In “All My Children’s” final weeks on ABC, Angie struggles to regain her eyesight, Bianca and Marissa learn that J.R. is not going to put their sex tape on the Internet, and Kendall, bathed in candlelight, succeeds in seducing Zach, newly back from the dead, which apparently makes it really hard to focus on making love.
Life, and love, after death (sometimes known as protracted contract negotiations) is a theme with characters such as Erica Kane — who had her debut as Pine Valley’s femme fatale in 1970 and went on to become the most famous name in daytime television — flying off recently in search of her formerly shot-dead ex-lover Mike Roy. Erica has been played the whole time by actress Susan Lucci, who had the television-watching nation cheering her 1999 Daytime Emmy Award for lead actress after 18 unsuccessful nominations.
And resurrection is an overarching theme for “All My Children,” airing Friday for a final time after a 41-year run on network television but slated to return online and possibly via Internet-enabled television, along with long-running ABC soap “One Life To Live.” The Prospect Park production company has not released a return date for the soaps, and negotiations with some of the shows’ biggest stars are ongoing, and in the case of Lucci, who says she will not be moving with the show, thorny. Faithful viewers and soap insiders remain hopeful.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the truest soap opera fans — and we are legion — from mourning. All switched-at-birth, evil-twin, hooker-turned-housewife jokes aside, something resonant and valuable is being lost in the culture. Seriously. And to miss that is to underestimate the connections that form around the characters we invite into our living rooms, dorm rooms and workplace lunchrooms; or what it means to form intentional community around enduringly beautiful, 10-to-12-times-wed, former petite models who really just want to fill the void left when their daddies abandoned them in childhood.
Soap operas began on radio and continued as a television respite for housewives desperate to cheat on their old men, Ajax and Mr. Clean. The best story lines take an event — who killed Will Courtlandt? — and track how it affects everyone in town, says Jill Larson, who has played grew-up-trailer-park-but-married-rich Opal Courtlandt since 1989. “It’s storytelling based on human emotions that were heightened enough to be wonderfully comedic, yet touching.”
She once walked into the high-end clothing store Jaeger in Chicago and the sales clerks, sporting teased ponytails and jeweled updos, squealed. Turns out they had declared it “Opal Courtlandt Day” at the store. Spandexed, sequined and feathered, Opal loves hard, is a true-blue friend and lacks an edit function when she talks. Larson says she’s particularly beloved below the Mason-Dixon line.
In the 1980s, Debbi Morgan was half of daytime television’s first African American supercouple, Jessie and Angie. During their on-air courtship, Morgan says, “I had a lot of teens look up to me as this role model.” Jessie was kind of thuggy when that was cuter and less deadly, and Angie was the black American princess who wouldn’t sleep with him until they were married. There was an elopement, divorce, remarriage, death and a back-to-life train sequence, set to Alicia Keys, before they renewed their vows again in 2008. Now she’s chief of staff at Pine Valley Hospital to his chief of police.
Morgan, who has signed up on the top-rated CBS soap, “The Young and the Restless” but won’t reveal her character, says “All My Children” broke ground dealing with abortion, AIDS, race and sexuality. The story lines have remained topical “and kept that intimacy where people could relate to things in their own lives because that was what was happening in the show.”
It’s one of the main draws of soap operas. Our “stories,” as our mommas called them, offer up parables; get over that hatred for your former best friend who slept with your son (because Pine Valley is only so big and you’re both stuck there) or watch it forever twist your soul. We index our lives to the most memorable plot twists, and our favorite characters become a proxy. Let us seduce like Greenlee, avenge like David, age like Dixie, except, you know, reasonably and on a budget, secure in the knowledge that everybody watching (or most everybody) understands it’s all pure fiction.
Reality television, which occupies much the same pop-culture head space, feels gross and unboundaried by comparison. Some of us would rather be kidnapped, held captive by an evil prince, escape him and seduce our ex-husbands away from the twin sister who poisoned us on the soaps, than be Snooki from “Jersey Shore” in real life.
Sheri Anderson, a former head writer on “Days of Our Lives” who is now writing a series of novels based on that show, cites the suicide last month of Russell Armstrong, a husband on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” In daytime dramas, you can play out outlandish story lines, you can gossip about people “and nobody gets hurt. In reality TV, those people are obviously getting hurt.” And the culture is suffused with those who have allowed producers to exaggerate them to soap-opera proportions or who have become convinced of how exciting their lives are, and how worthy they are of sharing.
Soaps “used to be like the campfire where people got together and heard stories,” says Larson. Sometimes it’s fantasy romance, things that could possibly be. And sometimes it’s great tragedy, or dramatic hijinks and violence and not all of it was justified, she says. Corporate bosses didn’t always respect the medium, or its audiences. But even when you’re coming back from the dead, you’re touching people’s souls. “I wish my father would come back from the dead,” she says.
Larson is banking on the success of “All My Children” in the new online format and hoping, by extension, that soap operas as we know them — character-driven, fictional and never-say-die — will continue as well. The culture needs them, she says. “We need our stories.”