For most of my life I have remained immune to the dubious charms of the soap opera, either the daytime or evening varieties.
In the 1970s and 80s when shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” captivated the nation, I much preferred to listen to the radio. TV held very little interest for me except for football games on Sunday or shows like “All in the Family” that spoke to American social realities.
More recently a couple of evening soaps struck a chord in a way that nothing in the past ever did. I say this even as the creative team behind them would most likely disavow the term soap opera. After making their case to CounterPunch readers looking for some mindless entertainment (god knows how bad that it needed in these horrific times), I want to offer some reflections on why this genre retains such a powerful hold.
A couple of weeks ago, while scraping through the bottom of the Netflix barrel, I came across “Grand Hotel”, a Spanish TV show that has been compared to “Downton Abbey” on the basis of being set in the early 20th century and its preoccupation with class differences. Having seen only the very first episode of “Downton Abbey”, I was left with the impression that it was typical Masterpiece Theater fare, where class distinctions mattered less than costume and architecture.
While there is costume and architecture galore in “Grand Hotel”, the real emphasis is on class, and in particular how a luxury hotel replicates the suffocating authoritarian codes of a semifeudal society that made the democratic uprisings in Spain of the post-WWI period inevitable, even if that latter period is not foreshadowed in even the slightest manner.
In episode one we are introduced to Julio Olmedo, a handsome working-class youth who has arrived at the Grand Hotel to find out what has happened to his sister Christina, who had been working there as a maid. After she stopped sending him letters, he became convinced that something was wrong. When a waiter tells him that she had been fired for stealing jewelry, Julio insists that this is impossible. To find out the truth, he assumes a different name and hires on as a waiter himself.
There are four distinct social layers characterized in “Grand Hotel”, starting with the people on top. A matriarch named Doña Teresa Alarcon rules over the hotel with an iron fist. Her daughter Alicia, who will become Julio’s love interest, enjoys her privileges but has no ambitions to lord it over people. Indeed, her egalitarian spirit make it possible to fall for Julio, no doubt aided by his Adonis-like features. Her other daughter is Sofia, who is married to Alfredo Vergara–an aristocrat who seeks to become the hotel manager, a symptom perhaps of the gentry’s declining economic power and the rising status of the bourgeoisie.
One thing stands in the way of Vergara’s ambitions. That is the current manager of the hotel: Don Diego, a shrewd and ruthless fellow who hopes to consummate his status by marrying Alicia, a match favored by Doña Teresa. Rounding out the upper crust is her son Javier, a lout who favors booze, prostitutes and indolence in no particular order.
The Alarcons rely on the services of Benjamin, the maître d’hôtel, and the maids’ supervisor Ángela to keep their underlings in line. Although they come from the working class themselves, their role is pretty much that of a foreman in a factory—to impose labor discipline.
At the bottom tier are the workers themselves, who grovel before those above them even as they confide in each other how much they despise them once beyond earshot.
Now of course this might of some interest as sociology but if there were no drama to keep the whole thing together, you might as well watch a baseball game or a cooking show. That is where some really lacerating dialogue makes the difference. Oddly enough, the confrontations between the various characters are reminiscent of the sparks that flew in “Fawlty Towers”, another series based in a dysfunctional hotel and starring John Cleese, but without the goal of making you laugh. Instead they induce grimaces mixed with a smile.
Since Christina’s disappearance coincides with a string of murders of lone women under a new moon, the law enters the picture personified by Inspector Ayala, a Castilian Hercule Poirot who bows before no authority, either aristocratic or bourgeois.
The series revolves around multiple plot lines, the search for the serial killer and the struggle for control over the hotel. The stock in trade of soaps through the ages is used, from overheard conversations to lovers caught in compromising positions. Each show ends with you asking yourself what the hell is going to happen next. Give it a try. You’ll find it as addictive as opium but with no side effects.
“Revenge” began in 2011, the same year as “Grand Hotel” and involving many of the same plot elements. If Julio Olmedo takes on a false identity to get to the bottom of his sister’s disappearance, so does Amanda Clarke, a beautiful young millionaire who shows up in the Hamptons as Emily Thorne.
