An Analysis of Dark: How to Write a Good Soap Opera

Written By Alexander Greco

August 19, 2020

I recently finished watching Netflix’s first German series, Dark, a sci-fi drama set in Winden, Germany. Dark is not only a rather philosophical show that delves into questions on human nature, morality, the philosophy of time and the nature of reality, but it is an incredibly well written show with a narrative that stands on the knife’s edge of complexity and cohesion.

While there’s much about the underlying philosophical themes I want to discuss in other articles in this article I want to focus on the narrative structure of Dark. It is an impressively complex show that manages to keep its storyline and character arcs cohesive, without any glaring plot holes or (with some exceptions) lazy writing.

However, in tangent, I also want to discuss something that has been interesting me for a few years now. The adoption of soap opera narrative structures into “non soap opera” genres.

Why? Because Dark was essentially a short and sweet soap opera involving time travel, parallel realities and philosophical and moral quandaries.

How to Write a Good Soap Opera

It was Game of Thrones that made me realize the vast majority of televised media is either mindless hypno-spirals or glorified soap operas. For anyone who isn’t already disappointed with Game of Thrones, it’s just a soap opera with swords, dragons and incest. Similarly, The Walking Dead is a soap opera about zombies and homeless people, and Breaking Bad is a soap opera about meth addicts and cancer patients.

Now, while the term “soap opera” can be a bit of a pejorative for those of us who aren’t fans of Days of Our Lives, being a soap opera isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Among the soap operas out there, some are good soap operas. Game of Thrones, for example, wasn’t bad. Until it was. Soap, a parody of soap operas (though, still essentially a soap opera), was a surprisingly good show. Among these not-bad soap operas are a few really good soap operas.

But what makes something a soap opera?

A soap opera is essentially an episodic, televised narrative with long story and character arcs, which are typically the focus of the show. We are given a stable, or at least semi-stable, ensemble cast of characters, each with their own unique circumstances, motivations, problems and goals.

While the problems of the characters may be interwoven, their goals and motivations either convergent or at odds, and their circumstances tangential, they are all fully-developed and dynamic characters, and each character typically has their own developed story arc.

The plot arcs of soap operas can span over several episodes, an entire season, or an entire series. An issue can be presented at the beginning of a series that isn’t resolved until the end of a series, or is never resolved at all. That problem might even morph into other problems as the series progresses, creating a train of causal story arcs like a line of dominoes.

Not only this, there can be a multitude of these domino chains going on at once, and usually there are. With each character possessing unique long-standing problems or goals, each character will have their own series of major plot events. On top of this, each character may have more than one plot or story arc, or sub-arcs related to major arcs—or, their arcs may, and usually inevitably will, overlap or interweave with other characters’ arcs. This soap opera style narrative is really nothing but unending drama.

I will never understand the fascination.

Part of the intention of a soap opera is to end each episode leaving viewers wanting more. Each episode ends with a cliff hanger, some sort of big reveal, or a twist. There is no finality to a soap opera, there is only a continual tipping of dominoes. That’s why shows like Days of Our Lives have been on air for ridiculously long spans of time (50+ years).

However, the tropes and narrative style of a typical soap opera, which usually has pretty distinct aesthetics and subject matter as opposed to “non soap operas”, can be applied to “non soap opera” shows.

So then, the term “soap opera” might be better referred to as “longform drama” or “longform dramatic narrative”. It is a style of narrative that is not only designed to span chronologically over long breadths of time, but also to delve deeply into each character’s story arcs and growth, and it is a style of narrative designed to constantly engage the viewer with new developments that will not immediately be resolved.

This skeleton of longform narrative can then be applied to stories that aren’t typical daytime dramas. This is how you get aforementioned shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones. A lot of not-much-but-seems-important happens over the span of several hour-long episodes, and yet we are still thoroughly engaged with whatever is happening in the show.

The issue that can happen with these longform narratives is that they aren’t designed to end. They are designed to keep going, to add more drama and tension and side-stories and plot twists and Jimmy gets Angie pregnant, and how will so-and-so escape the zombies, and what happens now that so-and-so #2 gets shot by the mean drug dealer, and how will Daenerys save her dragon, but wait, there’s more, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum…

How do you end a show that isn’t designed to end? You end it quickly.

