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The Story Ends

For those of us who immersed ourselves in the characters and storylines of soaps, losing them is like losing family

by Laura Leon on January 12, 2012

Remember when? Anthony Geary and Genie Francis as General Hospital's Luke and Laura

I’m going to a funeral of a loved one later this week, although unlike the many wakes and burials of friends and relations I’ve attended, at which my brothers and uncles would have me in inappropriate stitches but which were all weathered with as much fond remembrances as sadness, this one will be more heavily tinged with the bittersweet. It’s not a person about which I’m speaking, and it’s not just a TV show, although the funeral is for One Life to Live–no, it’s really a genre, as the end of OLTL with tomorrow’s final episode follows the demise in recent years and months of Guiding Light, As the World Turns and All My Children.

The readers of this weekly probably pride themselves on their artsy tastes, and I’d bet many of you would never admit to having ever watched, let alone enjoyed, any soap opera, ever. But I think you might be deceiving yourselves. Because through my four-plus decades on this earth, I’ve discovered that many, many people, from judges to doctors to secretaries to bon vivants, share a thing for soaps. It might be one particular show. It might for those on a certain network channel. But once there, and for whatever reason, it’s hard to let it go.

It’s 1971, and I’m dashing home from elementary school in Great Barrington, Mass., with my best friend Ann Marie to catch the long-awaited Another World wedding of lovely Alice to dreamy Steve . . . and fearing that conniving wrong-side-of-the-tracks Rachel might muck up the works. I think it was February; outside it was gray and dreary. But as we watched the marriage take place on my sister Pam’s black-and-white TV, we felt like we were immersed in something so much bigger than—and also a bit forbidden to—us.

While my mother admits to listening to “stories” on the radio as she grew up in the Ozarks during the Great Depression, she didn’t to my knowledge watch soap operas in the afternoon. That was left to the neighboring moms and grandmoms, an observation she made with great relish, as it elevated her to something better, and that was important. Ma would clean the house like she was expecting Jesus at any minute, before going out to lie in the sun for hours, or, if it were winter, to take a long afternoon nap. In sharp contrast, Ann Marie’s mother Mary, the most placid and happy woman I ever knew, didn’t cook or clean much other than what had to get done. Once the kids were off to school, she’d park her butt in a huge green-covered chair, and put her teacup on one big rectangular armrest, and her cigs and ashtray on the other. At around 11 or so, her litany of shows began with The Edge of Night, which I remember, from playing outside the window, as being sort of crime-driven with characters who had names like Raven and Draper. Another neighbor was a loyal Days of Our Lives viewer, and on any given summer weekday on Cottage Street, when you heard “as sands through the hour glass . . . so are the days of our lives” piping through open windows in summer, you knew it was lunchtime.

After school, Ann Marie had to put off things like bike riding in order to see what was happening on AW. I’d sit with Ann Marie and Mary, trying to make sense of the proceedings, often annoying them with questions like “Didn’t they say the same thing yesterday?” and “How can they not recognize it’s the same person?” But at the same time, I was being sucked in. What would happen to John and Pat and their twins, now that dastardly Olive had gotten her mitts on him? And of course, what was going on with Alice/Steve/Rachel? While Rachel, originally played by Robin Strasser (take note) and then Victoria Wyndham, was not an immediate like as a character, you had to be an idiot not to see the dramatic goldmine inherent in presenting a character who is dying to break free from her lower-class roots and make it in society. Rachel may have been conniving, but she was also smart, and the beautifully written scenes between her and her salt-of-the-earth mother Ada, the only person who understood her daughter, gave the character amazing depth. She wasn’t some Jersey Shore moron. She was flesh and blood, and we—or at least those of us who came from blue-collar roots and wanted to hit the high line—could relate.

