Dossier » Films and Finality

Game Over

How to Deal with the End of a Soap

by Silvia Grassi

If soap opera is a collective game, then what happens when the game is over?


Films and Finality - Game Over - How to Deal with the End of a Soap

 

 

Perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for soap-opera is to regard it as a form of collective game, in which viewers themselves are the major participants. (Buckingham, 1987: 204.

 

Soap operas are potentially endless, as demonstrated by some of the main examples of this genre such as Coronation Street—which has been broadcast since 1960—or Eastenders—on air since 1985. Soap operas do not have a linear structure typical of other series, with a beginning, a development of the plot, and an end. As Daniel Chandler argues, soaps “do not build up towards an ending or closure of meaning” (1994). What is important in soap operas is not what happens, but the effect that events have on the characters. According to Robert Allen, to emphasise what happens when in soaps (in semiotic terms, the syntagmatic dimension) is to underestimate the equal importance of who relates this to whom (the paradigmatic dimension) (1992: 112).

Modleski argues that this structural openness is what marks soap opera as a “feminine” narrative form:

 

Soap operas invest exquisite pleasure in central condition of a woman’s life: waiting ... soap operas do not end. Consequently, truth for women is seen to lie not 'at the end of expectation', but in expectation, not in the 'return to order', but in (familial) disorder. (1982: 88)

 

In “masculine” forms, she argues, pleasure in narrative focuses on closure, whilst soaps delay resolution and make anticipation an end in itself.

 

In direct contrast to the typical male narrative film, in which the climax functions to resolve difficulties, the 'mini-climaxes' of soap operas function to introduce difficulties and to complicate rather than simplify the characters’ lives. (1982: 107)

 

Anthony Easthope also argues that “masculine” narrative forms avoid indeterminacy to arrive at a closure and a resolution: dialogue in masculine narratives serves the purpose of explaining, clarifying and simplifying the plot, whereas in soaps dialogue blurs and delays.

What characterises soap opera is also the lack of a privileged moral perspective and the presence of multiple narrative lines that constitute a non-linear plot. According to Chandler, this narrative structure invites viewers to interpret events from the perspective of characters similar to themselves and to form their own judgments (1994). It is from this perspective that Buckingham defines soap opera as a collective game, stressing the importance of viewers’ participation in interpretation and in the construction of meaning.

 

The programme itself provides a basis for the game, but viewers are constantly extending and redefining it. Far from being simply manipulated, they know they are playing a game, and derive considerable pleasure from crossing the boundaries between fiction and reality. (1987: 204)

 

Thus, what happens when this game ends? Soap operas usually have a faithful and devoted audience. Therefore, not only does the end of a soap imply a problem for viewers but also for the channel which has been broadcasting it. In this article, I will analyse the strategies put in place by Catalan television to end two of its most successful soap operas—El cor de la ciutat and Ventdelplà—and viewers’ reactions to these finales.

El cor de la ciutat was an afternoon daily soap broadcast from 11 September 2000 until 23 December 2009 with a total of 1906 episodes, whereas Ventdelplà was a weekly series broadcast from 15 February 2005 until 17 October 2010 with a total of 365 episodes. The former was a series about the inhabitants of Sant Andreu, a working class district of Barcelona. The latter was the story of a woman who escapes from her abusive husband and takes refuge in Ventdelplà, a small country town in Empurdà, in the north of Catalonia.

Both these series made active use of the Internet, giving viewers the chance to participate through on-line forums and blogs, but also via games, quizzes, and spaces for people to propose ideas for scripts. Moreover, interviews and podcasts about the making of the episodes and “secrets” behind the series were regularly uploaded to the websites attached to the programmes. In fact, the Internet has influenced and even redefined the definition of soap opera as a collective game: not only can viewers “play” with their favourite soap but they can produce their own material (videos, comments, etc) and share it with other viewers, distant in space but “connected […] by the tenuous strands of the Internet” (Raymond, 1998: 1).

