If you happened to be casually flipping channels over the past few nights at 10 p.m., there’s a decent chance you may have come across a scene right out of 24. There sat a man, stripped to his skivvies, being tortured in some rather creative ways. First, he had hot wax poured upon his… er… let’s go with “junk.” Then, he was doused with water and poked repeatedly in the chest with jumper cables attached to a car battery (this being the “electric purple nurple” referenced in the headline). Finally, he was covered with gasoline and set ablaze, all at the hands of a fiery redhead with vengeance on her mind.
Now, it may seem hard to imagine an audience — let alone me, the author of a book on civility — gleefully cheering the audience on, and yet that’s exactly what viewers of the novella LA CASA DE AL LADO were doing as Adolfo (brilliantly played by David Chocarro) met his grisly (for TV) demise.
You see, Adolfo was a very, very bad boy. And unlike American soaps, Spanish telenovelas work on the premise that viewers want to see villains do very bad things… and then be punished for them. This works largely because telenovelas, no matter how popular, come to an end, allowing viewers who’ve been hissing at a villain’s antics for (on average) six months to see him pay for his sins.
American-produced soaps, however, have done the seemingly impossible: They’ve simultaneously forgotten how to tell longterm story (despite the nature of the beast requiring exactly that) and taken to crafting tales in which leading characters commit the most heinous of acts — from murder to babynapping — without ever being made to suffer the consequences. Unlike the glory days of the genre, when shows like THE EDGE OF NIGHT routinely introduced short-term villains who would eventually be murdered or sent to the big house, today’s soaps morph bad guys into heroes so as not to lose an actor to whom the audience has grown attached.
But in this day and age, when the nightly news is filled with stories of evil triumphing over good, perhaps it’s time for television to cater to that most basic of human instincts: to see bad people punished. Is it any wonder that in primetime, a show like REVENGE — in which a woman’s quest to avenge her father’s death at the hands of powerful, corrupt people — is so popular? At its heart — heck, in its very title — REVENGE is playing to the same forces that have fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s as if the show is echoing the rallying cry made famous by the film Network: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
In an odd way, there’s an odd social contract that exists between us and the television in our living room. We promise to turn it on and sit through commercials (or pay not to) and it, in turn, vows to entertain us… to help us escape the slings and arrows that are not only cruel fate but day-to-day life. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t!) throw rocks at the paper boy who consistently tosses our copy in a puddle or assault the politician who cuts his taxes while raising ours. At the very least, we should be able to go home, turn on the television and revel in the glory of someone very deserving being given an electric purple nurple.
It seems only fair.
Richard M. Simms is the executive editor of Soaps In Depth magazine and the author of the book Crimes Against Civility.