Fast forward to the late ’70s: My mother is sick on the couch for most of the winter. My brother and I come home to find . . . not Mom with the [inflatable] pool boy, but intently watching One Life to Live. Viki and Joe’s baby had been kidnapped by his ex-lover Kathy, if I remember. Mom claimed she was watching only due to her inability to do much else during her convalescence, but she’d follow up OLTL with Guiding Light, which meant she made the conscious decision to get up and change the channel. On GL, little Phillip’s true paternity was coming to light, Eve was going blind, artist Ben was in love with her, Eve’s mom hated him . . . and more juicily, the legendary Roger Thorpe raped his wife Holly, beloved daughter of Mike Bauer, setting in motion one of daytime’s most graphic and socially compelling storylines.

The cast of Ryan's Hope.

True to her word, my mother, once recovered, never watched the shows again. I, on the other hand, was hooked. I added All My Children to my regular viewing during the days when dowager Phoebe was making trouble for Kitty, and Cliff and Nina were in love despite her father Palmer’s objections. And, so of course, I had to add Ryan’s Hope to my ABC lineup, as it filled in the half-hour leading up to AMC. In the summer, I’d sneak in to the house to catch snatches of the shows before Mom would catch me and drag me back outdoors again. I began buying Soap Opera Digest, which at the time was about two months behind in its recaps, such a far cry from today’s world where it’s hard to keep a story secret without it getting scooped on the Internet. I’d read about each and every show, even the ones I didn’t watch, like Search for Tomorrow and The Doctors. I was fascinated by the plotlines and the character developments, how some shows included humor and how others dipped their narrative toes into the macabre or criminal.

Over the years, I’ve met countless people, and made several friends, over this tie to the soaps. My high-school lab partner, a very serious but also tranquil person, revealed, to my shock, that she was a diehard General Hospital fan, and while we worked over the Bunsen burners and tried not to set our hair on fire, she’d fill me in on plot details. It was from her that I learned that Luke had an icky crush on ingénue Laura. This was months before the infamous disco rape scene, a landmark moment in daytime drama, and while it is true that the actors who played Luke and Laura had undeniable chemistry, I could never get past that “meet rape” moment that predated their long and storied love affair. (To be fair, GH later revisited this issue, with Laura openly confronting Luke about the incident—better late than never, right?) In college, the entire campus hauled ass to the student center to watch the scene in which Laura “returned from the dead,” which featured several moments of near-miss sightings of his beloved by Luke, and our collective “Oh my Gods!” at the deliciously ludicrous nature of it.

When my 16-year-old was just a baby, I encountered two couples on Martha’s Vineyard who were discussing over lunch the paternity of Dr. Maria Santos Gray’s baby—was it her beloved husband Edmund, or his brother Dmitri, with whom she had had consolation sex after Edmund gave back their adopted son to his birth mother and Dmitri’s wife Erica had done something or other to upset him? And would Maria discover that said baby was not, in fact, dead but being raised as Erica’s adopted daughter from Russia? I couldn’t help myself, I went over to the foursome, admitted that I’d overheard them, offered my two cents, and we have an hourlong conversation on plotting and what we’d like to see happen. It was like coming home.

For years, WRGB could be played on the radio, so when I had to run out at lunch, I’d listen to bits of The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and the recently shelved As the World Turns. It was soothing, somehow, to catch up on the lives of those characters, to root on Molly as, guided by Vicky’s ghost, she searched for Jake’s missing twins, or to revel vicariously in devilish Craig’s or Lucinda’s latest machinations. Often, I’d be transporting kids to an after-school program; they got used to “Mom’s stories,” and followed along, like a family transplanted from the 1930s, the radio providing our focus of entertainment and interest. That you could enjoy the drama without benefit of seeing the action says something about the quality of both the writing and the acting in soaps, despite what culture snobs will tell you.

