What Makes Soap Operas Worth Saving?

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Over at Slate, TV critic Willa Paskin went on an odyssey to Stamford, CT, to see how the Hulu versions of All My Children and One Life to Live are faring. It’s an interesting piece to be read on its own, for the reporting in it, but what intrigued me most about it was Paskin’s central question: “Why? Why save the soap opera?” She hints at one reason: because they are cheap to produce and yet still have incredibly dedicated followings that dwarf those of the prestige cable shows. And she flat-out offers another: because they are, she says, in spite of their ridiculous devil-possession plotlines and impromptu resurrections, “the purest form of storytelling.” People are simply following the “intimate” stories of other people, plausibility be damned.

I don’t disagree. I just want to add to her reasons.

1. Moms, or at least, my mom. In my mother’s household — and to be perfectly frank, my dad’s too — the “why” is obvious. Over some 30-odd years, I don’t think she has ever missed an episode of The Young and the Restless. It was a crime bordering on treason to accidentally interrupt the VCR recording. (NB: I am really old.) I have a significant concern that if Y&R were just to quit existing, my mother would lose her bearings in life. Plus: it’s adorable how easily I can get caught up, years on, when I catch a glimpse of her watching it.

2. The eradication of the soap opera would hardly bring an end to bad acting, implausible plotlines, and low production values on television. Have you seen Under the Dome lately? It’s garnering a large audience, of course, but the acting is so terrible it’s hardly watchable. Homeland has good acting but its second season didn’t make a lick of sense; ditto Scandal. Most of the reality television shows out there, in terms of artifice and craptacular look, dwarf their remaining daytime counterparts. Sure, daytime may have a monopoly on the way it blends those things together. It may have a distinct style. But in the event of the rapture, if it’s Genoa City or the Kardashians, I know where my loyalties lie.

3. American culture could benefit from the soap opera’s Zen, relaxingly unapologetic attitude. There is no anxiety of status on a soap opera. A soap opera just is. An episode lives for a moment and then disappears. A soap opera, in other words, is eternally present. Would that we could all achieve the same level of mindfulness and equanimity about the state of the world.

4. The sheer innocence of the soap opera. Do not get me wrong: many terrible, awful, no good, very bad things happen on soap operas. There’s the aforementioned brushes with Satan and the rapes and the maybe marrying your rapist ten years on down the line and on and on. But, upside: people still get married on them! They still believe in monogamy, and eternal love! There’s almost no sex onscreen and not a single man on these shows appears to have ever watched a porn video. It’s touching. They’re a monument to… something eternal about American culture, something which currently appears to live on only in certain milquetoast pockets of the country. I think it might be, all apologies to the president, hope.

5. The soaps are responsible for nurturing the career of Amber Tamblyn. Let me put it to you this way: would you want to leave all those fantastically sardonic actresses continue to live undiscovered? I didn’t think so.