This article was written by Gordon Davidescu. 

At a Passover seder I attended this year, one of the people told me that they had once watched the soap opera Coronation Street while visiting England, and that it seemed interesting but it looked like it was poorly produced. When I asked what she meant she said that it didn’t quite have the same high quality production value as, say, Days of Our Lives or All My Children.
I gave it some thought and more recently, as I have been researching what it takes to put together a dramatic television program such as a soap opera, I have been watching Days of Our Lives and All My Children just about every day to see what I could gather from it.


I have come to the conclusion that American soap opera producers put
more effort into making the soap opera look and sound good and not as
much effort into getting good scriptwriting and acting.
In most every American soap opera, there is some sort of background
music at all times, to set the mood. When things get tense onscreen,
the music reflects this. When there is some sort of conflict, the music
reflects this as well. What is really happening is that the music is
masking the fact that the actors aren’t conveying the emotions as well
as they could, and the writing is not nearly as good as it could be.

You won’t find dramatic background music on English soap operas because
the writing and acting convey the drama properly.
In most every American soap opera, there are numerous flashbacks, even
where the flashback will reflect something that happened the previous
day or earlier in the episode. This doesn’t happen in English soaps.
People scoff at English soaps, pointing out that the average episode of
Eastenders
is “only” 29 minutes long. Take out the commercials and the unnecessary
flashbacks – and by that I mean most of them – and you come pretty
close to 29 minutes as well.

The reason that there are flashbacks in American soaps are twofold –
the first being that it is padding for the show, showing recycled
material. The second, a bit more sinister, is that producers assume
that the viewer needs to be reminded of the context of a given dramatic
situation to make them remember why the particular conflict is as
serious as it is. Lexie leaves her bracelet behind in the club and the
club owner finds it, and when Abe, Lexie’s husband, confronts the club
owner as to how the bracelet got there, we are given a flashback of
Lexie showing off her bracelet to said club owner. We obviously would
have forgotten this had occurred otherwise.

What is more important to dramatic television? Good dialogue or “higher
quality” production value? Good acting or good looking actors? You
won’t find too many overweight characters on American daytime dramas
but you will find plenty of characters saying the most asinine things
that real people just don’t say.

20 Comments

  1. New and fun is indeed fun.
    I think that American soaps have just about as much conflict – irrecovable change, on the other hand, not so much. Things might seem to come to a conclusion – someone dies! Then they are mysteriously brought back to life!

  2. Hi David
    Pretty much – no. For example, when Mad Maya Sharma was no longer on the show thanks to trying to kill Dev and Sunita, nobody took her place. When Steve McDonald told off Karen and she left Weatherfield, nobody really took her place. People come and go but it’s always fresh faces and new personalities.
    Diggory Compton’s daughter is a new face on the show – entirely new, unlike anyone who has been seen before (at least not in a long while).
    Another reason English soaps trump American ones – at least until I try my hand at them! 🙂

  3. In what way are American soaps thin in content?
    Sometimes national and political issues are addressed – it isn’t too often, though. It usually has to do with Royal issues – anniversaries and the like. 🙂

  4. Hmm.
    Well, there were a series of episodes in which Claire got people to help clean up a park and then at the end of every episode there was a web site to go to “if you want to get involved like claire did”
    How’s that for good national issues? 🙂
    I actually remember in the mid 1980’s a character was raped and after the episode the actress came out and explained what one should do in case such a thing happens, G-d forbid. I thought it was pretty good of them.
    That sort of thing happens from time to time here but it’s more prominent in England.
    In my soap, I’m going to have to incorporate such issues and morals.

  5. I LOVE British soap operas! The American versions are so glitzy and non-realistic that I can’t relate, but there are lots of characters on Coronation Street that look like me.

  6. Woohoooo!! You know how long I’ve been waiting for a post like this?? Specially being a UK girl! Ahem.
    I’ve found personally that UK soaps are a lot more true to real life. Or at least real life as it stands in the UK.
    American Soap Opera’s that I’ve seen on Cable all seem to be about beautiful stick thin model type women with equally beautiful looking men. The women cry a little bit at times hoping not to spoil their flawless makeup, the story is something I can’t always such as the dream sequence. Something weird happens and it all turns out to be a dream. I have actually seen that on one of the america soaps, but I can’t for the life of me remember which it was. Please tell me life is not like that in the States.
    Soap Opera’s in the UK portray “real” looking people, complete with the correct accent for whichever part of the UK the soap is set, and deal with things such as unwanted teen pregnancies, Cancer, Aids and HIV, because they’re all a reality. They are real life situations that we can all relate to. They’re also true to present day. They’re not all about the richest most beautiful people. Add to the fact that there’s only one set of commercials halfway through the Soap and not a set of commercials every ten minutes, and I’m a happy Bunny. Commercials drive me nuts!
    As you’ve probably figured out by now, I much prefer British Soaps, but then, maybe I’m just biased. You know, being British and all 🙂

  7. Dawn,
    I may not be at all british – but it’s safe to say I spent more time watching uk soaps than anything else. Probably because I have it on while I’m working to keep me more focused on the work. I may not be a factory worker but this certainly helps get the job done.
    I presently watch eastenders and coronation street pretty much exclusively, though I’m saving up hours of hollyoaks for one big hollyoaks bingefest one of these days. 🙂
    I love what you wrote about uk soaps and completely agree with you.

  8. You might be interested in checking out Loving with a Vengeance, by Tania Modleski. In a cultural studies class, I read an essay from that book, on the visual and narrative style of soap operas, and how they reflect the makeup of the primary audience for soap operas, which Modleski takes to be mainly stay-at-home wives and mothers. She addresses the frequent flashbacks and reiteration of recent plot developments as responding to the fact that a lot of women watch soap operas while they’re doing other things, like cleaning the house or taking care of children; soap opera producers have learned that theirs isn’t a kind of media to which its audience generally devotes its full attention, and so people are expected to be able to miss episodes or parts of episodes and still be able to follow the narrative.
    It’s a pretty interesting essay.

  9. That would certainly explain why they are conspicuously absent from such prime time soaps as Dallas and Dynasty.
    That is a great point you bring up, Lily.
    I guess we can’t all watch soaps while working on the computer. 🙂

  10. Dang coronation Street has been running longer than I’ve been alive I think. One of the UK’s longest running soaps.
    They don’t have the slick productions or the money like the US soaps. But they are truer too life with everyday characters. Everyday people doing ordinary stuff and handling all the issues and problems we all face.
    They are not all bazillionaires and “beautiful people” like in the soaps here.
    Of course many of the Uk soap actors are theatre actos too and are a lot better actors than their US counterparts.

  11. I think it may be the UK’s longest running soap, if I am not mistaken.
    A brilliant and well written analysis of Corrie. Those are my feelings precisely, even though I can’t quite claim to know what everyday life may be like in Manchester or thereabouts. 🙂