The Young and the Restless Meet the Furry and the Carnivorous
I've been wrestling with it all week: what did I want to write about more, soaps or nature shows? And then I realized, wait a minute, my articles are not about making those sorts of decisions. My articles, in fact, reject the notion of "choice." Choice, of the promiscuous, inconsequential variety -- large or jumbo fries? Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather? -- the mediocracy's most insidious weapon. Maybe Devo put it best: "Freedom of choice is what you get; freedom from choice is what you want."Besides, it's not like there's that much difference: both genres teach us that animal instincts are irresistible, that the weak are prey to the powerful, that leopardskin is always a great look. Even some of the names are the same -- Spider, Cricket, David Canary. I endorse taking further this policy of naming soap characters after animals. Wouldn't Badger be as good as Trucker or Jax? Narwhal, Grackle, Dik-Dik -- it's a vast unmined territory.More than a few unfortunate nature show fans have tried to pet a cute animal in the wild, only to be growled at and sometimes even attacked. More than a few unfortunate soap fans have tried to talk to one of their favorite stars on the street, only to be growled at and sometimes even attacked. (Remember: Linda Dano will react violently only if she feels her food supply is threatened.) Maybe that gets at a more fundamental similarity I've been thinking about, the kind of faux interactivity that both of them trade in. Watching an episode of Wild Discovery on the veldt is a virtual return to nature, just like following the travails of the folks in Pine Valley is living in a virtual community.But of course we're still on our side of the screen. Nature shows have been getting increasingly inhuman in recent years, penetrating to the heart of termite mounds or gliding along the ground with rattlesnakes, sneaking in point-of-view footage from eagles and houseflies -- impossible perspectives that make nature less mysterious but more alien. In the name of objectivity they pursue a strict policy of nonintervention, even to the point of making us watch a mother gorilla have to leave her child because she can't free him from a poacher's trap. Is this really progress over Marlin Perkins dogging a zebra from the back of a speeding jeep? For me it's a toss-up. Jim Fowler would have saved that gorilla baby.What Nature or Explorer lack compared to Wild Kingdom is the sense of adventure, of wonder. They're so smug. The whole thing's scripted -- it's not like they're testing any sort of hypothesis about sharks or dung beetles. Once Disney wildlife photographers wanted to film lemmings jumping off a cliff, but the lemmings wouldn't cooperate, even though it said right there in the script: "Lemmings are known to jump into the sea and drown." Their solution? They imported lemmings from Canada and chased the damn things off. It's that kind of confidence that distinguishes tv science.Soaps are dedicated to the proposition that nature should run its course, usually a short path to adultery, madness, murder, pregnancy (sometimes by two fathers at the same time), demon possession, or some combination thereof. Snobs make fun of the more ludicrous soap plots, but I have nothing but admiration for a show that can sustain a narrative over thousands of installments. Imagine if Explorer, instead of showing a thirty-minute piece on lions, showed the hundreds of hours of footage that was shot, all the lying around and snapping at flies and licking their areas. Clearly, some jazzing up would be in order. All right, maybe the life of John Black, a.k.a. Roman Brady, Days of Our Lives's former cop turned sexy priest turned -- well, I'm not sure exactly what he is now -- strains credibility. So who'd want to watch a soap about your life, soda jerk?I've tried to start following a story myself, but I just don't have the patience for it. Even my favorite, Knot's Landing, which moves along at the relatively zippy pace of a prime-time soap, tests me sometimes. But then I was out at my parents' last week, and my mom had a videocassette of that day's Guiding Light on in the den while she was in the kitchen making dinner. She was completely ignoring it. That's when I realized that a commitment to soaps really has little to do with enjoying them. It's more about the responsibility you assume with your virtual neighbors, to listen to their ups and downs whether you like it or not. Your role in the community, as it turns out, is Town Voyeur, with invisible access to everyone's home, and even their dreams and flashbacks. Great work if you can get it.I submit that there's a need for more cross-disciplinary study regarding nature shows and soap operas, and I've begun actively seeking grant money. My most promising research has involved showing The Bold and the Beautiful to some test monkeys and recording the effect of Ronn Moss on their mating habits. Then some PETA do-gooders had to stick their noses where they didn't belong. Still, I'm confident that someday the world will appreciate the value of my work.