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(21 May 2006)

Cycles

In 1930, a young schoolteacher named Irna Phillips convinced WGN radio in Chicago to air a 15-minute series she had developed called Painted Dreams. And thus, the soap opera was born. The first national soap, Betty and Bob with Don Ameche, aired on NBC’s Blue Network in 1932, and by the end of the decade, there were thirty daytime radio dramas on the air, reaching 40 million listeners a day. One of those thirty was another Phillips creation called Guiding Light, one of the few radio soap operas to make the transition to the new medium of television in the early ‘50s. All shows were still only 15 minutes until the first half-hour soap opera, Phillips’ As the World Turns, premiered in 1956. Phillips went on to create a multitude of other soaps that were scattered across the three major networks; of those shows, only Guiding Light and As the World Turns remain on the air today, two of ten soaps airing daily on network TV.


Odds are you probably had no urgent need to know the above information. Up until a few month ago, I didn’t either. So how have I come to know all this? Because, dedicated television reviewer that I am, I immersed myself into the world of the daytime drama to do this article. I read Soap Opera Weekly, Soap Opera Update, and Soap Opera Digest religiously (I recommend Digest). I visited the network’s soap opera websites and visited countless fan sites. I talked to soap opera fans about their favorite programs (a project I suggest you undertake with serious soap fans only if you have lots of time to spare). Then I spoke with nonviewers, who have strong opinions about the perceived stupidity of the shows, despite the fact that most of them have never watched a single episode. And, most importantly, I watched soap operas. And now, I am now a bona fide soap opera expert. Want proof? How could Lily marry her mother’s brother without committing incest (ATWT)? Just how many personalities does Vicky have (One Life to Live)? What soap star has won the most acting Emmys? I can tell you: Lily’s mother was adopted and therefore not a blood relative to Lily’s husband; Vicky has 3 alter-personalities; Justin Deas, currently on GL, has won six Emmys. Damn, I’m good.


What sparked my sudden interest in the genre was not a desire to get lost in the world of Pine Valley (All My Children) or Genoa City (The Young & the Restless). My interest stemmed from my respect for the people who generate these shows. I have read countless interviews with the people who make one-hour weekly dramas: they complain bitterly about the amount of work they put in. The hours are long, the scripts are being revised up until the time of shooting, and there is the constant pressure of working miracles on tight budgets. If a weekly show is this much work, I wondered, what must go into the production of a daytime drama? After all, these dramas produce hour-long shows every day, five days a week. (There are exceptions: The Bold and the Beautiful and Port Charles are half-hour shows.) Hell, most of us struggled just to memorize Hamlet’s brief “To be or not to be” soliloquy in our 12th grade English class, so learning fifty pages of dialogue, as well as stage directions, action sequences, and choreographed sex scenes, day after day, must require incredible skill. And then there are the writers, who have to pump out an hour’s worth of believable dialogue and action daily, and the directors, who must make it all gel. Who are these people? A bunch of Type A personalities with masochistic tendencies? And are they any good at what they do?


The answer to the last question is Yes. And No. It depends on which soap you are watching and when you are watching it. Take ATWT, for instance. Four years ago, the writing was dull, the characters were dull, and many of the new actors on the show were dull. Critics lambasted the show for introducing numerous new and uninteresting characters, casting these parts with the blandest actors available, and putting established and loved characters and actors on the back burner. Now, under the guidance of a new executive producer and head writer, the show is one of the most exciting shows on daytime. The new characters have been sent to parts unknown or mercifully killed and beloved characters have been given gripping storylines.


It appears that a soap works in cycles like that; one year it may be dynamic and exciting, then the next year, it may contain as many thrills and chills as a Bush/Gore debate. One reason for this is that the relentless strain of producing a soap opera causes a continual turnover in staff. Talented head writers or directors often leave shows just as they are hitting their stride, looking for better or just different jobs. The same is true of actors. When a popular actor leaves a show, the recast can change the character’s personality and the dynamic he or she has with other characters: the result can be bad or bring the character to life. One of the Buchanan sons, on OLTL, was recast so often that the character should have worn a nametag so viewers would recognize him. But the search paid off, and the current actor in the role has become a fan favorite. Unfortunately, all this shifting doesn’t do much for the shows’ ratings, as viewers lose interest and don’t return once the show has its act together. The increasing number of channels available to viewers doesn’t help, either. Ratings are at an all time low for soaps, and some say their death-toll has been ringing for years. However, thanks to the die-hard loyalty of remaining fans, networks are stuck with soap operas for now.


