Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Our Dying Soap Operas Deserve Public Funding

Surely you've heard the recent news that long-running daytime soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are being canceled. Sad. Yet not that sad because no one watches American daytime soaps anymore, right?


I'm that person who still watches them. Well, by “them” I mean “One Life to Live." I'm devastated by its demise and you should be too. We're losing a national treasure. This is akin to tearing down the gilded Penn Station to make room for the depressing Madison Square Garden. The daytime soaps are a national heritage that should be protected and cherished.

I first learned of Llanview (the fictional Philadelphia suburb in which “One Life to Live” characters go about their business) when I got an internship in the show’s writing department. Years later, I was hired to write for and I was quickly handed the Llanview beat. Thusly, it was my job to go to ABC headquarters every day to watch “One Life to Live” and then blog about it. Obviously, this was a pretty good job (and sadly, like travel agents, a profession that is soon to be gone with the wind).

And so I watched. Not just with the casual attention of a low-functioning housebound recluse, but with the ardent, deep concentration I would have given a Robert Altman movie in film school. I became so well schooled in “One Life to Live” that I once gave an hour-and-a-half lecture on its history and storylines to a rapt (OK, likely bored) audience of ABC employees.

(FYI for non-viewers: “One Life to Live” employs the typical-of-daytime Shakespearean premise of rival clans fighting and romancing. In the show’s modern era the two primary families have been the Buchanans and the Cramers. Without going into the gory, complicated details, they are headed by good girl Viki, played by Erika Slezak for 40 years, and the manipulative Dorian, portrayed by Robin Strasser on-and-off since around 1980.)

When I left that job I did not stop watching the show. It was only at this point that the real power of the genre began to reveal itself to me. Before that, it was a job; a beat; a responsibility. Freed from that burden, I was able to begin a relationship with the show much more like that of the average fan. I would put it on in the background while I answered emails or folded laundry. (DVRs help with time-shifting—even I, as an under-employed writer, am not usually home at 2pm EST.) Suddenly, the sometimes maddeningly slow pace of the show became a positive as opposed to a negative. I could pay it half-attention but always get the gist of the day’s dramas. “One Life to Live” was now sewn into the fabric of my life in the same fashion as Oprah or NPR.

Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I'm a sad, lonely person and you should probably pity me. But in my defense, let me state that I'm not the sort of person who ignores my own life for the fictional lives of others. I'm invested in these characters the way I'm invested in Wonder Woman—intellectually but not emotionally. Despite the show’s overall narrative of victimization (the popular characters are most often hapless victims of others’ malfeasance rather than active aggressors in their own right), I became charmed by many characters including the Southern and blond Blair Cramer (formerly of Japanese descent), her handsome five-time ex-husband Todd Manning (formerly with a different face), and Todd’s new wife, the fiery Latina defense attorney Téa Delgado. They're fun, wild, mouthy and, along with Dorian and Viki, fabulous to watch.

Here’s where I make the pitch: You really should start watching “One Life to Live” before it goes off the air. There are three reasons. One, it is easily the best American daytime soap (I will avoid comparisons to the serials of the British Commonwealth or the still wildly popular telenovelas). Two, it will be over soon so it isn’t that much of a commitment. Three, a daytime soap opera is the modern equivalent of the Victorian novel. This is Dickens, people!

As we barrel towards a finale 43 years in the making, “One Life” is going out on a high note. Currently, the scheming Dorian is mayor of Llanview. Queen of Good Intentions Viki has succumbed to her Dissociative Identity Disorder and is now operating as one of her seven alternate personalities, Niki the town scamp. Her husband has just been stolen away by Echo, a woman who last appeared on the show in the early 1980s (played both times by Kim Zimmer of "Guiding Light"). This represents a key selling point. The narrative history is so expansive that the show can easily resurrect characters from a seemingly never-ending well of former bit players. Even Dickens would have a hard time competing with the level of completeness that the collective imagination of four decades of writers, directors, and actors have brought to “One Life to Live”. It requires a dedicated staff to track continuity—sort of like the New Yorker’s famed fact-checking department. We're losing a genre that should be heralded for its unrivaled longevity and utter uniqueness of form.

