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 SOAPnet.com 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!