Henry Jenkins defines this practice as “participatory culture”, in which “Fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content”. (Jenkins 2006: 290) This “open social process” (Lang 1998: 3) is compared by Richard Barbrook to the system of the potlatch, the circulation of gift, practiced by Polynesian tribes (1999: 2):

 

For most of its users, the Net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other […] Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas. (1999: 4-5)

 

Both drama serials have their own webpage linked to the corresponding Catalan television website. In the case of Ventdelplà, the webpage is constructed as if it was the website of a real town.

On the main page we have a map with a legend pointing out the public places (school, bar, supermarket, football field, cemetery, etc) and the homes of some of the main characters. Below this we find a section with several images of the town and finally a detailed history of the small town of Ventdelplà beginning in the ninth century. In fact, Ventdelplà is a fictitious town but it is based on a real place, Breda: the story narrated in this section is in fact the story of this real small town in the Empurdà region. Another link shows us the main characters in the series but instead of “Personatges” (characters) they are referred to as “La gent” (people), as if in reference to the habitants of an actual town.

In a similar vein, on the El cor de la ciutat website the Sant Andreu borough (a real district of Barcelona) is represented in its fictitious version, with the homes of the principal characters and some public spaces, among which is included the most important, the Peris’s bar, the heart of the series . As for Ventdelplà  the website for El cor de la ciutat includes a video section which catalogues all the serial’s episodes divided according to the season (nine in total). Moreover, there is also another video section in which the series is represented in an alternative way: the story of each family is represented as if it was a stand-alone series, creating in this way several family albums. A games page allows viewers people to test their knowledge of the series and its characters with quizzes and puzzles.

Both websites provide a contact section where people can ask for information, send commentaries, complain, or send their appreciation. This section functions above all as a forum where people can leave their comments and there are many messages about the way the programmes ended. Some of them are positive, others are very critical of the denouements or of the series in general. I would argue that these “instantaneous online platforms” (Rivera: 215) such as forum and blogs exemplify the concept of an “ágora electronica” [“electronic agora”] proposed by Manuel Castells (2003: 180). According to Michelle Rivera, such spaces are “a central location of identity negotiation and formation as well as an alternative public sphere” where viewers can “speak back to, interact with, and produce images and text” (2011:296). This is a message left by “Marta” on the  Ventdelplà forum on 24 October 2010:

 

Em fa molta pena que s'acabi. Porto tants anys veient la sèrie... que sembla com si una part de mi marxi. Tinc tantes anècdotes amb Vent del pla [sic]: [...] un capítol vist amb les companyes d’universitat a l’habitació de l’hotel de Tenerife en el viatge de final de carrera […] Vent del Pla s’acaba però quedarà en el record.

[I’m so sad that it’s over. I have been watching the series for many year […] it seems like a piece of me is going as well. I have so many anecdotes about Vent del pla [sic]: an episode seen with friends from university in a hotel room in Tenerife on our holidays after graduation […] Vent del Pla [sic] is over but it will remain in our memory]

 

On the same date “Aida” left a similar comment on Ventdelplà:

 

Jo encara hem recordo, de 4 o 5 anys, que tots els de la classe es reunien a comentar el capítol del dia anterior i jo encara no ho mirava i no m'enterava de res. Un bon dia vaig començar jo també a fer-ho fins avui mateix.

[I still remember that 4 or 5 years ago everybody in my class met to comment on the episode shown the day before and I hadn’t started to watch it yet and didn’t understand anything. One day I began to watch it and have done since then until today.]

 

This feedback stresses the importance of soap as a space for networking, especially for women, as pointed out by Brown, according to whom soap viewing is accompanied by female-dominated talk, linking mothers, daughters, and friends in a “women’s oral culture that bridges geographic distances” (1994: 85). Brown argues that “the sense-making that people engage in when they talk about television may be as important as their actual viewing of the television program” (1994: 2). She concludes that this “micropolitical” activity of women’s conversations around soap operas is potentially emancipatory, considering that social change is often the result of the sharing of experiences. In this sense, through their networks of gossip about soap opera, women can generate resistive meanings.  

