When news leaked early this month that "Guiding Light" would be killed off like an actor with overzealous salary demands, I was confused. Not because I believe we'd be a lesser culture without its daily delivery of froth, nor because I feared that the show's frosty-maned mainstays would be unable to find voice-over work following its September farewell.
No, I was confused because I thought soap operas had long since gone the way of the Caspian tiger. I thought they had ceded the afternoon hours years ago to sassy jurists, horsemen of the hypochondria apocalypse, and shiny-faced dolls waxing philosophic about Octomoms and the Nanodads who love them. Since I "work" during the day, this didn't seem an especially vexing turn of events.
As it turns out, soaps are alive and sorta well, with eight of them on the network schedule every day. I know this because, owing to my curiosity about the demise of a 72-year-old pop-culture institution like "Guiding Light," I watched three days' worth of "All My Children." No, really, I did.
I chose "All My Children" because I'd heard of it. As a fellow whose idea of entertainment doesn't extend beyond grown men throwing, punting or otherwise thwacking spherical projectiles, I've long shunned serialized escapades. To me, any show that demands a 10-hour-per-week commitment, as "AMC" does, is one that interferes with, you know, living.
Nonetheless, I found myself pleasantly surprised. "All My Children" is not clever, cute or creative. It does not veer from generic plotlines about greed and treachery, nor does it break new ground in the depiction of anguish-induced amnesia. But it is pretty darn addictive, especially when sampled with a post-lunch jigger of prescription cough medicine.
A formula that works
As with any soap, you know the general drill: an incestuous bunch of rich people with rich-people names like Opal Cortlandt and Skye Chandler Quartermaine go about their daily rich-person business, which involves dropping in on one another for conversations about love and love lost that last 90 seconds or less. They bicker and they wrangle and they scheme. Occasionally, they cry.
Somehow, this dotty formula translates into diverting TV, and I have a theory why. When watching the best of what TV has to offer -- in precise historical order, "The Wire," "The Larry Sanders Show" and seasons three through eight of "The Simpsons" -- I often think, "This is a feat of imagination far beyond anything I could conceive creating on my own." During my "All My Children" test drive, on the other hand, I thought to myself, "I can do this." Like so:Erica: Your children need to know about the mysterious illness that threatens to TEAR US APART.
Adam: Yes, they do.
Erica: They totally do.
Adam: Yes. Totally.
Erica: You should tell them.
Adam: I should. I shall.
Erica: (Narrows eyes and purses lips, as if contemplating the purchase of a sandwich)
Adam: But what about the family business that's long been the business of my family?
Erica: You just leave that to me.
That has to be a big part of the appeal of "All My Children" -- that it's simultaneously so accessible, extravagant, outrageously plotted and colossally stupid. It puts the "pop" in "escapist poppycock." There may be 376,264,646 better ways to pass a sunny afternoon, but none offer quite so much gauzy bliss in exchange for so little effort, intellectual and otherwise.
So what distinguishes "All My Children" from its soapy brethren? Two things: First, it comes across as positively Victorian when compared with its daytime peers, much less nighttime dramas like "Desperate Housewives." The bodice-ripping is kept to a minimum, and viewers are treated to nary a sliver of exposed man-chest. This is a savvy decision: Fans tune in for the hissing and plot U-turns, not the half-assed titillation.
Also, the acting transcends what we've been conditioned to expect from the genre. Don't get me wrong -- "All My Children" still includes many a mawkish line about "lessons in pain" and "tak[ing] back the hurt." But the cast delivers them gamely, less with a knowing wink than with something approaching earnestness.
Meanwhile, I can't believe that Bianca has left the door open for Reese to be a part of her life again. Doesn't she know that Reese is just going to hurt her, just like she did the last time she opened up her heart? Wise up, girlfriend.
I think it'd be a shame if "All My Children" went away. At a time when only a handful of mass-market programs engender something vaguely resembling loyalty, "AMC" has legions of every-day fans. The show can't be too expensive to produce. It's as sure a bet as anything on the air, whether or not it qualifies as great art (it doesn't).
All in all, there are worse things with which your nanny can rot away your kid's brain when she's supposed to be screening "Baby Einstein" DVDs. "All My Children," may you live to see another 1,000 lust-fueled betrayals.