Walford goes global

Author: Christine Becker

My most joyful experience of 2015 involved watching a TV series along with a friend who was usually asleep at the time. I also enjoyed plenty of captivating television along with friends who were awake. This included the youthful fun of FOX’s MasterChef Junior; the unpredictable dramatics of CBS’s Survivor; the mesmerizing slow-burn of SundanceTV’s Rectify; the raw insight of HBO’s Getting On; and the thrilling start and ignominious end of the Chicago Cubs’ baseball season.

illustration: Penelope Dullaghan

However, no TV experience last year brought me greater emotional highs and lows, intrigue and feels, OMGs and LOLs than one series: EastEnders. And I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much if I didn’t have a like-minded friend to watch with, even though we never watched in the same room and almost never at the same time, given that she lives 4,000 miles away and five hours ahead of me.

EastEnders is a soap opera, a typically disregarded genre, but the likeliest reason you don’t know it is because of its origins in Great Britain. EastEnders is the BBC’s flagship soap that arrived in 1985, and 30 years later it is still among the most-watched series on British TV, even in an era of fragmenting audiences and online alternatives. And thanks to online alternatives, I was able to keep up with a daily British series that doesn’t air in the United States. If you’re an American, you should know that British soaps differ from U.S. daytime serial dramas, which are set in aspirational upper-class worlds. Britain’s early evening dramas tend to focus on the working-class and the pragmatic. This doesn’t mean EastEnders characters don’t marry six times, suffer from amnesia or come back from the dead. They just struggle to pay the rent while doing so.

While Notre Dame employment helped keep my rent paid, it also contributed to my struggle last year to keep up with the TV shows I love. But even as the grading piled up and my DVR reached 100 percent capacity, I rarely skipped regular visits to Walford, EastEnders’ fictional London borough. And 2015 was a special year for EastEnders, which kicked off its 30th anniversary with a week of special live episodes in February. While the resolution of a sensational “Who killed X?” narrative propelled those episodes, the workhorse plots that unfolded across the season were what truly honored the show’s historical legacy and rendered me incapable of turning away.

There were familial battles rooted in decades of generational character development, the serial lifeblood of any soap opera. There were stories that resonated in light of current events, such as when a Muslim character explained the kindness at the core of his Islamic faith to his non-religious girlfriend, a scene that was shot two months before but aired only days after November’s devastating ISIS-led attacks in Paris. There were multiple storylines that offered the public service of information that has always been a soap opera hallmark, like the slowly unfolding story of a woman dealing with the psychological aftermath of acquaintance rape as her rapist walked free about Walford. There was the plot that left me soaked in tears for the length of an entire episode, as I watched a couple endure a heartbreaking stillbirth.

Then there were the everyday pleasures soaps can engender like no other genre, such as one of the richest friendships between a young person and a senior citizen I’ve ever seen depicted in any medium. That senior citizen, Dot Branning, has been portrayed by actress June Brown since 1985; now at 88, Dot is still chain-smoking and judging Walford’s residents with her characteristic Christian devotion.

I first journeyed into Walford in 2011, when the American soaps I’d been hooked on since my mom introduced me to them when I was a teenager were canceled. Watching EastEnders gave me a replacement melodrama fix and also offered a good way to learn more about British TV culture. I didn’t know anything about Dot Branning or how she fit into Walford, but I knew someone on Twitter who did. Faye Woods is a lecturer in film and television at the University of Reading in England. I’m sure we initially followed each other on Twitter for academic reasons, but once we started sharing our viewing tastes via tweets, it became a friendship forged out of TV love.

Faye has been a devoted EastEnders viewer for most of her life. She had watched as Dot battled cancer, invited any number of wayward tenants into her council house, struggled to care for her stroke-victim husband and dealt with a dastardly son who repeatedly tried to steal from her, faked his death to evade imprisonment and then died of a drug overdose as she cradled him. As I started watching, Faye helped fill me in on 25 years worth of backstory I had missed, 140 characters at a time.

We also tweeted our reactions to ongoing storylines, which is the most valuable currency of soap opera viewing. Despite what the often outlandish plots might lead you to believe, the emotional value of soap operas is steeped in reaction, not action. What matters most is how members of the on-screen and viewing community alike react to events. Watching a soap opera with a companion fuels a shared experience of viewership through which talking about what you watched can be as fulfilling as actually watching it. This makes Twitter an ideal soap opera accessory.

Yes, Faye was no doubt asleep when I found time in the late evening to watch and tweet about the latest activities of Dot and Walford’s most troubled residents. But then I would awake in the morning and access Twitter with anticipation to see how Faye had responded overnight. Did she love the latest plot twist as much as I did? What did she think might happen when other characters found out about it? Could she tell me more about how this fit into the show’s history? This happened nearly every week in 2015, and it helped make EastEnders my favorite show of the year.

Critics have fawned over such prestigious series as Mad Men, Fargo and Transparent, and I do appreciate those series and the cultural legitimacy they have helped to lend to TV. But for me, nothing in recent years has given me greater emotional gratification than a 30-year-old series from an 85-year-old genre, albeit with a key assist from 21st-century technologies. And I will take emotional gratification over cultural legitimacy any day.

Christine Becker is a Notre Dame associate professor of Film, Television, and Theatre. She tweets about television @crsbecker, @N4TVM and @goodTVeets.