Saturday, 18 July 2015

Soapy tricks, and how irritating they are

“Yes, you are better than my old boyfriend,” Donna Moss tells Josh Lyman in The West Wing, after a slightly flirtatious, bantering argument about whether he’s sufficiently concerned with her wellbeing or not.

The comparison with her former boyfriend isn’t that flattering. She’d been hospitalised after an car crash; on the way to see her, he’d stopped to have a drink with some friends. Josh does, indeed, feel obliged to relativise his superiority.

“I'm just saying if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for a beer.”

“If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights,” she replies.

Bradley Whitford as Josh, Janel Moloney as Donna
in The West Wing
That strikes me as a pretty clear indication of where we're heading. However, this exchange takes place in episode 18 of season 2. And it isn’t until the closing episodes of the series, in season 7, that the couple finally forms.

The West Wing is one of my favourite series, so I’m not trying to run it down. But that piece of narrative strikes me as one of the worst devices that I associate with soaps: it’s deliberately intended to announce a destination which we’re then going to be delayed reaching for many, many hours more.

That happens a lot in series, where one of the major goals is to keep the story rolling for as long as possible, and you really don’t want to see things wrapped up too soon. One of the simplest devices used to extend the narrative is a failure to communicate. How often have you seen the scene where the male protagonist is seen out one night by the female, in the company of a particularly attractive woman? When they meet, she gives him no chance to explain himself, saying something like “you have nothing to explain. And I certainly don’t want to hear any lies.” 

That means it will be another 39 episodes before she realises that the attractive young woman was his sister.

One of the most annoying occurrences of this kind is at the of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The failure of the male to find out the real relationship between the female and the man he sees her with costs them some forty or fifty years of happiness. Fortunately, it takes only a few pages in the book, so the pain for the reader or the spectator of the film lasts less long.

That example shows that it isn’t only in series that the device appears. Even in a relatively short piece, like a film, it’s used fairly frequently. Have you seen The Holiday, a gentle little feel-good romantic comedy? Twice, to make sure we don’t miss the point, Cameron Diaz, playing Amanda, picks up Jude Law’s mobile to see that he has an incoming call from someone with a woman’s name.

“Sophie, Olivia, Amanda,” she says, “busy guy.”

Fortunately, this is a film so it’s only going to be a matter of minutes before she finds out that Sophie and Olivia are his daughters, from a marriage ended by widowhood, not divorce (leaving him still the perfect man). In a series, it would have been at least five episodes, by which time the spectator would have been screaming, “ask him who they are, for God’s sake.” That, after all, is what any normal person would do; it just doesn’t suit the fiction.

My heart sinks every time I meet this kind of trick. I think of it as “soapy” because I feel it belongs more to the soap genre. That makes it exasperating when it appears in something I otherwise regard as good.

At the moment, for instance, in Britain Channel 4 is showing a skilfully constructed series called Humans. The central theme is that society has developed highly sophisticated humanoid robots; some of them now have consciousness. It’s fun and it’s compelling.
Humans. Compelling.
Particularly when it's not being soapy
So I was sorry when the young man who truly knows the conscious robots, having failed to contact one through his computer, reacts to the young woman who suggests “why don’t we try it my way?” with an immediate rejection. He’s tried everything, and how could she possibly know more about the subject than he does.

Yeah, right. Some time soon we’re going to discover that her way works. But not until the writers have spun out the narrative a bit longer.

Cheap. Facile. Soapy. And I wish they hadn’t done it.

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