Throughout the years, I’ve had the immense pleasure of watching supremely gifted actors, some of whom (Laurence Fishburne, Nathan Fillion, Julianne Moore, etc.) went on to “legitimate” success on the big screen or prime-time television. Many of the best talents had looks that today wouldn’t warrant major screen time outside of Law & Order: Ilene Kristen, Ron Hale, Hillary B. Smith, Denise Alexander, Gerald Anthony.  Most noticeable of this group would be Judith Light, whose stint as Karen Wolek on OLTLhas become the stuff of TV legend. Karen was married to young doctor Larry, but wanted more than his salary could provide, so she started hooking in the afternoons and when Larry worked late, which was often. She proved a crucial witness in a hit-and-run case that killed Pat Ashley’s child, but coming forward would reveal her sordid secrets. On the stand, D.A. Herb Callison mercilessly grilled her, and she finally admitted all. It’s chilling—YouTube it if you don’t believe me.

Judith Light and Robin Strasser on One Life to Live

So, yeah, I guess I’ve had more than my share of soap history, knowing a lot about a few shows and more than enough about the others. Soaps have provided a bond among people, particularly but not solely women, for generations. You can pick up on the gist of what’s happening, even after weeks or months of not watching. Sure, you’ll have missed some details, but the heart of the show, the core characters, are there, and they are like family. There are years when a show has everything working on all cylinders, and it’s a joy to experience, and then there are years when the writing and direction completely fall apart. Soap fans persevere. They might not like what’s happening to their show, or the direction that the writers have chosen to lead a beloved character, and they’ll complain vociferously, but they don’t abandon the ship.

Soap fans I’ve “met” through the Internet write to me who remember watching a show with their grandmother, or that their mothers began watching while on maternity leave. On my first such leave, I remember sobbing when GH’s HIV-infected Stone died; my tears fell on my newborn’s head as I nursed him. The best soaps always had a bit of glitz, because after all, don’t we all aspire to a little luxury, however vicarious?

AMC's Susan Lucci.

Viewers were captivated by the rise to stardom of AMC’s Erica Kane (portrayed by the legendary Susan Lucci for the show’s entire 41-plus years), who while not exactly born downtrodden, did suffer from having an outsize combo platter of personality, ego and ambition that didn’t fit in the with the small-town values of Pine Valley. Even better were the stories about people like AW’s Rachel and OLTL’s Dorian (also played over decades, for the most part, by Robin Strasser), who did carry baggage with them as they made the treacherous trek up the ladder. By the time AW ended, Rachel was a beloved heroine, and as OLTL winds to its demise, Dorian’s absence on the canvas (she’s in the Senate now, don’t you know) is sorely lamented. What made these, and so many other characters, so incredibly rich (in addition to wonderful writing and crack acting) was that they were so very real, with flaws and quirks and needs. They made mistakes, sometimes big ones. They loved and were hurt. They were grounded in our very humanity.

While the soaps went through a bit of a hedonist heyday in the 1980s, when storylines became riskier and at times raunchier, they remained rooted in traditional values like family. Holiday shows and funerals of beloved characters were a goldmine for viewers, as we saw beautiful references to the past, to passed performers whose characters were still a very real presence on the canvas. Soaps like The Young and the Restless utilize their veterans like Jeanne Cooper (mother of Corbin Bernson), a strong actress well past her prime who regularly rates as a fan favorite, even among that much-desired youth demographic. The fact that the powers behind the scenes took time so often to film such amazing moments as the recent funeral and remembrances of Days’ Alice Horton (whose portrayer, the lovely Frances Reid, died in February) was something of a gift to the viewers, which no fan took lightly. “Family” members who haven’t been on the show in years returned to say farewell, and longtime fans couldn’t help but feel it was a homecoming.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a soap fan who agrees with the networks’ decisions to dump soaps, which are expensive to produce, in favor of reality or talk shows. In 2009, CBS canned Guiding Light, which had begun on the radio in 1937 and was among the longest-running shows ever, and just last year, the network canceled GL’s sister show, As the World Turns, after 54 years. Rumors have been spinning for a couple years now that ABC, which aired three, and which had recently moved the production of AMC from New York to L.A. in a last ditch effort to cut costs, might cancel one. The announcement last spring that ABC, which is owned by Disney, would cancel not just one, but two of its daytime sudsers in order to do The Chew, a talk show with cooking, and The Revolution, a health and fitness guide, was staggering for fans.