You either die with millions on the edge of their seat, or you live to see yourself become a stumbling disappointment. Or, somehow, you keep bored, pill-popping wino-housewives coming back for more, week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Decade after decade. Ad infinitum.

Breaking Bad did it right. 5 seasons. Near perfect story and character arcs, in keeping with the underlying moral themes of the show. Doesn’t overstay its welcome, leaves before it’s unwanted, and gets carried out on its shield like a G. Game of Thrones did it right, until they didn’t. And then, boy, did they not do it right. And, as much as I love Negan, Walking Dead should’ve died with Shane.

Wanna know who did stick the landing? Wanna know who didn’t overstay their welcome and who crafted a brilliant story while they were at it? Dark.

Dark, The SoapTime Continuum Opera

Dark used this narrative style—“soap opera” or “longform dramatic narrative”—almost perfectly, and caps off the series at season 3. Not only does Dark masterfully employ the soap opera narrative structure to a T, it goes beyond what the original masters of the art had ever imagined, with story arcs that span across future and present timelines, as well as parallel universes. Dark has transcended the original art of soap opera writing into something truly grand and beautiful.

On top of this, Dark escaped the downward spiral of good drama by knowing not only when to stop, but how to stop—how to stick the landing like a champ.

The story begins by introducing us to the lives of various characters and showing us their relationships to each other. There four primary families whom the show revolves around: the Nielsens, the Kahnwalds, the Tiedemanns and the Dopplers.

In the Nielsen family, Ulrich and Katharina Nielsen, and their children, Magnus, Martha and Mikkel.

In the Kahnwald family, there is Hannah and Michael Kahnwald, and their son, Jonas Kahnwald.

In the Tiedemann family, there is Aleksander and Regina Tiedemann, and their son, Bartosz.

In the Doppler family, there is Peter and Charlotte Doppler, and their children, Elisabeth and Franziska.

Left to Right: Jonas, Martha, Bartosz

The show begins with Michael Kahnwald committing suicide. Jonas Kahnwald goes to a psychiatric ward for two months, and returns to find that his best friend, Bartosz, is dating is love interest, Martha. At the same time, Ulrich Nielsen is cheating on Katharina with Jonas’s mom, Hannah.

We find out that a teenage drug dealer named Erik Obendorf has gone missing, and this has raised alarm across the town of Winden. Ulrich, a police officer, is one of man who are searching for Erik, along with Charlotte Doppler, the chief of police/Ulrich’s boss. Charlotte’s daughter, Elisabeth, is deaf, and Charlotte’s other daughter, Franziska, is developing a romantic relationship with Magnus, Ulrich’s son.

At the same time, Charlotte is having tension with her husband, Peter Doppler. In later episodes, we find out this is because Peter cheated on her with a transgender prostitute named Bernadette. Also, Peter’s father/Charlotte’s father-in-law, Helge Doppler, who seems to be senile to some degree, begins ranting about how “it’s all happening again” or “it’s going to happen again.

This indirectly ties back to how Ulrich’s brother, Mads Nielsen, mysteriously disappeared in 1986, just how Erik disappeared, and Ulrich, among others, frequently questions if these events are somehow connected.

On top of this, Aleksander Tiedemann, Bartosz’s father, mentions that Winden’s nuclear power plant—which Aleksander runs—will soon be closing down, and also mentions that he’s been working there for 33 years (since 1986). Aleksander’s wife, Regina, co-owns a hotel with her husband which is currently going out of business because no one wants to visit a town where a child has gone missing.

Then, at the end of episode 1, Mikkel (one of the Nielsen children) goes missing.

Boom!

What a way to start a show—that’s episode 1 (mostly)—and if that doesn’t sound like the pilot of a soap opera, I don’t know what would.

From here, the show is focused on the disappearance of Mikkel. Everyone in the town is now searching for two children. Charlotte Doppler now has to organize searches for Mikkel. Ulrich begins investigating Aleksander Tiedemann, who runs Winden’s nuclear power plant, which is near where Mikkel went missing.

In addition, tensions begin to build between all the characters, and every scene in the episodes after Mikkel disappears further develops the drama and the relationships established in the first episode (or, in some cases, proceeding episodes).

Ulrich stops seeing Hannah because he is focused on finding his missing son, but Hannah strongly desires Ulrich.

