This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on July 04, 2007.
To trace the character of Tom Hughes is to trace the trajectory of the American soap opera and, to a degree, American television. The character demonstrates the soap opera genre's use of SORASing and the supercouple and the constant tug at soap storytelling between the three major strands of soap opera plots--family and workplace drama, tackling social issues, and escapist romance fare.
A part of the soap canvas for 45 years now, Tom Hughes is, in a sense, the history of ATWT, and the treatment of his character marks changes in performers, changes in writing staffs, and changes in audience reception and in American society. From tackling divorce to drug culture and Vietnam to living wills and AIDS, Tom's character has been involved with many of the controversies that have defined American public discourse over the past few decades. And for fan communities with lasting memories, his current character serves as a monument to those social changes and plot turns.
Soaps are always at their best when they blend this social awareness with character development and drama, and the brief sketch of Tom's character history demonstrates the power of soaps to create coherent narratives of characters' lives.
While many current viewers may not know of Tom's rich past (and there is much more omitted than included here), longtime viewers or viewers interested in understanding a show's history are aware of the way this character has developed over its 45-year history (again, even though he is a 54-year-old character).
For the fan community, Hughes' story is consistent and intelligible, and the current Tom Hughes is shaped by this history. Comments and actions Tom makes today are usually examined and weighed with those from his past, and his scenes with fellow performers are mined and supplemented in fan discussions with any history the two characters might share.
Hardcore fans have internalized this basic narrative outlined here. The fan community's consumption of the text of Tom Hughes' life for more than 45 years leads to a nuanced understanding of the current character and his complicated relationships both with the 40 characters currently on cast and myriad characters within the show's history that may get referenced from time-to-time or may return to the cast in the future. For fans, mastering this overall narrative is crucial, and several sites and online discussions are dedicated to filling in the blanks for Tom and other longtime Oakdale residents.
Within these activities surrounding Tom Hughes and the character's rich and detailed development on a daily show over the past several decades lay the power of the soap opera genre.
Because soaps unfold, to some degree, in "real time," these shows and the characters in them have unparalleled abilities to create complex character development. Some critics dismiss the soap opera genre as lacking the general character coherence needed for genuine television artistry, but I hope this account of Tom does justice to the fact that, despite many shifts in creative teams and performers, the Tom Hughes character follows a consistent character trajectory, even if that development has been communally defined by the writers, performers, and fans who have followed him during that time.
Here, more than any other place in the television medium, the power of the character to transcend plot and performer is most dramatically illustrated.
The only way to understand the power of soaps and to be able to grant the soap opera genre any level of artistry is to understand and analyze the text of the soap opera. If nothing else, this essay proves how difficult a task true textual analysis of a soap opera over time can be and why the nuances of a soap is hard to explain.
As with real life, soap opera narratives evolve over long periods of time, belie neat categories, and often involve more characters than can be condensed into a short plot summary. In some ways, then, the artistry of soaps remains hidden from anyone outside the fan community. For most scholars, the genre's now stereotyped conventions and lack of visual sophistication often masks the artistry of the soap, which lies in character interaction and development that can only be completely understood and appreciated by long-time fans.
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