EastEnders is a soap opera about the residents of the fictional London locale of Albert Square. It has been going since 1985, with episodes airing every day except Wednesday. It is extremely popular, and I do not know why. I’m going to attempt to explain why this program doesn’t work.
Firstly, while the focus of this particular post in on EastEnders, the issues outlined here aren’t limited to just this one show. Any soap I’ve been unfortunate enough to have to sit through has displayed the same issues. So Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks; you’re all in the firing line here. The reason why I’m focusing on EastEnders is that it’s the one I have most experience with.
I’ve watched more than my fair share of this program. My wife, like apparently around 30% of the rest of the country, loves it. She has watched EastEnders since she was a teenager. It’s been part of her life longer than I have. Because of this, I have to tread carefully. It’s very easy to dismiss programs like EastEnders off-hand as cultural cul-de-sacs, devoid of any meaning or entertainment. It’s very easy to dismiss the viewers of EastEnders as idiots watching their idiot boxes. But I know my wife pretty well, and I know she’s not an idiot. In fact she’s much cleverer than I am.
Therefore, it should be understood that I’m talking about why EastEnders, and soaps in general, do not work for me. I’m not going to speculate on why they work for other people, as I literally don’t understand that.
I have a fundamental issue with anything with a narrative that spans indefinitely. A story, you see, is a carefully constructed thing. If you remember your creative writing lessons from school, plots have a beginning, middle and end. Characters and plots are introduced in the beginning, elaborated on during the middle, and then concluded at the end.
For my money, the very best stories have endings. The soap opera format, with its infinite life cycle, cannot be structured neatly in this way. In EastEnders, characters often continue long beyond their narratives. The story ends, but can’t properly end. It’s like when you say goodbye to someone only to realise you both have to walk the same way, but in this case, that walk is potentially endless. Awkward.
This can work – comic books do it all the time, with their characters existing in perpetuity beyond the stories themselves. But it’s hard to get right, especially in something purporting to be realistic. And even in programs where the plots are accepted as deeply fantastical, there’s still only so far that a program can go before the tension thins and fatigue sets in. The built-in perpetual serialisation that is the hallmark of a soap opera is an inherent weakness to creating great stories.
Inconsistent Character Development
If stories are a weakness, then surely character can be an advantage. In a long term format, I can see potential value in watching a way a character develops over time. You expect to see characters change in stories. In fact it’s often a requirement in a good story that this happens.
But EastEnders has a problem with the pacing of its character development. The pacing of a character’s change is often too fast. I get the impression this is because the writers need to move things along so that people don’t become bored.
Secondly, as mentioned in the first issue, characters often overstay their welcome narratively. Because of this, the follow up stories often place these established characters into situations way which contradicts previous story lines or past behaviours. So they end up lurching back and forth, often in seemingly contradictory ways.
When you can’t understand a characters motivation for doing something, it hurts the story. The long established character of Ian Beale is good example of this. Having been in the show for decades, Ian has appeared to experienced every potential tragedy known to man. He collects emotional scars like people collect stickers. Characters like Ian Beale or Phil Mitchell have rap sheets decades in the making. Serial affairs, secret babies, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, homelessness, murder.
Everything that is happening has already happened before. I don’t mean that in some kind of knowingly cyclical, Battlestar Galactica kind of a way. I mean that EastEnders only has about four plots. There’s the one where someone cheats on someone else. Then there’s the one where someone becomes afflicted with a problem like depression/alcoholism as a means to educate the viewers on a hot button issue. There’s the one where a character suddenly obtains a car and runs another character over (usually at Christmas). Lastly there’s the one with the gangsters.
These plots loop endlessly until you’re unsure whether you’re watching a repeat from twenty years ago. The small details may change, but the basic beats are always the same. The characters take turns to fit into the roles required, making them seem even more inconsistent.
The three issues I’ve mentioned above are the reasons programs like EastEnders just don’t work for me. They tie together to form something that, upon viewing, just seems like a hot mess. Something too dull and depressing to be entertaining, and too poorly constructed to be memorable or challenging. A program somehow simultaneously far-fetched while being mundane. Despite this, some people genuinely seem to love the show, even though I don’t get it. Maybe it’s just not for me. Instead, I continue to peer at it from the outside, with grim fascination.
That’s fine too, but it would be great so see a soap format show with a bit more ambition that manages to grab my attention. I’ve always wanted them to do a zombie-style spin off where Albert Square is set upon by the undead. Maybe this will be the year.