It’s been a couple of days since the news broke about the cancellation of All My Children and One Life to Live, and I think I’ve needed that time just to process.
Everybody likes to scoff about the silliness of soap operas — the umpteen marriages, resurrections from the dead, overnight aging of kindergarteners to high schoolers, the “we can’t be together because … you’re … my long-lost … twin brother!” scenarios. But, some of the most lauded actors in Hollywood started on soaps, and the way they churn out pages of dialogue and five hours of television a week is pretty amazing. It’s a grind for those actors and writers that you have to respect on some level. Plus, back in the day soaps had some of the best writing and story plotting I’ve ever seen on television.
I became a soap opera junkie when I was 7. I can date myself because one of my earliest memories is when Roman (or John Black, as we learned years later) was discovered alive and reunited with Marlena on Days of Our Lives. That was my grandmother’s “story,” and it was part of our established routine during summers at the beach: play at the beach in the morning, lunch, DOOL at 1 pm, then Grandmama’s nap while I watched Another World and Santa Barbara. Those “supercouples” of the 80s defined my childhood: Jack & Jennifer, Bo & Hope, Patch & Kayla. On Another World, I loved watching the exploits of twins Marley and Victoria, both played by a young Anne Heche. Once summer was over, I’d rush off the bus from third grade to catch Santa Barbara at 3 pm, since I couldn’t miss one minute of Cruz and Eden’s saga! Epic.
From there, my loyalty to those soaps began to ebb and flow. I stopped watching the NBC lineup and instead tried my hand at CBS. I was never attached to Y&R or B&B, but I picked up As the World Turns and Guiding Light. As the World Turns in the early 1990s had some of the best writing on television, period. It was the Douglas Marland era, when Lily returned to Oakdale after marrying Damian Grimaldi in Italy and Royce’s sister Neal was murdered. Every Friday was a shocking cliffhanger, and those storylines were so well done. Douglas Marland was head writer and he died unexpectedly only a few months later, so it was never the same after his planned story arcs played out.
Next I let my high school friend persuade me to watch All My Children, and I fell way into the Tad and Dixie experience. Erica Kane had only been married six times by then, Kelly Ripa (as Hayley) was basically still a teenager and Sarah Michelle Gellar popped on the TV scene as Erica’s daughter Kendall. I also discovered General Hospital around that time, and I’ll never forget the day Sonny met Brenda! Those shows carried me into college, where my entire hall gathered in our room every day at 3 pm to catch up on General Hospital. It was dorm-mate bonding tradition.
When I moved to New York and started working, I tried in vain to keep up with taping shows during the day and watching them every night, so I heralded the launch of SoapNet’s cable channel. Today’s soaps at night — genius! I was also just about the only person on the streets of New York who could excitedly spot a soap star dining in a restaurant, riding the bus or mingling with the rest of us in the Barnes & Noble.
In 2001, I went to ABC’s Super Soap Weekend at Disney World with a few girls from work. We thought it would be hilarious, and it was. I had never seen depths of obsession on display like that before … I still have this vision of Cameron Mathison (Ryan Lavery on AMC) being led by security through the park as women jumped on him (yes, literally) and were dragged behind as he tried to make his way to an appearance. I am not one to easily criticize others’ obsessions, but I know I witnessed many women there who had broken with reality. Those fans throwing themselves bodily onto Cameron Mathison were screaming “Ryan!” not “Cameron!” Plus, many of them had invested a lot of time and money into their bedazzled, puff-paint and glitter-adorned attire to declare their undying loyalty to one show or another. Whoa.
When I returned to NYC in the summer of 2002, I realized that I needed to pursue a career in something I loved and believed in, so as a long-time subscriber, I wrote an impassioned letter to the promotions director at Soap Opera Digest magazine. And she called me in for an interview. Maybe she only wanted to size me up in person, or maybe she really didn’t have any openings (NYC was still reeling from its post-dotcom/9-11 economic downturn), but nothing came of it. All the better, since I eventually found my way into the cable TV business.
I gave up soaps once and for all shortly after that. I don’t know if the writing and acting on soaps actually got worse in the last 10 years or if I just lost my blinders to how it always was, but I moved on and took refuge in primetime TV instead.
I know the way we watch television has been changing at a rapid clip — as has our society, even. Less of us are home during the day, and when we are we have 800+ channels and DVR backlog to choose from. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad about these new cancellations. One by one the soaps are going away, whether because we’re not watching anymore or because they can’t sustain that level of writing and production in the face of new competition, or both. I mean, Guiding Light started as a radio program in 1937. 1937! It aired in some form for 72 years before it was cancelled in 2009. All My Children and One Life to Live have been airing since 1970 and 1968, respectively. So, it’s definitely the end of an era. Our kids won’t necessarily have those childhood memories of bonding with their moms or grandmothers over a daily soap story. And watching “The View” or “The Talk” together isn’t quite the same. Soap families became parts of our family as we followed their narratives for years, even decades. So I think we should mourn the slow death of a whole industry and a piece of Americana and the rewriting of our American television history. Boo hoo, for reals.