‘One Life to Live’: This time, it’s fatal, as soap opera comes to end

My daughter always wondered why they called it “One Life to Live’’ when almost everyone who died in Llanview returned to the party eventually, looking none the worse for having gone over Iguazu Falls in a canoe, or having spent months in a coma in Kentucky.

But the ABC show and the matriarchy it has chronicled come to an end Friday, after 43 years. And so, too, ends the last soap opera filmed in New York City, where the form began.

Quite unsoapily, “OLTL,” like “All My Children” in the fall, has become a victim of the dullest possible villain: slackened ratings and the simple fact that reality TV is cheaper to produce. But for months, the soap has been energetically milking its protracted death scene, bringing back beloved characters from decades past to reconcile, reminisce and reveal . . . not quite everything.

A lot of the story lines were inadvertently unresolved, it turns out, because when the show taped its final episode in November, everyone thought it would be picked up and shown on the Internet. But that deal is off.

To review the recent action, Gigi, who we thought was Stacy, is alive, and Victor, who we thought was Todd, is dead, along with Robert, who started out a cad and ended a hero. Viki and Clint are back together after many years of showing not the slightest interest, as are Cord and Tina and John and Natalie, with whom the writers took that “rocky road to love” thing a bit too far. To close the deal with Blair, Todd faked Cole’s death to get him out of the country, and he found out that his dad, Patrick, hadn’t been taken out by terrorists after all. Got it?

But despite the typically silly soap-opera plotlines, “One Life to Live” had some real-world impact, advancing social issues — it was the first daytime show to cast a black actress in a central role, Ellen Holly, who played Carla — and furthering the show-business careers of many a New York actor, among them Laurence Fishburne, who at 13 played a street kid, and Tommy Lee Jones, who was cast as Dr. Mark Toland in the early ’70s.

The closing of the show is also no small thing for New York stage actors, women in particular. I’ve been a fan of the soap since I was a cub reporter in the ’80s, and rarely do my husband and I go to the theater when I don’t look over the playbill, point to someone in the cast and say, “Oh, look, it’s so-and-so from ‘One Life!’ ”

Soap opera is the one medium in which women not only run the world but play vixens into their 60s, and make the jokes and the rules. The truth always comes out, and wrong actions always will be punished, period.

Yet redemption is a constant, too, and people do change a lot. Jane Austen would not be disappointed in the marriage rate in Llanview. And although the social commentary in the compassionate and crusading universe Agnes Nixon created could never have been accused of subtlety, “One Life to Live” consistently raised awareness about tough issues, everything from breast cancer to the bullying of the gay teen whom Ryan Phillippe played on the show in the ’90s.

Within the soap genre, “One Life” broke fresh ground in casting female roles. Its actresses were not all skinny, and costume designer Susan Gammie said that was very much by design: “I found it so satisfying to create images for all kinds of women – every shape, size and economic background, so no matter who the viewer is, she can find somebody to visually relate to that makes her feel good about herself. That’s not the case even on other soaps; that was ‘One Life.’ And in terms of programming for women, a lot is being lost here.”

From the start, the action in Llanview, Pa., has centered on newspaper publisher, university president, former mayor, sometime waitress and oft-married Viki Lord Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks — the rock of the town despite her multiple-personality disorder. Her portrayer, Erika Slezak, who was playing Desdemona in Buffalo when she got the role in 1971, took one last curtain call Thursday at a tribute to the show on “The View,” which airs Friday. And in an interview in her dressing room before the taping, she teared up a few times as she talked about leaving Llanview.

“It’s okay,’’ she said of the show closing, then took it back. “Well, no, it’s not; our ratings were good, and the stories are great, and the reason we were given — I rarely curse in public — but it was bull.”

In the past week alone, Slezak’s Viki has been shot, journeyed to purgatory (referred to in the script as “Between Heaven and Hell,’’ a deft reference to Nixon’s original title for the soap) and beaten out a 25-year-old — “half my age and with a tenth of my intelligence!’’ Viki declared — for the affections of her second and perhaps future husband. Over the years, she’s survived rape, betrayal, kidnapping, the loss of a child, a stroke, a heart transplant and breast cancer. (The former Mrs. Rudy Giuliani, Donna Hanover, played her cancer doc.) Oh, and “I have no kidneys,” having given one away on at least two occasions.

About 10 years ago, in her 50s, Slezak went to Hollywood to do a TV movie and was asked whether she wanted to do more of that kind of work. “And I said, ‘Sure,’ and the woman I was talking to said, ‘Good, because there are lots of old-mom parts.’ And I thought, ‘No, I’m going to go back to Llanview and get in bed with my next hubby.’ ” She’s won six daytime Emmys for work that included time travel to the 1800s, four trips to heaven and two stints in elected office.

So did Viki run as a Democrat in the swing state of Pennsylvania? Slezak wasn’t sure, but she said her favorite thing about the character was the way she’d matured from someone who knew all the answers to someone who knew better than to think that. By far, her favorite relationship, she said, was Viki’s with her rival-turned-soul mate, the fiery Dorian Lord, played by Robin Strasser.

Had the show gone on, Slezak said, Dorian, who’d been appointed to an empty U.S. Senate seat vacated in a sexting scandal, was going to become president.

As Slezak spoke, Strasser swept into Slezak’s dressing room as if on cue, in what she called “a very Dorian look’’ — a chic checkered suit with a trailing fur stole and amazing jewelry. The two women embraced and got misty all over again. “I knew you’d wear ‘Dorian red,’ and I’m wearing ‘Viki red,’ ” Slezak told her friend.

The mob of fans at “The View” taping, many of them in T-shirts that said, “I can’t cope without my soap’’ or “Property of ‘One Life to Live’ since 1968,” were there to pay tribute to the actresses and their co-stars, who’ve been in their living rooms for so long that they think of them as family.

“I’m devastated,’’ said Maria Sordi of Brooklyn, who added that she was hooked on the soap opera because “it makes you laugh every day.”

The reality show that’s replacing “One Life” is called “The Revolution,’’ which includes Tim Gunn and will offer lots of tips on how women can lose weight and otherwise improve themselves. It promises to be a far cry from the memorable matriarchs of Llanview, and I, for one, plan to improve my life by not watching.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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