Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) deals with the immense (mostly negative) power behind the huge media networks (*). A decade later, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) tackles one of the networks’ most enduring offerings, the daily soap opera, or ‘soapie’. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and Andrew Niccol, respectively, the movies observe and comment on the stark realities of both the genre and the minds that gave it life.What Chayefsky and Niccol ignored, or maybe discarded as superfluous, was the content itself, the narratives and characters that made soapies hands-down, long term winners of public attention. I was therefore quite excited when I found a study of the way a single character developed over 50 (actual, not TV) years on ‘As the World Turns’ (ATWT) – one of the longest running soapies ever.
‘As the World Turns’ is the second longest-running American television soap opera. Since 1956, it has been airing daily, Monday through Friday, on American network CBS. During the show’s 51 years, it underwent major transitions, such as the early 1960s move from black-and-white to colour.
The original half hours slots grew to one hour instalments. In 2016 the show aired its 13,000th episode. (Source: Wikipedia.) One of the interesting aspects of having such a long running daily drama is that the audience got to witness a few decades in the ‘lives’ of ATWT’s fictional characters.
The series holds various records. The character of Nancy Hughes, portrayed by actress Helen Wagner (89, got a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest portrayal of a character by a single actor in history (starting in 1956 and still running, 50 years on.)
In the paper “Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns’ Tom Hughes Through the Years” (2016), Sam Ford, project manager for the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium and a 2016 graduate of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, observes Tom Hughes, a central character in the series: “For the past 45 years, viewers have watched Tom Hughes mature from birth to his current role as Oakdale’s district attorney.” Says Ford “Hughes is the only character in television history to be born on a show and to survive in the plot for this duration, with viewers able to watch each step of the character’s development.”
Since 1963, the part of Tom Hughes has been played by seven actors, who portrayed him as he grew up. Scott Holmes – the most recent actor on the list – has been playing Hughes for the last 19 years. The paper follows Hughes’ life, from birth to middle age, in an attempt to “understand the way these character shifts are handled throughout decades of material and the ways in which soap operas develop a character,” it is a detailed study of the development of a mass-media fictitious character over a period of 50 years.
The paper deals with genre-specific phenomena, such as SORASing (pronounced sore-assing), or ‘Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome’, where characters are literally aged overnight. During an episode of ‘As the World Turns’ in the late 1960’s, Tom Hughes was aged from a pre-teen to be old enough to be sent to Vietnam. (Source: Wikipedia.) Another unique tool used in the series to manipulate the narrative, is the Supercoupling — a couple made of two excessively wealthy people, whose characteristics and experiences are hugely exaggerated, in order to attract as much attention as possible from viewers.
Ford follows the meandering of storytelling around “the three major strands of soap opera plots–family and workplace drama, tackling social issues, and escapist romance fare.” Ultimately, Tom Hughes’ history reflects the history of the series itself, as well the history of American soapies and, to a large extent, American culture and its icons, over half a century “divorce to drug culture and Vietnam to living wills and AIDS.”
While many scoff at the shallow and clichÃ©d use of narrative and characterisation in soapies, one needs to acknowledge that soapies are unparalleled in terms of their ability to explore the daily life of their characters over an extended period. This, more than anything else, allows viewers to form strong affinity with the series and its characters.
(*) Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) lays the foundation for many critical movies on media, power and politics, but the subject of ‘Citizen Kane’ is the person and his doings, not the content of his work.