Children who grew up in the ’60s, especially boy children, often earned “perfect attendance” pins from their grammar school principals at year’s end for never missing a day of class. Television was the reason so few children chose to remain home on school days.
That sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. Daytime TV in the 1960s was horrid, particularly the stuff in the morning after “Captain Kangaroo.” Remember: there were but three networks back in the day. ABC and NBC carried soap operas; CBS aired the insanely boring Art Linkletter (“House Party”) followed by … soap operas. There was nothing to watch.
The old, tedious soaps — “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” — had nothing to offer young viewers. Eventually, they had nothing to offer any viewers. “Guiding Light” got croaked by the network last year; “ATWT” stops turning next year.
All this is as it should be, but don’t think the soap opera — open-ended narrative with several concurrent story threads per episode — has gone the way of “Sing Along with Mitch” and “Wagon Train.”
No. The soaps have reinvented themselves on HBO. “Sex and the City,” “Deadwood,” “Rome,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under” are classic soaps. They go on season after season with the same main characters. Each episode contains at least four mini-stories — three serious subplots and one humorous departure. The individual episodes are so freighted with characters and motives that several of the shows open with an interpretive program. Here’s the opening of Episode 6, Season I, of “Rome”: “Marc Antony is running Rome while Caesar pursues Pompey in the East, but when news comes that the tide has turned and that Pompey now pursues Caesar, Antony must decide whether to remain loyal to his old commander or turn against him as Atia and Pompey wish. Pullo takes Octavian to a brothel; Atia offers Servilla an olive branch; Vorenus and Niobe rediscover their intimacy, albeit briefly.”
See what we mean?
The biggest differences between “Guiding Light” and “Rome” are the production values and the fact that “Guiding Light” people kept their clothes on.
On HBO, people can behave as shamelessly as they like, which is a contributing factor to the success of the various shows. “Rome,” in particular, wends in and out of the coveted R-17 rating for its fidelity to the contemporary depictions written by Tacitus and Suetonius — sordid sketches that inspired Fellini’s “Satyricon” and the terrific BBC series “I, Claudius” (itself based on Robert Graves’ novels).
“Rome,” which was cancelled in 2007 after its second season, was notoriously expensive if critically admired. The stories begin in 52 B.C., when Julius Caesar defeats the Gauls. Upper class Romans and members of the Senate are divided between loyalty to Caesar or homage to Caesar’s sometime comrade, Pompey. What follows is treachery and trickery, politics and murder — much of which takes place in bed.
It’s an enjoyable series, the more so for the occasional touches of historic accuracy.
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