by Keidra Chaney
One of the sad casualties of the so-called “New Golden Age of Television” is the soap opera. Yes, yes, we have a ton of soap-like TV shows on the air right now: Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Nashville, Jane The Virgin, Empire. But for all of those shows, the label of “soap opera” tends to be used as a pejorative descriptor, as a way to criticize a show’s flair for melodrama or glamour, or at worse, to undermine a show with a female protagonist. There’s a lot of guilty pleasures on TV these days, but it seems in vogue to emphasize the “guilt” part pretty heavily. Social issues are for “serious” TV and “escapist” TV is brain-numbing.
And it’s too bad for that, because soaps as a genre have traditionally led the way when it comes to directly addressing social issues on television. ABC daytime soaps (in particular the show’s developed by showrunner Agnes Nixon) dealt with LGBT issues, abortion and AIDS as major storylines long before prime-time TV. Soaps have long been a great platform to tackle social issues, precisely because its a genre that people go to for escapism, and because as we grow to love and identify with characters, we want to be with them through their struggles and triumphs.
So, last week when CW’s Jane the Virgin made a bold statement on immigration reform, I was impressed, but not at all surprised. Of course, Jane the Virgin would go there, it’s already a show with a surprisingly subversive and feminist streak. And in a way, there’s no better show than Jane, a sweet, frothy confection anchored by lovable protagonists (Jane, her mom, and her Abuela), to take such a strong stand. It’s sneaking in social relevance with a gentle hand, where a traditional drama may come off didactic.
That’s not to say that the genre always gets it right. Lee Daniels’ hip-hop soap Empire is attempting to infuse commentary about homophobia in under its layers and layers of high camp — and not quite hitting the mark, in part because there’s not yet anyone to truly root for in his bootleg version of King Lear, especially not homophobic murderer Lucious Lyon. In that way, Empire has a lot more in common with its 80’s night-time soap inspiration Dynasty, a show that in its first season attempted to tackle homophobia and spousal rape, but eventually turned the show’s protagonist/villain Blake Carrington into a patriarch. Having recently rewatched the entire first season of Dynasty, Empire clearly owes a huge debt to the 80’s show, but unlike daytime soaps, Dynasty seemed to have an ambivalence to tackling social issues in a progressive way. (The show came close to tackling the issues of spousal rape in the first season, then abandoned it altogether in later seasons.) It’s still early enough for Empire to avoid that show’s missteps, but I doubt it will.
Even, so I think the success of Empire, and other soaps like Jane The Virgin, and even Nashville may bring some critical respect back to the genre. At a time where serialized TV is at its most evolved and critically acclaimed, its easy to downplay the influence of what soaps can accomplish at their best. The soap opera as a genre can do amazing things with its “spoonful of sugar” approach to social issues, hiding subversive ideas into escapism and making it delectable.