I would like to suggest that the federal government step in and subsidize this art form in the way they fund public broadcasting or the NEA. I realize that this is a pipe dream in our current political climate, but what would “East Enders” be without the BBC? Personally, I would rather see “One Life to Live” on PBS at lunchtime than the usual Charlie Rose repeat. The government funds all sorts of dead art forms that no one cares about like ballet, theater and opera, why not soap operas? What’s a $50 million production budget compared to the billions we spend on Medicare?

You might be saying to yourself, “Why should my tax dollars support ‘One Life to Live’ when we have ‘The Young and the Restless,’ ‘Days of Our Lives,' ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and ‘General Hospital’ still before us?” The reason, besides the superior quality of "One Life," is that the cancellation of this show and “All My Children” is the bellwether of things to come. All of these shows are deemed “dated” and “unhip” and will soon be slain by reality TV and chat shows—and that is if we're lucky. More likely it will be “Dancing With the Stars” repeats and infomercials. The cancellation of "One Life" is the Gallipoli for soap operas. They're fighting a losing battle to stay on the air.

I beseech you to put “One Life” on your DVR for the next nine months. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. In fact, I think you’ll become just as infatuated as I have. And then in January, when it goes off the air, we can all mourn together for another dead art form. See you in hell, Vaudeville!

David Ozanich is, among other things, a playwright, travel writer, and the co-author of the YA novel series "Likely Story" about a teen soap opera.

31 Comments / Post A Comment

barnhouse (#1,326)

WOW this was so great and true, especially about the kind of narcotic daze one watches these things in. My ex's Lebanese relatives (also my ex) were devoted to this show, so I watched it for ages. We called it what his sitee and aunts (not great English) called it, which was, "Lifoo Live."

Furthermore, until today I never knew how to spell Llanview! My god all this time it has been Welsh, will wonders never cease?

keisertroll (#1,117)

Patrick Swayze in "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar" taught me that Bala Cynwyd was Welsh. Also Welsh: Bryn Mawr.

What is it with suburban Philadelphia and Welsh names?

Vulpes (#946)

@keisertroll Believe it or not, there was a big Welsh contingent in the early Pennsylvania settlement. I think that part of Pennsylvania was even conceived as a "Welsh colony."

mishaps (#5,779)

"I'm invested in these characters the way I'm invested in Wonder Woman"

Marry me.

Rod T (#33)

I haven't seen it in years, but I do remember the ongoing Viki/Niki saga. What is confusing to me is that they are outside of Philly. Weren't the Buchanan guys always romping around in cowboy hats? Ah, Viki/Niki. I so identified with her/her as a sort of "good boy" with a hankering to let the "bad boy" out.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@Rod T They're from "Suburban Philadelphia" the way Aqua Teen Hunger Force is from "South Jersey".

Vulpes (#946)

@Rod T The Buchanans are originally Texas ranchers/oilmen who relocated to their multibillion dollar empire to suburban Llanview for… some reason. It's like on "Young and the Restless" where a Wisconsin burb also somehow is a fashion center.

HiredGoons (#603)

My mother used to looooove the Soap Operas (Days of Our Lives) and when I was younger and home for a couple weeks with croup it happily coincided with Marlena being possessed by the Devil which I loved and watched rapturously.

So my suggestion is that the writers lift more plotlines from B Horror films, or just get it over with and turn these things into daytime Twilight.

That would at least buy them a few years and maybe a whole new generation of audience.

macartney (#1,889)

@HiredGoons Early/mid '90s Days was THE BEST. Marlena's possesion, Carly being buried alive, Carrie getting acid thrown on her face, John almost being executed for Tony's murder, Marlena being trapped in the cage in Paris, Marlena being locked in the secret room by Kristen. That was before we had internet, and I'm not ashamed to admit I made my mom buy Soap Opera digest at the supermarket so I could find out early what would happen next.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

The Marlena Devil possession thing was just the greatest. Remember when she turned into a panther?!

HiredGoons (#603)

@Craig Brownson: please.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@HiredGoons That would be Dark Shadows! Would love to see that again.

HiredGoons (#603)

@barnhouse: Dark Shadows was an essential part of my childhood.

ericdeamer (#945)

That era of Days of Our Lives was great, but unfortunately as for the suggestion that the writers try more stuff like that, they did; It was called PASSIONS and it had a decent run but is already off the air.

nakedfoul (#7,567)

Will no one stop the Soapocalypse?

