Cultural Trends

A Lamentation for the American Soap Opera

Recently ABC announced that it was putting the ax to two soap operas, One Life To Live and All My Children, both of which had been running since the ’60s. “Soap operas!” I bet you’re thinking, if not bellowing as you slam down a fist. “Who the hell cares? Let ’em die!” Definitely soap operas have a bad reputation, but I’ll tell you why even people who would hesitate to watch them, even if they had a gun pointed at them, should care. First, though, let me lay down some context…

It’s been said that we are witnessing a Golden Age of Fandom, where those formerly considered nerds and geeks can both openly discuss their obsessions in most forums and have said obsessions all but infinitely catered to by the Internet, if not the media in general. There isn’t much arguing with the fact that the Internet has made it much easier to level up from dabbler to expert, especially if you have money to throw around at eBay and Amazon and the like, but there are still certain sub-genres that can be taboo. Even with Hollywood’s on-and-off love affair with superheroes, in some quarters the actual readers of superhero comics are at best cultural misfits and at worst all male,T&A-chasing misogynists (a stereotype which, to be fair, a few writers, artists, and marketing gurus at DC Comics and Marvel and some fans themselves have not helped dispel). Unless you’re a male teenager, in blue collar company, or both, you might have to joke or depreciate yourself when you mention that you’re a pro-wrestling fan. Last but not least, there’s the entertainment taboo that I’m writing to mourn…soap operas.

One would be hard-pressed to think of a visual genre more generally reviled than soap operas without maybe having to mention various forms of extreme pornography. People of all sorts of tastes and political and philosophical leanings uphold soap operas as the trashiest of trash culture, the absolute nadir of American entertainment (well, maybe; “reality” TV has fought and is fighting hard to take that honor). Not to go all fancy, ivory tower academic on you all, but it is interesting that soap operas’ low status does coincide with the fact that they’re a genre that’s both negatively gendered and classed, much the same way superhero comics and pro-wrestling are. Just as comic book fans are seen as unemployed, sexually stunted losers and pro-wrestling fans are poor, rural rednecks, soap opera viewers are supposed to be all under-educated and under-sexed grandmas and housewives. It’s also worth mentioning that all three have the unique appeal of offering complex and organic mythologies, which is completely engaging when you’re a fan but maybe a little off-putting when you’re a curious passerby trying to understand the appeal in the first place. Even superhero comics, which out of the three has had by far the most success in keeping up with the broader media through films and TV adaptations, has that nasty, unending problem of “accessibility.”

My own appreciation of soap operas was inherited. Since both my parents worked full-time and my grandmother lived next door, I spent many afternoons as a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s watching Days of our Lives (DL), One Life to Live (OLTL), and General Hospital (GH) with her. I’m grateful for that, especially since “One Life to Live” taught me all about camp. After all, it was a show that often centered around the eternal feud between two grand dames, the saintly but strong-willed Vicki Buchanan and “original diva” Dorian Lord…excuse me, Dr. Dorian Lord. (I’d agree with the Moral Guardians that gender-inappropriate exposure to OLTL made me gay, except I’m sure S.E. Hinton’s homoerotic classic “The Outsiders” already did that). Not to say that DL didn’t have its delightful campy side; who can forget Mafia stereotype/Gothic villain/supervillain-in-all-but-name Stefano DiMera or Steve Donovan, the British spy who had a butler named Alfred? Even though it was the most popular out of the three, my grandmother and I were usually least enthused about GH, although we did get a kick out of the antics of the Quartermaines, who were in some ways the standard dysfunctional, jaded rich family that appeared in every soap opera, but they were hilariously self-conscious (some might say Genre Savvy) about it.

What made soaps so weird and appealing to my young self wasn’t that they were Harlequin romances in TV form, which is still the widespread preconception, but that they often had a weird and schizophrenic mishmash of different genres and tropes. Sure, they were still predominantly focused on love and sex, but since the late ’70s soaps, already responding to the fact that women were less homebound than ever, started expanding beyond domestic drama into strange waters. GH (in)famously pitted its premier couple, Luke and Laura, against a Greek criminal mastermind armed with a weather machine (yes, really). In the mid-’80s DL sent its cop characters to some pretty beach locales to investigate a crimelord in an obvious aping of “Miami Vice.” Other soaps became as much about corporate intrigue and backstabbing as about family melodrama. And it worked! The ’80s/early ’90s were undoubtedly when American soap operas hit their peak. While they were still stamped firmly with the label “lowbrow,” they still got a bit of positive mainstream attention here and there, probably most famously in the 1991 movie “Soap” which was both a parody and a homage, and inspired ratings-grabbing prime time imitators like “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, and “Melrose Place” (which caused so much painful inner turmoil over gender appropriate entertainment choices for Jerry Seinfeld).

