Soap Operatic Gimmicks

I’ve been rewatching Ghost Whisperer recently, which is a somewhat embarrassing thing to admit because most people know the show for starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and for having a penchant to be overly dramatic (for those of you who don’t know and don’t want to click on the link, it is about a woman who can see ghosts, and in each episode she helps the spirit cross over into the light). Particularly in the season I’ve been watching, when a very important character dies, decides not to cross over, and then inhabits the body of a man who just died and did cross over. Of course, the character then suffers from amnesia and Melinda has to try to get the original character’s memories back.

Melodramatic, right?

The show itself acknowledges this fault. In one episode, a soap opera films in town, and they say things like, “Haven’t you ever watched TV? People who die don’t stay dead.” Yet (with the exception of a few moments) I didn’t feel like I was watching a soap opera when I watched this season of Ghost Whisperer. So what’s the deal? Why can the Ghost Whisperer write characters who die and come back and not make me feel like I’m being taken for a ride while soap operas just feel fake?

There are a couple of layers to this answer. First is the possibility of believability. In the Ghost Whisperer, Melinda has always been immersed in the world of ghosts, so it doesn’t take a leap of faith to believe that she could see this soul enter someone else’s body, or even that the soul could do it. The writers then had Melinda find other people who suffered a similar fate; she knew the symptoms now, so she could recognize the difference between an amnesiac and a soul in someone else’s body. They didn’t just suddenly bring up the issue of souls and ghosts to figure out a way to keep the character in the show; the solution was organic, and it even added to the world that had already been built. Soap operas that take place say in a hospital don’t have this world to work with, so when they try to have a soul return in someone else’s body, it comes off as forced and produces a WTF moment.

An important issue in answering this question is complexity. What makes a soap opera a soap opera is its use of simplicity: simple characters who have simple emotions. The gorgeous doctor who has one goal in life. He is always kind. When he gets in an argument with someone, he feels only anger. This is what makes soap operas appealing: everyone can relate to the simple emotions because we’ve all felt anger or love or abandonment. But at the same time, this simplicity is what condemns soap operas because life is not simple and you don’t just feel one emotion at a time. As a result, the characters come off as unbelievable and the plot has to be forced around emotional corners using gimmicks like people coming back from the dead.

Non-soap operas like Ghost Whisperer use ¬†complexity to flesh out characters and plot points. When Melinda is trying to help the character remember who he is, she is at once joyful and grieving and confused and angry. It drives her to act in certain ways, to change her mind, and to make certain decisions. More importantly, the character who dies does not just simply “come back.” One whole episode is devoted to his struggle with death and with his decision of whether to cross over or not. We see his options and his reasons and we understand why he decides to stay.

I’m not saying that the Ghost Whisperer isn’t ever overly dramatic at times, and I have my issues with it. But its writers managed to turn a gimmick that soap operas often use into a thoughtful contemplation on love, faith, and death, and that is impressive.

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