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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Coronation Street is relentlessly bleak now and it’s time to restore the balance

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You could be excused for thinking that you were being sold a gritty 9pm crime drama when the themes of far-right extremism, rape, shootings, and acid attacks were combined, rather than a neighborhood-based, generally lighthearted soap opera set on a single street.

The foundation of Coronation Street was dialogue-driven, relatable characters, warmth, and humor.

The show has had to change over the years in order to adapt to new cliffhanger-based episodes, social media demands, and competition from other channels and streaming services.

As a result, the narratives will inevitably become darker, gritty, and generally wackier, with trams crashing into the street to sinkholes sending gun-toting maniacs plunging into the sewers below.

I’ve long defended the darker, more intense side of soap operas as an EastEnders and Brookside fan.

The vast majority of audiences today wouldn’t enjoy Coronation Street in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, the humor and heart of Coronation Street have remained constant throughout the years.

The more violent storylines have always been juxtaposed with themes that are more lighthearted, upbeat, touching, and absurd, regardless of how many serial killers they have trying to emulate Richard Hillman.

It’s a delicate balance that can easily tip slightly in the wrong direction on either side.

However, there are these relatively minor imbalances, and then there is the current Corrie, which has descended so deeply into the depths of the pit that it can only be described as hopeless.

As of now, 2023 has been marked by a narrative of far-right extremism that is replete with racial slurs, bombs, and stabbings.

It’s a very current story that depicts the ugly society that exists in the UK, and soap operas excel at bringing up these social issues and almost feel obligated to do so.

There is a clear divide between viewers who thought this was accurately and well-represented and those who contend the exact opposite.

However, there wasn’t much time for the story’s subtleties to develop or be discussed because we were immediately thrust into the next gloomy story after an explosion, a stabbing, and a hurried court hearing.

Since then, there have been several shootings involving drug lords, kidnappings of teenagers who faked miscarriages for cash, rapes, and the tragic passing of Evelyn Plummer’s beloved dog, Maureen Lipman’s portrayal of whom was so flawless that it deeply affected the audience.

We experienced a terrifying acid attack this week, and the agonized screams will live in my memory for a very long time.

Moreover, a character will soon receive a diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, with the bosses already knowing the grim prognosis for the coming months.

Watching it is a completely different beast than typing it all out and thinking about it.

The fact that the most amusing tale involves a bumbling serial killer who is about to drown his third victim puts the unrelenting misery into perspective.

Stephen Reid’s (Todd Boyce) plotline doesn’t seem to know what it is; at times, it is played for laughs. The character haphazardly finds himself in predicaments that he can only resolve by killing the featured guest star of the week; this is essentially a poor imitation of John Stape.

Sometimes it’s sinister; people being thrown off balconies, drugged with LSD to induce psychosis, and hit with office supplies aren’t the best ingredients for comedic plots.

A few years ago, former producer Kate Oates appeared on the This Morning couch to refute criticism that the Corrie storylines were too bleak for the program.

During her tenure, she had another menacing serial killer and storylines involving a sex ring and male suicide.

Although some of these storylines were difficult to watch and did take Corrie into darker territory than some viewers were perhaps used to, they did not all occur at once and were almost never at the expense of some of the more endearing aspects of the show.

It has seemed like a race in recent months to release all of the somber issue-driven storylines at once.

Consider this week’s acid attack episode; its main strand is shocking and absolutely horrifying; it is incredible that it was able to land in a pre-watershed timeslot.

The episode’s B-story concerns a teenage girl who was raped while intoxicated and suffered silent trauma as a result.

Real life is so incredibly challenging that watching the news for even half an hour makes us feel hopeless.

The main purposes of soap operas are to provide escapism and entertainment, and Coronation Street is in danger of losing the distinctiveness that has distinguished it from other TV shows since 1960.

Yes, gritty and socially focused storylines have a place in ongoing drama; when done well, they can shed light on themes and be viewed by millions of people for weeks or months at a time. No other genre has the ability to do that, so in order for this to be successful, it’s important to not back down from the more challenging elements.

As a survivor of suicide, I found Aidan Connor’s death to be one of the most moving pieces of television I have ever seen. Coronation Street does these stories exceptionally well.

It’s not the stories themselves that I have a problem with in Coronation Street right now; the consent and acid attack storylines, in particular, were flawlessly executed by the actors, and I have no doubt the upcoming MND plot will be handled in a similarly excellent manner.

The issue is how persistent it is. These storylines require time to develop authentically and in their own spotlight; they should be spread out over the course of the year and interspersed with lighter material.

Too much at once not only alienates a viewership that is growing weary of suffering, but it also runs the risk of losing sight of the crucial aspects that Coronation Street was intended to emphasize in the first place.

Before completely losing its way, Corrie needs to take a step back and realize that less is more and that the show’s enduring blend of high drama, community warmth, relationships, and comedy is what both old and new viewers really enjoy.

Not death by horror (often literally).

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