On "The Soap Opera Effect," Written from My Soapbox

Well, it’s February now, and I have no comment on how my “intentions” have gone. But in light of Groundhog Day, I will share that I am just now popping my head out of the Homeland hole that I have spent the past two weeks in, marathoning seasons 2 and 3. It’s an incredible story, and the last episode of season 3 is such a sad but darkly beautiful and somehow appropriate ending to the Carrie/Brody saga, that I’m once again disappointed by the (mostly) American need to continue a show past it’s prime and until we’re all sick of it. There will be a season 4 of Homeland, and I’m a little exhausted by the thought.

There’s a reason trilogies exist. There’s something that feels right about a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not saying every show needs to be three seasons long, but I am saying that we need to recognize when a story has reached its end. Did anybody really still like The Office after Steve Carell left? (In fact I think a lot of people stopped liking it long before that). Obviously money drives the world of entertainment, and that’s not always a bad thing. But I worry we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t know how to let anything die a natural death.

The Brits tend to be famous for letting their shows play out for a few series, and then ending before they jump the proverbial shark. *From this I exclude Downton Abbey, which has jumped the shark so many times it’s floating off into space.* (Does that analogy work at all? Probably not, but neither does the writing for that show anymore).

I suppose what I worry about most is what I will call The Soap Opera Effect. Soap operas tend to last a quarter of a century, and with that much time on their hands, those people have to keep finding new ways to be miserable. They can’t all be happy all the time – there would be no tension, nothing to interest the viewers. So there’s always a new drama, a new setback, a new villain to steal our spouses away. And shows that last beyond a few seasons end up wandering down this road. Every time the characters achieve happiness, it’s ripped away again.

Obviously life has its dramas. And some people are faced with more of it than others. Me, personally? It’s a dramatic morning when I hit snooze too many times on my alarm and I’m running around the kitchen, throwing together a lunch that consists of leftover refried beans on some spinach and calling it a salad. Don’t get me wrong – drama is highly entertaining, but after awhile, it starts to feel forced. And when it happens to characters you’ve come to love, there’s something sad about that.

All of this applies just as easily to book series, of which I will name no names, but I’m sure you can think of one or two.

The difficult part, of course, is knowing when to stop, and I don’t think the answer is always obvious. Certainly there will be people who will want a saga to continue, and others who thought it should have ended quite awhile ago. You can’t ever make everyone happy, so for novelists, it’s up to them to stop when it feels right. For writers in television… it’s not so easy, since people higher up are usually making those calls.

For now, all I can do is trust that the writing that I’ve found so compelling thus far in Homeland will continue to surprise me into the 4th season.