So it's happened.
I'd been hearing the rumblings for nearly a year - we all had. Then louder rumblings this last month. So it's ironic that when the news finally came, I was away from my computer - working out or taking a shower or making a sandwich, the three things I do when I take my midmorning break. I wasn't there when the first tweet hit, or the second, or the third. By the time I got back to my computer, my entire feed was filled with the news that we'd all been bracing ourselves for.
One Life to Live and All My Children, two of the six remaining soaps, were gone.
I can't say I feel this impact like a long term viewer of these shows would. I haven't been there for every moment of life in Llanview for the last twenty or thirty or forty years. I haven't lived through all of Erica Kane's many marriages, or been around when Viki was Niki. I came back to One Life to Live last year, ever so slightly unwillingly (though they have me hooked now, the bastards), and haven't truly committed to watching an episode of All My Children since Jenny died.
But this still hurts.
It hurts because for me, the death of a soap is the death of so much more than a TV show. It's the death of a legacy of characters and a tapestry of relationships that, in many instances, has been building over decades. It's the loss of connections that reach deeply into people's lives, that can sometimes be as real - sometimes more real - than the relationships they have with the "real" people in their lives. Friends come and go, family moves on, but soaps stay. Or at least they're supposed to.
I must admit I come at this from a very biased perspective. I'm a soap kid, which means I grew up watching daytime dramas on sick days and snow days and during summer vacation. My babysitters got me started at around age nine - I was there (at, I will admit, far too young an age) for Luke and Laura on the island and Nikkos Cassadine wanting to freeze the world. You say baby switch? I think Karen and Marco switching Jenny and Katrina's babies, a storyline that took nearly three years to fully play out. I missed Luke and Laura's wedding, but only because I couldn't figure out how to get my mother to let me stay home sick from school on a field trip day. I stayed home from school sick a lot - I had horrible allergies that weren't helped by having a smoker in the house, and all you had to do was look at me wrong to have some sort of respiratory infection crop up. But I knew how to work the system too, and oh did I work it. Imagine my frustration when Kayla was in a coma (the first Kayla, thank you very much) and I managed to finagle a sick day and then she WASN'T ON! When Greg and Jenny's wedding happened, my mom conceded the inevitable and just let me stay home. Over the course of those early soap watching years, I spent time with All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, Loving, Search for Tomorrow, and The Doctors. To this day, I see Alec Baldwin and the first thing I think is "Billy Aldrich." I remember when David Hasselhoff was Soap Opera Digest's favorite cover boy, and when As the World Turns was the place where movie stars got their start. I remember...so much.
New babysitters, new soaps. By high school, I was an NBC kid. Days was my soap of choice - remember when everyone thought Marlena had been killed by the Salem Strangler, or when Stefano was actually evil? I do. I remember Bo Brady's first day in town, and the two Romans, and Kimberly and Shane...good Lord, Kimberly and Shane. When I was a freshman in high school, this new show called Santa Barbara debuted. It was pretty awful for its first six months or so - most soaps are, because you have to build the train before it can go anywhere - but a few months in it kicked into high gear and never looked back. The show's epic mix of comedy and drama was something I'd never experienced - I'd never seen a show that could make me laugh uproariously one minute and cry like a baby the next. It had the most diverse, complex group of characters: Gina, Keith, Julia, Augusta, and all those crazy Capwells - CC, Sophia, Mason, Kelly. And Cruz and Eden - God, Cruz and Eden. You want to know why I'm addicted to high octane epic romance? Look no further than those two, because they were a Supercouple with a capital S. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of that show, of those characters, of what it felt like to get to spend an hour a day with those amazing actors and that great genius Patrick Mulcahey's words. This? This was my family, the one that helped me forget about all my petty high school dramas and some not so petty home life dramas. This show, more than any other, was my safe place.
And right around the time I graduated from college, it got taken away.
I stuck with soaps for a few more years, primarily because I'd gone and fallen ass over teakettle in love with Days' newest version of the feisty heroine, Carly Manning. When she split Salem, so did I, and for a while, I flirted with but never committed to other soaps. I checked in with Another World, the soap I loved but never truly watched, and I gave Guiding Light a try when Marcy Walker showed up in Springfield. But I never quite let myself get sucked back in - and let's face it, sucked in is the process by which one commits five hours a week to a show - until a friend of mine smacked me upside the head and said "you have to be paying attention to Guiding Light and the Otalia story." A lot of life had happened in the meantime - getting a job and building a career, coming out, falling in love, moving cross country. I spent a lot of those non-soap years excising toxic waste worthy of a soap opera heroine out of my brain, and more time helping raise two beautiful girls. Then one day those girls were gone, and so was their mom, and I was building a new life in a new place on my own - and there was my story, or something close enough to it that I could find some healing in it, up on the screen.
