The Week of the Festival: Goran's Spring, Croatia

A Better Life

/ by Boris Postnikov

Last year saw the 30th anniversary of arguably the most popular Yugoslav TV-show of all times – soap-opera ‘A Better Life’ (‘Bolji život’). Originally aired from 1987 to 1991, it has been rerun 11 times in Serbia alone, and the viewers from almost all other post-Yugoslav countries also had the opportunity to watch it again and again. On the other hand, anywhere outside the ex-Yugoslav borders, the series is virtually unknown: Much like today, the flow of TV-production between East and West in 80s was almost exclusively unilateral, so people in Yugoslavia got the chance to see the desirable luxury of the American dream as it was portrayed in ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Dallas’, but the Western audiences never saw how we in the East used to imagine a life better than ours. That's understandable, but nevertheless it's a pity, because ‘A Better Life’ was created precisely as a Yugoslav answer to the rising popularity of foreign TV-series. It mimicked the basic narrative formula of never-ending romantic peripeteias and complicated family relations but transposed it in the late-socialist middle-class context. As a result, we got the curious amalgam of ‘socialist soap-opera’, which not only can be interesting to highly specialized historians of television ‘low genres’, but also unexpectedly challenging to many of today's dominant views on the fall of communism and East European ideological legacy.

The central characters of ‘A Better Life’ are the five members of the Belgrade family Popadić. Mother Ema is a high-school Latin language teacher, sophisticated and well educated, a descendant of a once well-off family whose wealth was taken over by communists after World War II. Her husband, Dragiša ‘Giga’ is a newcomer from a rural part of Serbia, jurist in a massive state company, who occasionally likes to go out, get drunk and even get into a bar fight. The differences between the two opposite social backgrounds are, of course, the inexhaustible well of comic clashes and misunderstandings in the Popadić's apartment. Characters of Ema and Giga's three children are also set up stereotypically. Saša, the eldest son, is passive and lazy: He somehow managed to finish law school but hasn't found a job for a few years now. Daughter Viki, the middle child, is an aspiring young actress, capricious yet naive, who constantly rushes from one romantic debacle into another. Finally, the youngest one, Boba, is a witty and charming teenager, much more interested in having fun and chasing girls than in finishing high-school. All in all, Popadićs are a typical Yugoslav middle-class family, whose lives will change when the children's estranged aunt dies and leaves them an unexpectedly large amount of money, under the condition that each of them carry out one big task. Saša has to find a permanent job, Viki has to get married, and Boba has to finish high-school with good grades.

Of course, things almost immediately go in quite the opposite direction: Saša falls in love and gets married, but can't find a job, Viki is hired by the local theatre, but can't find a suitable husband, and Boba's math teacher, who holds boy's financial destiny in his hands, starts a secret love affair with his mother. Over the 82 episodes of ‘A Better Life’, we gradually get to know more than a 100 memorable supporting characters, but the fundamental premise of all their relations is basically set down in this first entanglement of the late aunt's last will: Namely, the premise that teaches us that money makes the world go round. Indeed, if we are to watch ‘A Better Life’ a bit more carefully, we soon realize that majority of the characters' actions and decisions are motivated by debts, wage-raises, credits and loans: Contemporary Belgrade art collective, Doplgenger, successfully illustrated that underlying financial matrix of seemingly frivolous soap-opera in a video that combines all the scenes in which money is mentioned or showed. It's important to notice, however, that this structural focus on financial affairs never transforms into a western-style soap-opera's spectacle of wealth and luxury: The financial concerns of our characters are mostly the ones of an ‘ordinary man’, fighting to get through a month on a moderate wage while constantly dreaming of ‘a better life’.

The other way to underline this point is via quick class analysis of series' characters: They cover a vast social scale, from political big shots and powerful CEOs to manual workers and the unemployed, including doctors, judges, lawyers, artists and famous pop-singers, but also secretaries, cleaners and fast food waiters. Consequently, the plot is situated in all key public institutions, again in sharp contrast with western series, where the action mainly takes place in private villas, corporate offices and five-star restaurants: Here we can see the interiors of public schools and universities, courts, hospitals, state companies, even the jail and the military barracks. In one word, the bubble of the socialist soap-opera was big enough to contain the social totality of late 80s Yugoslavia, and although the series was a light and funny combination of telenovela and sitcom created under the strong influence of a western TV-genre, it discretely put forward tout de court socialist idea that all social relations basically come down to their material conditions.

