Tune In Tomorrow . . . PLEASE! Days Of Our Lives vs. EastEnders

Published on July 30th, 2011 in: Issues, My Dream Is On The Screen |

By AJ Wood

dool vs eastenders

Like so many who get involved in soap operas, my introduction to Days Of Our Lives circa 1994 was quite innocent and totally unintentional. Coming home from summer school, I would walk in just in time for my sister to be sitting down to lunch in front of the TV. Being tired, bored, and overheated from the bus ride home, I’d join her in the living room and idly watch Days, a.k.a. DOOL, with her. Then, after a few days, a week or two maybe, I made the mistake all unintentional soap opera watchers have made at some point: I asked, “Why’s she so mad at her?”

From there, the story lines began to take hold in my brain like a drug. I had always been able to resist the temptation when growing up around my mother and her “stories,” but somehow the teenage mixture of boredom and summer lethargy was no match for the goings-on in the fictional town of Salem, USA.

john and kristen
John Black & Kristen Blake

It remained a summertime confection though, in those early years. I’d get re-caught-up in the summertime, and lose interest once school started again. A couple years after high school though, I needed something to do between college classes, and DOOL was there to fill the void again. This exposure gave me the time to get totally hooked on the comically-convoluted plot lines.

This was, for me, the golden age of DOOL. The main storyline involved Kristen Blake’s attempt to hold on to her fiance John Black by keeping from him the fact that she’d lost their baby. John’s love for his old flame Marlena Evans had been rekindled, but he was staying with Kristen because of the baby. In short order, Kristen had Marlena trapped in a secret room in the wine cellar, while pregnant Susan Banks, impersonating Kristen, was going to marry John. This was going along fine until Susan got power-happy and became enamored with John herself, locking Kristen in the secret room with Marlena and going on to impersonate Kristen full time!

A grumpy nun, a dying stage actress, a fraternal twin brother, and a few double- and triple-switched identities later, Kristen ended up sold into a sheik’s harem while Susan settled down with her baby in England. Tuning in tomorrow to see what would happen and how much more crazy the plot would get was the main draw, after all. There was rudimentary acting, while the production quality wasn’t much better, but that was all part of the silly, outlandish pageant. To criticize a soap for these things would be like complaining that Vegas has too much neon, or that Rome has too many ruins.

But in the same way that staying a week on the Las Vegas Strip can make it seem banal, so can a soap opera wear out its own . . . soapiness. OK, Kristen went to unrealistically extreme measures to fake a baby in order to keep the man she loved but seriously, now Billie needs to fake a baby, too? And now Sami? And Sami is going to do it again? Once someone is revealed to have a long-lost identical twin for the fifth time, the happily stunned shock turns to something a little worse than just idle boredom, something that makes daytime chores or the cold you’re at home nursing seem downright fun.

The problem which makes the repetitive plot twists worse is that no writer can juggle affairs and relationships between a small set of blood-related characters and a lot of lost or discovered half or whole siblings without generating a certain amount of inbreeding with the characters. I knew it had reached a breaking point of sorts when I literally had to resort to a whiteboard along with some intense research on the Web (including finding out the difference between a first cousin and a first cousin once removed) just to understand why Lucas had referred to Nick as a relative. It had gone from a fun daily ride to a train wreck you can’t not watch then further still to just plain dumb. Salem had gone the way of the House of Usher, only with a plot line even less original than a 150-year-old story.

kat moon
Kat Moon

I eventually gave up altogether on DOOL. I found my fix for serialized drama fulfilled by most other programs on TV: Battlestar Galactica and Lost provided science fiction soap, while Six Feet Under and The Sopranos provided dramatic soap. And any current sitcom today is nearly as serialized as a soap. Meanwhile, it seemed many others were with me; soaps were dying off with little chance of the resurrections many of their characters enjoyed. Days Of Our Lives is now the last soap on NBC while, the long-running All My Children and One Life To Live have been written off into the sunset. I was sure the idea of a daily little dose of shocks and thrills—purely for the sake of those shocks and thrills; no larger moral or lesson going on—was just about dead.

Then a bit over a year ago, I found myself watching an episode of the BBC soap opera EastEnders, which details the ongoing trials of the Albert Square residents in London’s low-rent east side. Having seen the telenovelas of Mexico and Central America as well as a French feuilleton, I was curious if British soaps were as campy as all the rest. I was quite surprised—as I watched that first episode, then tuned in the next day, and the day after that—at the amazing differences in what EastEnders had to offer compared to other soaps I had known.

The first thing that bowled me over was the pacing. EastEnders only runs 30 minutes four times a week (opposed to the US standard of an hour five days a week, which isn’t far off the standard international varieties), but the time in the storyline stays quite close to real time. On Friday’s episode, it’s Friday in Albert Square; the following Monday, a weekend has passed and the characters have moved forward. In Salem, just one day could take weeks if not months to actually pass by depending on how much action was going on.