Hannah begins resenting Ulrich, while at the same time Katharina begins suspecting Ulrich of being unfaithful.

Ulrich also begins suspecting Erik’s father, Jurgen Obendorf, of being involved in Mikkel’s disappearance, because Jurgen works for Aleksander Tiedemann and at the nuclear plant (which is near where Mikkel went missing).

Magnus still is interested in Franziska, but is also angry at her because she was in the woods where Mikkel went missing the night of his disappearance.

Peter Doppler begins acting strange and emotional after the disappearance of Mikkel and the discovery of another child’s body, though we don’t know why.

We find out that Helge used to work at the power plant in 1986 (around the time Mads disappeared).

Martha begins distancing herself from Bartosz while trying to get closer to Mikkel.

This and more are all developed throughout the first season of the show, amidst the turmoil of searching for Mikkel.

However, in the third episode, it is revealed that Mikkel has travelled back in time to 1986 (the same year Ulrich’s younger brother went missing).

And here, the primary subject matter of the show is kicked off.

The show, really, is primarily focused on the plotlines associated with time travel (and eventually travel across parallel dimensions).

So now, we have three layers of the show:

  • Drama and relationships
  • Disappearance of Mikkel
  • Time Travel

But then, because of Time Travel, even more layers of the show are revealed.

And here is where the writers of Dark began to seriously impress me.

Because Mikkel travels back to 1986, and we begin witnessing events that occur while Mikkel is in 1986 Winden, a whole new layer of drama is created. We get to witness not only the drama and relationships of Winden in 2019, but also the drama and relationships of Winden in 1986.

On top of that, because we are witnessing events of the past, many of which involve characters in “present-day” Winden (Ulrich, Katharina, Regina, Hanna, Helge Doppler, Charlotte, etc.), we witness events that will eventually shape the future.

80’s Katharina and Ulrich

So, there are now two timelines going on. There is the 1986 timeline, where the future adults are high-schoolers, and the 2019 timeline, where the teenagers of 1986 are adults, and their children are now high-schoolers.

The 1986 timeline, while slightly simpler (in the beginning) than the 2019 timeline, still maintains a level of depth and dimensionality comparable to the 2019 timeline. There are complex relationships between characters, there are dramas, there are tensions, and there are major, impactful plot points. In addition, the 1986 plot-line informs the 2019 plot-line, so that what we know about 2019 is altered by 1986. In addition, the 2019 plot-line also informs the 1986 plot-line so that what happens in the “present” timeline informs us about characters and events in the “past” timeline.

If you don’t know how difficult this would be to write—and difficult to write with as many interesting, dynamic/3-dimensional characters and with as many intriguing, engaging plot points as Dark has—go try it for yourself. Give it shot.

Just try to write as good of a show or narrative with one longform narrative, and then try to write a parallel yet chronologically distinct narrative that is as complex and engaging, and maintains the narrative integrity of the other timeline (no plot holes), and informs us on the characters and events of the other timeline.

On top of this, there is an entire, mysterious sub-narrative involving mysterious figures that have come to Winden, and it is slowly revealed how they are connected to time travel and the missing children.

There’s two super-narratives or timelines going on—the 1986 narrative and the 2019 narrative. For each super-narrative, there’s close to a dozen characters with individual narratives, which all interweave and co-develop each other’s character and narrative. And then, these dozens of narratives inform the narratives of the other super-narrative and the individuals of that super-narrative. And then, there’s a sub-narrative that slowly begins developing even deeper implications about the show, the show’s plot and the characters of the show.

Now, here, I’ve only really discussed events that have happened in the first season, so I wouldn’t really call them spoilers. However, if you haven’t watched beyond the first season, or haven’t watched the show at all, here there be spoilers.

At the end of season 1, it is revealed that the future of Winden (circa 2052) is a dystopian. So now, a third timeline is created.

Throughout season 2, not only are the 1986/1987 and 2019/2020 timelines developed, but so is the 2052/2053 timeline (though not in as much depth). Season 2 also introduces the 1921 timeline (99 years prior to 2020) and the 1953 timeline, in which the adults of 1986 are now children.

