JUST TWO PEOPLE TALKING
What I Learnt Writing Soap Opera During Covid - By Sachin Kureishi
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Great tragedies make good films, generally. So why has the television and film industry been so acutely uninterested in the topic of Covid, as extraordinary as it was?
Perhaps people were so traumatised by the whole thing that they’d rather watch reruns of Mrs Brown’s Boys. A lot of the drama we watch makes no mention of the pandemic, and if it does it is usually only a passing reference.
During the Covid years, I was among some of the only screenwriters in the country blessed with consistent work. In 2019 I got a job working for a well-known British soap opera. If you live in the U.K you’ll have heard of it. When Covid hit, the channel decided that the show had to go on - although in a much altered way.
The restrictions we grappled with seem farcical on reflection. Characters couldn’t be near each other, touching was out of the question. Nothing could be handed from one to another over fear of transference. If our characters had disagreements, smashing someone over the head with a glass bottle wasn’t the usual recourse for the writer anymore, as this would require an extra person on set to clean up the mess. The usual explosions and other wild stunts were done away with entirely. If an actor got ill or had to self-isolate, entire scripts would have to be rewritten at the last moment.
On top of this, we were writing scripts months in advance of the air date, which meant there was no possible way we could stay ahead of the various lockdowns and rule changes. We had to create our own kind of logic in the netherworld that the show became. Covid existed and didn’t exist at the same time. Lockdown could only be referenced to contextualise something else. A character might say, for instance, “Remember when you murdered Rebecca during lockdown, that was a laugh.
It was like trying to put on low budget theatre during a hurricane, which is what it often looked like as most scenes had to be filmed outdoors, regardless of the weather.
The test was how to keep an audience of tens of thousands of people absorbed when you had so little to work with. Looking back, it’s interesting how much you learn from writing with such limitations. It became a great exercise, but it was during that period that the show delivered some of the most genuine moments of humanity. For me, these were more compelling than the big explosions and the murders, though I love the occasional knifing or strangulation as much as the next person.
Our lives can be wildly dramatic, of course. My father falling on his neck and becoming temporarily paralysed from the neck down is case in point. But most of the time, during the humdrum of our daily lives, the most microscopic occurrences can stir us profoundly. Our weeks are dotted with pocket-sized traumas, feelings of intense sadness and anxiety, or indeed excitement: someone you fancy might unexpectedly follow you on Instagram; a curt and cryptic email from your boss asking for a meeting about your performance could set you on an apocalyptic downward spiral.
Italian Neo-realism and French new-wave were born out of recognition of the great power and beauty in the ordinary. Indeed, cinema is celebrated when it does a lot with very little. Art, Picasso reminds us, is the elimination of the unnecessary.
Screenwriter must transmit the thoughts of their characters deftly and discreetly; we don’t have the luxury of inner monologues like a novelist. The greatest soap opera ever, Mad Men, does this expertly. Don Draper needs only to gaze wistfully out the window for you to be drawn into the deep lagoon of his mind.
One particular moment stands out for me. In episode nine of its seventh and final season, Don Draper is at a diner with his business partner Roger Sterling and three beautiful women. But his attention is on the waitress, Diana, who’s serving them. She becomes a person of intense fascination for Don as she goes about her work.
She’s intentionally unremarkable, laconic and gloomy looking. But he’s nevertheless drawn to her, confounded by something until he asks her finally, with a searching look, ‘Do I know you?’ The scene ends on Don leaving the restaurant, stealing a final glance at her as reads her book at the bar.
For someone who watched the entire show from start to finish in one long, sweaty binge, eight years of Don’s life were fresher in my mind than they were in his, and an attentive observer could make sense of what happened in ways he perhaps couldn’t.
The scene occurs in the context of a great upheaval in Don’s life, an existential tailspin as he reckons with the complete emptiness that has by now has consumed him.
The waitress herself, played by Elizabeth Reaser, is cast to perfection: an exact amalgam of two of his previous girlfriends, both of whom met tragic ends; one becomes a heroin addict, the other dies unexpectedly. The resemblance to the one who became a heroin addict is so uncanny I was sure it was the same actor until I Googled it.
Raised with a chronic sense of loss and abandonment issues, Don is drawn to these darker aspects of the human condition, to others who exhibit them. The stream of glamorous and successful women Don becomes romantically involved with come to define him as a man who likes the finer things. For him to be attracted to this doleful waitress is bizarre but also thoroughly in line with who he is.
Later in the episode he goes back to the diner and, still intrigued and beguiled by her, seduces her and sleeps with her out the back.
In the context of the series, this is just a puzzling, unexplained vignette, but one I find enormously evocative and telling of Don’s inability to escape the allure of the darkness. It’s one of the few shows that can conjure such deep moments from tiny nothings: often profound or uncanny, those Proustian journeys we go on when we’re reminded of something deep in our past.
Young screenwriters often try to impress with fantastical set pieces, crazy stunts and blockbusters set in space or five hundred years ago. But what they learn - what I learnt - is that character is always the foundation of any story. And to evoke the strongest emotions, you don’t need more than two people talking in a room.
Not sure that I agree that Mad Men can be fairly termed a Soap Opera. The writing and character development, casting, acting and directing are of too high a calibre to qualify.
That being said, perhaps UK soap operas are a very different beast than they are in the States...
I completely agree that Mad Men may well be the greatest TV series ever and as far as I’m concerned the only one with multiple seasons and a long trajectory which I have watched in its entirety. I still dip into random episodes from time to time and am always completely bowled over by their individual brilliance. When Mad Men was originally broadcast Don was both reviled and occasionally admired for his complete mastery of the act of attraction and seduction. I’m not sure that post “me too” notwithstanding the historical context he would be regarded in the same way. Strangely enough there is so much quality television nowadays across so many platforms that sadly I actually don’t know that many people who have seen Mad Men. What an amazing work of art they are missing.