UR Here: Soaps on the Ropes

To be honest, I never imagined I would ever write about this subject, but this month I want to explore. . .here goes. . .the fate of soap operas!

Sudser fans (and some media mavens) shuddered this spring when ABC announced it was canceling One Life to Live and All My Children. This leaves General Hospital as the only soap left on ABC, and one of only four left on all three major networks. I would certainly never argue that Great Art has been compromised with the decline of the soap opera genre. But I will say that soap operas did something that no other kind of television show–and very few kinds of artistic media at all–could do.

OK, I guess I have to confess why I might know remotely anything about soap operas at all. My mother was an avid As the World Turns aficionado (its 50-plus-year-old self also a casualty of the soap massacre this past year). ATWT was her “story.” She also watched two or three others for various periods of time, but As the World Turns was her constant habit.

And I watched it, too. There, I said it. And I’m sure many of you out there—men included–watched your mom’s “stories” as well, or even did so of your own volition!

At midday during summer and Christmas vacations, I’d plop down on the couch with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and catch up with what was happening in Oakdale, Illinois with my mom over the noon hour. And on days I was sick during the school year, it was a special privilege to catch a quick glimpse of the doings of the Hughes and Stewart families. (I also admit to being an avid Dark Shadows fan purely out of my own desire, but of course that was about vampires, werewolves, witches, time travel, the creeping hand of count Petofi and other cool stuff.)

So what is it that “daytime dramas” do that nothing else does? For me, I think I was swept up in my mom’s “story” because of its every day (and everyday) nature.

By this I mean its recurrence every day. By their sheer daily appearance, soaps were able to create a world that in some ways came closest to replicating real life more than anything else television could do. For some, that relentless repetitiveness is a mark of the genre’s inherent weakness. But I have written often in this column about the importance–and even profundity–of the quotidian, the everyday, the formation of connection to place through the repetition of daily work and habits. I found comfort and meaning in that regularity even as a child, and I think that was the source of my affection for my mom’s “story.”

My first association with As the World Turns and the “re-enchantment of everyday life,” to steal (and perhaps abuse) a phrase from Thomas Moore, is with my childhood nap. At 12:30 p.m. Central Time each weekday, the TV would sound the organ glissando of the opening theme song, and I would shout, “Tuh tuh time!” That was my toddler nomenclature for “naptime.” Obviously, my daily slumber coinciding with Mom’s story was no coincidence at all. But I dutifully marched off to bed, secure in our predictable routine.

As I grew older and “tuh tuh time” went the way of diapers and formula (this was the 1960s), I stuck around to watch what happened after that organ music started and that globe started turning on the opening credits. As the World Turns remained a part of my daily routine, but in a different way. As the days and weeks and years slipped by, ATWT’s Oakdale, Illinois became something of a real place. That I lived in Illinois helped the “reality” a bit for me–I could imagine this community not too far away from where I lived. And I was always tickled when Lisa would mention going to Rockford–hey, that’s where we live!

But Oakdale was realized through the living rooms, kitchens and occasional fake backyard of the community’s families. Our experience of place in real life is truly more about our interactions with and in these everyday locations. The prominent and exotic aspects of where we live tend to fade into the background as we become more intimate with place. The Old Capitol, while certainly an inspiring edifice for all Iowa City residents, is much more compelling to visitors, high school students and their parents on college scouting trips and University job candidates. I don’t think Mom’s story ever showed Oakdale’s downtown, for example, and I have no idea if it boasted a space needle or even an Old Capitol. Inhabited as soaps are (or were) with doctors and lawyers, the hospital and courtroom were the only other locations we would regularly, if ever, see outside of the characters’ homes. Yet the community as a place was fully realized in my imagination.

A caveat: The last time I watched As the World Turns, or any soap, was at least thirty years ago. From what fringe knowledge I have of soaps today, much has changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, fighting grizzly bears, international kidnappings, Amazonian adventures, clones and crazy billionaires threatening to freeze the world with their blizzard machines did not ever happen in Oakdale. I’m not saying the plots were “realistic” even back then, though. The serial divorces and affairs that kept plots going were plenty lurid for their time.

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Even so, what drew me back, even as a kid, to As the World Turns in the noonday heat of summer was, I think, Nancy Hughes’ iced tea on the patio or iced coffee (what an exotic idea in 1965!) sitting around the kitchen table, Grandpa Hughes doling out comforting words of wisdom to Tommy (OK, so the kid had the same name I did—how cool is that?) in his basement workshop or Dr. Bob Hughes coming home after a hard day at the hospital.

This is what soap operas did that no other kind of TV show did or can do. They created worlds where the routine and the everyday were part and parcel of a fully realized place and the drama, whether quotidian or lurid, that unfolded there. Even though I haven’t visited Oakdale for three decades, I will miss it now that it has disappeared from its ethereal home in the airwaves.