Today, General Hospital marks its 49th anniversary on the air. Since As the World Turns was cancelled two years ago, it has been the longest running American soap opera. (The U.K.’s Coronation Street has actually been on air longer—over 50 years). And since the cancellations of fellow ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live within the past year, the only vestige left of “Love in the afternoon” (the tagline for ABC soap opera lineup back in the 80s and 90s).
Although writers and producers approach soap operas as romances (and certainly, romance is central to their plot lines), that they are structured around families, explore relationships among family, friends, and co-workers, and use social issues as plot points suggests that their overall impact goes well beyond the basic romance. In a recent commentary in the New York Times, author Patrick Healy shares some of the lessons he’s learned from soaps.
I’ve mentioned many of the lessons that I’ve learned through soap operas in the classes I teach. Some focus on behind-the-scenes lessons (even before the advent of the soap opera press, I paid close attention to the writing staffs of soaps), such as the roles of contractual and staffing issues guiding the plotting of Bill and Laura’s star-crossed romance on Days of Our Lives in the 70s, how annoying the authorities ultimately has serious consequences (like headwriter Harding Lemay who, fed up with the ad-libbing of an actress on Another World, killed off Mary Matthews, acknowledging that she died for no other reason than the headwriter wanted her to), and how sometimes “outlandish” is needed to gain attention, as headwriter James E. Reilly demonstrated when using the demonic possession of Marlena to compete with O.J. Simpson and the rise of reality TV (also on Days of Our Lives)—but it has to be an “in-character” outlandish rather than “out of left field”outlandish, as learned from Guiding Light turning Reva into a clone. And the powe
Others focus on the lessons learned on-screen, such as the cognitive dissonance caused when Dorian’s first on-screen kiss with Mark Toland started in the cliffhanger (closing) scene of one episode, in which Dorian was played by fill-in-actress Dixie Carter, and she completed the kiss the following day, played by regular actress Nancy Pinkerton, who had just returned from a medical leave. Other lessons learned include that of Jill Abbott on the Young and the Restless, who—after being twice screwed over royally by Mrs. Chancellor—learned how to protect herself by becoming the screwer-overer, while Nina Webster and Bridget Reardon who, also having had been screwed over, ended up discovering and flexing their spines.
In their day, soaps launched conversations (nothing could bond Americans trekking through Europe like the latest updates on All My Children) and inspired others to act (I remember reading years ago that one reader followed Mrs. Chancellor’s trips on and off the wagon, matching her drink for drink when Mrs. Chancellor was drinking, then going on the wagon when Mrs. Chancellor did) or the stories of characters who went for cancer screenings when Bert Bauer was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Although talk and lifestyle shows address similar topics, that they start and end most of these conversations in 15 or 30 minutes usually means they lack the emotional and intellectual impact that comes from unfolding the story in 5 to 15 minute bites over a period of 3 to 18 months. They pack a whollop when they reach their climax in a way that no talk show interview can.
As fans of General Hospital celebrate this anniversary, many worry that the show won’t live to see its fiftieth. ABC loudly signaled its intentions to cancel a year ago when it signed Katie Couric for a talk show, then scheduled it during the time slot for General Hospital—after years of quietly signaling its intentions by letting the show degenerate into a repetitive mob story and destroying its most beloved characters in the process, stories that ostensibly showed the characters as three dimensional but merely made them unmotivated, unlikeable, and most of all, barely watchable.
Circumstances other than story might salvage the show, but its continued longevity is only assured if it returns to the core of what makes soap operas so special: the opportunity to watch, feel, and learn about relationships and life.
For Patrick Healy’s heartfelt ode to the life lessons learned from soap operas, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/arts/television/one-life-to-live-and-lessons-for-real-life.html?_r=2&ref=patrickdhealy&pagewanted=all