by Deborah Elliott-Upton
When we were kids, it seemed the whole neighborhood played together – outside. I remember running fast. Nobody jogged or trotted. Any one of us could be seen running as if our life depended on it, often until we couldn’t take one more step and breathe at the same time. Fortunately, we were blessed with a vacant lot where no one cared if we trampled wild Johnson grass, created lean-to structures or even dug in the dirt to make mud pies. We played hide and seek, army (lots of boys on our block then) and my favorite, cops and robbers.
I think most of my childhood friends don’t really run much these days, but I wonder how many would like to play cops again.
Who would want to be the bad guy now? Back then, we all fought to be the hero, but in our maturity I believe most of us realize the best roles are given to the antagonists.
My grandma told me, “The bad guys are just plain more fun to watch.” Grandmother liked her soap operas almost better than anything. She would get angry at the villainous goings-on, but admitted her favorite characters were the bad guys because they made the story more interesting. She even named one of her daughters after the fictional town’s hussy. She never missed one of her “stories.” Neither did I. We spent quality time watching them together and discussing what would surely happen next. I’m sure this was breeding ground for my love of storytelling.
In the glorious past, soap opera writers didn’t hurry the stories along so quickly. A murder would be set up months in advance of the actual killing and leaving the audience with many possible suspects. I remember learning early that practically everyone would have a reason to want the victim dead, but it really depended on who the audience was willing to accept as a murderer in the long run as to who the writers chose to be the perpetrator. The other angle was, the most dispensable character was often the culprit. Time changes everything. Today’s storylines move quickly and a murderer is caught and tried often within a month. CBS is not-so-slowly ridding itself of soap operas and putting on less expensive game shows. I doubt this will change America’s love of serial soap operas. Audience loyalty to Army Wives, Desperate Housewives, and Brothers and Sisters prove there is interest in continuing “stories.”
Think serials are all about female audiences or just concern “women’s issues”? Think again. My very macho father-in-law knows as much about soap opera plots as my grandmother. As a firefighter he said his crew always watched the soaps during their lunch and other break times. Entertainment Weekly’s May 28, 2010 issue referred to “24” as “a male soap opera.”
Primetime television has come a long way, baby. “CSI” showed the world Hollywood’s version of crime scene investigations. “Law and Order” (and all of its clones) have taught us what goes on behind the scenes of the crime, arrest, trial and eventual sentencing. We’re far beyond Perry Mason getting a confession from someone other than his client — the defendant — on the stand.
Soap operas taught me the basic mechanics of law within the court system. I personally didn’t know anyone who’d been arrested of murder or if they did, no one spoke to me about it. I think it may have been around the time of the infamous Luke and Laura coupling on “General Hospital” when I first heard the word “vindicated” and yes, it was directly related to a murder charge. I also learned the term “legal separation” although I’m not sure if that’s ever been undertaken in my hometown. Here people are either together or not. Nothing is separate under the law until the divorce is granted, which means all those: Joe Jones is not responsible for any debts incurred other than his own statements printed in the classified section are really nothing more than wishful thinking.
Prepared by osmosis to be “American Idol” judges and deem when a singer is “pitchy,” it seems many of us also believe we could handle a detective’s job fairly easily because we watch Criminal Minds. Receiving my legal training from television is not exactly like it is in real life either, but it created an interest in the justice system. I learned what a bailiff does, that a court reporter has to read back exactly what was said and court courtesies like everyone standing when a judge enters the courtroom is expected. But “knowing” this information is a bit like going into a Bible study of Moses and feeling ahead of the game because I had already seen the movie.
I suppose the same could be said of armchair quarterbacks, Military channel warriors and whodunit readers.
So, we don’t know it all and some of it is implausible information, yet we believe we just might be able to solve a crime in real life because we’ve done it mentally.
Who cares? We’re being entertained, engaging our minds and having fun. Oh yeah, we are having fun. As readers of a John Grisham novel or watching “The Bourne Identity,” we’re mentally playing cop. It’s like getting to be a kid all over again – without having to do the actual running.