Last year, the major networks shuttered their daytime soap operas. No more stolen babies, no more evil twins, no more iconic love stories between women and the men who once — like, a really long time ago when a whole different writing staff was in charge — raped them (yep, look it up). Despite their problematic stereotyping, absurdly contorted storylines, and frequent displays of amateur acting, I miss those daily hour-long escapes to Pine Valley and Llanview, where the drama was completely predictable and utterly engrossing. Soaps predated reality TV in their associations with cheap, empty-calorie, lowbrow entertainment. But as reality TV fans can surely attest, there’s a fabulous frivolity to the daytime story, a deliciousness in the tawdry soft-core sex scenes bathed in enough diffuse light to power a Barbara Walters clone farm, and a comfort in the constantly rehashed, recycled storytelling. I began watching soap operas with my mom when I was a little girl. I knew even then that the torrid love affairs and dynastic greed were totally inappropriate for my age, but I looked forward to our afternoons curled up on the couch together, talking over the dialogue to guess which plot twist the heavy-handed foreshadowing pointed to next or to revel in the epic on-again off-again romances of Luke and Laura, Nico and Cecily, and Tad and Dixie.
The soaps and many of their principal actors followed Mom and I from Atlanta to Tampa after my parents’ divorce. During the school year, I’d be home by 3pm so Mom and I could watch General Hospital together. I remember coming home one day and rushing to the living room to catch the unfolding saga of Bobbie and Tony Jones’s daughter, BJ, who was in a tragic school bus accident and pronounced brain dead, but whose healthy heart could now be transplanted into the ailing body of her sister, Maxie. Mom and I wept as we watched Tony hovering over Maxie’s chest, listening to the heartbeat of his dead daughter in the body of his now healing daughter (seriously). The scene plucked at some unrealized ache in both of us, a glimpse into the void of a parent without a child, a child without a parent. Of one of us without the other.
But the soaps and I go back even further. As the story goes, when my mom was eight months pregnant with me, she was watching All My Children, following the machinations of the grand dame of daytime TV, Erica Kane. My mom pondered the persona of Erica Kane and decided that she wanted her daughter to be tough, to make her own way in life, and “to be a bit of a bitch.” With this spark of (perhaps misguided) feminist empowerment, Mom made Erica Kane my namesake. Though Erica Kane’s “bitch” never really took root in me (try as I might), it did articulate Mom’s grasp of what it meant to be a successful, independent woman. As evidenced by her nine marriages, men were both necessary and ancillary to Erica Kane’s success. They were footholds in the mountains she climbed, but it was her strength and ambition (and over-the-lipline lipstick application) that got her to the top. Mom had no designs on beauty industry domination; all she wanted was a patch of happiness, a home and a life that she could be proud of. But on some fundamental level, she could not conceive of attaining that without a man as her stepping-stone. Lipsticked, bejeweled, and manipulative as they were, women like Erica Kane did offer an image of female empowerment, a glamorous diversion that surely helped many a bored housewife survive the tedium of rote domestic chores, fostering daydreams of international espionage, big hair, and a smoldering passion for . . . anything.
Luckily, there were other, more fruitful moral tales to be learned from the daytime serial:
1. When someone dies but the body is not recovered, that person will be back with a new identity and a score to settle.
2. If a murder is committed as a result of self-defense, don’t lie about it. This will only lead to an agonizingly drawn-out blackmail plotline when your nemesis learns of your crime, only to be resolved when said nemesis dies in a) a motorcycle accident, b) a natural disaster, or c) a shootout on a bridge wherein a body is never recovered (see number 1).
3. Relationships are complicated. Especially when you’re drugged and taken advantage of and then lie about it to your significant other, to whom you vowed on your wedding day, dressed in a sarong in a Hawaiian cave, to never withhold secrets from.
4. Villains can always be reformed, but the good don’t go bad — they go bat-shit crazy.
5. As a general rule, there’s a 75 percent likelihood that you have a twin but don’t know about it and that said twin will appear one day really pissed that you got everything he/she didn’t, and then he/she will dump your ass in a well and assume your identity.
6. The truth will set you free, so stop trying to cover up your black-market baby.
Sadly, number 4 proved true for my mom, too. Bad guys were always evolving into good guys on the soaps (see above re: the rapists-turned-lovers plotline). For the writers spinning yarns for the same popular characters year after year, this seemed a natural progression. By complicating the villains, trading in their black hats for gray ones, the producers got more bang for their actor bucks. Sometimes popular good guys went bad, but only by way of losing their minds. Their goodness was constantly putting them in peril, and you can only be dropped down a well, suffer amnesia, or be thought dead so many times before losing your grip. Mom was undeniably one of the good ones who suffered too much for one lifetime. Perhaps retreating inward was the only way to go.
So silly and apparently unprofitable (despite scores of awkward product placements) though they were, I miss the soaps and the life lessons they taught me. I miss characters with names that should be reserved for pets or rock formations, like Lucky and Ridge and Jagger. I miss the strange familiarity of turning on the TV years after watching these shows and seeing the same people looking slightly older, like aunts and uncles who visit every few years. I miss the writers’ random forays into paranormal plotlines and demon exorcism. Mostly, I miss the passing of another relic of my innocence and the person I shared it with, the person who knew all my misadventures, indiscretions, and affairs. The one person who knew all my stories.