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Reissue: Rose Hoare’s ’07 Sunday Feature on Days of Our Lives

This is the debut of ‘Reissue’, an occasional column which will bring back a classic feature from the vaults to pleasure a nation anew. First up: Rose Hoare’s discovery of the dimly-lit daytime pleasures of Days of Our Lives, which returns to New Zealand screens after a two years absence via Lightbox today. Originally published in the wonderful and cool Sunday magazine in 2007.

For my birthday last year, I received the gift of MySky. The first TV show I started recording regularly with it was Days of our Lives. People seem to find those daytime soaps pretty moreish, I reasoned. There must be something worthwhile about them. I’d always assumed I would get into them when I was a fat, bored housewife raising horrible, embarrassing little brats and popping tranquilisers. But now I could fast forward through all that, and skip straight to daily immersion in empty-calorie television.

Little did I know what a rich, imaginative world would open up at my feet. Days of our Lives, which has been on in the United States since 1965, was like nothing I’d seen on primetime television. Yes, it was crappy, but was so much more than that, too. Yes, it was outdated. I prefer “traditional”. In fact, I would come to think of DooL as special, something greater than the sum of its parts. I came to believe that Friday’s cliffhanger episodes ought to be sealed in a time capsule for later generations. But that realisation came much later on.

It wasn’t the plots, which I couldn’t possibly be expected to follow after decades of knotting and twisting. It wasn’t the characters, as I didn’t really “identify with” any of them. Or find them recognisably human. It was just the awesome spectacle of the thing; the lavish daily pageant of fakery, of regimented phoniness.

Like the average “2.5 kids”, soap operas operate in a world of averaged-out formulas that don’t exist in real life. The style of clothing, for instance, is timeless, disconnected from fashion. All the women look as though they’ve had their makeup done at a department store counter and their dresses run up from Butterick patterns. People say “normal” things to each other, things that they might reasonably be expected to say, but that I have never actually heard anyone say in real life, like “Wake up and smell the coffee, Belle” or “I’m not going to let anything jeopardise my future happiness with Victor”.

Who are these people? Who talks like that? Banality, taken to a certain degree, past a certain threshold, is spellbindingly weird. I watched in amazement.

Sometimes they ventured into comedic territory. You know, for a bit of light relief. These scenes were so laboured, so mechanical, so bizarre, that they could have been written by George Burns on pain medication.

The sexual and racial politics were preposterous. All the women were either perfectly crisp home-makers, or else they were schemers, vixens, cold-hearted bitches who would stop at nothing etc. One schemer, a naughty teen, was raped by a Hispanic man and thereby transformed from a reprehensible high school villainess into a more sympathetic, pitiable character. She wore tracksuits and constantly clutched her arms as though cold, a gesture meant to convey her inner turmoil. A bit of raping seemed to have done her good – taken her down a peg or two, the show’s writing team seemed to suggest. That Hispanic man was just the guy to do it.

It wasn’t just the banality that kept me hooked. And it wasn’t the crashing stupidity either. It was the boldness of that crashing stupidity and banality. The plots were brazenly, audaciously stupid.

If you don’t believe me, ask Deidre Hall who joined the show in 1976. Over the years her character, Dr Marlena Evans, has been raped, assaulted, mugged whilst pregnant. She has been injured in two car crashes and four explosions. She has fallen into a pit, down a tunnel, off a roof, and down stairs. She has been in a coma, had a heart attack and been poisoned. She has been shot with a tranquilizer gun, hit with a piece of pipe and bitten by a snake. She has been shot by a sniper and by a friend who was under mind control at the time. She has been possessed by Satan and exorcised by her husband, who, it turned out, used to be a priest. She is one of 36 characters brought back from the dead.

Researching this story I came across priceless, statistically improbable sentences, like “He had an incurable disease which he had gotten as a result of nuclear war”, or “As it turned out, the woman dead in the pool was Penelope, the fourth Banks triplet given up for adoption” or “Neither Belle nor Shawn remembered having sex during a traumatic barn fire”.

I had been watching DooL for three months when I saw my first retconned SCDA. I felt like I’d spotted a rare, endangered whale. “SCDA” means Same Character, Different Actor (Shortland St just had its first one) and, in order to explain why the new actor playing the Irish doctor now had an undisguisably Australian accent, rather than a horrendously fake British accent, we were treated to the half-assed explanation that he had grown up in Australia. Or something. To provide new information retroactively, so as to smooth over continuity flaws is to “retcon”. A similarly cheeky hustle was identified by a Soap Opera Digest editor in the ’90s: Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, whereby a child character will suffer an attack of the grow-ups and magically become a teenage character between episodes.

Given the pace of production, I doubt whether the actors have time to learn their lines prior to filming. Watching DOOL, I began to notice that the actors paused in strange places, and their eyes would often flicker towards the same off-camera spot. Guessing, from these signals, where in the studio the cheat sheets were hidden became part of the fun of watching, and whenever an actress sported big hair – which was often – I would be looking for an earpiece buried beneath piled-up tendrils.

