The eurozone crisis as soap opera

  • 26 April 2012
  • From the section Magazine
George Clooney (right) in ER

The plot of the eurozone crisis thickened this week, as markets were rocked by France's presidential election, more bad figures from Spain, and signs that even the Dutch may say No to austerity. If this was a drama, what kind would it be?

Steve: We're going to be alright aren't we Susie?

Susie: What Steve? Uh Yeh. Of course…

Steve: And when this baby comes along, we're going to be a proper family.

Susie: Eh Yeh…A proper family. Look, Steve I think I'm going to have a lie-down, OK?

Steve: Yeah of course. You have to keep your strength up. You know what Susie, for the first time in years I think everything's gonna work out for us.

The camera focuses in on Susie's face. It's clear from her expression that everything is not gonna work out. Whatever happiness Steve's expecting is a sham. The baby is not his. He is headed for bitter disappointment.

The camera lingers for a moment and then the first bars of the signature tune play.

The Steve and Susie storyline is not lifted from any actual soap opera but it will be familiar to a lot of you. The maxim that the darkest hour is just before the dawn doesn't apply in Soapland. Rather it is twisted around to be: "The happier you are now, the worse it will be next week." Followed by "That's not the dawn! I smell smoke. Quick! Don Fisher's house is on fire."

Over the past three years, the eurozone has embodied the very best in soap opera writing. Every time the leaders announce a breakthrough, you just know it's merely a plot device for further chicanery next week.

ECB: We're going to be alright darling ain't we darling?

Spain: What?... Uh yeh.

ECB: And when this one-trillion Long-term Refinancing Operation comes along, we're going to be a proper family.

Members of the cast

Image caption Clockwise from top left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ECB chief Mario Draghi, Greek ex-finance minister Evangelos Venizelos and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi

The camera lingers on Spain's face and we think: "You're deluding yourself there ECB. Spain has a secret that's going to make next week very interesting."

The audience's interest never wanes because each eurozone country seems to take turns at the centre of the plot.

Ireland had a really enthralling storyline a few years ago. The child of an abusive parent who is adopted, is the perfect son for many years and then in adolescence becomes a Flash Harry, riding so high a fall is all but inevitable. After overdosing on houses, he's found sprawled in the kitchen by concerned neighbours, who forced their way in.

Things have been reasonably quiet since, but the headlines in the plot-spoiling glossy TV magazines are promising a "surprise in store" in May when "Ireland Has A Referendum And Gets A Nasty Shock".

Greece is the almost archetypal villain, who returns every six months when audience figures need a boost and the writers can't be bothered to introduce a new, more layered plot. Greece then turns up at a family get-together. "Remember me? Thought you could get rid of me didn't you? Well I'm going nowhere. As you always say, 'We're family.'"

Comic relief was provided for a time by Italy, a lecherous grandfather uttering inappropriate comments from his favourite chair, but the actor playing Italy had to leave and it's just not quite the same.

This week was a bumper week in the soap-europera, with no fewer than three active story lines.

You knew Spain was going to feature because of the way they set it up a few months ago, and it was all over TV Now earlier in the week. France was also expected, but Holland? That felt a little out of place. It's like that moment as a viewer when you watch with increasing incredulity and think: "Don't tell me HE's having an affair now as well."

As in all soap operas, one character will play the role of the sometimes curmudgeonly moral centre - the Grace Sullivan, Annie Sugden, Alf Stewart or Miss Ellie. They don't do drugs, have affairs or swindle anyone. They lecture the other characters on their weaknesses or failings, while maintaining a stoical attitude themselves.

Apart from the occasional psychotic episode where they imagine they see their dead spouse they are a steadying influence all through.

The Alf Stewart of Europe is, of course, Germany. The longest-running cast member of Home and Away, he is conservative, permanently exasperated by the failings of others, and beset on all sides by the poor choices of "flaming galahs and mongrels" (as he would put it). But he needs his dysfunctional extended soap family because he is a businessman and a businessman needs customers.

Angela Merkel must feel the same exasperation but she cannot break the ties. The Surf Club of Europe still needs to sell milkshakes.

The main question for Eurozone fans now is how long can it go on. Every week there seems to be a cliffhanger. Surely the cumulative effect of so much drama must be so debilitating for the cast, it cannot continue indefinitely. So the writers may need to cross the soap opera rubicon: The Catastrophe.

Like the train crash on Coronation Street, a helicopter crash on ER or a collapsing roof in Neighbours, a game-changing plot twist is called for and some characters may need to be written out.

They'll need to do something. The ratings are plummeting.