Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Recently, over a round of beers at the local pub, I found out that three of my closest friends and I all shared a dirty little secret: At one time or another, all of us had been addicted to soap operas.

I wasn’t really surprised that we’d all watched soaps in our youth. After all, countless American women—and a fair number of men—have been hooked on them for decades. All those paper-towel and ant-spray advertisers rely on it.

But what did surprise me was that in the 15 years that I’d known my friends, we had never, ever talked about soap operas before. And it turned out that all four of us had been hooked on the same ones—the ABC lineup of All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital. Those shows had been part of our lives—the afternoons after school, the fleeting lunch hours home from work, the so-called sick days, the hushed conversations with co-workers over the salacious lives of people who didn’t exist. For all those years, my friends and I had been sitting in our separate homes, glued to the TV, pondering what the hell Laura ever saw in Luke, and laughing when Phoebe Tyler married that chubby con man. Before we knew each other, we all knew Dorian Lord and her sleazy husband Herb* (who turned out to be a good guy). Without knowing it, we’d had this connection all along, this deep love of camp and melodrama.

And then, a few days after my friends and I discovered this strange connection, I heard the shocking news: ABC was canceling All My Children and One Life to Live. I hadn’t watched either one in 20 years, but still, I felt like a piece of bedrock had crumbled from under my feet. Where would I go for the switched-at-birth stories? The evil twins? Where would I go to root against mean, manipulative women?

But the answer to all of those questions is, of course, the reason why so many soaps have been canceled lately: I can now get my fix of meanness, absurdity, and big hair by watching “reality” shows. And a truckload of nighttime dramas, from Grey’s Anatomy to Desperate Housewives, and even genre-benders like Glee and True Blood, are essentially serial-plotted soap operas. That’s not the only reason why soaps have gone belly-up; there’s also cable TV and the internet and women’s changing roles in our culture. But the bottom line is that soaps aren’t dead; they’re just freakin’ everywhere.

Even after all these years, my soap-love is still there: I get hooked on serial shows—from The Tudors to Battlestar Galactica—at the drop of a hat. I could get all literary here and talk about we’re drawn to the same archetypal stories again and again, but the truth is that I like to see good-looking people get in trouble. And I like to see pretty people kick ass. Now all the old warriors—Erica, Viki, et al.—are kicking ass in soap-opera heaven. They’re in some kind of Valhalla, stealing each other’s husbands and discovering that they gave birth to babies they don’t remember.

Meanwhile, down here in our own little Pine Valleys and Llanviews, amid our own tangled families and misdirected loves, we are muddling through. It just won’t be the same without them.

*My favorite Herb moment: In one scene, Herb was at home, talking with somebody while he held a cat in his arms. The actor who played Herb, Anthony Call**, was standing there cradling this cat, and while the other person was talking, he quietly kissed the cat on the top of its head. There’s no faking that; he was definitely a cat person.

**Bonus: Anthony Call also played Lieutenant Bailey on the Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” (“You represent Earth's best, then?” “No, sir, I’m not. I’ll make plenty of mistakes.”)

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