Tales of The City’s Lessons For Soap Operas

Photo Credit: Netflix

Just in time for Pride month, Netflix unveiled the latest Tales of The City miniseries. It has been one of the most popular and successful miniseries on the streaming network. The new adaptation also has launched a thousand think pieces about it.

Soap operas have not enjoyed the same success. Over the years, the number of daytime dramas has dwindled from a robust 20 in the 1980s at one point to a mere four in 2019. Even as the current ones keep trying to reinvent themselves to chase the trends and get their ratings to an acceptable level.

Soaps need to look at how Tales of The City reinvented itself in order to have a successful reboot.

The Center

Tales of The City 2019 is very reminiscent of the 1990s version. In the original miniseries, Laura Linney’s Mary Ann Singleton served as the entry point to Barbury Lane. It was around her that we met the original residents and the characters that would come to define the franchise. Even with the more outrageous twists, we accepted them because Mary Ann’s reactions mirrored our own.

In the 2019 series, Ellen Page’s Shawna Hawkins serves as the audience voice and center of the miniseries. Some may balk at the assertion, especially since Linney returned as Mary Ann. However, the truth is, Mary Ann in this go around isn’t quite as likable as she used to be. And the writers realized that unlike in the past, the audience is more willing to accept LGBTQ characters. Shawna has relationships with both generations of characters, with the highlight being her relationship to Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). It works for the show in a way that is wonderful and inviting.

Soaps have had a tougher time handing down the storytelling to a new generation. All My Children had the toughest time with the handoff, which led to its cancellation. The beloved, Agnes Nixon created soap was home to daytime’s most beloved character, Erica Kane. For many years, Erica was the center of the Pine Valley action. When it came time to hand the action to someone else, the writers and producers tried to force the audience to love the chosen characters.

What Soaps Do

If they had gone with the natural choice, Erica’s daughter Bianca, the show would probably still be on the air today. In fact, it would have probably thrived and ascended to #1 in the ratings. Bianca, like Shawna, had relationships with everyone on canvas and the audience loved her. Instead, they went with Erica’s daughter and personality clone Kendall.

The remaining soaps have yet to try and hand down the show to the next generation. Days of Our Lives is the next show that will need to. If they can’t lure Alison Sweeney back as Sami Brady, the next logical choice is Sami’s son, Will.

The Stories

Every one of the stories in Tales of The City revolves around romance. Even the big umbrella story, Anna Madrigal being blackmailed and signing Barbury Lane over to a new owner. As the story evolved, there were many romantic challenges for the characters.

“Mouse” and his boyfriend Ben face the biggest challenge to their relationship. They first have to deal with the question of whether or not to live together, which leads them to a big argument. After that is decided, they have to grapple with Mouse moving in with his boyfriend. Relatable, character-driven drama that resonates with the audience. Or you know, viewer catnip.

What The Soaps Do

General Hospital has killed off a child, brought a character back from the dead and gave them a sudden twin, and the ingenue was involved in a weird cult storyline. None of these stories connected with the audience and it can be argued because none of them affirmed or adhered to love in the afternoon. Would be leading lady, Sam ditched Drew (the sudden twin) to be with Jason (the back from the dead man) and there was no reasoning for it. Well, no reason, other than Kelly Monaco and Steve Burton had chemistry the first time they were paired together.

The only current soap that comes close to adhering to the romance rule is The Bold and The Beautiful. As a half hour soap, though, it blasts through the story faster than Mouse jumps in bed with his ex after a fight with Ben.

Characters We Love

At 90 years old, Anna Madrigal drives a lot of the story. While not the center of the show, the blackmail story is the foundation on which everything else is set. The fact that producers trusted Olympia Dukakis with such a heavy story is a testament to her talent and to the fact that the audience loves Anna.

Same thing with Mary Ann. While the bulk of her story centers on her return to Barbury Lane, she is the only one who realizes something is wrong with Anna and her relationship with Shawna take center stage. These veteran actresses are given material worthy of their talents.

Soaps tend to send their veteran actors and actresses to the back burner. General Hospital keeps Maurice Bernard and Laura Wright on the front burner and in stories that play to their strengths. However, an actress like Rebecca Herbst is fired (although that was reluctantly changed after a fan outcry) despite more than 20 years on the show. When she does lead a story, it is convoluted and out of character.

Similarly, Bold and The Beautiful tends to keep their leading lady Katherine Kelly Lang in a holding pattern. For those who don’t watch, Brooke’s storylines tend to be love triangles. Recently, it’s been with Bill and Ridge. Certainly not the material a beloved Emmy winning actress deserves.

Different Suds

One of the arguments will be that soaps produce some 250 episodes a year, while Tales of The City only produced nine. A fair argument to be sure. If this were comparing the storytelling prowess of the writers, soap writers would win hands down. However, this is about what lessons can be taken from the miniseries and not a compare/contrast piece.

The other argument will be about budgets and actors wanting to spread their wings. Again fair points. Gone are the days of big budgets and big returns for soaps, but they can still find actors who are willing to stick around. Most of the high profile exits have been based around not getting a raise and not having opportunities to do more acting outside of the soap. Producers and writers should be creative, give the most popular actors big story and allow for outs to do a movie or a guest spot.

These are the lessons that soaps can learn from a nearly 30-year-old franchise that stole the serialized storytelling format from them.