Another message, left by Lledò on the Ventdelplà forum (24 October 2010), stresses the identification felt by viewers with soap characters:

 

Al llarg dels 5 anys ens hem sentit identificats amb els personatges, personalment tinc un pare morrut com el Jaume, la meu mare va patir un càncer al mateix temps que la Teresa, el meu fill de 6 anys té una resemblança al Biel, al meu marit li encanta la Teresa i a mi el Julià […] Connexió crec que es la paraula que resumeix lo nostre amb Ventdelpla [sic].

[During these 5 years we have felt identified with the characters, personally I have a surly father like Jaume, my mother suffered from cancer at the same time Teresa did, my son is 6 years old and he looks a little bit like Biel, my husband really likes Teresa and I really like Julià. Connection I think is the word that sums up our relationship with Ventdelpla [sic].]

 

Similar messages were left by viewers of El cor de la ciutat, such as this one from Scorpion on 23 July 2009 who wrote that the programme comprised: “Historias dignas de recordar como en la vida real” [“Stories that deserve to be remembered as if they were real”]. Bepella, on 23 December 2009, wrote: “Que veurem ara mentre dinem? hem molta,molta pena. Ja m´he acostumat al peris i a tothom despres de tants anys es com si es deixesis vidus” [“What are we going to watch now when we eat? We are very, very sad. I am used to Peris and everybody else, after so many years it is like being bereaved”]. These responses lend weight to Dorothy Hobson’s conclusions in her study of Crossroads where she had argued that the genre of soap opera is often “criticised for its technical or script inadequacies, without seeing that its greatest strength is in its stories and connections with its audiences” (1982: 170-171).

Another aspect that is often mentioned on internet forums by viewers is the chance for Catalan people living abroad to feel closer to home by watching the series:

 

Vendelplà [sic] té dos seguidors més a Alemanya! Nosaltres veiem TV3 des de la web. Amb Ventdelplà la meva parella ha millorat molt el seu català. Ens ha agradat molt la sèrie que pensem ha sabut recollir molt bé l'ambient dels pobles catalans  […] Alemanyeta (Ventdelplà forum, 24/10/10).

[Vendelplà [sic] has two more fans in Germany! We watch TV3 on the web. Thanks to Ventdelplà my partner has improved his/her Catalan. We really liked the series because we think that it was able to catch the atmosphere of Catalan towns.]

 

There are also some foreign users who point out the function that Catalan drama serials might have in introducing people to Catalan culture and language A viewers who signs herself only as Claudia says:

 

Sóc de Suïssa, miro la sèrie des de lluny. A través de la gent de Ventdelplà vaig conèixer Catalunya, la seva gent, la seva llengua i me n'he enamorat. (Ventdelplà forum, 24 October 2010)

[I am from Switzerland and I watch the series from far away. Through the people of Ventdelplà I got to know Catalonia, its people, its language and I fell in love with it.]

 

However, not all comments are positive and there also negative ones. Most of the time this is due to the disappointment that some viewers felt towards the finale, especially as far as happy endings and the break up of relationships are concerned.

Doncs això estic INDIGNAT! perquè han de deixar-ho aixi?????? No ens podien fer una mica contents amb el David i la Marta junts? com diu el Peris estan fets l'un per l'altre i després de tot el que els ha passat (bo i dolent) no poden acabar d'una altre manera que JUNTS!!!
(Chumm2, El cor de la ciutat website forum. 24 December 2009)
[I am OUTRAGED! Why did they end it like this?????? Couldn’t they make us happy with David and Marta together? As Peris says they are made for each other and after everything that has happened (good or bad) they can’t end up but TOGETHER!]

 

 To understand this kind of reaction we must return to what Hobson considers the greatest strength of soap opera: identification with the characters and the stories.: When fantasies are not satisfied, viewers feel betrayed.

[T]ot té un límit, i veure a la Teresa i en Julià com la "parelleta feliç" ha sigut la gota que ha fet vessar el got. Per aquí NO hi passo. M'he negat a veure les escenes romàntiques entre aquest parell. NO NO i NO. (…) Des del capítol numero 1 ens van vendre que la base de la sèrie eren els personatges de la Teresa i en David, i la seva relació, i tots els problemes que tenien per estar junts. Aquesta era la base de la sèrie.

