Friday, February 26, 2016

Crime and Consequences

February is a "sweeps month" (a period during which data are collected from television viewers). Ratings are important, and on soap operas ("day-time dramas"), the writers lure their audience with hints of new plot twists and long-awaited "reveals" (when life-changing secrets known by the audience are revealed to the characters who have been going along in ignorance). These reveals are of personal and/or business betrayals – adultery and affairs, baby stealing (of an infant thought to have died and/or switched paternity tests), corporate conspiracies and dirty tricks, crime cover-ups (hit-and-run, is a favorite), drug and alcohol addiction/relapses…you get the idea. I could run through the alphabet. And the thing is, those of us who have watched a soap opera for years can predict weeks or even months in advance what is likely to happen when a reveal comes. In fact, soap operas writers often foreshadow the change-partners-and-hope-to-live-happily-ever-after romantic consequences that will follow the reveals.

This week on The Young and the Restless, a powerful thunderstorm roared through Genoa City, Wisconsin (home of three major corporations). As viewers knew they would, the lights went out and after some shuffling about and going out in this fierce storm for various reasons, two former couples (who are now married to other people) were sharing memories and concerns. Another pair, a younger brother and his somewhat older sister-in-law, were discussing their efforts to bring down the evil businessman, Victor Newman, and the consequences for their respective marriages if their spouses should find out. Did I mention that younger brother, Billy Abbott, is about to marry Victor Newman's daughter for the third (fourth?) time. A perpetually star-crossed union because Billy can't get his act together and the Abbotts own a family corporation that Victor Newman is forever trying to destroy, and Victoria is devoted to her father and works for him. Billy has promised – after almost dying, but making a miraculous recovery after life-support was turned off (and providing an opportunity for a new actor to step into the role – "now played by" ) – what was I saying? Oh, yes, we had foreshadowing…

And, if you are wondering why I'm recapping this week on The Young and the Restless, it's because Victor Newman has a gun in his office.

Just this week, he threatened the son of the Mafia family that he borrowed money from with that gun. Victor wants to pay back the money, but the son won't let him out of the deal and has forced his way into Victor's company. Victor has tried dirty tricks, now he is trying threats of bodily harm. The son is in hiding with Victor's granddaughter (who saw the threat with the gun on a hidden feed from Victor's office that Natalie, the computer nerd with the cyber-security invention that Victor wants, had put there). Natalie is afraid of Victor, too, because she is working with his competitors. Summer, the granddaughter, was so freaked out that she went down to tell Paul, the police chief, and his son, Dylan, a detective, that she thought her grandfather was going to have his son (who Victor is blackmailing about the paternity of a "dead" baby) kill the Mafia mobster (who is young and charming). And Nikki, Victor's long-suffering wife, a former stripper and alcoholic who is occasionally driven to drink, who has left and returned to him too many times to count, has learned that Victor brought about the rape of his rival's wife by kidnapping the real Jack Abbott on his honeymoon and substituting a double (a drug lord he found in a South American prison) for Jack. Jack's wife, Phyllis, a red-headed firebrand, spent months with fake Jack, gradually realizing something was wrong, but not able to figure out what (remember "willing suspension of disbelief"). When Jack returned, Victor threatened to reveal Jack had killed people (including his psychotic ex-lover) to escape. But Jack kept quiet for Phyllis's sake. She couldn't bear to have anyone know. But she wants revenge. She has been plotting with Jack's younger brother, Billy (who is about to find out what Victor did and has his own reasons for hating him). Nikki, the long-suffering wife overheard a conversation and she knows, too. She has decided she has to save Victor from himself, save his soul, by bringing him down. She is plotting with the son he is blackmailing.

And Victor has a gun.

I like to think that the writers might have cut their teeth on Dallas and are about to treat us to the Genoa City version of "Who Shot J.R.?" For months, viewers have been complaining on one of the discussion boards about how Victor gets away with all of his dastardly deeds. Many are convinced the writers read the discussion boards and respond eventually. Victor and his gun – who shot Victor? Who will undoubtedly not die and live to be dastardly again. But for a moment, his crimes will have consequences.

I've been thinking about The Young and The Restless because I'm writing an academic article about crime fiction for a digital encyclopedia. I have 8,000-10,000 words for my topic. I've been thinking about how pervasive stories about crime are in other popular culture genres. Even on soap operas – especially on soap operas – there must be a police department and attorneys and judges. These characters are a part of the cast and have their own secrets and woes. Arrests are made. But, on soap operas, justice is rarely done. Innocent people are put on trial; guilty people are saved from punishment because their crimes are covered-up or officials are blackmailed. But, even knowing, that in the fictional world of Genoa City, Victor, the villain, will find a way to protect his family and his company, viewers long for justice. They want to see Victor punished (not necessarily dead, but brought low). In fact, Victor has on occasion been temporarily defeated, but the people who love him always hope he can be brought to realize that what he does harms both them and himself. They hope they can save his soul.

So Victor has a gun. And on this soap opera, if the writers know their Chekhov, someone will use it. Will Victor be the victim? Will one of the people he has hurt pick up his own gun and shoot him? Tune in tomorrow, same time, same place. I'll be there trying to figure out why decades after I watched this soap opera as a child, with my mother (who was on maternity leave) that I am still tuning in. I'm pretty sure it is because of this weaving of mystery and romance and the characters (played by terrific actors) about whom the audience care and feel they know well. Yes, the writers sometimes seem to forget who the characters are (literally re-writing the back story longtime viewers remember) and yes, characters sometimes act "out of character" for the sake of plot. But then there are those moments, when the actors make the characters ring true and the plot takes a "didn't see that coming" twist.

As you might have gathered, this post is my thinking through crime in this genre. I won't treat my academic audience to this detailed account of what's been happening on The Young and the Restless. But I will discuss how crime and consequences turns up in other genres – soap operas, situation comedies, musicals. And audiences watch because they hope that justice will triumph. In soaps, it won't last, but there is that brief moment…an incredibly melodramatic moment that is morally questionable. We have those moments in our books. Except readers of traditional mysteries would expect a Victor Newman to die and set the investigation in motion. Then the secrets would be revealed.

Got to go, time to tune in.

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