Genoa City, Salem, Pine Valley — do any of these towns sound familiar? They're the settings for the soap operas The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives and All My Children, respectively, and these vibrantly populated pockets of drama, romance and absurdity are second homes to many viewers. My mother has watched Days of Our Lives for over three decades now, which means I've been a viewer from conception.
Often considered an arcane form of entertainment for the vanishing species known as the "housewife," the soap opera has always engaged with the outside world.
Springfield, the faux midwestern town that serves as backdrop to CBS's Guiding Light, is one of TV's oldest hometowns — but not for long. In March, CBS announced it's cancelling the 72-year-old soap, and will air its final episode on Sept. 18. Forced retirement isn't the worst thing for a 72-year-old, especially one with more than 15,000 episodes under her belt. But news of the show's demise offers an opportunity to take stock of the soap opera as a cultural form.
Guiding Light can trace its origins back to the very inception of the soap opera. The series began as a 15-minute radio drama in the 1930s, and made the leap to TV in the 1950s. Currently, eight soaps air on the big three American networks: Days of Our Lives (NBC), The Young and the Restless (CBS), General Hospital (ABC), Bold and the Beautiful (CBS), All My Children (ABC), One Life to Live (ABC), Guiding Light (CBS) and As the World Turns (CBS). Guiding Light is the oldest of this aging pack, while the relatively nubile Bold and the Beautiful (22) is the youngest. With the exception of As the World Turns, which debuted in 1956, the others have been on the air since the early sixties and seventies.
Though often considered an arcane form of entertainment for the vanishing species known as the "housewife," the soap opera has always aspired to direct engagement with the outside world. Sure, the pursuit of love and the reward of passion — cue the ubiquitous shot of a log burning hot in a chalet fireplace — are constant themes. But soaps have always made a point of being topical.
In the sixties and seventies, when TV culture was still fairly young and prone to blushing, many shows made storylines out of controversial social issues. In 1966, in the thick of the Civil Rights movement, Another World introduced daytime TV's first significant recurring black character, a female lawyer. In 1973, right after Roe vs. Wade, All My Children's resident diva, Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) had an abortion. A review of sensational storylines of soaps past offers a kind of pop culture time capsule. Remember multiple personality disorder? One Life to Live covered that in the '90s. AIDS? All My Children took that on in the late '80s. There's no dearth of possible plots in soap land. Recently, a transgendered character named Zarf (not a typo) popped up in Pine Valley (All My Children). In 2007, Luke and Noah on As the World Turns shared daytime TV's first gay kiss.
Tapping into the unfinished basement of viewers' unconscious minds, soaps even make romance controversial. General Hospital's Luke and Laura love story began in 1979, with a drunken Luke raping Laura; 30 million people in the U.S. watched their wedding in 1981. Days of Our Lives employed a similar courtship with their own "super couple," Jack and Jennifer, a precursor to Days' current Sami-EJ matchup, in which rape, once again, appears to function as foreplay to true love.
Yet for all their topicality, soaps don't take issues all that seriously — and frankly, that's the form's greatest virtue. Thirty years after its abortion story, All My Children added a classic soap opera twist: Erica Kane didn't have an abortion after all. Her doctor stole the fetus and implanted it in his own wife.
As we all know, soaps mine issues for drama — the sugary, carb-heavy form of entertainment we all crave after lunch — but not necessarily for great meaning. And so for every good-for-you plotline rendered in an easily digestible format comes a generous trifle for dessert. I'm talking about the serial killers, evil twins, maniacal doctors, fake pregnancies, aliens and even demonic possession. Let tragedy claim our pity and fear — shock and amusement are the principal emotions aroused by the soap opera.
It's the investment in the sensational, the sentimental and the downright silly — like all those whipped cream and strawberries infused "lovemaking" sessions — that makes soaps fun to watch. Or at least did.
Daytime soap audiences appear to be dwindling. Since 2003, Guiding Light has gone from three million viewers an episode to two million. Taking in about five million viewers an episode, The Young and the Restless is the most successful daytime soap — though compared to its 2003 Neilsen ratings, even it has seen a drop-off in viewers. (On the plus side, Y&R still attracts a healthy amount of women in the desirable 18-49 demographic.)
In an apparent bid to woo larger audiences and reduce production costs, some soap operas have adapted their sets and shooting styles. Last year, Guiding Light adopted a pared-down, handheld camera-like style and shot in open, un-set-like spaces. Narrative styles are changing, too. The General Hospital spinoff Port Charles took its narrative cues from the popularity of telenovelas, keeping its storylines to a relatively brief 13-week arc. Port Charles was cancelled in 2003 after seven years.
It's hard to understand why network executives feel that realism, or even succinctness, are appropriate style choices for soaps. What these choices really reveal is how the form is struggling to reinvent itself for younger audiences. How do you stay relevant in a hyperactive cultural landscape where Playboy centrefolds share space with school shootings, celebrity sex tapes and reality dating/dancing shows? (And that's just one episode of The View.)
Is the end of the soap opera upon us? Possibly. But what's more clear is that the soap opera, like many of its current viewers, is struggling to understand its place in an overstuffed culture. One thing is certain, however: if the end truly is near for soaps, you can count on a fantastic resolution.
Flannery Dean is a writer based in Toronto.