Cursed heirlooms

The legacy of soap operas and state of television in South Africa. Now it is being exported to streaming services like Netflix for everyone everywhere to see.

Still from Jiva! via Netflix.

Two years ago, I wrote a review for Netflix’s flagship African series, Queen Sono, where I raised my concerns over the future of Netflix in South Africa. I assessed that Queen Sono valiantly attempted to spin the distinctly American genre of the spy-thriller into a South African setting which, as well-intentioned as it was, couldn’t overcome the expected inconsistencies with adapting the genre in a context far removed in space and time from its origin. Queen Sono’s flaws appeared to have reflected a wider trend that occurs mainly in our film and television, but rears its head in other cultural industries where South African art wrestles with its own identity under the influence of American cultural hegemony. The following years’ worth of South African Netflix originals haven’t proved my concerns wrong. Rather, they have illuminated an elephant in the room that I had missed when assessing Netflix’s incursion—namely, how soap operas dominate the South African television industry.

South Africa’s first soap opera of the democratic era, eGoli: City of Gold, debuted in 1992 and was soon followed by the more famous Generations, which was commissioned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the country’s public broadcaster. During the democratic transition, the SABC and private broadcaster M-Net sought to promote a positive and multi-racial South Africa, depicting Black South Africans as affluent, upwardly mobile and integrating professionally and socially with other races. “Soapies” of this era emulated a new South Africa, and what new South Africans could look like in it. Thus, soap operas, though often thought to be devoid of socio-political significance, operated as socio-cultural barometers for many South Africans. More recent interations of local soaps explore the lived experiences and hot-button issues affecting average South Africans, earning top viewership ratings across public and private service channels. Soaps become ubiquitous in social life, and audiences consequently develop para-social relationships to a soap’s characters and plot lines. The previous night’s episodes are hot topics of weekday conversations in many facets of South African life—from taxi ranks, school playgrounds to workplace lunchrooms. This baked-in viewership allows networks to sell expensive prime-time advertising, providing huge profit.

Not surprisingly, the number of soaps in South Africa has grown exponentially over the years. Today, four out of SABC’s five free-to-air channels host a slate of flagship soaps that air during primetime hours. Soap operas currently own the top 10 spots for the most watched television programs in the country. The bulk of viewer shares in South African television is reliant on the soap opera model. It’s hard to believe that the situation is purely coincidental. With the SABC exponentially bleeding money—due to the mismanagement of funds by everyone from network executives to independent production houses—they remain one of the most consistent avenues of revenue for the troubled broadcaster, and still a pillar on which the industry in South Africa is built.

When it comes to maximizing profits through content, Netflix is no stranger. After earning reverence from their original slate of relatively daring and critically acclaimed series’ (including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things and Black Mirror), its more recent priorities appear to be about producing a torrent of content to support its platform. With more and more networks divorcing from Netflix to launch their own streaming platforms (Disney+, Peacock, HBO Max) and newer competitive players in the market (Apple TV, Amazon Prime), the rules of competition are to be driven less by the “real art vs content to support a platform” struggle, but rather one to provide as much content as possible—a change spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and Netflix playing catch-up with an increasing number of larger and more established networks like NBC and Disney that have built-in catalogs of beloved series and films to support their streaming platforms. With audiences having much more disposable time and less disposable income on their hands, as well as increasing competition in a market it once monopolized, Netflix appears to think viewers are less concerned about the quality of what they’re watching than the quantity of what they have to choose from.

South African filmmakers have developed a cozy relationship with Netflix, pitching and creating series with a company unmoored by local trends. For Netflix, the partnership helps to not only supplement its global content stream, but South Africa seems a perfect avenue because its own industry has prioritized the efficient maximization of content—an obvious segue to the streaming industry. The late 2000s and early 2010s saw the evolution of television into an increasingly auteur driven and dramatically compelling format. American television drew in Hollywood actors, writers and directors, their budgets grew, runtimes lengthened, and storytelling matured. The small screen began to feature nuanced, morally ambiguous and psychologically rich characters located within complex and carefully crafted stories. No longer the medium perceived as mindless, after-work entertainment, prestige dramas and high-concept comedies of the likes of Breaking Bad, Atlanta, Girls, The Sopranos and many others showed audiences, critics and producers alike that the small screen could stand in equal artistic regard to its big-screen companion. While there is a strong argument that some of the elements of what is colloquially referred to as “Peak TV,” owe their origins to the soap opera, the genre now finds itself playing among TV relics alongside 30-minute multi-cam sitcoms and family game shows.

