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EastEnders' Lucy Beale Storyline Is a Reminder of How Fantastic Soaps Can Be

17/02/2015 10:19 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 10:59 BST

When I think back to the TV I watched as a child, I remember Michelle Ryan bellowing down the street at Jessie Wallace, my parents attempting to explain who Dirty Den was and the guy from Spandau Ballet trapped in a burning car, while a bald-headed bloke deliberated over whether to save him. This was, of course, EastEnders.

In the '90s, and for the decade before, soaps quietly held a special place in most homes. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you, but when you finished your tea, there were only four or five channels, meaning it was likely that the worlds of Walford and Weatherfield would provide the evening's entertainment. The residents of these fictional boroughs were families that I saw more than I did most of my own (there are four episodes a week, you know).

Sadly, soaps lost their sparkle. It's impossible to blame one thing, but somewhere around my early teens, in came the Sky box with its 300 channels, a seemingly endless supply of cartoons and US comedy, and blockbuster films. Nowadays, things have shifted again, and television drama is often the focus of office small talk, while reality TV ticks the 'light entertainment' boxes. Soaps meanwhile, fall somewhere in the middle, disappearing between the cracks. Well, until now anyway.

A year ago, in the months leading up to Lucy Beale's Good Friday death, chatter about Walford - or its various ITV and Channel 4 counterparts - would have been met with a sigh. Television fans groaned after finding out the storyline would take almost a year to develop, complaining that this was simply too long, constantly using the phrase "dragging it out".

Fast-forward to Monday morning, 24 hours before the first episode of live week, and over 72 hours before the big reveal, and things couldn't be more different. Online chatter meant numerous EastEnders hashtags were trending on Twitter, as people speculated over whodunnit, swapping theories and jokes, I needed more than two hands to count the EastEnders-related chats I had in that one day. But how have the BBC done it?

By making bold decisions and sticking to them, the EastEnders team have redefined what it is to be a 'soap'. Hasty cast changes and tenuous links are gone, and in their place sit pleasantly complex characters, who takes months to mull things over before crashing through the local pub and causing a scene. You can no longer read the juicy details of every upcoming storyline online and surprise returns are exactly that, remaining top secret until the stars stroll into Albert Square. I'm someone who treats Twitter like a giant living room, and when Shirley Carter drunkenly admitted that Mick, aka Danny Dyer, was her son, I raced to the communal, online sofa shrieking, writing solely in capital letters and ending every sentence with OMMMGGG.

Emma Summerhayes' shock death is one of the many Lucy Beale case twists that nobody saw coming, while Rainie Cross's surprise return, and the storyline that accompanied it, was further proof that slow and steady really does win the race. In short, in the space of 12 months, EastEnders has moved the goalposts.

I probably won't feel this way on Thursday, when I'm sitting inches away from the TV, holding my breath ahead of the big reveal, but - dare I say it - it doesn't really matter who killed Lucy Beale. Thankfully, it's provided endless amounts of entertainment along the way, but this plot will have an impact far beyond 8.29pm on the 19 February, when the iconic drum kicks in.

For the first time in near enough a decade, we have characters worth caring about, and 'doof doof' moments that warrant conversations over coffee the next day. With the deceased Lucy Beale as its focus, EastEnders has spent the last 10 months expertly exploring the relationships of its characters and pushing fictional families to the edge, while creating exciting drama in the process. Fingers crossed, it will force everyone to up their game. Corrie - it's your move.