ABC's The Story of Soaps primetime special shed plenty of light on the titular genre's effect on cinema and television alike. Executive producer/director Rebecca Gitlitz talked with Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz about her inspiration to do this project and the genre's undying importance.
When I pitched this to ABC, I was looking for a topic that bit into our deeper consciousness and that I could take a deep look into. I was never a big soap opera fan, but as I was looking at reality TV as a subject, and as I got deeper and deeper into that process, I started to realize the extent to which reality TV is just carrying on what soaps started. And so I started looking at soaps, and I realized that in terms of storyteling [sic], this is where a lot of everything started. Soaps are looked at pejoratively in this society, but there was so much richness there. We wanted to unearth it.
This type of storytelling is everywhere, she noted:
What daytime serials brought to everything else in the culture were these twisting, ongoing plotlines, serialization, open-endedness, and larger-than-life characters filled with huge contradictions. I mean, obviously there was a precedent for that too, particularly serial writers like Charles Dickens, but I’m talking about the radio and television incarnation of that. That’s still what defines TV today.
It’s not just primetime dramas. It’s news programs, it’s reality programs, it’s these streaming content shows about real people that everyone lives for now. All of these things are completely built on what was already done in daytime.
Gitlitz also appreciated their focus on women, saying:
And what eventually emerged was a sense that soaps are a feminist manifesto, in a way. They were taken on by women, they told stories centered on women, many of the key writers and producers were women. They were profitable, but they weren’t considered a prestigious part of TV, so the network executives tended to leave them alone to do their thing. As a result of that, they became this oasis that reflected more of a woman’s experience of life. Irna Phillips, who was known as the queen of the soaps, was the Orson Welles of television, in that she perfected a way of telling a story that impacted the rest of the medium.
She added that soaps' influence can't be over-stated:
At every step, looking at all of these different kinds of entertainment, we kept asking ourselves, 'Did soaps really do this? Are soaps really responsible for that? Is reality TV reality TV because of soaps? Is cable news coverage what it is because of soaps?' The answer was always yes, and so we felt secure in saying that about her. Dickens got there earlier, but in terms of electronic communications, mass media, radio, television, and now streaming, absolutely, it’s the soaps that perfected this kind of storytelling. They gave birth to these narratives that we now can connect.