Ultimately, the guiding framework and principles behind all soap operas are less concerned with meaningful, considered and dexterous writing, but rather with an effort to maintain and deliver on the broadcasting demands of the genre. These are concessions most viewers passively consent to for the convenience of daily episodes ad infinitum.

The dominance of any form of television can be problematic. Peak TV, for all its esteem, had a shelf life and its own set of harmful attributes and consequences. Unlike Peak TV, the soap opera genre has a particularly pernicious influence due to how its tropes and narrative conventions are idiosyncratically tied to its unique broadcasting demands. When it comes to adapting the soap opera tradition to other forms of television, especially the series form, it’s unwise, even destructive, to ditch the bathwater while keeping the baby. It is this struggle that has colored the South African Netflix shows. The omnipresence of soaps results in most, if not all filmmakers working in television owing a huge part of their career to the genre, and thus they struggle to break out of its very particular parameters.

Apart from budget, the most immediate difference between a series and soap, is that series have endings. Soaps are characteristically devoid of endings, therefore outside of a soap’s respective premise, it’s impossible to get a true grasp of the conceptual totality of a soap. Struggling to find a compelling way to end stories, align storylines along an arc, and to find balanced pacing is a recurring problem inSouth African Netflix originals.

Jiva!, for all its many charms, is a clear example. The series is a dance drama (a la the Step-Up series), which chronicles a young woman, Ntombi (Noxolo Dlamini), who works a dead-end job as a guide at the local waterpark, but risks it all to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Jiva! boasts a gamut of storylines throughout its eight-episode first season, yet only a handful of them feel engaging because most fail to cohere to the series’ central theme. Everything else falls into a predictable romance storyline once it escapes the space of the central dance competition.

Thematic incoherence appears in similar ways in Blood and Water, the second South African co-production to debut on Netflix after Queen Sono, which landed to global fanfare, occupying the global #1 spot upon its launch. Across the two seasons the show suffers from an acute identity crisis. At times, it yearns to be a gritty and suspenseful thriller, which writer Nosipho Dumisa-Ngoasheng, whose previous work features an adaption of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, is more than adept at handling. Yet, it also wants the careless disenchantment of a Gossip Girl, where teenagers are so fantastically removed from parents, or any indication of adolescence, or responsibility.

Blood and Water follows Puleng Khumalo (Ama Qamata), a teenage girl who enrolls at a prestigious private high school in Cape Town on suspicion that one of its students, Fikile Bele (Khosi Ngema), is her elder sister who was abducted from her parents shortly after birth. Throughout the first season, as Puleng’s attempts to prove Fikile is her sister grow increasingly dangerous and often bone-headed, the audience is reminded of the void that is her fractured family dynamic and why she’s desperately compelled to solve the mystery. The second season lacks the thematic grounding that gave the first season a sense of focus, and like Jiva!, struggles to maintain any compelling stories or action outside of the main storyline. The plot is paced awkwardly in the second season, its complimentary sub-plots routinely picked up, forgotten, chopped and changed, without much resolution. The addition of newer characters feels exciting, but towards the end of the season is inconsequential.

To be fair, bad writing is bad writing, whether or not said bad writing is situated in an industry overwhelmed by a singular mode of storytelling. The trading of storylines in this fashion harkens back to the soapie traditions of storytelling, where the multiplicity of tangential and unresolved plot lines are commonplace to support the week-day broadcast schedule. Storylines haven’t reached neat resolutions, and subplots, twists and characters are generated, dropped and picked up again at a dizzying pace. These characteristics would be at home in a soap opera setting, but in a season with an eight-10 episode run, it results in lack of focus and cohesion.

The nagging and overreaching influence of soaps obstructs South African shows from ever reaching the type of characterized and nuanced storytelling that made Squid Game, for example, a smashing success. Furthermore, the production of 260 episodes in a single year, is a gargantuan task for any production company. The tremendous workload has resulted in many workers in the South African film industry to complain about being overworked and underpaid. With more than a dozen soaps currently in production within a relatively small industry, one wonders if the framework is sustainable. What we need is more rigorous interrogation of the state of things, instead of a passive acceptance of the industry as current the state of things. If hit-shows like Is’thunzi, Tjovitjo, Hopeville or Yizo Yizo have shown us anything, it is that South Africans are capable of gravitating towards and supporting series television. Last year’s slate of South African Netflix series are a sign that the hegemony of soap operas is far from an isolated phenomenon; their influence is evidently constricting the creative imagination for what local television can look and feel like.

The intent is not to malign the storied history of soap operas and the vital role they play in the lives of millions of South Africans, but to demand, as producers and consumers of content, that the soap not be the sole genre on which the television industry is driven.

Further Reading

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