They also routinely do this thing where, at the end of a scene, an actor’s face is shown emoting in close-up for several seconds. Women are adept at “reading” faces for emotion, so a good long stretch of Hope cogitating over what Bo has just revealed to her about a possible baby-switch serves to underline the dramatic content of the scene. Men, less able to read faces, just find those long moments, which are empty of dialogue and freighted with invisible meaning, almost unbearable to watch.

The show’s transparently low production values meant that every episode promised moments of breathtaking crappiness. One time, four “kids” on school camp fell down a hole into a subterranean cavern. Except all four of them looked closer to 30 and, although the only source of light in the tunnel was an occasional shaft of “moonlight”, it was still bright enough to tell that the “tunnel” was more of a hydro slide.

On an episode of Crime Scene Investigation, I saw the soupy remains of two people left dead in a car boot in the desert. They were exceptionally realistic. In comparison, DooL’s special effects seem refreshingly quaint, requiring good will and imagination, and something like generosity, on the part of the viewer.

Like the last operating tram at MOTAT, the show has historic value. It still employs voiceover interior monologues and lighting and blocking techniques that were new-minted in the ’80s, which is why so many women and wood-panelled offices have that insouciant, pre-stockmarket crash sumptuous look about them.

Yet DooL is in danger of extinction. Over the last few decades, soap opera audiences have gone into the work force, or been lured away by newer formats. As ratings fell, advertising dollars were getting sucked out of daytime and pumped into primetime. Soaps, the reliable old network cash cow, were turning into sloppy, meagre mutton.

In 1998, the Wall Street Journal posited the OJ Simpson trial as a watershed moment when audiences were first wooed away from soaps in large numbers. They ended up watching chat shows that “served up real-life dramas more tawdry than the fictitious lives of daytime TV”. 2004 was the first time that the marvellous “like sands through the hourglass” opening sequence was abbreviated – to make space for Martha Stewart’s insider trading trial.

In New Zealand, the advertisements that screen around Days of Our Lives are a real rogue’s gallery. Inga Tuigamala sits in a soft-focus studio discussing Biomag mattresses with Murray Deaker. There’s a Jenny Craig ad. Colin Meads hoons around on his quad bike discussing what deer velvet pills have done for him and wife Verna. A dandruff shampoo ad, an ad for orthopaedic school shoes and finally an efficient woman in business shirt and slacks advocates calling 0800 ATTICS for tidying away surplus sports equipment.

This week, to advertise around DOOL costs a sweet $500 – more than Emmerdale and The Young and the Restless but a lot less than Ellen. In America, networks have responded by re-running each day’s soap opera episodes at night, on cable channels. Executives with backgrounds in marketing were hired to oversee the daytime slots and, as well as cringe-makingly obvious product placements, several shows upped the ante on their tie-in merchandise. One soap sells clothing and jewellery designed by one of its characters. There is also a sort of Fly-Buys programme for DOOL fans – they answer a daily question about the show’s latest episode to win points redeemable against Sony merchandise.

The most drastic measure, though, was hiring top-flight, old-hat head writer James Reilly (he is the Jerry Bruckheimer of soap operas) to rejuvenate the show with more lurid plots. A serial killer storyline was introduced, of which I can say no more than that it worked, briefly. Advertising sales went up for the first time in six years and DooL was once again the number one soap amongst women aged 18 to 49 years.

But last month, the president of NBC, who orders up DooL from its producers announced that the show would likely be shit-canned in 2009. Since, by my calculations, we are four to five years behind the States, this means that, by 2014, DooL might no longer screen here.

[Spinoff Ed’s note: like so many before her, Rose was wrong here – the show just arrived on online TV platform Lightbox – a medium which did not exist when this story was published]

In Australia, DooL was susceptible to being displaced by the cricket, which screens free to air on Channel Nine, and like us, Australia were more than four years behind the States. So in 2004, Channel Nine decided to do something about it. They ingeniously cut together a sort of update that condensed the past four years’ episodes into a one-hour special, called Days of Our Lives – A New Day. This gave 2.5 seconds to each episode, and transformed DooL into a sort of Samuel Beckett drama, if Beckett worked in Culver City where DooL is made. A New Zealander who saw A New Day said, “It was the best TV I’ve ever seen in my life, and goes to show that nothing really does happen in these soaps”.

TVNZ has no such plans. Head of Programming Jane Wilson says that “it doesn’t seem to matter” how far behind we are. “Feedback from the New Zealand viewers showed they would rather see the storylines unfold as they are supposed to. The storylines and production quality remains consistent every year and people continue to enjoy it.”

Lightbox Subscribers: Watch Days of Our Lives, in all its trashy glory, by clicking here.

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