I have no idea why soap operas suffered a sharp decline, both in ratings and in cultural currency, starting in the later ’90s. Conventional wisdom is that changes in demographics, mainly more and more women joining the 9-to-5 workforce, is responsible, but that doesn’t explain why soap operas (including American soap operas) remain popular in other countries like Germany and Argentina that underwent similar changes or why their decline wasn’t more noticeable earlier. Hopefully some fledgling sociologist or cultural historian is already spending way too much time thinking about it. My own guess is that it has more to do with changes in the culture of the entertainment industry, specifically the growth of its near-psychotic obsession with the holy 18-to-39 male demographic, and because of writers like James E. Reilly in DL, who took the chaotic blending of genres I loved so much to extremes that pissed off longtime viewers by making stories about demonic possession, UFOs, and mysterious mute women living in swamps (he went on to create the short-lived sub-cult hit and bizarrely ultra-Catholic soap, “Passions,” which had among its regular cast a Satanic witch and her living doll Timmy). Whatever the case, soap operas started floundering badly about the time I started watching them again after a years-long hiatus, because they offered something that was lacking in prime-time television. Yes, the budgets were lower and the acting was often worse (especially among the male models and ex-porn stars who were often recruited to try to grab back wavering female viewers), but honestly it offered a variety and a manic, unpredictable creativity that was lacking more with every year in prime time television. The shows had gone down in quality in about every possible way since when I watched them on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, but I still had more fun watching them than most of the things the networks had to offer in the evenings.

But, like I said, I’ve come to praise OLTL and AMC, not to bury them. In fact, I’m convinced they, like Caesar, were struck down before their day had really come. OLTL was actually experiencing something of a revival under a critically respected head writer and was going up in the ratings. The fact that both shows are being replaced by a trendy cooking show (with the atrocious name “The Chew”) and yet another “reality” show about health and fitness is another damning piece of evidence. Perhaps the decision to cancel was motivated by the comparative cheapness of “reality” TV compared to scripted fare, but my suspicions are raised by the fact that the only surviving ABC soap will be GH, which years ago stopped being a traditional soap opera and turned into a z-grade imitation of “The Sopranos” (no, I’m not exaggerating). Maybe The Powers That Be were relieved to jettison a genre they saw as fit only for aging trailer park housewives, maybe not, but either way I doubt that the sour taste that comes with the phrase “soap opera” wasn’t a factor. With OLTL and AMC gone, there are now only four American soap operas left at all. “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” might actually be around for quite some time, since they command a pretty sizable following in the international markets (I’ve been told that they love “The Bold and the Beautiful” in Germany), but DL, NBC’s last daytime soap, has had its budgets cut down to the bone and is likely the next on the chopping block.

Now that brings us to the question, “Why the hell should I care?” Because it means that it’s one more way that network television will become a less diverse, less interesting place. The decay of the soap opera genre is another validation for the studio executives who pursue fads and short-term profit over the long-term strategy of building and nurturing loyal niche audiences, the same people who have turned A&E into just one of the 90-plus channels that show almost nothing but “reality” shows and reruns of police procedurals. Even if you actually downright hated them in the same way I hate “Super Nanny,” even though I never watched it and never will, barring the possibility of severe brain injury, you have to still appreciate that they were there, an off-kilter option in a bland landscape of “Law & Order” reruns and shows whose entire raison d’etre is showing washed-up celebrities. Look at what the shows are being replaced with; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the two shows are being cut down to make way for literally more of the same, and that they’ll be lucky if they last until the next big TV fad comes along. For that reason I feel bad for the shows’ fans and their cast and crews. In the end, though, I also feel just a little sad that I’ll no longer get to imagine how my fiery Southern grandmother would have reacted to Dorian Lord’s latest antics or if she would root for Dorian against the ever stuffy Vicki.


2 thoughts on “A Lamentation for the American Soap Opera

  1. Pingback: RIP Llanview, PA (1968 – 2012) « Trash Culture

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