Can a Once-Mass TV Show Remake Itself as a Niche Hit? All My Children Aims to Try.

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July 29 2013 10:30 AM

Soap Springs Eternal

All My Children, One Life to Live, and the sweetly human act of caring about fictional characters.

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Trim, energetic, bespectacled Thom Racina has sold more than a million copies of various crime novels, helped marry Luke and Laura, and now works all week overseeing OLTL—and then spends the weekend banging out six to seven outlines for future weeks’ episodes. Ginger Smith, in charge of AMC, was a beloved producer of that show for 25 years and jokes that she has lately been sleeping on her office couch. “This is General Motors,” Racina said, not a little proudly. “We’re on an assembly line.” Now that they are free from a network schedule and releasing just two new episodes a week, wouldn’t he like to have more time? “It’s hard to say, because we never do and never have,” he said. “And I only know how to work under pressure.”

In their storytelling, AMC and OLTL are not trying to radically reinvent the soap-opera status quo either. Smith, who thinks that on ABC AMC hurt itself by “stalling stories,” promised that ”there will be a lot more action and activity, less exposition.” But as someone who is, if anything, overly familiar with OLTL and AMC—I once made this chart—the difference between the pacing of the network version and the Web series has so far been negligible. A recent episode of OLTL contained a perversely long sex scene followed by an almost-as-long chunk of exposition between the lovers about what had happened to their infant son, who had both been born and died while his father was presumed dead. The stories that did move faster—one abut a diva-turned-senator embroiled in a scandal having to do with U.S. black sites that she was using as an excuse to feud with her long-term arch-nemesis (the town’s other, more ethical diva)—were hard to follow.

The outlandishness of soap operas, of course, is one of the things that makes them so risible to people who don’t watch them but so beloved to the people who do. “It’s vicarious lives, it’s the family you never had, the drama you never had,” Racina said. Sitting in a dressing room in a sequined gown waiting to get called to set, Cady McClain, who has played Dixie on AMC on and off since 1988 (she’s “died” many times over) added, “We hear a lot of bad news. Maybe our own community or country isn’t what we hoped it would be. Soap operas, as silly as they might seem, still maintain a sense of hope and idealism. And,” she added, “it’s fun to watch beautiful people who have a worse life than you.”

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For much of my visit, I kept hoping that someone would make an impassioned argument about why the daytime soap opera—this kooky, mocked, disappearing format—was still relevant and should live in perpetuity. Wasn’t there something more substantial than two guys feeling like there was still money to be made? Something more than that these shows have long been made in this way and ought to continue? Something more than that all the people who worked on these escapist, fun series needed a job and liked one another so much they thought, Why not?

But the more people I spoke to, the more unfair that expectation seemed. Why should folks who have dedicated their lives to making soap operas have profound doubts about soap operas? AMC and OLTL made 2 million people happy, including the cast, and that’s not nothing. “It’s a project of love and longtime friendship,” said Julia Barr, who has played Brooke English on AMC since 1976. “A lot of us have known each other for 30 years.” If the producers and cast were perhaps a bit overly optimistic about the show’s future—weeks after AMC and OLTL premiered, they dropped from four episodes a week to two; after debuting at the top of the Hulu and iTunes charts, they remain popular on Hulu, where you can watch them for free, but aren’t even in the iTunes top 200—the future was still brighter than it had been.

But sitting and watching the actors film—these heavily made-up hunks and babes in their tuxedos and prom dresses, the whole thing jarringly fake—I realized that I wanted to hear that impassioned defense because I was rooting for these shows to succeed. I find the idea of soap operas, TV in one of its simplest forms, extraordinarily touching, even if the actuality of them is totally wanting. Soap operas require a huge suspension of disbelief from their audience—and they don’t make that easy. They don’t feel real or look real. Dead people come back to life, paternity tests are always tampered with, characters age suddenly and can even be summarily replaced. This isn’t storytelling at its best, but it is storytelling at its purest: It’s just plot and character and fandom, sans grace notes. If you can get invested, there’s no intellectual framework or gorgeous set design or historical relevance or fiercely realized performance to obscure what you are doing: engaging in the slightly magical, sweetly human, maybe silly act of caring about people you know intimately, even though they don’t really exist.

TV has gotten more sophisticated since daytime was popular, and we have gotten more sophisticated in our viewing habits, but deep concern for fictitious human beings is still a major part of the TV-watching experience. This is another thing that soap operas bequeathed us: intimate, long-term relationships with make-believe people. We may mock the soap-opera watcher for her bad taste, but we and our good taste spend an awful lot of time dissecting the psychology of Omar Little, imagining Carrie Mathison’s future, obsessing about Don Draper’s past. Soap operas remind me that I’m lucky TV has gotten better—not because I wouldn’t have watched and cared if it were bad, but because I would have watched and cared anyway. Lesser stories are still stories. In the heart of most snobs is also someone who just wants to know what happens next. I wish AMC and OLTL luck on their space flight.