[Everything has its limits and seeing Teresa and Julià as the “happy couple” is the last straw. I am NOT swallowing this. I refuse to watch romantic scenes between these two. NO NO and NO (…) Since episode 1 they sold us that the foundations of the series were the characters of Teresa and David and their relationship and all the obstacles they had to face in order be together. This was the foundation of the series.]

Considering the emotional bond that viewers usually feel towards their favourite soap opera, its end supposes a problem not only for the audience but also for the channel that broadcast it which must simultaneously convince the audience that there will be something else worth watching. In the last part of the article, I am going to analyse the strategies that Catalan television put in place to prepare audiences for the end of Ventdelplà and El cor de la ciutat.

For both series, a number of special programmes were broadcast the week before the last episodes: specials about the making of, characters that disappeared throughout the seasons, cameos of famous people, interviews, even a compilation of kissing scenes from the series. In the case of Ventdelplà, a significant space was given to the rock band La Resistència: created within the series as a storyline that involved the youngest members of the cast, all teenagers, this band has acquired a life of its own also outside the fiction. Significantly, in their appearance in the afternoon programme Divendres, the day after the last episode of Ventdelplà was broadcast, they performed the iconic song by La sopa de cabra “Seguirem somiant” (“We will keep dreaming”).

Probably conscious of the over-dramatisation typical of the genre of soap opera, Catalan television decided to conclude these two long-running series in a humorous way. After the last episode of Ventdelplà, a programme was broadcast featuring bloopers, actors’ routines before shooting, and other behind the scenes material. Other dialogues played explicitly with the conventions of the soap opera genre. For instance, when the character of Marcela complains about the difficulties of preparing croquettes every day for five years, Teresa replies enumerating all the tragedies she has suffered in five years:

 

El meu primer marit em va maltractar; una bomba lapa va fer esclatar el cotxe del meu segon marit, que més tard va ressuscitar; un psicòpata em va segrestar; han violat la meva filla; he tingut un cáncer de pell; m’han posat les benyes; m’han encanonat amb una pistola; em van montar una casserolada i el meu fill petit no surt mai!

[My first husband abused me; my second husband was blown up by a car bomb, and he came back to life later on; a psychopath kidnapped me; my daughter was raped; I had skin cancer; I was two-timed; I have been held at gunpoint; they organised a pot-banging protest against me and my youngest son never materialises!]

 

Marcela replies: “Perdona, Teresa, pero yo soy más de Tele-5” [“I am sorry, Teresa, but I prefer Tele-5”]. This exchange exposes the subtle boundary between over-dramatisation and comedy. The milestones of the drama when narrated outside the framework of the soap opera have an hilarious effect. This is because a genre is identified by a “repertoire of elements” (Lacey, 2000: 133) consisting of character type, setting, iconography, narrative and style. When this repertoire is not respected, the spell is broken and identification becomes impossible. The scene continues with Marcela expressing her condolences, but Teresa replies “No passa res. Sobreviuré” [“No worries. I’ll survive”] and the famous song by Gloria Gaynor starts to play. Suddenly, all the characters of the series come out from every corner of the set (including the toilets) and start to dance to a ridiculous choreography. As soon as the song stops, everybody disappears and Marcela and Teresa resume their conversation as if nothing had happened. Musical’s conventions, when not respected, also have the potential for comic effect.

Characters of El cor de la ciutat said a definitive good-bye to audiences with a special New Years Eve programme. This show provided a chance to explore some untold stories of the series that have captured viewers’ imaginations: for example, it made explicit the homoerotic relationship between the characters of Fede and Marcel.

El cor de la ciutat’s farewell programme referenced The Truman Show: it had the characters of the soap think they were real and actually lived in the Sant Andreu borough. They begin to suspect something when journalists from Catalan television start to talk about them or directly to them, such as the scene in which newscaster Raquel Sans performs a song to the character of Peris, accompanied by a music band called Reality Soul. Then, some people begin to appear on the set to take things away: they are other presenters and actors familiar from Catalan television who have received orders to recycle everything they can because next year the budget will be slashed due to the economic crisis. Finally, the mystery is revealed when a tourist guide (holding aloft the typical umbrella) shows the characters of El cor de la ciutat that they are in a television set, with fake walls, props, and TV cameras. The guide also informs them that El cor de la ciutat is about to come to an end and therefore its characters will disappear. Thus, they decide to rebel:

 

Trini: Tenim fills, néts, marits, amants, amics ... Nosaltres existim, eh?

