring the universe of the SciFi Soaps.
First was Buffy… that lasted a very short time as I did not particularly like the lead, did not care for the setting, the stories… basically I did not like it.
Angel was better, but come season three something began to change, and by season four it was in full soap mode. “OMG! OMG! You totally have to watch it because it gets really awesome in seasons five and six!!!” That’s my impression of one of the many Angel fans telling me to hang in there through the crap because it’s not regular crap; it eventually turns into a diamond. Guess what, that was the summer of 2005. The last half of Angel‘s season four is still sitting in my Netflix queue, regularly getting shoved down in favor of fare such as… well, pretty much anything. The same fate befell ST Voyager. Season 8 of SG-1 is sitting in the same queue. I finally removed Babylon 5. I never even added Stargate Atlantis to the queue because they started off in full soap mode. Don’t know about the X-Files as it never raised my interest enough to watch.
OK, I’ll admit my dark secret… I don’t even have a geek card for anyone to pull.
So, what do I like, and why? I like Firefly. “Who doesn’t?” you might ask. I’ll give you that, but here’s what I realized after the initial pain of its cancellation. I like it because it had not yet started to change. The shows were situational, and while the characters were affected by events, the events were still the primary focus of the shows, and the shows are largely self-contained. Characters grew in subtle ways, but they were still within a well defined boundary. Had they gone longer, they might have undergone drastic changes, taking them outside the realm of what made them interesting and engaging in the first place, molding them to fit into contrived dramatic situations, taking them into… the soap zone!
But that was seven (!) years ago. What about now? Well, I’ve already stopped watching Dollhouse and Fringe.
“You fool! Everyone knows Dollhouse does not start to get good until the sixth episode!”
“Idiot! You’re really missing out on Fringe because the heroine (!) started wearing makeup . . . and all you had to do is wait 15 episodes!”
I’ll live, but meanwhile I still watch Chuck and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I watch a number of other shows as well, but they do not fall in the SciFi category, or at least I don’t think so.
The Good: interesting premise, one outside what one could even remotely consider plausible, with engaging supporting cast that is mercifully not explored beyond their antics, pretty good action, witty dialog, and situational plots which are a cross between a Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart.
The Bad: the ongoing angst between Chuck and Sarah made even more unbelievable by his occasional interest in other organisms of the female persuasion who happen to throw a smile his way. The bad thing is that we were hit over the head hard with it early on, and it left nowhere to go. Contrast that to the subtle hints we get from the Captain and Inara, from Kaylee and Simon, from Jayne and River (what? . . . it could happen! Lots of successful relationships are comprised of opposites, and some even start with one person stabbing the other).
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
The Good: the nearly unemotional terminators, the efficiency and economy of their actions, and the slow, very slow, progression they show toward human-like personal issues.
The Bad: every plot centering on some perceived personal problem or angst of the human characters.
Some may see a pattern here. A pattern where I am not particularly interested in stories involving larger-than-life contrived situations where reason-challenged individuals struggle to resolve problems arising primarily from their inability to make a decision, or their inability to accept life and deal with what has been handed them. In other words, soap operas.
But it’s not all negativity I sell; I also have suggestions.
1) Plan on shows having a beginning, middle, and end. I suggest three seasons, tops. Coincidentally this seems to be the sustainable number when considering quality as the primary goal. Have the framework worked out, along with a general sequence of events, and major plot and character milestones. Resist the temptation to drag it out. Resist the temptation to can it after one season.
2) Miniseries. We all like movies because they tell a good story at a reasonable pace, but sometimes they leave us wanting more. The studio’s response is to make sequels that by enlarge tend to suck. I say make a miniseries to begin with (three episodes maximum), and let it be.
Both of those suggestions are geared toward the “be more selective and go for quality rather than quantity” approach to art. We are beginning to see a little of this showing up in web-only projects, and I only hope it takes hold across the board. I say that because as I dig through the sludge of what is today’s TV fare I would be far happier finding a few diamonds than a rich vein of soap.