But all this background information about daytime dramas is secondary to the actual viewing experience. So this 41-year-old man became a soap watcher, rushing home from work to catch shows and setting the VCR to record those I would miss. I watched at least one episode of each of the shows, and, believe me, for some of them, one episode was all I could stand, because neither the characters nor stories captured my interest. Then I picked three shows to watch for an extended period of time. I chose General Hospital because it seemed as though GH fans are the most fanatical of the lot, the show has a longstanding reputation for excellence, and, quite frankly, I was curious to find out what ever happened to Luke (Tony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis), THE super-couple of daytime drama back when I was in college (they’re now divorced: is nothing sacred???). Next, I picked Passions, because it is a baby in the soap world, debuting just two years ago, and I heard that it is by far the weirdest soap on the air, something I found to be true. Finally, I watched As the World Turns. With its record-tying eight Emmys at May’s Daytime Emmy Awards, I figured that it was the show against which all others should be measured. Also, the fact that my mom has been watching it for the last 40 years meant I had ready reference material only a phone call away.


After a month of soap watching, here’s what I’ve learned.


The rapid pace of production really isn’t evident in the shows. They maintain a consistent level of professionalism, and I found many of them to be a hell of a lot better than some of the crap that airs during prime-time. My favorite was ATWT, and I’m not just saying that to make mom happy. The show has a multitude of believable, fast-paced stories and a cast of assorted characters played by competent to excellent actors. My least favorite was Y and R, but I am in the minority on this, as the show is the top-rated soap on TV. I found it to be well-crafted, but way too heavy. The characters are all in a constant state of crisis and upheaval, and I was desperate for someone, anyone on the show to crack a few jokes.


Despite the professionalism displayed by all the shows, they remain far from perfect. The one place where sloppy production was evident in all shows was in continuity. For instance, on Passions a man confronted the evil lookalike who had been impersonating him in a not too pleasant manner around town, and the two began fighting in a dimly lit room. When the fight continued after a commercial break, all the lights in the room had been turned on. Did the men stop midfight to adjust the lighting? Most likely, this type of oversight is the result of the fact that one scene may play out over a few days, and consequently, is taped over the course of a few days. Little details are overlooked by the show’s staff but not the viewers, who don’t hesitate to point out the errors in chat rooms and online bulletin boards. These mistakes add to the poor reputation soaps have among non-watchers, who hear about them from loyal fans, but they are not the major objections most people have to the shows.


It seems that there are three major perceptions of soap operas among non-viewers. The first is that soaps are filled with macho studs and buxomy babes, with little regard to actual acting talent. This is true to a small extent. I found that the shows were exceptionally heavy with beefcake, but these shows are aimed at women, so that was no great surprise. Fortunately, most of them can act, or at least pose well enough to not embarrass themselves. I found the greatest lack of talent was not among the eye-candy, but among the younger actors on the shows. Many of the teen actors were clearly treading water as best they can. While the obvious lack of skill is distracting, I decided to make the best of it and openly ridiculed these actors whenever they were on screen. Somehow, I don’t think that is the response that production execs are looking for, but it made these scenes more enjoyable. At the same time, there are a few delights among the younger set. Katie Moss of ATWT and Jacob Young of GH are enjoyable to watch and should be able to use soaps to launch larger careers, a la Meg Ryan (ATWT) and Kevin Bacon (GL).


It is obvious that soaps do not only emphasize the young and the beautiful. Considerable airtime is devoted to older actors and soap veterans on all the shows, and it is these performers who make farfetched storylines succeed. Stars such as the larger than life Elizabeth Hubbard of ATWT, the fashionable Linda Dano of OLTL, and the macho Drake Hogestyn of Days, find the subtle nuances of characterization that give their shows depth, thus allowing viewers to become invested in the fates of their respective characters. Even some relatively young actors, such as Martha Byrne of ATWT and Tricia Cast of Y & R, have been on their shows for years and have grown to be respected actors. Byrne, who has apparently been on ATWT since before she was born, is particularly good as both the proper Lily and her showgirl twin sister, Rose.


The second perception of daytime dramas is that they are slow-moving. A comedian once said that you could tune into a show on Monday and see someone knock a lamp off the table and then tune in on Friday to watch it hit the floor. Not quite true, but stories that drag are a drag. What gives the impression that the shows are slow is the frequent exposition. Characters regularly go into long and unbelievable recitations of events so that viewers who missed an episode will be up to date. However, if you saw that particular episode, the explanation becomes tedious; as well, this exposition is often thrown in at the most awkward times. Honestly, if your son had just been kidnapped by your arch enemy, would you stop to explain the status of your marital relationship to someone, as Laura did on GH? Probably not.


This exposition is not likely to disappear, as it does serve a purpose, so it is up to the writers to keep the action moving in other ways. Based on my viewing, I’d say the most enjoyable shows are the ones that don’t drag their storylines out for months on end. ATWT and GH seem especially adept at this. On ATWT, a wealthy woman married a scoundrel who was out to get her money. This story, which isn’t new by any means, could have played out for ages, with the evil hubby slowly siphoning her bank account dry. But within a couple of weeks, she had discovered his deception and thrown his skanky ass out the door.


