Friday, April 22, 2011

A Death in the (Soap) Family

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know Tad and Erica, and those who, when they figure out that you are talking about characters from the ABC soap opera All My Children, roll their eyes and walk away.

I first saw All My Children (AMC) was when I was 10 years old and went to my friend Chrissy's house in Grosse Pointe for lunch. Chrissy was the youngest of three children. I think her dad was a big shot for J.L. Hudson's department store. I never met her older siblings, who were already grown (or at least away at college). I don't remember ever meeting her parents. But I do remember that she had a live-in maid who wore a uniform, took care of Chrissy and made fried chicken for lunch, which was the only thing Chrissy would eat. While we ate, this lovely caretaker ironed in the kitchen. "Hush, now, I'm watching my story," she would say. "Erica's coming on."

That was in 1970 and All My Children was a brand new show, still just a half-hour long. I was entranced by the adult content and have been watching ever since, sometimes every day, sometimes once a month. Every time my mother visits, she says: "Is that Erica woman still on?" My mom never watched the soaps.

Soap operas were around long before AMC debuted, and had their start on radio in 1930. The very first serialized drama, called Painted Dreams, was produced here in Chicago by WGN. They were called "soap operas" because many were sponsored by household cleaning products.

Over the years, I've been loyal to ABC soaps and an on-again-off-again fan of One Life to Live, Ryan's Hope (for it's entire 1975-1989 run) and General Hospital, especially during the whole Luke and Laura hoopla, which happened while I was in college. At the time, I lived in a group house on Church Street in Ann Arbor with seven other students, girls and guys, all of whom were GH fans. We would race home at 3:00 and crowd into someone's bedroom to watch.

But my heart belongs to All My Children, including all 12 (to date) of Erica Kane's marriages; Tad the Cad's many affairs (one with Liza and her mother); characters dying and coming back to life (repeatedly); casting changes (just how many Colbys have there been?); character name changes (anybody remember when Jake was Joey?); not to mention ghosts, prison breaks and epic backstabbing. The show broke a lot of television taboos: the first legal same-sex wedding, AIDS, abortion, rape, and a transgender character, to name a few. But the reason I watched AMC was because it was fun. That's all. Just plain fun.

The cast and I have been through a lot together: my lonely teenage years, months of bed rest during two of my pregnancies, piles of laundry, and time on the treadmill. I have never really "watched" my soaps so much as had them on to keep me company while I did other things. Along the way, I would get frustrated by the soap-opera mantra of constant turmoil. After their third marriage and finally getting pregnant together, couldn't Tad and Dixie have settled down into happily ever after? Not in soap world. And maybe not in real life, either.

After 40 years on the air, in a soap-opera-worthy plot twist, All My Children has been cancelled, as has One Life to Live. I'm crushed. I just can't imagine life without Pine Valley. And I'm not alone. Many people have suggested that Oprah should pick up the show on her OWN network. Brilliant idea. I know she's a fan and even had a guest spot on the show in the '80s. (Just FYI, I refuse to link to the ABC press release about the cancellations because I will not watch or support their replacement "reality" shows. I have enough reality in my life. Give me back my melodrama.)

Things I've learned from All My Children:
  • Even in the dead of winter, you should wear sleeveless dresses to look chic.
  • Happily ever after does not make good drama.
  • I wish, just once, I could deliver a full-face soap-opera slap.
  • In the world of soaps, death is a relative condition.
  • Every time I fret about how fast my children are growing up, I see a soap kid age 12 years in three months and I feel much better.
When my husband mocks me about AMC, I remind him that he was a devoted Dallas fan. Hey, just because it aired at night, doesn't mean it wasn't a soap. When things get crazy and my own life resembles a soap opera, there has been something very comforting about turning on the TV and finding familiar characters whose problems are always worse than mine.

Feel free to confess your contempt on the topic or your own soap-opera guilty pleasures here in a comment.


Anonymous said...

Hey, wait a second! I was one of those Church Street residents, and I have never, ever watched a soap opera in my life! Was this after I left?

I do agree about the reality shows. They make me wince for those poor souls who need to expose themselves that way. Someone get them therapy, instead of exploiting their pathology!

How does Molly like college, anyway?

Susan Bearman said...

Sorry to have exaggerated. I just remember a bunch of people bolting up the stairs and piling on to Sari's bed to watch Luke and Laura's wedding.

You still have time to add watching an episode of All My Children to your bucket list. It isn't scheduled to go off the air until September.

Molly had a great first year, Thanks. She's coming home soon.

Mary Driver-Thiel said...

I, too, am crushed at the loss of my "friends."
Like many people, I started watching AMC in college. For almost four decades, I could count on AMC to take me out of reality when I was bored, lonely, frustrated, or just in need of a quick fashion update.
When life got really tough and I couldn't sleep at night, I would amuse myself creating plot lines for Erica, Tad, Opal, Palmer, Monique, Nina, and Cliff.
Come on, Oprah, help us out!!

loweanne said...

So true - fictional melodrama is much more entertaining than "staged" reality!
Love your lessons learned!

Sherled said...

Remember Marco, Phoebe, Ruth? Oh, let's not forget Vicki's personalities. I could hardly wait for the next day; as the drama unfolds.

Susan Bearman said...

loweanne — thanks. I'm sure I learned a few more soap "lessons" along the way.

Sherled — I remember all those characters. I also remember how cool I thought it was the first time I saw Ruth Warrick in Citizen Kane. She was so young!

doreen said...

Hmmm...I live on Church Street. I am so sad. I started watching when Erica stole Phillip from Tara...
This is just all wrong...
It really stinks that they just made them all move to LA too...

Susan Bearman said...

Doreen - You live on Church St. in A2? That's so cool. We were at 1008. I agree that it stinks that they made them move to LA only to fire everybody. Not happy with ABC at all.

Linda Gartz said...

Well, sorry, I'm just not and never have been a soap opera fan. But that said, I don't denigrate those who get into them. Like so many tv shows, until you watch a few episodes, you don't know how the characters will grab you. I'm just not a tv person in general. Once I've started watching a show at someone's behest, however, it's amazing how hooked I can get.
Sorry for your loss. :-(

Laura said...

Cancelled? I'm a little crushed, although my guilty pleasure was always GH. (Not these days. No time. Kids can be so selfish, what with their, "Mommy, pay attention to me," and, "Feed me. I'm hungry." You know?)

Susan Bearman said...

Linda — Thanks. Either you did the soaps or you didn't, but I appreciate your ability to empathize.

Laura — it is amazing how little people can be so demanding. And the bigger they get, the bigger their demands. And my kids want to eat every day — sometimes more than once.