Juan: Sí, no nos pueden sacar lo que es nuestro, aunque no sea nuestro, vaya.

Peris: Eh, sebeu què us dic? Se me’n fot si això és un barri, un platò o una fàbrica de formatges, però no penso permetre que se m’endunguin les coses. Ens hem de fer sentir. Anem.

[Trini: We have children, grandchildren, husbands, lovers, friends. We exist, right?

Juan: Yes, they can’t take away from us what’s ours, even if it is not really ours.

Peris: You know what? I don’t care if this is a district, a set or a cheese factory, but I won’t let them take things away. We have to raise our voices. Let’s go.]

 

And they all march together, fists raised, to the tune of The Internationale. They kidnap some presenters and ask for El cor de la ciutat to continue but their request is refused. Lluís Canut, a sportscaster, gives them the low down, in his own unique style:

 

En aquests moments esteu fora de la lliga. Matemàticament no teniu cap opció de clasificar-vos per la Champions, per tant el meu consell és que deixeu anar els ostatges i us acabeu resignant com fan tots els equips quan juguen contra el Barça.

[At this moment, you are outside the League. You have no chance mathematically to qualify for the Champions, therefore my suggestion is that you free the hostages and give up like all teams do when they play against the Barcelona football team.]

 

At the end, Peris gives a pompous speech typical of epic films, which in this context has a comic effect:

 

Amics i compatriotes, tan se val que visquem en un decorat, que siguem una telenovel.la o que no vulguin que continuem. Nosaltres no morirem, perquè mentri hi hagi un sol català … ehm … viu, que ens recordi, “El cor” continuarà bategant. I passi el que passi, sempre, sempre ens quedaran aquestes quatre parets!

[Friends and compatriots, it doesn’t matter if we live on a set, if we are a soap or if they don’t want us to carry on. We are not going to die because while there is just one Catalan … ehm … alive to remember us, “The Heart” will keep beating. And whatever happens, we’ll always, always have our four walls.]

 

And with that the set’s fake walls come down.

Finally, the characters watch a television advert about a restaurant called “La Riera”. Only it is not a restaurant, they are told, it is the new soap opera that will take the place of El cor de la ciutat. Although it is true that, as Christine Geraghty argues, “The longer [soaps] run the more impossible it seems to imagine them ending” (1991: 11), it is also true that once a game is over, another is always ready to start.

 


 

 

 

 

Works cited:

Allen, Robert C. 1992. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. London: Routledge.

Barbrook, Richard. 1999.  “The High Tech Gift Economy”. Cybersociology Magazine 5 [unpaginated, see ].

Castells, Manuel. 2003. La galaxia internet. Reflexiones sobre internet, empresa y sociedad. Barcelona: Debols!llo.

Chandler, Daniel. “The TV Soap Opera Genre and its Viewers”. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/TF33120/soaps.html. 1994.

Easthope, Anthony. 1990. What a Man's Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture. Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Geraghty, Christine. 1991. Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime-Time Soaps. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hobson, Dorothy. 1982. Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera. London: Methuen.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lacey, Nick. 2000. Narrative and Genre. Key Concepts in Media Studies. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lang, Bernard. 1998. “Free Software for All: Freeware and the Issue of Intellectual Property”. Le Monde Diplomatique []

Modleski, Tania. 1982. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Raymond, Eric S. 1998. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. First Monday 3 (10).

Rivera, Michelle M. 2011. “The Online Anti-reggaeton Movement: A Visual Exploration” in Seeing in Spanish: From Don Quixote to Daddy Yankee, 22 Essays on Hispanic Visual Cultures, ed. Ryan Prout and Tilmann Altenberg. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 281-299.