Ahh, the soap opera supercouple – beautiful girl meets dashing boy in the strangest of circumstances. Perhaps she’s a stripper in a bar, or maybe he’s a mob boss. Or possibly, he’s a criminal and she’s his assault victim. However it starts, the formula is always the same: girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy are wrenched apart, girl and boy fight to reunite.
(First published in Soap World, November 2012)
But while the formula is well-known its success is never guaranteed. Some couples fail to catch viewers’ imagination. But when they do, well, they’re the stuff of soap opera dreams. The magical supercouple reigned in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Luke and Lauras, the Victor and Nikkis, the Bo and Hopes, the Ridge and Brookes of our fictional television worlds are what we remember first about our favourite soaps.
Entertainment reporter and former soap actor Nelson Aspen (Search For Tomorrow) says the magic of the supercouple was a perfect storm of conditions.
“A supercouple has to be a Romeo and Juliet who surmount outstanding odds to be together,” he says. “They can’t come together quickly or easily. Audiences have to invest in their eventual union and suffer along with them through various setbacks,” he says.
“Of course, the actors have to have chemistry with each other and the writers have to be able to capitalise on that. So many creative forces are at play, both controlled and uncontrolled, in creating a supercouple that it can’t just be manufactured. A lot of it is serendipity,” he says.
But while the ’80s and ’90s were defined by the love of lovebirds, since the turn of the millenium the affair has soured. Love triumphing over every conceivable challenge – including death – has lost its lustre. Have soap audiences fallen out of love with love?
Sonny and Brenda!
This point was clearly underscored when news that sent soap fans worldwide into a foamy frenzy broke – Sonny and Brenda would be reunited! After a seven-year break Brenda Barrett (Vanessa Marcil) was returning to fire up the magic with mob boss Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard).
But despite a perfect plot pushing the two star-crossed lovers back into each other’s arms, it quickly became apparent the magic had fizzled. General Hospital’s numbers initially lifted, peaking with Sonny and Brenda’s long anticipated wedding in March 2011 delivering the highest numbers since 2005, of almost 3 million (total US viewers). But they quickly sank, plunging to a new low of 2.2 million by June. GH went from number two to number six in just three months. Brenda flew off into the sunset aboard Jax’s private plane in July.
What went wrong? Fans declared the magic was gone with Marcil and Benard’s chemistry having about as much sizzle as day-old pizza. Even though writers had primed the pump with classic storylines of European villains and near-death experiences the stories failed to resonate. And where the flame of youthful desire once burned believably, now with both characters in their 40s, the same naive mix-ups, jealousies and insecurities seemed farcical.
Where it went wrong
In short, the blame could be spread across two factors – the chemistry was gone and the writers got it wrong.
The supercouple re-boot failure isn’t limited to GH. Days brought back big guns Jack and Jen recently, only to send Jack off into the distant horizon clutching signed divorce papers when ratings failed to bloom.
Perhaps two decades of big hair and Gordon Gekko-excess created an atmosphere where soaps could flourish, where a world that had a sense of fun could believe outlandish storylines about plastic surgery doppelgangers, amnesia and kidnapped townsfolk.
But times changed. And real-life supercouples took over the magazines. Covers were given over to Bennifer, Brangelina and TomKat and their soapie lives – husbands stolen, extra-marital affairs confessed, and marriages ended, all as the “cast” wore glamorous clothes on red carpets that stretched as far as the papparazzi could see. How could the Y&R wardrobe department possibly compete with Angelina Jolie’s million-dollar couture?
Aspen believes the blame can be far more easily apportioned – the story. And while the decline of soaps is a factor in the decline of the supercouple, Aspen says its salvation is equally simple.
“My advice is to go back to the beginning of where soaps came from (the radio). (They were) 15-minutes, inexpensive to produce, but compelling stories. We have the internet now, that’s the future of soaps,” he says of a genre he describes as being left to “wither on the vine”.
“Cheap, easy to produce talk shows replaced soaps with ease because soaps were no longer must-see TV. I don’t buy the excuse that fewer people were in the home – that’s why the VCR was invented!”
A thief stole into the midst and carried off our supercouples
While a quiet revolution was happening on the covers of glossy magazines, a thief stole into the midst and carried our supercouple off into the night – straight into prime time drama. Instead of Bo and Hope, we were talking about Ross and Rachel or Dana and Fox. Evening viewing became sudsy. Today’s hits such as The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy are built around couples and love stories.
Genie Francis (Laura, GH) noticed the migration to evenings and said in a 2006 interview with Associated Press: “(Daytime drama is) alive and well at nighttime. It’s unfortunately not that way during the day.”
However, recently soaps have risen to the challenge with the creation of mini-soaps produced exclusively for the online audience. And Aspen agrees this reinvention could save the soap supercouple and soaps in general.
“(WeLoveSoaps.net) coined the phrase indie soaps for these online gems and they are full of promise for fans of the genre, not only because of the devotion of their creators, but the passion of the ex-daytime stars who appear in them, bringing along their TV fans for the ride,” he said.