In Defense of Soap Operas

I'm no devotee of soap operas, and I never have been, but I'm rather saddened to hear that ABC has canceled two of its remaining three daytime dramas, All My Children and One Life to Live. Only General Hospital survived this latest purge, and it seems only a matter of time before it too is jettisoned. The other networks have been canceling their soaps as well.

This is a shame, I think, because despite their cheap production values, often-salacious content, and largely superficial treatment of their topics, the daytime dramas brought something important to their audiences: a real concern for the choices individuals make and the continual tension between liberty and order in a relatively free society.

Declining audiences were of course cited as the reason for the cancellations. According to ABC, the average daily viewership of All My Children dropped from about 3.2 million in 2006 to approximately 2.4 million today. That's a 25 percent decline in a half-decade. (Of course, the networks' news shows have had similarly precipitous audience declines over the years, but they continue to pollute the airwaves.)

One Life to Live has been on the air since 1968, and All My Children since 1970. Reuters reports: "An average of 6.5 million people regularly watched daytime dramas in 1991, compared to about 1.3 million last year, according to Nielsen figures." That number, however, is rather deceptive. So many of the shows have been canceled in recent years that the total audience would naturally decline by a great amount.

However, the reality is that daytime dramas no longer sustain a sufficient audience to make them profitable for the network, and thus they must go. The Reuters story quotes an ABC executive as saying the shows no longer appeal to audiences as they once did:

“Viewers are looking for different types of programing these days," said Brian Frons, president of daytime programming at ABC, adding they wanted “informative, authentic and fun shows that are relatable, offer a wide variety of opinions and focus on ‘real life’ takeaways.”

And what "informative, authentic, and fun" shows will replace them? Reuters quotes the network as follows:

ABC said the new shows would be "Chew," which focuses on food "from every angle," and make-over series "The Revolution," with fashion mentor Tim Gunn.

These replacements do not seem likely to elevate the national discourse, to say the least. Daytime dramas were never very sophisticated or intelligent, to be sure, and some people would find their pursuit of racy, sexually charged story lines to be morally suspect (I would recommend applying my critical precept that depiction does not imply advocacy). Yet they had one thing going for them that I truly believe made them edifying to at least a small degree: they were indeed dramas. Fiction exercises the mind in ways nonfiction does not, and the exploration of personal relationships, even when not done on the deepest level, is a valuable endeavor.

Note that the shows that will be replacing them lack the serial, long-term nature of the daytime dramas. Whereas the new shows will necessarily be ephemeral in their effect -- each topic disposed of quickly -- daytime dramas exercise the minds of their audiences by requiring them to retain in the memory, and recall quickly, a wide variety of story lines, characters, and events involved in the various plots. This challenges the mind in a way that a show such as Chew cannot possibly do.

There is also much good to be found in the story content of daytime dramas. From the occasional looks I've had at them and my conversations with others about what they found appealing in the programs, these shows seem to spark a real interest in figuring out what people want out of life and exploring the great variety of human desires and motives. In addition, they indicate a real concern for people's well-being. The story lines demonstrate the sometimes appalling consequences of people's bad choices (some might say they dwell on the subject), the joys brought on by good behavior, the tragic disasters that naturally hit one and all at some time or another (regardless of our personal choices), how different people react to the winds of chance, and how our dreams and desires lead us to success or ruin.

Above all, these dramas show people making choices, the essence of morality (as Aristotle noted):

Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. (Poetics, Ch. 6)

Seen in this way, the often-sordid and sensationalistic content of these programs can have good effects (although Aristotle probably would not have considered these shows to be good). As I noted above, the depiction of a particular action does not imply that the writer is advocating that audiences approve of it, much less that they undertake it themselves.

For a particularly obvious example, consider the novels and TV series Dexter, in which a serial killer confines his actions to what he believes to be good ends. Obviously the writer of the books and makers of the show are not advocating that viewers emulate the title character. Instead, they are inviting the audience to consider some serious questions which philosophers and theologians have tackled over the ages, especially this: What makes an action good and justifiable -- the motives behind it, its reasonably expected consequences, its actual consequences, its adherence to a particular moral code, some combination of these, something else, or (per nihilism and relativism) nothing at all? These are questions one cannot help but confront when watching Dexter.

So it is with soap operas. Those who consider certain kinds of behavior to be harmful or evil can continue to do so after seeing them depicted in a daytime drama, even if the characters escape any bad consequences from their actions -- that, after all, often happens in real life as well. Likewise, viewers who consider those same behaviors to be good can interpret the consequences as they wish. But all viewers will be free and indeed encouraged to think about the morality of these choices and examine the plausibility and attractiveness of their consequences. In fact, such matters become a topic of conversation among those who watch the shows, which is likewise all to the good.

These are by no means trivial things, even when explored in a fairly unsophisticated manner. In addition, soap operas tend to convey life in a relatively free society as fraught with tough choices, as it surely is. As the characters seek out their own ends, which tend to involve a quest for elements of stability and order -- wealth, comity in personal relationships, good health, etc., all the things that are easily recognizable as the pursuit of happiness -- the conflicts among the various characters' desires (occasionally implausible, often foolishly pursued) lead to immense and usually rather melodramatic disorder. Thus these programs show that the very liberty that allows us to pursue order in our lives is itself a continual source of disorder.

Yet these shows do not suggest that the personal pursuit of happiness is a bad thing which should be replaced by a rule of experts. On the contrary, this liberty is what drives the narratives, and the struggles the characters endure are quite correctly depicted as being what life is all about: the playing out of our personal choices on the small stage of each individual's world. Without such choices, there is no drama, and no fully human life at all.

One might well cavil that all of this suggests too much significance for relatively trivial and unsophisticated entertainments. I do not wish to imply that these daytime dramas are deep explorations of important truths or consciously intended by their creators to be so. Nonetheless, G. K. Chesterton was right to stand up for such low-cultural fare in his "Defence of Penny Dreadfuls." After noting the abuse heaped by moralists upon “the youth of the lower orders” for reading sensationalistic novels instead of respected works such as The Egoist and The Master Builder, Chesterton identifies the real source of immorality in the nation’s culture -- its “higher” literature -- and praises the penny dreadfuls for their realism about human nature, for what they mean as opposed to what they depict:

And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all [...]. So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never be vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life.

Similarly, the undercurrents of seriousness in daytime dramas are a good thing and may well be among the elements that drew audiences to these shows day after day. For the rest of us, the lesson these dramas teach about how fiction works (that depiction does not imply advocacy) is an important one to bear in mind when evaluating and understanding other works of art and culture. It is especially valuable for traditionalist conservatives in developing an appropriate understanding of works of fiction that depict things that are not good and beautiful but are indeed true, portraits of which may in their own small and humble way be good and beautiful despite the things they show.

In this way, daytime dramas may well have done some good over the years. As they pass from this vale of tears, this once-disinterested observer shall mourn the loss.