But the most interesting aspect of ‘A Better Life’ supervened from the fact that it's creator, Siniša Pavić, author of many Yugoslav blockbusters, for a better part of his five-year long engagement with the series, used to write new episodes on a weekly basis, scripting each only a few days before it was filmed and aired. This ‘real-time writing’ allowed him to fill the plot with abundance of real-life political references, unintentionally transforming an already idiosyncratic mix of TV-genres into some kind of fictionalized document of Yugoslavia's last years.

And these were turbulent years, to say the least. Harsh austerity measures imposed by the IMF, high unemployment, frequent workers' strikes and the sharp rise of nationalism all find its way into ‘A Better Life's’ episodes. After all, the year that series started broadcasting was the same year that Slobodan Milošević, later Serbian nationalist leader and Balkan warlord, took power for the first time. And exactly one week after the last episode of ‘A Better Life’ aired, in the early summer of 1991, the first military clashes in Slovenia started the series of ex-Yugoslav’s bloody wars. ‘A Better Life’, therefore, was not only a soap-opera that could appear exclusively in Yugoslavia: It was the soap-opera with which Yugoslavia disappeared.

And that's precisely why it is so interesting to watch it again today. Under the guise of innocent TV-entertainment, the series shows a real-time development of economic and political crisis that will end tragically, simultaneously offering the devastating critique of contemporary media narratives about the fall of communism and Eastern European ideological heritage avant la lettre. First and foremost, it subverts the popular image of Eastern countries permanently held back by the doom of their socialist past. This is an understanding widely spread in the West and accepted in East in a strong auto-colonial manner: People in ex-Yugoslav countries often speak about the ‘social mentality’, some kind of a collective state of mind which inexplicably survived almost three decades after the restoration of capitalism and now prevents their societies from fully accepting the long awaited market freedom, individual responsibility and an entrepreneurial mindset. However, ‘A Better Life’ reminds us not only that the fuzzy notion of today's ‘socialist mentality’ has no explanatory value whatsoever, but, quite the opposite, the late 80s already saw the strong rise of a ‘capitalist mentality’ in socialist societies. For example, there is an episode in which lazy and passive Saša becomes an insolvency administrator of a big state-owned company on the verge of bankruptcy: He suddenly transforms into a cruel manager who talks to the frightened workers about the ‘unpopular measures’ and ‘painful, but necessary cuts’ – in short, the same worn-out metaphors we heard so many times after the latest global economic crisis. There is also an episode in which another big company – symbolically named ‘Balkans’ – goes through privatization: Potential investors come and go, offering mostly plans of massive layouts under the guise of ‘restructuring’. Moreover, in the last episodes there is even a satire of the recently-established multi-partypolitical system. ‘First you took the money from the people’, yells Giga at his former CEO who became a political party candidate, ‘and now you're going to manipulate them into a quarrel about some trivial issues’! It was a funny, yet chilling commentary on the rise of nationalism which gains its power from the desperation of people exhausted by the decades-long austerity measures. On the other hand, ‘A Better Life’ didn't only mock the aspiring new political and social elite born from the breakdown of old system, but also made fun of various dysfunctionalities and inconsistencies of the still ruling socialism.

Perhaps that's the most interesting thing about the series: Delivered at the historical breaking point, it had the opportunity to satirise and criticise the old and the new with the same liberty. That's also why it's worth remembering it today: It offers a joyful counter-narrative to both the prevailing ideology of contemporary capitalism and auto-colonial self-images deeply rooted in Eastern European periphery. The last socialist soap-opera reminds us that our Yugoslav past and post-Yugoslav present can't be easily reduced to media caricatures of ‘socialist mentality’, although we live lives much worse than the better life we once used to imagine.

Boris Postnikov

was born in 1979 in Split and lives in Zagreb, Croatia. He is an essayist and literary critic, author of 'Post-Yugoslav Literature?' (2012) and 'And Now a Word from Our Sponsors' (2013). Used to work as editor-in-chief of Croatian cultural biweekly 'Zarez' and public radio broadcast 'The Glossary of Post-Yugoslav Literature'. From 2016 onwards he is an editor of Croatian weekly paper 'Novosti', where he regularly writes on cultural issues in column 'The Enemy Propaganda'.