At first blush, Thorne is just another Hamptons denizen, interested in nothing but charity balls, fancy restaurants, polo matches, and yachting. But that is just a cover for her real purpose, which is to extract revenge on the Grayson clan that was responsible for framing her father for the terrorist bombing of a passenger airliner. He was not accused of being a member of al Qaeda, but supposedly some sort of shadowy plutocratic cabal.
Conrad Grayson was her father’s partner. He is a super-villain who will destroy anybody who gets in his way. Played by Henry Szerny, he looks like he was separated at birth from George Herbert Walker Bush. I would assume that this was an intentional casting choice. The show’s roots are clearly in “Dallas” and “Dynasty”. I have no way of comparing it with such originals but it blows the TNT revival of “Dallas” out of the water.
The show makes frequent allusions to the 2008 financial crisis with a clear message that the rich are scumbags, but that’s not the main reason to tune it in. Instead, it is to get your mind off the tragedies that can be seen on the evening news every night. There’s a time and a place for escapism unless you are one of those people with a masochistic streak on the need to wallow in global catastrophes—the main reason I stopped listening to WBAI. From time to time I used to get excoriated for writing movie reviews rather than exclusively about current events. Thank goodness that Jeff St. Clair understood the need for both.
I think most people know that the term soap opera derives from the fact that the originals that aired on the radio starting in 1930 often had sponsors that made detergents or bath soap. You see fewer daytime soap operas nowadays because talk shows and game shows cost less to produce.
I never watched a daytime soap opera but understand that they were often regarded as innovative, leading the way with the introduction of gay characters and providing work for some of Hollywood’s top actors and actresses. During the early 1980s I had a brief affair with a highly educated young woman who would have a fit if she missed a single episode of “Days of Our Lives”. The fact that she walked out on me is no reflection on the soap.
The first prime-time soap was “Peyton Place” that premiered in 1964, based on a 1956 Grace Metalious novel that had steamy sex scenes. Its success led to a number of follow-ups: Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. Despite J.R. Ewing’s reputation as a one-percent villain, the shows were mostly about the sorrows of the rich rather than their predations. Maids and butlers entered the scenes but mostly as minor characters. By contrast, the major character in “Grand Hotel” is a waiter and a bartender is the most sympathetic character in “Revenge” next to Emily Thorne.
Not surprisingly, soap operas have become grist for the mills of media and cultural studies, MLA conferences, and the like. Tens of thousands of words have been spent on “Days of Our Lives” and “Dallas”, making them the equivalent of “Pride and Prejudice”, at least in terms of their ability to generate CV-worthy peer-reviewed prose. I hardly think it is worth the effort even though I understand that the need to “publish or perish” is on many peoples’ minds in light of disappearing tenure track positions.
In my view, the key to understanding soaps, at least the more interesting of them such as the two under consideration here, is as a continuation of the Victorian-era serial that not only carried on in the soap opera genre but in the comic strips of the golden age such as “Mary Worth”, a story I found compelling when I was young (even though it was written for women.) It was also what attracted movie audiences to serials like “The Perils of Pauline”, a story that incorporated the heroine tied to the railroad tracks iconography.
It all goes back to Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” that appeared in a serialized format in 1836. Its success inspired Alexander Dumas to write “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Crisco” as a feuilleton, the French version of a serialized tale.
Today that tradition carries on through Stephen King, the Charles Dickens of our age who wrote “The Green Mile” in six installments. He went even further with the online serialized “The Plant” in 2000 that was to proceed on a chapter-by-chapter basis. He abandoned the project when readers declined in sufficient numbers to pay $1 for each chapter, a problem ubiquitous to electronic communications.
That problem, of course, is avoided when you are watching something on Netflix. Your membership fee spares you the annoyance of detergent or bath soap commercials, reason enough to take in “Grand Hotel” as well as the first three seasons of “Revenge”—thank goodness.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.