At the risk of overstating the obvious, the past couple of years have been tough ones for soap opera fans. I grew up with the Procter & Gamble shows, so chronicling the final months of Guiding Light in 2009, while exhilarating, left me emotionally spent; repeating the experience just a year later, when As the World Turns left the air, had me swearing that my five decades of watching daytime soaps had come to an end. Or so I thought at the time...
One thing about daytime soaps is that the genre is fluid, and up until recently, resilient. When I began blogging about soaps in May of 2008, there was considerable buzz on the boards that One Life to Live was in the midst of a creative resurgence under head writer Ron Carlivari. I had watched OLTL on and off over the years, so I was familiar with the show’s characters and history. But, eager as I was for great soap opera storytelling – let’s just say that neither ATWT nor GL, the shows I grew up watching with my mother, was “in the midst of a creative resurgence” at the time – I was reluctant to make the time commitment watching another soap would demand (and therein lies just one of the vexing quandaries facing all serialized storytelling, primetime and daytime).
But after some hemming and hawing, I began watching in June, and immediately joined the chorus of praise for OLTL’s return to the basics of soap opera: fully-developed, multi-generational characters; open-ended, inter-connected stories consistent with the history of the show and the characters; stories in which the actions of any one character reverberate for all. The last time I had watched a full episode of OLTL - two, to be precise - was in August 2007, when the show marked the passing of Phil Carey, who played patriarch Asa Buchanan for almost twenty years. Yet ten months later, the first episode I watched revealed enough backstory that I didn't feel lost. It's no mean feat for a single soap episode to leave the casual viewer fully oriented as to who's who, as well as making clear the relationships among the characters - even those not in that day's episode. And there was none of that obvious "here's the recap" going on; all the information was seamlessly woven into the dialogue. It was soap opera at its best. I expected that OLTL would be my final port in soap opera’s choppy waters.
And so it continued – until early 2010 – when the show shifted gears and began feeling like some surreal, plot-driven mess of a mash-up of High School Musical and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. For what it’s worth, all these shows are owned by ABC’s parent company, Disney. One Life to Live was still a mess when As the World Turns’ final episode aired in last September. And I was done
Even when I started to hear about a great bullying story OLTL was doing earlier this year, I stuck to my guns. Then, in April, ABC announced they were cancelling both One Life to Live and All My Children, and I had to ask myself, “Do I really want to do this for the third time in as many years?” It wasn’t just the time involved, but the emotional wear-and-tear; watching GL’s final months left me sad because the show was just hitting its stride when it was canceled. As for ATWT, the producing team spent the final months showcasing their favorite characters, rather than fans’. But, I had to admit I was curious about how OLTL would bring things to a close
So, about a month ago, remembering what my mother told me about never saying never, I took a deep breath and set my DVR. Thankfully, I wasn’t under any illusions. And, thanks to my trusty fast-forward button, the time involved is too-often minimal. I can skip over a whole slew of new characters – buff, and often scantily dressed, while scheming, cheating and lying – I have no interest in getting to know. Llanview, OLTL’s fictional setting, has never been a bastion of mental health. One of the show’s earliest stories was Victoria Lord’s multiple personality disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder), a mental illness she passed on to her daughter, Jessica, who’s been chewing the scenery as Jess’s alter, Tess. Even the shrinks need help; before psychiatrist, Marty Saybrooke, left town, she popped her cork, leaving a trail of kidnapping and murder (her therapist; how’s that for irony?). But every few episodes there are scenes that remind me what I’ve always loved about soaps.
When I started watching again in 2008, one thing I notice right away was that most episodes contained a conversation between two characters that often runs the full length of the episode, often in the same setting, that explores the relationships among the characters, and reveals the show's history so even casual viewers had some idea of how the characters, on and off the screen, were connected. There aren’t as many now as before because the some viewers – the coveted younger viewers – are thought to find them boring. But, for some of us, that’s when we move our fingers off fast forward and revel in, for example, the scenes between Jessica’s parents, Vicki and Clint (who, of course, is not her biological father); effortless, in-the-moment conversations between Erika Slezak and Jerry ver Dorn, both of whom convey at least as much, if not more, when they’re listening as speaking.
Of course, those of us of a certain age remember a time when these kinds of moments were the norm for daytime. Watching them now is bittersweet reminder of what used to be and won’t ever be again, which is why I watch with an almost clinical detachment. While I'm curious to see how things will end when the show leaves the air in January, I have no emotional investment in the outcome. Sad...