But watching Guiding Light, even though it was close to the end, wasn't just about one pairing, spectacular though it might have been. It became, once again, about feeling part of a community, one that I deeply regret not finding sooner. The Internet certainly helps - for the first time I wasn't watching a soap in virtual isolation, but was able to share it with friends. But I was also able to share my life with those characters - to see in their stories reflections of my own, to have the comfort and security of familiar faces in my home every single day. Through that same Internet, I was able to meet several members of the cast, to begin to know them on some level as real people, to forge actual relationships and move forward with them into their new ventures. The family that was up on that screen, even when it was gone, continued to be a family and became, in the process, my family in some very real way. Even the most loner of us - and those who know me know I am one heck of a loner - need a community. And here was mine, up on that screen and on my Twitter feed and sometimes even in my actual presence, embracing me as one of their own despite how late I'd showed up to the party.
In the end, I think that's what soaps are about, and why those of us who love them feel their loss so keenly. Soaps are about community - about people living their lives in concert with others, in harmony or conflict, but as a group. Creating them is a communal experience, and so is watching them. At the risk of going all English major on you, the notion of the ongoing story has an incredibly important role from a cultural perspective. In ancient times it was the storyteller at the campfire, telling tales about the gods. The Illiad and the Odyssey are oral tradition codified, and so is the Bible. In the Middle Ages the troubadors went from court to court, embellishing on the stories of King Arthur or the chronicles of Charlemagne. Charles Dickens cut his teeth writing serials in periodicals, and so did scores of other writers whose books now make up the curriculum of the average college lit class. How many of us remember hearing stories about our parents or grandparents (or great-grandparents) going to see the Saturday morning serials or listening to the continuing adventures of the Lone Ranger? How many of our moms couldn't wait to find out what would happen next on Peyton Place or Dark Shadows? And how many of us spent six years trying to figure out just what the hell was up on that damn Lost island or are twitching at the notion of no new season of Mad Men until 2012?
The connections we make to ongoing stories is similar, I think, to the sort of connections we make with long-term friends. We grow with those characters, their adventures becoming, in some strange way, part of the fabric of our own lives. Life may cause us to drift away from "real" friends, but these fictional friends stay with us, and those we choose become reflections on who we are and the choices we make. I see reflections of Olivia and Natalia's journey in my own experience, and I know that one of the reasons my last family visit was less stressful than those that have come before is because Venice season two forced me to revisit some of my own daddy issues in a very real way. And I still, to this day, thank God for Carly Manning getting me through those post-college years when I was stuck living at home with no money and nothing but a series of dead end jobs - because let's face it, as long as you're not buried alive, you're doing okay.
The lovely side benefit of all those years of soap watching as a pre-teen and teenager was, for those who know me, my obsessive love of long form storytelling, not just as a viewer, but as a writer. Anyone who reads my writing can see the influence pretty quick - there's a reason I've recently been dubbed Count Rugen, and it's not because of my looks. (God, I hope it's not because of my looks.) Joss Whedon should get his due credit as well, but then anyone who's seen Buffy in full knows that Joss would be right at home in a soap opera writers room; he has the same flair for using plot to build character and dropping in unexpected but entirely logical twists as the greatest of soap writers. You want to know why I torture my characters? Because I love them. Soap operas taught me that, and they also taught me that in the end, everything has a purpose, everything is just another layer to build on, and the story is never truly done. If life had gone differently, I'd have been a soap writer, and in some ways I like to think that I am. And who knows, maybe someday I will be, though not, I suspect, in the traditional formats because as today's news showed, those outlets are only going to continue to dwindle.
And so we come back to today, and the end of two more legacy soaps. I feel the loss of these shows so keenly, especially in the wake of Guiding Light's departure two years ago. I don't want to go through that again, to see another show I love closing off its threads and setting up happily ever afters come too soon. But I'll be there for One Life to Live, because it's only fitting that I should be there at the end for the first show I ever watched. And even though I don't watch it regularly, I'll probably be keeping an eye on All My Children's final months. Erica Kane would expect no less.
I don't think this art form will die - I refuse to think it can. We need these legacy stories, and where these end, others will rise up. The format might be the web, or it might be on different TV networks, or it might even be in serialized novels. (Not that I know anyone who's planning on embarking on that last venture. Really.) But whatever format, long term legacy storytelling will continue. It won't be the same - Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was a 40 year old soap - but it will continue.
If we love the art form, we'll find a way.