What is a soap opera? It’s a serial with multi-episode narratives, with several strands occurring at once, typically ending an episode with a cliffhanger. They have a reputation for implausible plots, ridiculous couplings, an abundance of misery, memorable characters and surprise deaths.
So, all in all, I don’t feel it’s too much of a leap to say that Game of Thrones has elements of a successful soap opera in its make-up, not least in its episodes largely eschewing self-contained narratives in favour of being part of a larger piece and fondness for dramatic revelations. Critics have talked about its appeal to a wider audience than Fantasy fans (as if Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lost, The Twilight Zone…etc. hadn’t happened), and I think this is hugely indebted to the show sharing elements that keep people watching Hollyoaks (as well as the occasional cast member).
As many of the actors and crew say on the featurettes, Game of Thrones is about people, it just so happens to be set in a detailed and nuanced fantasy world. It is somewhat depressing that people feel the need to say this as if it is somehow revelatory or distinguished, but there you go. It has always been standard for Fantasy to be both ‘about people’ and ‘full of cool wizards and shit’, to use a technical term beloved of many Inklings members.
What Game of Thrones has that most soaps don’t, of course, is a detailed and nuanced fantasy world (although, thinking about it, Eastenders does technically start the way of all good fantasy, with a bloody great map). Soaps don’t have that. Yet. It also has dragons (although, metaphorically…), gore (Cody Willis gets shot), nudity (again, Neighbours is ahead of the game) and houses with sigils and mottos (for example, the Tully sigil is a stone fish, and Neighbours has…nevermind, this is getting tenuous). Like Hovis and Star Trek, it’s the best of both worlds (other breads and Sci-Fi franchises are available).
If you’re the sort of person whose happy place consists of Richard Taylor nasally enthusing about the unique stitching on the inside of every suit of Gondorian armour, the production design and world-building of Game of Thrones is the nearest thing you’re going to get on a TV budget. If you’re the sort of person who regards Bradley’s death in the live episode as one of the great TV moments, then you’re also in for a massive treat. Dirty Den being taken out by a hitman is one thing, but it’s no golden crown is it? Eastenders isn’t really allowed to go for death by molten metal, though I’d bet that they would do it if they thought they could get away with it. Look out Shane Ritchie. Some of us still haven’t forgiven you for what you did to Peter Simon in Run the Risk.
Outside of Soap Operas, this isn’t unique to Game of Thrones. Comics, The Fades, Doctor Who, and more recently Utopia have all used these techniques to varying degrees. In the commentary to The League of Gentlemen series one, the comedy group discuss the audience reaction to the reveal of a long-lost son, and the gasps it elicited. The only reason it had been in there was as a framework to hang jokes off, but people had become emotionally invested in it. It had become more than a comedy show to them, the characters were people that they cared about (even, in this case, an inbred incestuous couple who regularly murdered people who threatened their way of life. Sound familiar?). Achieving this is not as simple as it sounds. If you want to know how to do this on a regular basis, watch a Soap Opera.
Because Soaps are popular, and populist entertainment (the name derives from adverts for cleaning products placed during such dramas, broadcast during the day and aimed at housewives) they are often accused of dumbing down. Fortunately this is only ever done by idiots who don’t realise they are simplifying something, and are guilty of what they accuse others. Isn’t that touchingly pathetic?
Juggling different plots, introducing new characters, and attracting a regular audience in the face of stiff competition aren’t easy. Plus, soap’s intrinsic nature is demanding of its viewers. Ignoring the obvious answer of ‘utter insanity’, do you have any idea what’s going on in Hollyoaks if you just dip into an episode? It requires patience and effort to memorise everyone’s names, their families, who they get on with, and dear god, is that really Jeff Rawle? I like to imagine he’s still playing Cedric Diggory’s Dad in Hollyoaks, only gone a bit wrong.
Game of Thrones takes not an entirely dissimilar approach. You are required to invest in the storylines and keep up as they plough along regardless. Anyone asking to explain what is going on is in for a lengthy ‘Well, she is having an affair with him, and her family hates his family…’ ramble. Game of Thrones is also able to show more explicit material, and given its medieval fantasy context the inclusion of incest is less outlandish than it might be in Coronation Street, but I’ve now witnessed three people saying ‘Okay, so he’s the brother of the blond incest ones and that’s Cat’s sister who was married to the guy who died before the first episode and…is that really Jerome Flynn?’
This comes entirely from the books. A Song of Ice and Fire is at least as influenced by Soap Operas and serials as it is by Tolkien-esque high fantasy. George R. R. Martin though, seasoned pro that he was when he began A Song of Ice and Fire, was completely aware of what he was doing. Since the Eighties he has worked in television as a consultant, producer and script writer (including many teleplays for The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast), so he knows the form. Soap Operas had been pioneered on American television, and Martin is the right age to have grown up during their early years and taken note. Twists, turns and tales of the unexpected keep people interested; surprise reveals and cliffhangers keep people watching.
Populating a world with families who had been at war in the literal rather than figurative sense, and giving them a couple of continents to play on rather than one street is expanding the basics of a soap opera into a bigger scale. Rather than call each other slags, these characters make graphic, specific and biologically themed oaths. Instead of spilling out of the pub because of what Sharon said about our Trev, they start sword fights in the street and people get stabbed right in the eye because of that time Cat went off and nicked Tyrion.
So, if you’re a Fantasy fan who likes Game of Thrones but who doesn’t watch River City (created by Doctor Who fan favourite and the author of the Proclaimers musical, Stephen Greenhorn), maybe the process works the other way. Maybe you’ll be able to watch soaps and gradually come to terms with the lack of magic, nudity and stabbings, but recognise the character dynamics and find something to enjoy.
Or, maybe, like me, you’ll think that five episodes a week is a bit much. I mean, it’s all very well demanding that we pay attention, but some of us have still got three series of Blake’s 7 to get through, thank you very much.
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