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Critic’s Notebook
Young, Restless and Glued to Soaps
Published: April 15, 2011
My first, most vivid television memory is of watching the Watergate hearings in 1973 at my rapt mother’s side. My second involves exposure to villainy of another kind — that of Billy Clyde Tuggle, the sort of pimp who drugged his employee base on “All My Children.” For these encounters with Tuggle, my mother was absent. She was then, and remains now, in her late 80s, a largely “news only, no sap, thank you” participant in the experience of American television. She reserved (and reserves) her greatest disdain for soap opera “drivel” and, inevitably perhaps, my addiction to daytime television became my most impassioned act of adolescent subversion.
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Heidi Gutman/ABC
David Canary and Susan Lucci in the ABC soap “All My Children,” which is to end in September.
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Ruth Warrick and Louis Edmonds in an “All My Children” episode first shown in 1979.
By daytime television, I do not mean “The Young and the Restless” on CBS, or anything else that was shown on a rival of ABC’s. For decades, each weekday, ABC has broadcast the sine qua non soap trilogy of “All My Children,” at 1 p.m. Eastern time, followed by “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital.” On Thursday the network announced that in September, “All My Children” would end its run after 41 years, and that “One Life to Live” would conclude in January.
Soap operas are fading for all the reasons that hardly need to be rehashed — the audience for them has been declining since the broadcast of the O. J. Simpson trial in the ‘90s and perhaps even before. I have not watched “All My Children” or “One Life to Live” since the early ‘80s, but both series constituted the near entirety of my television habit when I was a girl. My mother would have loved it had I joined her for Friday night viewings of “Wall Street Week” with Louis Rukeyser — because you are never too young to know the formula for market capitalization — but I preferred my money talk dramatized in the feuds among the wealthy, roughed-up and aspiring that supply so many of daytime television’s wondrous absurdities.
My enabler in soap opera viewing was my grandmother — my mother’s mother — a Sicilian immigrant and an unlikely mischief maker, whose devotion to what she and legions of other women invariably called “my stories” was belied by a seriousness in nearly all other things.
An eager assimilator, she spoke impeccable English with no vestiges of accent. In the fictitious Northeastern suburbs of Pine Valley on “All My Children” and neighboring Llanview of “One Life to Live,” she saw an America in which ingenuity prospered and aristocracy was so often ridiculed. Ruth Warrick​’s memorable Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on “All My Children” was a high-society meddler who commended herself for belonging to the “Daughters of Fine Lineage.” Erica Kane, so famously played by Susan Lucci on the series, survived rough beginnings, rape, addiction​, disfigurement and 10 marriages to become a businesswoman who semi-regularly received counsel from Warren E. Buffett.
I liked Pine Valley and Llanview — the leafy (no matter how artificially so) look and feel of the places. In the anti-urbanist spirit of the ‘70s, they were portrayed as unambiguously desirable places to live. The real estate was good, and all you really had to worry about was that some nutcase in a maternity ward might do a little baby switching. In my memory, it was violent Center City, near Pine Valley, that stood as the true nexus of evil.
As a child growing up in the ‘70s in the suburbs (in this case on Long Island), you got the sense that things probably weren’t as they seemed — that wives weren’t as happy as they pretended to be; that husbands on extended-stay business trips possibly were not merely concentrating on sales; that mothers who spent long, sequential days in bed might have been allergic to something other than pollen. If soap operas weren’t exactly telling it like it was, they were at least confirming for a young girl’s subconscious that her amorphous suspicions and vague feeling of unease held a perceptive truth. I didn’t need to wait for “The Ice Storm” to know the score.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition.
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