From ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ we’re all soap opera addicts now

Edith-weddingGreetings! So glad you could make it. Welcome to the first in a continuing story … sorry, the continuing adventures of – no, that’s not quite right, either. All right, I’ll say it first: I’m a soap opera addict. I am a soap opera addict. I love stories that go on and on, with intertwining characters whose lives take sudden heightened turns, in episodes that leave me dying to know what comes next.

Crickets? Come on. This is the place where you say, “I’m a soap addict, too.” Because you are, you know. Unless your DVR is full of nothing beyond episodes of “NCIS” and “C.S.I.” – you are a soap fan. We are all soap fans, because this golden age of television everyone talks about is really just full of a lot of really well-made soap operas. No, there’s no Susan Lucci and none of them are going to last the decades of, say, a “Guiding Light,” but trust me: You are in love with soap operas.

I got my first professional, full-time job writing for Soap Opera Digest in the late 1990s. It was far from the heights of soap operas’ heyday – weekly, we clucked our tongues as the ratings invariably dropped another tenth of a point on each show – but they were still a wall-to-wall daytime cultural force. And they were powerful, if slow-moving, with a history of pushing the envelope on social issues that regular TV barely even touched.

Alas, after five years the scribbling on the wall was clear: The shows were caught in their own rut of predictable “surprises” and non-twisty twists. Everything was a cycle: New person comes to town. New person is trouble in some fashion. New person turns out to be related to someone in town. New person falls in love, gets married, decides not to trust his/her new bride/groom with some crucial detail, new person loses love. Next!

Today, we may not have Pine Valley or Llanview – but we have Highclere Castle and whatever name Don Draper’s firm is currently operating under, with “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men.” Even “Law & Order: SVU” is a soap these days – will Olivia find happiness? Get a baby? Be tormented by a new serial rapist? – a complete rewriting (or evolution, depending on who you talk to) of that franchise’s DNA.

But these shows work because their writers are canny about the stories they choose to tell. As Joanne Froggatt (who plays Anna on “Downton Abbey”) explained, show creator Julian Fellowes is clever about how he compiles what are obvious soap tropes.

“He’s almost got a cheekiness and a humor to it, which is a difficult thing – to have drama and humor,” she said. “With any series, to keep people interested you have to build on your stories and keep on your toes. Julian’s stories are based in truth – in season one, where a Turkish diplomat dies in Mary’s bed, that was based on a true story he read, diaries found in a friend of his’ home. Some things you think couldn’t possibly happen are based in truth – life is stranger than art sometimes.”

One other benefit: Shortened seasons mean shows don’t have to drag out plots for the sake of filling up airtime. One of daytime soaps’ biggest problems was that they put out about 260 hours of show per year (five hours, each weekday, every week). Cable shows we love today do 13 hours per year, on average; a big-output broadcast series like “SVU” may nearly double that. But for sheer content, soap operas ruled. It’s just that the content was stretched really, really thin.

And prime-time soaps? They’ve been with us a lot longer than cable, says Harry Hamlin, who currently appears on “Mad Men” but got one of his best-known jobs in the 1980s, on “L.A. Law.” “That was a soap,” he said. “ ‘Mad Men’ is a soap. ‘Homeland,’ these are all soaps,” he said. “And when I use the word ‘soaps’ I use it in a non-pejorative way. It’s about people and their lives and how they evolve over time. Those first years on ‘L.A. Law’ there was a part of me who thought I was slumming it – but looking back now I see it was brilliant storytelling and filmmaking.”

I see more of you murmuring now. You understand: It’s all right to be a soap opera addict. It’s the communal hearth fires that we come together over, the place where we tell stories and know one another from how we interpret them. That’s all right, it’s okay. It’s not really an addiction, it’s a way of life. And who knows? Soon enough we may go back to the more sterile, “Just the facts, ma’am” way TV used to be, if only to cleanse our brains’ palates.

At least, that’s what Rene Balcer thought might happen when we spoke in 2006 and shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” were starting to dominate weekly police procedurals. Balcer served as a showrunner at one time or another on all three major “Law & Order” franchises, and he knows that world best. No wonder he’s eager for it to return.

“The idea of following a single story for an hour has endured for a few thousand years; I think it’ll endure for another few thousand,” he said. “Even big stories with ensemble casts, they fall out of favor too. Six years from now, the pendulum will probably swing away again. Maybe sooner? Who knows?”

We’re still waiting, of course. Tune in tomorrow.

This column originally appeared at Curiosity Quills.