Artressa Vendelay (#11,320)

I feel the same way. Been watching OLTL since fifth grade! I've grown up as the Buchanan kids did (just not with all the drama; It's amazing all that can happen in one small town).

SuperMargie (#1,263)

When I was younger, I wanted to watch OLTL, but we always had to watch "Another World" on NBC.

Vulpes (#946)

Like many, I learned my love of soap at the knee of my grandmother. We were an ABC family, but GH and One Life to Live were my favorites, mostly because I became conscious when they both were insanely good (on OLTL, this was the era of the epic Viki Alters story, Marty's rape, etc.). I drifted away later on, but I returned a few years ago. GH has been systematically destroyed and turned into a vile parody of its former great self, but One Life to Live is DEFINITELY the best soap still on (though, sadly, that's not as much of a compliment as it might have once been). It's multigenerational, layered, at turns campy and socially conscious. Currently, there's a bullying story in which one young man almost committed suicide, another young man who has confessed to his police commissioner father and DA mother that he killed a man, a duel between a mother and daughter who both have multiple personalities, infidelity, engagements, budding romances, and paternity troubles. It's simply fantastic.

The "death" of the American soap has many causes, including changing viewing habits, the way ratings are compiled, the general decline of broadcast television and the rise of digital distribution, but at base it's a failure of leadership. Brian Frons (head of ABC Daytime) and Barbara Bloom (former CBS daytime head) systematically destroyed the medium with micromanaging, apathy, and disdain. Combined with a general decline in quality, mostly due, IMHO, to the micromanaging combined with an incestuous creative and producing pool that has sent failed hacks shuttling from show to show leaving destruction and WTFery in their wakes, this has lead us to the sorry state the genre is in today. For the network, that's okay, though. Soaps aren't "cool" and they don't make the kind of profits networks are looking for these days because they're expense to produce. Instead, they'd rather throw up some cheapo reality programs. Seriously, All My Children is going to be replaced by a cooking show called The Chew. THE CHEW! Instead of Erica Kane, the early afternoon will be dedicated to a boring-ass food show that has a horrible pun of The View for a name. Yeah.

There is nothing "inevitable" about the death of soaps. With some creativity and smarts, some experimentation, they could be relevant and lucrative again. The people in charge just aren't interested. But someone, somewhere will figure it out, and I'll be right there watching.

portmanteautally (#1,015)

@Vulpes But, The Chew will have Carla Hall! I can't wait!

carol.spamnot (#11,409)

@Portmanteautally – Ironically, Carla Hall was an important character in OLTL history, a black woman who "passed" for white, and whose mother for some reason always called "Clara".

Nick Pirce (#4,762)

Save the soaps

SeaBassTian (#281)

Llanview was the thing that got me through being stranded in the 'burbs in the mid-90's. My mom had watched it when I was a kid, but I developed a serious addiction on my own in my 20's. Like a junkie who hates getting high on their own, I forced friends and roommates to join me. The cheese factor was sometimes comparable to community theater, but when the show fired on all cylinders, OLTL was more engrossing than anything I watched on prime-time. I haven't tuned in for over a decade but its demise makes me misty.

Yamara (#9,395)

The rest of us had to live without Doctor Who for over a decade, and discover that dozens of its episodes were carelessly destroyed. The BBC learned its lesson. Be patient, your video penny dreadfuls will be in vogue again someday.

juan (#11,415)

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ckd (#11,420)

Its a shame yes but do people really watch soaps anymore? I used to watch Young n The Restless when it was good but the plot for me was getting stupid and too far fetched. I wouldn't be sad when all the soapd do go. its not interesting anymore for me

I don't watch soap operas, but I think it's sad as a trend that BIG NETWORKS are abandoning STORY, whining about having to compete now that EVERYONE can make a Youtube video, and ratcheting their costs downward with the pull of advertising dollars rather than making their quality all the more superb and keeping their networks deserving of their apportionment of the public's bandwidth. The FCC gives them a bargain, for the benefit of the people; so why aren't the networks out recruiting and producing the best?

juan cela (#11,441)

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American soaps need to be more like spanish soaps. There's a begining and 8-11 months later an ending. I use to watch AMC & OLTL when they started but after a while it got boring. There would be more work for actors and challenges as there characters would change with each story.

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