Soap Operas Have Died on TV but Live On in Movies

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Dark Shadows adapts a long-running serial—the kind of network show that just doesn't work anymore.

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ABC/WB

A movie fan hoping to play catch-up on ABC's 1966 TV series Dark Shadows - the gothic soap opera on which the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is based—would have had to have started a month ago. In advance of the film's release, MPI released a lavish, $600 full-series collector's set, spreading Dark Shadows' 1225 episodes over 131 discs. It would take nearly 20 days to watch every episode of Dark Shadows back-to-back—and that's only if you're enough of a Dark Shadows diehard to refrain from eating or sleeping.

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The absurdly comprehensive Dark Shadows box set is the perfect symbol for the decline of the daytime soap. In an age in which DVD sales and syndication rights are just as important as ratings, the open-ended, intentionally disposable daytime soap has become a relic. As the genre heads towards extinction, feature-length film adaptations (Dark Shadows) and limited-run TV series (TNT's upcoming reimagining of Dallas) may be the next steps in the conventional soap opera's evolutionary chain—but the open-ended, five-episodes-a-week model is all but gone.

To properly eulogize the daytime soap opera, we have to start at its birth. The genre was originally dubbed the "soap opera" in reference to companies like Proctor & Gamble and the Lever Brothers, who sponsored the recurring weekday programs in an attempt to reach housewives. Guiding Light, which Guinness World Records cites as the world's first soap opera, began as a radio drama in 1937 and aired on television from 1952 to 2009—making it the longest-running program in broadcast history. Later soap operas like As The World Turns, Days Our Lives,and The Young and the Restless became daytime staples and network favorites, as they proved both popular and cheap to produce.

There was very little to distinguish Dark Shadows from its small-screen cousins when it debuted in June of 1966, but it quickly evolved into something much darker and stranger. While most soap operas spent their time on the affairs of ordinary people, Dark Shadows introduced gothic and supernatural elements to the conventional soap structure. The series hit its stride in March of 1967 with the introduction of the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. Though the character was originally intended to be written out of Dark Shadows after a 13-week arc, Barnabas proved so popular that the show's creative team reworked the entire plan for the series to keep him around. But despite its relative popularity—it was the second-highest rated daytime soap of its era, behind As the World Turns—it was cancelled in 1971 in favor of a new daytime version of the game show Password.

It would be more than 20 years before television would see another gothic soap like Dark Shadows, as networks attempted to forge their own version of the grounded, human-sized "supercouple" arcs that made As The World Turns such a smash hit. The genre's popularity peaked in 1981 with the long-awaited "Luke and Laura's Wedding" episode of ABC's General Hospital, which earned 30 million viewers—more than one-third of that year's Super Bowl ratings, and the biggest-ever audience for a soap opera episode—and landed the covers of both Newsweek and People Magazine.

But the most iconic hour of the daytime soap also marked the beginning of its end. Shifts in American housewife culture marked a steady drop in the average daytime soap opera's audience, and the 1978 premiere of Dallas spawned a wave of "night soaps" with higher production values. The stagey, long-running daytime soaps looked creaky and old-fashioned by comparison, and the decades of backstories made them even more inaccessible to an already-smaller crop of new viewers. As a last-ditch attempt to revive interest in the flagging genre in January of 2000, the Disney-ABC Television Group launched SoapNet, which billed itself as "The New Way to Watch Soaps." It didn't work. In March of this year, SoapNet was replaced in most markets by the preschool-oriented Disney Junior—a sign that there are now more toddlers than housewives watching daytime television.

Dark Shadows may have died decades before its more durable soap-opera rivals, but befitting a series built around a vampire, it has proven much harder to kill. As the series' faithful cult audience kept its legacy alive, its influence could be seen in other gothic soaps, including Passion, Port Charles, and the buzzy night soap Twin Peaks. And there were attempts to revive Dark Shadows long before the new film adaptation: a 1991 primetime version on NBC, which ran for 12 episodes before being cancelled (and featured a 10-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his first major role), and a 2004 pilot commissioned by the WB (which ultimately passed on a series order). Thirty years after its cancellation, Big Finish Productions revived Dark Shadows with a series of radio dramas voiced by the original cast, and old and new have celebrated the series at a Dark Shadows fan convention held every year since 1983.

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows promises to draw even more attention to the little soap opera that could. The film is a long-in-the-works passion project for both Burton and Depp, who both grew up watching the series (though their passion may not be shared by the public at large; Dark Shadows is presently Burton's worst-reviewed film in more than ten years, and the worst-reviewed of his eight collaborations with Depp). But whatever Dark Shadows' successes or failures, its slyest gag is built into its premise. Depp's Barnabas Collins is a man out of time, adapting to a world that doesn't have a place for his oddball, archaic sensibilities. And much like its leading man, Dark Shadows is a story out of time—an attempt to adapt an oddball, archaic type of story for a pop-cultural climate that doesn't have a place for it anymore.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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