Lessons from a Megasoap

With all the nostalgia about the 80s around, it would have been a miracle if I hadn’t got infected. Far from thinking the 80s were the best decade in history ever, I did spend some of my formative years in it and while I couldn’t care less about the return of the 80s style (please don’t bring back shoulder pads, please), I have been feeling an itch to return to a digital-free past. Obviously, there was only one thing I could do: binge on Dallas.

Fun fact: Dallas is the only soap Big C. has watched, when he was relatively young, and he still remembers it fondly. Me, I’ve got half a dozen under my belt from the days when we had TV in the house and hadn’t heard about streaming sites or Netflix et al because they didn’t exist. Soaps are a great way to relax in the most passive way possible. They’re also a great way to grow stupider if you overdo them. A good soap, however, could be educational.

I’m halfway through now and while there is a lot of hilarity involved in watching the trials and tribulations of everyone but The Ultimate Villain of TV, there is a lot of educational stuff, too. It’s equally valid for life and for writing, so here’s a few gems I’ve found so far.

#1 Love is not everything

Sigh. That’s too sad a lesson to begin a list with but better get it over with sooner to have time to deal with the pain. Love’s great and it may or my not save the world but it’s not enough for a happy life. There are also things like ambitions and duties that sometimes get the upper hand. Sniff.

Speaking of love, I can’t miss the opportunity to talk about toxicity a bit. It’s on my black list of abused words but now I’ll gladly use it. Love may not be love which alters when it alternation finds as History’s Greatest Plagiarist famously said, but it’s also not love when it’s, in fact, insecurity and fear of independence.

That’s one thing always good to know, especially for young people and writers. The former can use this knowledge as an armour on the battlefield of romance and the latter can use it to make their characters more complex. Oh, yes, also both men and women can be toxic, in their charming different ways. Don’t thank me.

#2 If you’re going to use people be ready to be used back

One discovery I made with amazement was how realistic the characters on Dallas are. No, don’t laugh yet. Of course they’re all exaggerated but almost everyone on this show reminds me of actual people I have known at some point in my life. Except J. R. Nobody is like J. R.

J. R. (the Ultimate Villain of TV and the Universe) is a walking talking lesson in how to not treat people (if you want anyone to like you, that is) and a source of much wisdom, if given inadvertently. There are a lot of people in real life — too many, really — who’d happily use people around them, blissful in their assumption that people will not use them back. It’s a version of a national sport we have down here: rules are for everyone but me. Well, tables turn, sooner or later. Honestly, I sometimes want to take notes as I watch, for further use.

#3 Good intentions can be deceptive

This, of course, is a piece of wisdom you can find on any good TV show or in any good book that features some form of villainy. You can also find it on bad TV shows and in bad books, because it’s an essential — tired, if you will — trope in storytelling. Villains sometimes do good things but this doesn’t make them good. I feel it’s a quite nice rule of thumb in both life and writing. And no, not everybody knows this. It’s shocking, I know.

#4 Listening is important

I’m sure that if someone somehow manages to record all the things a random person hears over the course of a single day and then plays them back to them, that person would be surprised at how little of what they’d heard they had actually absorbed. Listening is a precious skill most of us lack most of the time. And to think how much in life depends on listening, such as peace of mind, for example, or preparedness for a frontal attack by an evil oil executive.

#5 Power corrupts. It just corrupts in different ways.

One of the most profound arcs in Dallas is Bobby, the saintly Good Guy degenerating into a scheming, plotting semi-villain under the toxic influence of his villain brother (temporarily). Of course, it’s hilarious how he manages to remain criminally naive and trusting with other Bad Guys and Gals in the meantime but the degeneration is a fact. This fact tells us in a simple, straightforward way that power corrupts, even the Good Guys. That’s a useful thing to remember, I find.

#6 You underestimate people at your own expense

There’s hardly a better feeling than being the smartest person in the room, right? When you’re sixteen, at least. The fact that so many people freeze in their development at the mental age of sixteen just makes this all the more relevant in today’s world. Yet this feeling is more often than not wrong and sooner or later leads to consequences, sometime dramatic — I mean, setting your house on fire because you underestimated just how many people and for how long you can force to do your bidding is pretty dramatic. And then you have to pay for the repairs.

#7 Stupid is as stupid does.

I will probably offend a lot of people with this but it’s not intentional. The modern villains I see are mostly a pathetic bunch (I’m talking action movies and, gasp, superhero series. Endless series.). Yeah, they’re spectacularly and dramatically troubled, which I guess makes them relatable, but their creators have probably forgotten to make the heroes imperfect, too. I’m probably wrong and there’s plenty of imperfect protagonists capable of cruel stupidity and mistakes, which would be great. But I may be right.

You see, it’s never just the villain who does the Very Bad Things. Villains need means to achieve their ends and these means are often people — people too stupid or naive (which is the same thing but said more nicely) — to apply the critical thinking skills they were born with to any situation where they might come in useful. Stupid people, if you want it in modernspeak, are the ultimate enablers of everything that’s wrong with humankind. Really, you don’t get to be much more profound than this. Praise J. R Ewing.

#8 Wants are not needs

We’re a selfish bunch, it’s a well known scientific fact. But we tend to take this selfishness to extremes by — sometimes deliberately — confusing our wants for our needs or at least acting as if what we want is what we need, which is the same thing, I guess.

Actually, you don’t need a soap opera to remind you about this, it’s enough to spend any amount of time on social media or the news but in soaps, the point is made better and driven home more accurately. We actually need relatively few things for a decent life. Most of the things we think we need, we actually just want. While industries are built on that confusion and I don’t mean oil. Snack for thought.

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Book-peddling time: if you’re in the mood for some dragons and vampires, or mysterious vanishing planes, try The Lamiastriga (which you can’t read for free on this blog) or Sky High (which you can read for free on this blog or on Kobo).

 

 

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