The third preconception is that the storylines are bizarre. This is also true, I’m afraid, but writing about 250 episodes a year has got to tax your imagination, so I can see where the occasional flight of fancy would creep in. Passions and GH are especially guilty of this. Passions is right up front with it, with one character who is a witch, a doll that comes to life, a teen who has sold her soul to a demon, and a virgin girl who has the untapped power to destroy evil. Sorcery, spells, and visions are a regular part of the show, and you either accept that or you don’t watch. When these bizarre events seem ludicrous is when they are introduced as common occurrences in Anytown, USA. On GH, the evil Stavros Cassadine (Robert Kelker-Kelley) was recently brought back to life after being revived from a frozen state. This from the same soap family, the Cassadines, who tried to freeze the entire world years ago. What makes these events seem stupid is the fact that characters accept them so easily. Sorry, but if anyone I know comes back from the dead, I’m gonna freak out. None of this “Oh gee, there’s Stavros. What a surprise.”


Such bizarre turns can never make sense. I don’t think there’s a single character on Days who hasn’t been dead at least once. And how many parents would love to know the location of that magic boarding school in Europe? It seems that you send your kids there when they’re three years old, and they return six months later, 18-year-olds with MBAs. And lastly, there is the long lost brother/sister/son/daughter/twin. Apparently, women on soap operas enter a trance-like state when they become pregnant, so they lose track of how many children they give birth to and what becomes of them after birth. This allows the lost child to show up at the least convenient moment possible, and complications invariably ensue.


Despite these odd and overused plot devices, there is much good storytelling on daytime TV. Soaps are at their best when they deal with emotions, positive or negative. One can’t help but be moved by the plight of Lily (Byrne) on ATWT, whose husband, son, and ex-husband have all been killed in an explosion (not to worry: see comments on “returning from the dead” above). The thought of losing most of your family is heartbreaking, and the writers of the show have explored all the complications of such a situation. On the other end of the spectrum is the shows’ humor. Sure, there are the smart-ass characters, the witty bitches, the ditzy blondes, and the clumsy guys. But the truly fun characters are those who can play funny as well as tragic. Two examples are Tabitha (Juliet Mills) and her doll Timmy (Josh Ryan) on Passions. As a witch who’s lost her powers and the doll that comes to life to aid her, these two are a joy to watch in their wild costumes, bumbling their way through their evil deeds. Imagine Abbott and Costello in The Exorcist and you get the idea.


Over the last 15 to 20 years, soaps have apparently developed a conscience, in addition to a sense of humor. Trying to get away from the “housewives discussing their marriages over coffee” formula of early soaps, the dramas began to reflect more accurately real social problems. Soaps are more culturally diverse than prime-time shows, with just about every class of people represented. ABC recently celebrated its ninth Day of Compassion, during which all four of its shows featured AIDS-related stories, including the continuation on AMC of an award-winning AIDS story begun several years ago on GH (characters regularly jump from soap to soap nowadays). Rape, incest, drug and alcohol abuse, cancer, homelessness, cloning, the Vietnam War and its stateside aftermath, and numerous other issues have all been dealt with in major stories. And since these shows have more time to spend on such issues, they often receive greater exploration than they would in a one-hour drama or two-hour feature film, even a mini-series. And that can make for pretty emotional television.


The ultimate test for any show, regardless of emotional content, production values, etc., is whether or not a new viewer wants to come back again. Did I get hooked? Was I dying to know what happened to Lucy (Lynn Herring) at the Nurse’s Ball on Port Charles or whether Reva (Kim Zimmer) got her sight back on GL? Not really. There were a couple of plots that piqued my interest, but I didn’t make a point to keep tuning in to see what happened. I read the daily synopses on shows’ official websites to find out the resolutions, and then I moved on with my life. There is a lot to admire on these shows, but they demand a time commitment. I guess if you spend five hours a week, every week for years, watching a show, you develop a fan’s zeal. (I’m sure some fans are reading this piece just to see how many times their favorite character is mentioned and in what context: “Whatta ya mean, Y & R is too heavy? This guy’s an idiot. There’s funny stuff on all the time! Just last month, Katherine and Jill . . .”)


If you’re not already a soap fanatic, should you become one? In my opinion, if you’re home during the day, awake and bored, and the only thing on TV is 14 variations of The People’s Court and 92 Oprah wannabes, you could do worse than tuning in to a soap opera. Between the Internet and the soap rags, you can be up to speed on who’s who and how many times everyone has been married in no time. And if you see Luke and Laura, tell them I said to get counseling.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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