Deep Soap: What Daytime Can Learn From ‘Single Ladies’

Kassandra Clementi, Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy of 'Single Ladies' (Photo: VH1)

Kassandra Clementi, Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy of 'Single Ladies' (Photo: VH1)

Single Ladies Is Better and Worse than Daytime Soaps

Monday night, VH1’s first scripted series “Single Ladies” premiered. The Queen Latifah-produced saga of three women searching for love in Atlanta is being promoted as a romantic comedy along the lines of “Sex and the City.” Actually, it’s a straight-up, unabashed soap opera. This is not “Desperate Housewives” or “Gossip Girl,” which are as much satire as serial. There were some funny lines, but tonally “Single Ladies” is set halfway between the 1990s “Melrose Place” and “Dynasty.” All of the characters are scheming, cheating and lying. By the end of the two-hour pilot, which was originally conceived as a standalone movie, there was one pregnancy scare with two potential baby daddies, adultery, attempted blackmail, a broken engagement, a woman throwing a drink in a man’s face, and numerous crimes against fashion.

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“Single Ladies” is notable for two other reasons. It’s the only current hour-long show about African American women, and it has all of the worst aspects of daytime dramas. The production values are abysmal. It looks like it was lit with a 100-watt bulb and shot on a webcam. The dialogue consisted of a series of bitchy lines, most of which were nowhere near witty enough to impress daytime audiences.  The performances can be best summed up by NotChrisRock’s tweet about the show: “Lauren London, Stacey Dash & Lisa Raye look good but the acting probably worse than in Chris Brown’s apology video to Rihanna.”  Star Stacy Dash was great on “Clueless“, so I am attributing the incredibly stilted, melodramatic line readings to actors not accustomed to shooting scenes in one or two takes.

However, “Single Ladies” is superior to daytime in one way: it feels contemporary and hip. Most of the characters have a connection to the music industry. There are cameos from rappers, and, with Queen Latifah producing, it feels like a reasonably authentic portrayal of that world. The characters deal with racial issues head on. The white woman only dates black men, an issue daytime would be terrified to explore. All of the women are unabashedly sexual and make no apologies about it. The men on the show are, so far, players and jerks across the board. The satisfaction comes from watching the women get the best of them. It’s not romantic, but it’s a reflection of how a lot of men and women treat each other in 2011.

ABC Daytime President Brian Frons has taken a lot of flack for saying that daytime soaps appeal to baby boomers, not younger viewers. In terms of who is actually watching daytime right now, according to the Nielsen ratings, he is right. The shows are older skewing. However, young people have not rejected the soap genre. The CW and ABC Family have line-ups consisting almost entirely of prime-time soaps. TeenNick is running “Degrassi” as a five-nights-a-week telenovela. “Single Ladies” was created to appeal to twenty- and thirtysomething women. The reason that younger people are not watching daytime soaps is, in part, because they stopped evolving. If “Guiding Light” and “As The World Turns” had remained sagas about housewives talking about their problems over coffee, they would have been canceled before 1980. Instead, they changed with the times. “General Hospital” was on the pulse of pop culture in the disco era, while still adhering to classic soap structure and telling stories about the hospital. Today, it certainly is not a show with anything to say about America in 2011. Sometime during the 1990s, daytime got stuck. “One Life to Live” is the only soap that ever seems to take place in the present. The genre that scripted television’s first legal abortion lags far behind prime-time in terms of its portrayals of gay characters, how the Internet has changed social interactions and just about every other aspect of contemporary society.

It did not have to be this way. The fear of alienating the theoretical conservative old ladies who presumably are the same people who tuned in to see television’s first legal abortion has made the genre stodgy and conservative. Few younger daytime writers are high enough on the totem pole to have much say in the long-term storylines. That’s not to say that only young writers can write contemporary stories. I bet 83-year-old Agnes Nixon could still write stories that would resonate with today’s audience. It’s just symptomatic of daytime’s fear of change. Everyone played it safe because they were concerned that risks could lead to cancellation. It was the lack of risks that helped kill the genre.

Career Counseling for Michael Corinthos

“General Hospital’s” Michael (Chad Duell) has decided that, after graduating high school, he will be following in his father’s footsteps and joining the mafia. Since Sonny (Maurice Benard), in a rare instance of actual good parenting, has actively discouraged Michael from joining the organization, Michael approached Johnny. His reasoning: “How people think I could be content with some corporate 9-to-5 job handling money is totally beyond me.”

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Yes, Michael believes his two options in life are to be a cubicle dweller, something I can only assume he learned about from watching “The Office” since nobody he knows has a typical white-collar job, or a criminal.  Apparently, Sonny and Carly (Laura Wright) are spending a fortune on a private school that has no guidance counselors. That would also explain why Kristina (Lexi Ainsworth) is so confused about how college wait lists work. I can’t have been the only viewer screaming, “Say yes to Wesleyan. Withdraw if you get into Yale!” I refuse to believe that Alexis (Nancy Lee Grahn) would not have made sure Kristina took care of this well before the deadline.

As a public service, I am suggesting some totally legal non-corporate occupations that do not require a four-year college degree that Michael might find to his liking.

Mechanic/Auto Body Work — Given the high number of car accidents, car bombs, dangerous road, and rich people who presumably drive expensive automobiles in Port Charles, Michael could make six figures repairing and customizing cars. Michael may balk at this plan because it would require attending trade school, and he seems unwilling to study or pay any dues whatsoever.

Personal Trainer — Michael could harness his occasional urges to beat the hell out of people by offering boxing-based fitness training at the Port Charles gym. Since everybody on the show is thin, they must work out. His schtick could be, “I can train you to be tough enough to survive prison.” Since Jason taught him to fight, this will allow Michael to achieve his true dream of being exactly like Jason.

Chef — A lot of people who are not academically inclined have found their calling in the kitchen. Michael’s mother owns a hotel. Surely she could get him a gig as a kitchen apprentice, which would allow him to learn the restaurant business without him enduring the horrors of school. A few months of chopping vegetables and washing dishes could go a long way towards getting rid of the obnoxious sense of entitlement he’s developed since he got out of prison.

Male Stripper — Michael has watched Abby (Andrea Bogart) strip and learned a great deal about the profession. If he truly wants a job where he can make a good living without going to school in a far-from-corporate environment, maybe it’s time he started working the pole. This is allegedly a show that is supposed to appeal to women. Shouldn’t the men be the ones whose flesh is on display?

While the last suggestion is facetious — I really, really do not want to see Michael strip — there are so many interesting story possibilities that could come from him getting a legitimate job. My biggest problem with him joining the mob is that it is so boring and predictable. I would love a storyline about a Michael who decides to embrace suits and ties and goes to work at ELQ. Perhaps he could be an orderly at the hospital and discover he likes helping people who have been through traumatic brain injuries, like the one he experienced. He could take the job that Lulu just quit as Kate’s second assistant and develop an unexpected flair for fashion. Both Michael and the writers are crippled by a failure of imagination.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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