Thursday, April 14, 2011

All My Children: A Requiem For A TV Icon

It's the end of an era.

ABC just announced that it is canceling two of its long running soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live. AMC will air its final show in September while OLTL will bow out next January. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'm heartsick at the news.

Throughout Thursday afternoon as the news of the shows' demise spread long time viewers expressed similar views all over the blogosphere. Catherine Hickland, a former OLTL cast member and the ex-wife of Michael Knight, who has played AMC's Tad Martin for decades, took to Facebook to support a movement to get Oprah to take on the shows on OWN which isn't a bad idea if you think about it.

I know all about the declining audience for soaps. It's been written about since the mother of all reality shows, the OJ Simpson trial, dealt what turned out to be the first critical blow to the genre. Deprived of their afternoon soaps, the audience got its first taste of reality television and never came back in full measure to the scripted daytime variety once the trial ended.

I also know that while the audience is small, but it is among the most loyal in all of television. Almost half the people I know have watched one soap or another since they were kids and continue to watch thanks to the advent of the DVR. I have been watching soaps for four decades. (Okay, do the math. Yes, I'm that old)It started when I'd run home from school to catch the last fifteen minutes of OLTL before Dark Shadows. I came to know the residents of Llanview by accident while I waited to be transported back in time with Barnabas Collins, his werewolf cousin Quentin and the ultimate damsel in distress, Maggie Evans.

As someone who grew up watching the iconic television of the sixties, seventies and eighties and went on to make a living writing about television, there have always been particular shows -- mainly soaps -- that I associate with the benchmarks of my life. When I was in college, my entire sorority crammed into our tiny TV room to watch General Hospital every afternoon at 3. No one, absolutely no one, went to class the week of Luke and Laura's wedding. Come to think of it, I don't think there was anyone on campus the Friday afternoon the wedding episode aired.

I was in college when, during school breaks, my mother and I had a Thursday night ritual of watching Knots Landing. We did that for the 13 years the show was in the air. When I first started working, I wouldn't go out on a Friday night until Dallas was over.

All those shows came and went during very specific periods of my life. Only one show -- All My Children -- has endured.

I started watching shortly after the show premiered in 1970. In the summer, I would leave my friends at the pool to come home and watch the racy show that dealt with abortion, the Vietnam War, a mother and daughter vying for the same guy. Years later, when VCRs came along, I loved nothing more than coming home at the end of a work week and watching a marathon of episodes.

The show took on a special meaning to me in the nineties when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and we'd watch it together as she lay in bed doing her best to keep the conversation firmly focused on Erica and her latest romance.It was during that time that my mother encouraged me to leave the corporate world I hated and pursue my dream of becoming a entertainment writer. After she died, I spent many an afternoon planted in front of the television. As it turned out AMC's Erica Kane lost her beloved mom, Mona, around the same time my mother died. I don't think I've ever cried harder watching a television episode. (Okay, maybe during Lost's series finale but you get the idea)

I got so involved in AMC I began picking up the magazines that covered daytime television. That's when I got the idea of writing for soap magazines. I got my start writing about celebrities for Soap Opera Weekly and Soap Opera Magazine and AMC was my beat. The first 'big star' I interviewed was Marcy Walker, who was then playing Liza Colby. I was so nervous I left my tape recorder behind. Walker was gracious enough to chase me down in the street to return it to me. Another time, I was interviewing Jennifer Bassey, who was then played her Liza's mother, and she sensed I was feeling very bad that day. When I told her about my mother's death, she was exceedingly kind and put me in touch with an organization that was very helpful to me at a time when I really needed it.

Years later, both women along with David Canary (one of daytime's finest actors), Catherine Hickland and Grant Aleksander all said 'yes' when I asked them to act as celebrity judges for a fundraiser for an animal rescue organization I was working with. I have countless stories like that about many of the actors I came to meet and know in the years that I covered soaps. I can honestly say they are among the hardest working and most genuine people in all of the entertainment industry.

As characters on AMC they are also something else that is increasingly rare in the world today: a comforting presence that connects the unsteady present to a time when we knew what to expect. The breakneck speed of change that we are experiencing in our everyday lives is, to say the least, unsettling. There is little we can count on to be the same as it was last week, let alone last year. I know the 'cool' thing is to embrace change. We've had little choice in the matter. Well, I don't know about you, but I like having at least a few things stay the same while everyone around me tries to tell me I have to accept the new social order of things. I liked turning on the television and knowing that the residents of Pine Valley were still going to be there no matter what.

Today's news is really the beginning of the end of a chapter in television which is really a tremendous loss. For millions of fans like me. For the actors, AFTRA members, union crew members and production staffs of the shows as well as those journalists who have hung on covering the soap beat. It won't be long before the remaining magazines devoted to the genre disappear as well.

It's been reported that AMC will be replaced by the unfortunately titled 'lifestyle' show, The Chew. When OLTL signs off, The Revolution will fill its time slot. This decision was no doubt made in part because executives have seen the runaway success The View has become. ABC Daytime president Brian Frons said as much in the official statement posted on the network's website.

The handwriting is not only on the wall, it's on the billboards in Times Square. Reality and talk shows are the future. My only question is: if everyone is talking at the same time, is there anyone left who wants to listen?

Goodbye, Erica Kane and all the residents of Pine Valley. I, for one, will really miss you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never watched any soap opera, but in the '70's my brother (!) starting watching All My Children. Years later, when we were both home from college, he and my aunt started talking about a group of people they seemed to know whom I didn't know. I sat confused for a few minutes, wondering who these "mystery friends" could possibly be. Then it hit me -- they were talking about the characters on All My Children! That's how real the characters are to true devotees!

April 16, 2011 at 12:18 AM  
Anonymous Lesley said...

Interesting & insightful. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece. I have not watched these shows in years but they hold a special place in my heart.

April 20, 2011 at 12:19 AM  

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