Friday, July 07, 2000


Don Miguel Cervantes de Saavadera once observed that there is nothing so bad that you can't find something good in it.

He got away with saying that because the worst he had to contend with was an abudance of trashy stories about knight-errantry. Cervantes never once had to read "Jane Eyre" or, worse, watch a soap opera.

I have. Although "Jane Eyre" thankfully is in my past, for two weeks while I was on vacation, I was subjected twice daily to the modern-day horror called soap operas. Two weeks later, I still am suffering post-traumatic syndrome from what I endured. I'll refer to these soaps as "Puerto Carlos" and "Major Hospital" to avoid offending any fans who might read this.

It's not as though I wanted to watch soap operas on vacation. I tried to do some writing, and I tried to do some reading, but just being in the same room as the TV set was enough to be sullied. It's like the time I played rugby in my school uniform, only I don't know of any laundry detergent that can remove these ugly marks from my psyche, no matter how hard I scrub.

The dreary flicker of the TV screen and the combination of bad acting, worse directing and really terrible writing kept dragging me into the show with the same horrified fascination I feel driving past a car wreck. I couldn't look away no matter how hard I tried.

I was so appalled by what I was watching, I decided to call ABC from a morbid curiosity to know where they get their soap opera writers, but since I was calling at night when rates are cheaper, no one was there except a janitor named Bob.

From what Bob told me, all the major networks, not just ABC, use a special test to find the right people for major soap-writing jobs. Anyone who has read books for pleasure and not just for a book report, who can name three presidents of the United States in any order, or who knows how to use the word "obviate" in a sentence, is disqualified immediately and shipped book-rate to Rhode Island.

Every now and then, Bob said, someone with actual talent manages to slip through the cracks. When that happens, the networks neutralize them with specially trained directors who pick the most melodramatic facial expressions and postures the actors can assume and let the camera linger painfully for three or four seconds on them at the end of every scene.

Nothing worthwhile survives of the plots these soaps have.

I'm sorry, did I say these things have a plot? My mistake. Plots have a clear beginning, middle and end. Academians claim there are three basic plots in all literature: man against man, man against himself, and man against God, although in each case the writer has tremendous freedom to define what man is, what God is, and what it means to work against something.

Soap operas don't have plots. They have storylines, which also happen to come in a set of three: sleeping with someone, planning to commit murder, and manipulating people. Sometimes the writers will try to get creative by combining the three.

On "Puerto Carlos," one of the storylines I saw involved the disappearance of Luke Steffan, who like everyone else on the show is a manipulative and controlling fart.

As the story unfolds, about twelve minutes after Luke Steffan disappears, the city prosecutor decides he was murdered and immediately arrests Luke Steffan's neighbor Rufus for the crime, judging that the complete lack of evidence is merely proof of Rufus' criminal genius.

As viewers, we of course know that Rufus is innocent of foul play, because he was having an affair with the prosecutor's wife, teen-age daughter and sheepdog Muffie when the alleged murder occurred.

About a week later, those clever writers reveal that Luke Steffan simply ran off to use the bathroom when no one was looking and went on a drinking binge.

When he finally comes to himself, he is in Paris, France, with 40,000 Mexican pesos and a passport that identifies him as a purebred German shepherd named "XP39 Heart Breaker of Sunnymead Farm."

But in order to lose viewers interested in Rufus' efforts to defend himself from charges of murder and stay free of Muffie's canine machinations, the writers also develop a number of other storylines, none especially relevant to his situation.

At the same time Rufus escapes from jail, Lucille's adopted 1-year-old daughter is kidnapped by her biological mother and taken to Kzakhastan, a woman named Charlie tries to kill the man she blames for her recent miscarriage, and 33 other people plot to take over the world, or at least the board of directors of Major Hospital.

Confusing? That's not even half of it. By the time our vacation ended, Luke Steffan had been thrown into the pound because he didn't have a dog license, Rufus had disappeared to escape being framed, Muffie had bitten the prosecutor on the leg, the kidnapped little girl was found at Wal-Mart in a different set of clothes and with a new haircut, and the entire board of directors of Major Hospital quit when the hospital's snack machine ran out of yellow Zingers.

Now I'm not saying these things don't happen in real life -- although I honestly can't say I know of anyone they've happened to -- but if they happened as regularly in real life as they did on soap operas, Jerry Springer would be out of business.

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