In season 2, there are now five timelines. The 1921 timeline isn’t developed in as much depth as the others, but the 1953 timeline does have a number of characters who are either already established in the 1986 and 2019 timelines, or are otherwise important to the story.

Jonas and Jonas

By this point, characters have begun travelling across time to various other timelines, which means individual narratives now take place across various timelines or super-narratives. This also means that the primary focus of different timelines or super-narratives now take place across multiple super-narratives. The plot of Mikkel disappearing, for example, now develops across the 1953 timeline (where 2019 Ulrich travels), the 1986 timeline (where 2019 Mikkel travels), the 2019 timeline (where Mikkel’s family is still trying to find Mikkel and now Ulrich as well), and the 2053 timeline (where Jonas has traveled).

The boarder between timelines or super-narratives has now been all but eroded. Characters from various timelines travel to other timelines (teenage Jonas travels to 2053, then to 1921, where he meets the elderly Jonas and adult Jonas travels to 2020 and meets teenage Martha/adult Claudia from 1986 begins time travelling, and we are introduced to the elderly Claudia, who also time travels/adult Hannah travels back to 1921 and meets adult Ulrich, who is now trapped).

There are no real separate super-narratives across time anymore, these different timelines are not more or less treated as separate settings with different characters. However, the events that take place in past “settings” still have an effect on and inform us about future “settings”.

Enter Emoverse

Finally, in season 3, not only are there all of the timelines and individual narratives established in the first two seasons, but there is now a parallel universe (we’ll call it Universe 2, or, more fittingly, the Emoverse) with its own timelines (though fewer timelines are established). In the first universe/set of timelines, the 1888 timeline is also established.

In addition, a third universe is eventually established, which is the “original” reality, from which Universe 1 and the Emoverse are created.

Emo Martha somehow manages to be both more and less likable than Wholesome, Well-Rounded Martha

Okay, so now we have Universe 1, which contains 6 timelines, the Emoverse, or Universe 2, which contains a small number of timelines, and the original universe (which only has one established timeline). From each universe and each timeline are characters who not only travel across time, but their actions in various timelines both cause and inform events in future timelines, or are caused by or are informed by the events of past timelines.

However, because people time travel, someone could travel to the year 2053, and then an event in 2053 will cause a change in that character’s personality. Then, if that character travels to the year 1921, anything caused by that character will essentially have been the result of what happened in 2053. So, the events of the future can influence the events of the past.

And, because people can now travel to parallel realities, the events that happen in one universe can (through the actions of characters) influence the events that happen in another universe.

This gets incredibly complicated. As as “simple” example, the events of 2053 can influence the events of 1921, which can influence the events of 2020, which can influence the events of 1986, which can influence the events of Universe 2’s 2053, which can influence the event’s of Universe 1’s 1888, which can influence the events of Universe 2’s 2020, which can influence the events of Universe 1’s 2053 (which we already established influenced the events of Universe 1’s 1921, which influenced the events of 2020).

Emo Martha and Magnus look a lot like Coraline and Henry Rollins

The weakest points of the show may come in season 3, and they come simply because of the incredible complexity of the multitude of narratives that are occurring simultaneously across time and across parallel realities. Ironically, and somewhat paradoxically, because the show is now so complicated—because there’s so much going on—much of the second half of season 3, feels simplified and rushed.

The first half of season 3, however, feels tedious and slow (and the Emoverse is really depressing). Not only that, but you get the sinking feeling that this show is going to go on forever. It suddenly feels like a soap opera that is in year 3 of a 50 year reign, and the characters are just going to keep time travelling and universe-hopping—and, now, you can just keep adding more universes and more timelines—and god fucking knows how long this show is going to go on.

There’s, like, 20 new characters that are suddenly added to the show (though some of them are just Emo versions of other characters), and we have to completely learn and relearn the backstories and motivations and goals and conflicts of completely new characters and timelines, and, at this point, we’ve completely stopped giving a shit about the missing Mikkel (because, as we find out, Mikkel is actually Jonas’s dad who commits suicide at the beginning of the show, so the Mikkel plot is really just an empty loop that eventually only serves to develop Jonas’s story and character arc).

