Posted by: Kerry Gans | January 12, 2012

EastEnders

Ever since my daughter was born, I haven’t watched much TV. The occasional football game, but as my favorite drama series went off the air, I didn’t replace them.

But there is one TV show that I have watched religiously since I was 16. For 25 years, my parents and I have watched this show together, growing up with the characters. This show is EastEnders.

EastEnders is a half-hour British soap opera following the families living in an East End square in London. Unlike American soap operas, the people are not rich, glamorous, or privileged. This is the story of working-class families struggling just to make ends meet. The plotlines are (for the most part) realistic and often gritty. As in real life, people come and go in the community—families move in, move out; children grow up, get married; people are born, people die. Unlike American soaps, the people that die tend to stay dead. Only 4 characters remain from the original cast 25 years ago.

So why have I watched for 25 years? Why does this show have such a loyal following in both the UK and the US?

Quality.

The writing is superb, and the actors are incredible. While there are always difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching plotlines in each episode, some other character is often involved in a light, often slightly comedic, plotline to alleviate the tension. Often these two plotlines will collide in unexpected ways. The writers also don’t forget—a storyline that impacts the characters deeply often resurfaces much later. They remember anniversaries of deaths, marriages, births, and other important events, and are not afraid to tackle difficult topics like HIV, prejudice, rape, adoption, abortion, and discrimination.

Not only is the writing fantastic, but the actors carry it off with skill. They manage to capture nuance and contradiction, making their characters as real as anyone you’d meet on the street. My husband is not a huge fan of the show because he finds it loud—there is a lot of ambient noise in some scenes, and arguments do tend to have raised voices. But my very favorite episodes are the quiet ones.

Every once and a while, there will be an episode that consists entirely of two people talking. Sound boring? Well, it could be, if done incorrectly. But the actors combined with the writing make it riveting. (I also have to give kudos to the director, who shoots the episodes with varied camera angles to give the feel of movement even when there is none.) These episodes often follow some “big reveal”—they are the quiet after the explosion. They are intense. I cannot look away. My living room fades away as I am pulled into their world.

One example showing the convergence of writing and acting is the character of Dot. She is an original character, and is likely about 70 now. Dot is deeply religious, often quoting scripture to make her point. She could be a sanctimoniously annoying character, but her zealotry is tempered by her own human foibles and true compassion. Her character is often used as light relief, comedic without being hurtful, and it would be easy to leave her character at this shallow level. But the writers don’t. Dot’s life has been harsh, and we understand that this is one reason she has retreated so deeply into her religion. Also, the writers create moments where Dot’s depth can shine through—moments where she reveals little pieces of her pain. The actress that plays Dot is superb. In just a few lines, she can transform from a comedic façade to an intense, soul-searching woman. In one of those “quiet” episodes I love so much, Dot was forced to make a horrific choice: help her terminally ill friend end her suffering or stick to her religious principles. This episode (just Dot and her friend Ethel) explored the issue of assisted suicide without ever once mentioning the word. One moment I was swayed by one point of view; the next moment the other side made an equally compelling argument. The emotional conflict was vivid and gut-wrenching and left the viewers to make up their own minds while showing clearly and believably the choice Dot eventually made.

I had fallen behind in watching them—I had 63 to watch. In a month and a half long marathon, I have caught up, and I remember why I love that show so much. It is addictive. Now that I’ve caught up, I am jonesing for the next episode. Here in the US, we are watching episodes that aired in 2004, so we are very far behind. As long as EastEnders is being filmed in the UK (where it airs 4 times a week), we will never catch up.

And that is fine with me.

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Responses

  1. Quality inspires quality!

    Like

  2. You know how much WE enjoy the show!!

    Dad

    Like


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