The rapid cancellations are effectively severing an art form rooted in the best traditions of storytelling. While at times writers fell back on cliched plotlines—“Who will die?” disasters like a train crash (OLTL) or a hospital fire (GH)—to move things along and boost ratings, the best soap writing delivered strong narrative based in character.

An early example of this occurred on OLTL, when beloved former nun Jenny Vernon found out that her little girl Mary, the one child she supposedly had ever been able to have, was, in fact, the birth daughter of reformed hooker Katrina Karr. (Jenny’s sister Karen and Marco Dane had switched Jenny’s deceased newborn with that of Kat’s, the reasoning being that Kat was going to give  hers up for adoption anyway, and Jenny would have been devastated.) While her friends (and we fans) urged her to fight for custody, even to go as far as to bring up Kat’s seedy past, such action would have been a completely alien concept to this devout, honorable woman, and so the viewers sobbed as Jenny bravely bade goodbye to little Mary. Not only was the scene itself emotionally hard-hitting, but it had repercussions for several characters and effected story going forward.

OLTL, in particular, also used its strong writing to delve into social issues. As far back as the ’60s, it pioneered stories that focused on racism, such as the groundbreaking tale of successful actress “Carla” (Ellen Holley), when in fact she was Clara, the daughter of housekeeper Sadie Gray. The show delved into drug addiction, including filming addict Cathy during a real-life session at Odyssey House. In the early 90s, Ryan Philippe made a splash as the teenage Billy Gray, whose homosexuality was outed by a then-bratty Marty. Fear of AIDS propelled characters who were formerly the voices of reason—such as newspaperman Clint Buchanan, into paranoid mode, as the Rev. Andrew tried to educate people about the disease while urging understanding.

Glamorous days: OLTL's Erika Slezak and Robin Strasser in a vintage publicity photo.

My younger boys have continued to catch up with me on episodes of OLTL. In fact, I credit the show with finally getting my 9-year-old son Harry to begin understanding the concept of narrative. Harry is very literal-minded, and his preference, beyond soccer, is numbers. But when asked “What do you think will happen next?” about a book or a TV show, he would almost freeze up, not knowing how to answer. About two years ago he began watching OLTL with me on Soapnet, and soon after, he began asking me questions during breakfast about the history of the characters and about how I thought a particular storyline would develop. Thus began a daily conversation through which, over time, he began to posit theories and tell me why, citing examples and references to past episodes, he thought Todd killed Victor, or whether or not Matthew would come out of his coma. He started recognizing similarities with storylines from other shows, books or movies.

When I told Harry and his younger brother Farrell that OLTL had been canceled and would end in January, Harry was silent for a long time, and for a while I thought he either hadn’t heard me or just didn’t care. But I could tell he was thinking hard about something, and then, at last, he said, “But what will happen to all of them? What will they do?” He was referring not to the actors, but to our longtime heroine Viki, her brood of troubled children, of Blair and Starr, of Bo and Nora, Marty, Nigel, Roxy, Rex and Gigi, the glorious Tea, Rama, even the beefcake eye-candy Ford brothers. What would happen to the denizens of Llanview, Pa., once the last show aired? Maybe there’s an Eterna after all, or maybe the characters can time-travel back to the old west, like Asa, Clint, and Viki did back in the 1980s.

Harry’s remark is a cute anecdote, sure, but it also speaks to the depths of how much we soap fans invest in our shows, our stories, and the characters who populate them. The actors and the thousands of behind-the-scenes talent will, presumably and hopefully, go on to find new employment elsewhere. But the death of a show that’s almost as old as I am leaves behind an emotional void. The stage is dark, the performers have departed, but there’s still an audience out there aching for the rich, compelling, romantic and, yes, sometimes wacky, other world that was our soaps.