The show now is incredibly complex. There’s nearly 70 characters in season 3, most of which are the same characters from different timelines, and over 70 if you count the different versions of characters from the parallel universes. The show takes place across ~10 timelines in two separate universes (three once the original reality is introduced). Not only are there parallel universes, but there’s parallel timelines in parallel universes (timelines, say, where Jonas did or did not die, timelines where Martha did or did not travel to a parallel universe, and timelines where Martha did or did not die).

The ending of Akira is something that cannot be unseen.

What was once a beautiful, magnificent storyboard has now become an omnipotent yet grotesque, uncomfortable-to-watch monster, much like Tetsuo at the end of Akira, and there is no hope for an end in sight.

But then, the second half of season 3 comes, and the second half of season 3 is where the story becomes rushed. Rather than the slow and deliberate, yet engaging and thought-provoking events of the first two seasons, the second half of season 3 runs through various plot points and important developments in character arcs at a sprint.

For example, the adult Jonas, who has essentially become Nicolas Tesla in the 1888 timeline, seemingly morphs into Darth Vader overnight, and his transformation from 1888 to 1921 is glossed over, the events only implied.

A lot happens in only a few episodes, and a lot happens exponentially fast in only a few episodes.

While the events leading up to the climax of Dark are certainly rushed, the silver lining is that the show does end at the finale of season 3. Not only does it end, all the events of the show are wrapped up quite gracefully and thoughtfully, and with a bittersweet, nostalgic cherry on top (I won’t spoil this. Either you know what happens, or you don’t.)

Season 3 gets rocky, but the show sticks the landing.

Dark gets almost overwhelmingly complex and, ironically, over-simplified and rushed in season 3, but it all comes to an end quite gracefully.

What Dark Got Right Narratively

Looking back on Dark after watching the final episode, what the creators of this show did was incredibly ambitious, and I do criticize the show both respectfully and cautiously.

Season 1 of Dark was a master-class on writing an engaging and multi-dimensional narrative, and Season 2 was something beyond a master-class. While Season 2 certainly did have its faults, and the narrative got a bit muddied at times, the sheer scope of what they accomplished was mind-blowing.

I dare you to write one good season of a “soap opera”. Now, go write one good season of four “soap operas” occurring simultaneously, with the events and characters of each “soap opera” influencing the events and characters of all the other “soap operas”. Season 2 really did push the envelope of what one can do with a longform narrative. Granted, Dark is not the only series to have done this.

Time travel and parallel realities have been a staple in comic book series for decades now. God knows how many novels and book series have explored both of these themes. And TV series like NBC’s Heroes have created longform narratives with time travel and parallel realities in them. But no TV series has quite fleshed out the possibilities of what one can do with this sort of narrative quite like Dark has done.

The show is admirably detailed in story structure, and times incredibly clever and subtle. And the writing, beyond being structurally impressive, is just good. The character development isn’t the best of all time, but it’s certainly nothing to scoff at. There’re some clichés in the beginning, some lazy spots, especially as the show begins wrapping up, and definitely some cringe moments (like Jonas getting his parallel-universe aunt/great-great-great-grandmother pregnant (which means Jonas is both his own great-great-great-grandfather and his own uncle-in-law)), but the ratio of good writing to bad writing drastically skews towards good.

On top of this, the show uses its narrative to explore not only the events and causality of time travel and parallel universes, but also the associated philosophy, paradoxes and moral problems that arise from them. The narrative structure of the show is inherently important to the underlying meaning of the show (that’s how you can spot a meta-level writer).

I mean, time is an illusion anyway, right?

Season 3 of Dark maybe wasn’t the best season of television/web-series history, but it wasn’t necessarily bad. It was maybe just overly ambitious and had abstracted itself too far from the narrative of season 1 and 2. It was certainly still fun and engaging, the twists and turns of the show were rapid-fire at this point, and the philosophical conundrums were dialed up to 11 (such as: Is it okay to have sex with your aunt if she’s from another universe?).

The ending of season 3 was executed well enough that it more than redeemed some of the faults of prior episodes, and left me wishing there was more (and glad that wish wasn’t granted).

In short, the show is kinda brilliant. Is it a soap opera? Yes, but so is every other show you like. Does it have its faults? Yes, but it’s an ambitious show, and it lives up to many of its ambitions. Am I done talking about Dark? Probably not. There’s still more to write about, though I might not write more about Dark in the immediate future. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the show, keep an eye out for future articles, and thank you for reading.

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