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FeaturesSeptember 4, 2014

Real Housewives, True Detectives, and the Purgatory in Between


The rise of reality TV and the post-HBO drama is slowly killing the soap. Rosabel Tan is in mourning. //

“I like everything about the dead… ‘cause they’re so quiet… Think about it, how quiet it would be to be in a room with no one that is alive.”
– Phaedra Parks, Real Housewife of Atlanta

On a recent visit home I found my parents engrossed in an episode of Border Patrol, where a chubby man was being busted for failing to declare a vacuum-packed slab of salmon. “It’s for my friend,” he mumbled nervously: a clear sign he was smuggling drugs. The customs officials carried the pack away and, following an ad break, we discovered the salmon had tested positive for an unknown substance. Would it be laden with coke? After another ad break we discovered that no, it was just salmon.

It used to be that my mum watched Shortland St during this half-hour slot, but soaps like these are no longer in her repertoire. She splits her time now between crime shows, Chinese dramas and reality TV, and it’s not just her: through this lifetime, soaps have been declining silently and with a dignity that feels entirely unbefitting to them.

It’s a trend that’s particularly pronounced in the States. In the past five years alone, we’ve seen the slow-sweeping death of half our American Elders: All My Children (aged 41, replaced by a cooking show), One Life to Live (aged 43, replaced a health and lifestyle makeover show), As the World Turns (aged 54, replaced by a talk show), and Guiding Light (aged 57, or 72 if you count its preceding radio broadcast, replaced by a game show).

It may not seem like a big deal, but the death of the soap would be one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 21st century. There’ll never be anything like them. Soaps are Linklater on a bender of speed and KFC; they’re the ultimate longform art. They create worlds and characters that aren’t just passed down through generations; they evolve through generations, day-by-day-by-day-by-day. They bond families together. They’re society’s two-dollar glue-stick. It’s incredible that Guiding Light ran for 72 years. That’s like being outlived by your pet, that fetched sticks for your granddad and your dad and now you.

Or: consider the fact that Michael Galvin has played the role of Dr Chris Warner since Shortland St’s inception in 1992. For 18 years (he found sanity for four), he’s spent a third of his day pretending to be this completely inconceivable human. 18 years: that’s how long it takes to create an independently-functioning adult, but it’s also how long it takes to implant a hapless doctor into the hearts of an entire country. It’s amazing, it’s the world’s most bewildering performance art, and if soaps continue to decline, we’ll never have this again.

At the same time, the decline of the soap is symptomatic of TV’s health. No other artform has thrived as much in the wake of the digital revolution, and soaps are its natural victim. Thirty years ago, soaps were networks’ bread-and-butter, generating the revenue that funded their prime-time experiments. Now they make reality TV. It’s cheaper, and while most of it flops, the ones that don’t make a killing through a sports-inspired combination of advertising, product placement and licensing fees – which means more money for the high-end stuff.

Take Fox: In 2011, the network’s biggest money-maker wasn’t 24 or Glee, it was American Idol, bringing in approximately $6.64 million in ad revenue for every half-hour it screened.

Rust Cohle: This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.

Martin Hart: Stop saying shit like that. It’s unprofessional.

In this Golden Age, we no longer need soaps the way we used to. We have fatter cash cows in the barn and our other needs are being better met by other livestock. For a long time, soaps served two major functions. The first was to do with voyeuristic pleasure: the thrill of watching others face dirty confrontations and unexpected betrayals. The second was to do with empathy. The world of a soap forms a clumsy but comprehensive simulation of social reality. We know these broadly-drawn characters, spend more time with them than we do with most our friends, and because they encounter myriad moral quandaries on a day-to-day basis, we get the opportunity to test how we might react in the same situation. We get to see what they do, too, when they discover their father is having an affair with their best friend’s math tutor, and we get to see how those decisions play out.

Because of the way the industry’s evolved, those two needs are diverging into two distinct genres: reality TV and prime-time drama, each fulfilling their roles with greater sophistication than their last common shared ancestor. You can’t get more sordid than reality TV, and you can’t beat the guilty thrill of seeing people reveal – in the most absurd of ways – their ugliest possible selves.

At the other end of the spectrum, prime-time has seen the birth of shows where the characters are richly developed, the production values staggeringly high, and the moral dilemmas complex, smart and challenging. We’re given two avenues, and both are better. Or maybe worse.

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Without the soap, we’re relegated to extremes. We watch reality TV because we want the worst of humanity reflected back at us, and we watch prime-time because we want the best version of something we might strive to be, or the best explanation of the people we are.

This is no surprise. They’re the rules of the game. We know the world of reality TV is one that’s populated by bitches, bigots and Stan Walker. We visit because we want to see people trying to cook bacon with an iron and secretly spraypainting their hair to make it look thicker. We crave the inane in this world, just as we’re satisfied by its child-like reductive justice – we want people to be punished for failing to conform to social norms (of beauty, of relationships, of salmon) and we want things to be simple.

In many ways it’s Darwinism at its crudest. Historians of the future will paint the genre as a perverted Noah remake with a half-hearted working ethos of ‘there can only be one’, only there’s many because the economies of TV demand it (open pitch for all networks: a reality show where a new golden republic is spawned from the Biggest Losers, the Ultimate Fighters and America’s Next Top Models).

But while we’re content for this world to be basic, we want our pretend world to be complicated and imperfect and meaningful. We want Don Draper to be Gandhi, but Gandhi with a rough childhood and a drinking problem. We want him to instruct us on the human condition but we want him to fail to understand it himself.

On its own, none of this compartmentalisation is any worse to what we had before, but we’re limited without a middle ground. In a world without soaps there’s no trodden earth, just heaven and hell, and when we sit in front of our laptops now, we no longer expect salvation. Instead we’re left to balance our own diets, tempering sweet artificiality with the other channel.

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