This Christmas Day, British screens have been filled with scenes of people suffering.
TV Tropes calls this ‘Soapland Christmas’, which is a pretty generic term that perfectly describes how generic the attempts to outdo each other’s misery have become.
The trend famously began with Den and Angie Watts on Christmas Day 1986.
I’ve never been a big Eastenders fan, and I wasn’t old enough to properly follow the show at the time. But my understanding of how the story progressed is that the pair, who had an aggressive and wild on-off relationship which drove a lot of the drama on the show at the time, were on the verge of reconciliation. But Den, having discovered that his wife’s cancer was a lie to keep them together, suddenly and surprisingly hands over divorce papers to his wife.
That’s how drama should work – keeping the audience on tenterhooks, unsure of what will happen, before revealing a twist that’s both shocking, emotionally powerful, and true to the characters.
I’m not sure exactly when this became the main Christmas trend, but, a some point, the soaps began trying to outdo each other. (By the examples cited by TV TV Tropes, it may have been this century before they really committed to ramping up the misery.)
Just citing the examples on TV Tropes, Eastenders has seen a newly-wed discover that his bride has been having an affair with his father; a long-established character dropping dead in the centre of town; an abusive husband forcing his wife face first into a bowl of gravy; one guy discovering paternity test results revealing he wasn’t his kid’s baby in a Christmas cracker (really?) then driving the three of them onto a frozen lake which collapsed; and this year, for the fourth successive Christmas Day, there’s been either a murder or attempted murder.
All in the same small area of London.
Coronation Street and Emmerdale, while not being quite as bad, have also tried to overdo the misery in the same way.
But they seem to be ignoring the fact that the original was, in effect, pretty advanced storytelling.
Firstly, the sense of chaos and dark manipulation was true to the characters. And the twist will have been unexpected, whereas this year’s murder has been well advertised in advance. Even if it wasn’t, the fact that it’s a well-known trend robs the story of most of its power. In Albert Square, people are miserable on Christmas Day not because of the ratcheting up of tension, character conflict or work stress, but simply because that’s what happens there on that day of the year. It makes everything entirely routine.
It’s not that I’m against darkness in drama. While I’m not a soap watcher, I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, a show about people pushed to extremes after a zombie apocalypse, I’m reading The Corner, about the effects of the drug war on inner city Baltimore, and my all-time favourite shows include The Wire and Six Feet Under.
But there comes a point where keeping up this kind of tradition is simply giving the audience what they want in the simplest, most straightforward and lazy way. I want to follow stories that lead me in unexpected ways – that redeem a character I thought irredeemable, that encourage me to sympathise with the drug-dealing master criminal, that show the most tense of families brought together by their love.
Humanity is complex, if you take the predictable route as a writer again and again, you’re doing it wrong.
What’s more, for most people Christmas is a time of coming together, appreciating those around us in a pure and straightforward way. It’d be a nice plot-twist if this happened to the emotionally downtrodden people of Albert Square.