Also, people in EastEnders look like actual people and do real people things. There are a couple of people with modelesque bodies, but mostly the actors are built like real people. I know precisely what everyone’s job is. We see Denise tending the corner store and Masood delivering the mail. Dot actually chain-smokes; I can’t think of anyone—even an evil, shady character—who has ever smoked on DOOL. And Dot is anything but evil or shady; she just likes to smoke.

dot smoking

The thing that took months to get used to is each actor’s day-to-day appearance changing depending on the scene and the character’s storyline. When Kat Moon’s newborn baby died, she didn’t wear even a spot of makeup for months, whereas usually she was as painted-up as Tammy Faye. When Phil fell into a drinking binge after his son was imprisoned, he looked genuinely terrible. Not just unshaven, but downright grubby; you could easily believe he’d been drunk and sleeping on the couch for days from the state of his clothes, the blotchy look of his skin, and the bags under his eyes. A week or two later, he was doing crack cocaine with Rainie and they both looked properly tore up. It took months for the two of them to look “normal” again. The only signs of drunken benders in Salem are a partly-untucked shirt and maybe a day-old beard.

Of course, the fact that there is more for the actors to work with helps as well. There isn’t the same sort of inbreeding going on in EastEnders as there is in other soaps. Sure, there are some core families—the Mitchells, the Brannings—but they are not too shy to introduce new people and families to the mix. It helps, too that people don’t always end up being a long-lost Branning or Mitchell. People leave often, making room for more. Years before I was watching, there was a whole family of Millers, introduced as troublemakers on the square, but now there’s just Darren left.

This ability to have a new character also means the writers don’t have to rely on Soap Opera Sudden Aging Syndrome, or SOSAS. Characters in many soaps have a tendency to go away for a few weeks then come back twice (or more) the age they were when they left. On DOOL, Marlena left on her honeymoon leaving her three-year-old daughter Belle with a babysitter. On Marlena’s return Belle was 17 years old. The worst case was early-thirties EJ, who turned out to be the boy Susan Banks had given birth to a scant six years prior!

phil and rainie on drugs
Phil and Rainie on drugs

That’s not to say EastEnders is completely un-soapy though. Just recently, a six-month storyline concluded involving a swap of newborn babies. Ex-spouses are actually having an affair now that they’re engaged to other people. Billy learned he had a son he never knew about. There’s a good balance however, between these stock soap plots and the more dramatic ones (like Dot dealing with husband Jim’s debilitating stroke, or Phil’s descent into drug abuse) or comedic fare (like Tamwar’s preparations for his wedding to Afia, or Alfie trying to concoct a new special cocktail for a special occasion).

But last and certainly not least (and perhaps even most), EastEnders gets the thrill of the ending just right. A cliff-hanger at the end of an episode of any soap is pretty much de rigueur, of course. Even DOOL does this. But many soaps often resort to cheap tricks to make a cliff-hanger more than it really is. On DOOL, Sami might walk into the room where her husband and his mistress were last seen kissing. “What’s going on?!” she says, shocked as she enters the room. Fade to black and roll credits. The next day, we pick up right there with her line expecting her husband to be caught red-handed, but really, when the camera pans over, we see that he’s just watching an exciting sports match. “The home team just scored!” he exclaims innocently. I know: Total cop out. On EastEnders however, the conclusion is not so tired, never resorting to any sort of camera trick or double meaning.

Also, and best of all, there is the iconic EastEnders drum beat. The theme song starts on a drum riff, which plays immediately after the last line or shot of the episode, overlapping the end of the scene Soderberg-style. “I will make him pay for what he’s done to me” DO. DO. DO-DO-DO-DO-DO-DO! “Your online romance doesn’t exist. I made up that user myself!” DO. DO. DO-DO-DO-DO-DO-DO!

This riff is so well known it’s entered British popular culture, and you see it pop up in other places. In a Jennifer-Saunders-penned dramedy, Jam & Jerusalem, after a particularly dramatic speech by one character, another character dramatically intones the DO DO DO-DO-DO DO-DO-DO as if it were an episode cliff-hanger. On Miranda Hart’s sitcom, her character admits to spending Friday night playing her drum set along with the riff off the television, ending her version on a cymbal crash.

But it is, as the British would say, early days yet: I’ve only been watching for a year. Even if I grow sick of it tomorrow through, it does say something that—after several years getting tired of Days of Our Lives—I have been able to take up a new soap with such zeal. After that much time, I thought the whole idea of soaps was dead to me, but it seems that it just needs to be done right.

Being such a fan of the genre though, I have to say I do hope American TV keeps at least ONE soap on the air during the daytime. I would love to see Armistead Maupin, creator of the wonderfully entangled plots of the Tales of the City series, be given the chance to create a whole soap from the ground up. Or maybe a full-camp counterbalance to the “real” soaps with the revival of Soap or even better, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Or at least it would be cool if PBS, long loved by its viewers for their Britcoms, brings EastEnders to its daytime lineup.

Which just may happen, because, you see . . . I happen to own PBS. DO. DO. DO-DO-DO-DO-DO-DO!

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