My history with soaps began back in the days when they were a half hour in black and white. There were only three channels on my TV and there was a pretty good chance that whatever you were watching was the same thing almost everybody else was watching. Some TV shows became a part of our collective consciousness, like watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.
My earliest memory of watching soap operas was during my preschool years when my mother turned on As the World Turns during lunch every day. We were watching that day in November when Nancy Hughes was interrupted by Walter Cronkite telling us that the president has been shot in Dallas. I lived in Dallas. I could climb up on the swingset in my backyard and see the skyscrapers downtown where it had just happened. I watched my mother cry and wonder why anyone would want to do that to that nice man I’d seen on TV. For the next three days the only thing that we saw on TV - all three channels – was news of the assassination.
It was something we faced together as we all watched it unfold.
Years later I only watched soaps during the summer or those few special days I’d stay home from school with a cold or stomach ache. And it was like coming home again. Lisa was still there, Nancy was still serving tea or washing dishes, and there was Dr. Bob, at the hospital. All was right with the world. Then one summer I started watching All My Children with my sister (who I suspect had a crush on Phil Brent). After that I tuned in to see that Erica was still getting herself in trouble and Grandma Kate was still baking cookies and Dr. Joe was still running Pine Valley Hospital. Now and then I’d take a peek at the Young and the Restless or Days of Our Lives or the Doctors for a few weeks but the one I stuck with was All My Children. One Life to Live came later.
Fast forward a decade or two. I’d been stuck at home with a bad sinus infection for weeks, feeling very isolated from the rest of the world. I got on the internet and looked up some information about my soap, the current storylines, and my two favorite actors. I found a message board for Bianca & Maggie, the characters played by Eden Riegel and Elizabeth Hendrickson. I discovered that many of the members of this online community were lesbians, hoping that the show would make the two best friends a couple. As the wife of a Baptist minister I was an odd fit for a group like that. I was sure many of these women had been hurt and judged by church people before and I wasn’t sure how I would be received. What I found was a wonderfully diverse and accepting group and many have become great friends of mine in “real life” as I’ve attended special events with them and some have stopped by my town for visits when on vacation. We’ve been there for each other during the ups and downs of our favorite storylines and through very real job losses and tragedies. When my mother died these friends helped me cope, popping up online to ask me how I was doing or to give me a laugh or a virtual hug when I needed it most.
When some of my BAM friends told me that I should be watching Guiding Light, I listened and I’m glad I did. They told me about an old fashioned love story, the slow-building kind soaps had forgotten how to tell. They told me the acting was wonderfully subtle, not over-the-top the way too many soaps had become. And they told me one of the actresses involved was Crystal Chappell who had been a favorite of mine when she played Maggie Carpenter on One Life To Live.
So I watched Guiding Light one day back in February. Did I mention the romance that was slowly building involved two women? That didn’t matter to me. Love is love and these two were magic together on screen. The style of the show was very different from other soaps I’d watched. They used handheld cameras and small sets, making me feel like I was right in the room with the characters. The actors were so compelling I forgot they were acting and I wanted to tune in tomorrow to see what happened to them next.
And isn’t that what a soap opera is supposed to do?
I joined the Big Purple Dreams message board for "Otalia" and plunged headlong into another online community along with many of my BAM friends and few thousand others from all over the world. I even wrote postcards and letters and made t-shirts and buttons to try to save Guiding Light from cancellation or find it a new home on another network. I thought it ironic when I found out that my grandmother, also the wife of a Baptist minister, used to listen to Guiding Light on the radio.
Today no actors will be going to work at Guiding Light because the last scenes were taped yesterday. Some of them have been on Twitter staying in touch with the fans, letting us share in their experiences as this American institution comes to a close. It has been a difficult, emotional journey for all who are associated with the show, many of whom have given it their all for decades. I am grateful to them, more than I can say, for opening their hearts to us and letting us share in that journey with them.
There are those who say the soap genre is dying and they may be right. The world is changing and there may not be a place for soap operas anymore. All My Children is headed for LA but when I tune in next year, will Erica still be there? Will anybody?
So many things have changed during the 45+ years that I’ve been watching soap operas. But as I’ve watched the many ups and downs of my favorite characters I see that some things never change.
We can still learn from our mistakes and try to do better.
We can forgive and find healing when hearts are broken. And we must learn to do this because…
We still need each other…
…to laugh together
…to cry together
…to hope together
…to make a better future for all our children.
Maybe it’s not just a soap opera after all.