And Another Thing: The Superiority of British Soaps Like <i>EastEnders</i>

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about. 


Good news, everyone! I’ve started watching EastEnders! Again! Yes indeedy, it looks like I’ve chosen to kick an extra $7 to the streaming gods every month and go ahead and subscribe to BritBox, the must-have service for fans of English-language content, GMT-style. The trigger was pulled due to a deep desire to watch more faithful adaptations of G.K. Chesterston stories than the ones from this century, but I’m getting away from myself. What is EastEnders? Well, it’s a soap opera — the only one I’ve ever given the time of day to. I used to watch, nearly 15 years ago, when I briefly lived in East London. My goodness, the novelty of it all!

In spite of the fact that I am literally named after a character on a soap opera, the genre never held any appeal for me. In retrospect, this is almost certainly because I was at school during the daytime hours of soap opera programming — they were for stay-at-home moms and retirees, they were the “stories” my grandma would sometimes stop and enjoy. Had I been a laxly homeschooled child, it’s likely I’d be an encyclopedia on, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Days.  Sure, yes, there have been prime-time dramas with soapy stories like Nashville and The O.C. that I have known and appreciated in my time, but come on — we all know those don’t count. (The young actors in prime-time soaps want to be in movies instead of on television for the next 30 years, and you can tell.) 

British soaps and American soaps have a few broad differences, and one of the most important as far as I’m concerned is runtime. American daytime soap operas are like an hour, and man, that’s fucking crazy. Entirely too big a chunk of life to ask. Intrepid daytime TV go-getters like Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown can solve multiple interpersonal issues (while cracking wise!) in 30 minutes or less, and anything more is simply greedy. British soaps, however, operate with efficient brevity: These masters touch on five-plus storylines in a solid 20 minutes. 

I prefer the British soap for another reason: It’s fun for the whole family! They air in the evening: after school, after work, and I’m not sure, but it's probably timed to give people a chance to grab a drink at the pub before heading home. (Lotta EastEnders takes place in a pub.) They’re more or less for everyone. The genre isn’t so implicitly gendered and geared toward a female audience. There’s a vague “Very Special Episode”-ness about almost everything that goes down: Obviously, I love it. Also, American soaps are about rich, fancy people, and British soaps are about poor, grubby people. There’s petty crime and big crime and murders and gents sayin’ "guv." Everyone dresses in the most earnestly garish way — the market stalls they all work at clearly only sell tight neon, hoop earrings and animal print. 

EastEnders has been on since the mid-’80s and it has its own deep history and lore, fan-favorite characters and iconic storylines. I know basically none of it. But that’s the beauty of the soap (truly, any soap) — it doesn’t matter. If a show’s doing its job, you can turn on any episode and immediately get swept up in the drama and bullshit. Like Hey, who’s that guy? Why’s he being so squirrely? That bitch — jeez, what’s her problem? Another good thing about EastEnders? You can pretty much sing the alphabet to the theme song. 

BritBox (in addition to also airing rival soap Coronation Street) holds onto the episodes for at least a few months after air date, and I’ve got about another 30 to go before I’m all caught up. So, what’s been going down ‘round Albert Square? Well, I started to get choked up when Jean Slater stole a delivery van and (accidentally) wrecked all the gym equipment Sharon just bought, but she only stole the van because she wanted to get arrested — you see, Jean is dying of cancer and may not live out the year, and her daughter Stacey’s just been sent off to jail for assaulting Ruby in a stairwell. BUT GET THIS: The CCTV video of the assault didn’t really tell the whole story, because it really was an accident and Ruby really did just trip and fall. 

But the most pertinent point of this whole “Stacey is back in prison” thing is Ruby said the fall caused a miscarriage! But she had already miscarried! And she LIED to her partner Martin in the first place about the pregnancy and it was merely a lucky coincidence that she actually was pregnant! Also, obviously, the Martin we’re talking about here is Stacey’s ex-husband. The soap. Unlike its characters, it can do no wrong. 

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