Soap Springs Eternal

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

Debbi Morgan and Thorsten Kaye in a recent episode of All My Children.
Debbi Morgan and Thorsten Kaye in a recent episode of All My Children

Photo by David M. Russell/The OnLine Network

Thorsten Kaye is a soap-opera actor who looks like a soap-opera actor: bedroom eyes, dimpled chin, brown hair long enough to tuck behind his ears, the shoulders of a linebacker. He was sitting with me in the bustling Stamford, Conn., offices from which the longtime ABC soaps All My Children and One Life to Live are attempting to resurrect themselves as Web series and setting me straight about the daytime soap-opera business model. Soap operas are in the midst of a mass extinction event, one that has seen the five series canceled in as many years, leaving just four on the air. In 2011, ABC announced the end of AMC and OLTL, which had both been broadcast for more than 40 years but were regularly attracting between 2 million and 3 million viewers—about 5 million less than they had two decades earlier. So when I asked Kaye why he thought the shows, both of which he has appeared on, were cut loose, I was expecting to hear something about audience fragmentation, more and better alternate options for viewers, and fewer women staying at home during the day.

Instead, I got a defense, in the form of a brutal comparison with the networks’ prime-time business model. “I was on a show last season that cost between $6 [million] and $9 million an episode, and they had about a million people watching,” Kaye said in his British accent. “A show like this cost the network about $45,000 an episode, and they had over 2 million people watching. This wasn’t broken when these guys got it.”

The show that Kaye is referring to is Smash, NBC’s high-profile musical theater catastrophe, in which he played Anjelica Huston’s younger bartender love interest, who briefly wound up in jail for financing Marilyn: The Musical with tainted funds. On AMC he plays Zach Slater, a brooding casino owner, who briefly wound up dead, only to be resurrected by something called the “Orpheus Project” and is now trying to extract the daughter of a close friend from a sex-trafficking ring. “These guys” are Jeff Kwatinetz and Rich Frank, a former talent agent and a president at Disney, respectively, whose Prospect Park productions scooped up AMC and OLTL because they saw a potential profit where ABC saw series more expensive than the talk shows they could air in their stead. (The Chew, which replaced AMC on ABC affiliates now has, like AMC did, about 2.5 million viewers.) The new model was simple: They told the New York Times that if they could get 500,000 of the two shows’ devoted fans to watch and pay for their stories on Hulu and iTunes, they would break even. The company hired veteran producers and cast members—though AMC’s most famous alumna, Susan Lucci, opted out—and beginning late this past April started releasing 30-minute episodes of both AMC and OLTL on the Internet.

Simply put, Kwatinetz and Frank are attempting to remake a once mass product as a niche one. It’s a little bit like watching an Australopithecus hitch a ride on a rocket ship, hoping to find the one colony in the galaxy where he can still thrive. Daytime soap operas may be a punch line, but they are the ancestors of modern television, and not just the schlocky stuff. From the ’60s through the early ’90s, soap operas were doing things that other shows would and could not: regularly exploring controversial issues from abortion—AMC aired TV’s first legal abortion in 1973—to homosexuality, showcasing women’s narratives, not saving any plot for later, and demanding their audience have an encyclopedic grasp of past events that would shame the most devoted Lost-head. In the fluidity of their villains and heroes, who were constantly switching places so that inevitably even the nicest characters did something unethical, soaps rudimentarily presaged the anti-hero, the figure at the heart of the modern TV renaissance. Still, you don’t expect to find the soap opera on a cutting-edge distribution platform.

In the decades following soaps’ heyday, other shows have taken the relevant DNA and evolved. In 1980, when 30 million people watched Luke and Laura get married on General Hospital, soap operas didn’t look that different from everything else on TV: sitcoms with laugh tracks, dramas with mediocre lighting, prime-time soaps with huge shoulder pads. That is no longer the case. Viewers now have thousands of choices about what to watch, and show ranging from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Mad Men and Scandal can provide a more polished fix for viewers’ serialized story jones.

And yet in Stamford this past April, hundreds of people—writers, actors, producers, and crew members—were working at a frenzied pace to give new life to a genre generally thought to be antiquated, cheesy, shrinking, aging, and expensive. Why? Why save the soap opera? Why put the Australopithecus on the rocket ship?

The hangar housing the soundstage for AMC and OLTL is vast but packed with about 25 different sets, a bedroom sharing a wall with a coffee shop that shares floor space with a police station that leads into a high school corridor and on and on, a hall not of mirrors but anodyne furniture. Even the stairs leading down from the production offices serve double duty as part of OLTL’s nightclub, Shelter. In one corner of the soundstage, a score of actors were filming scenes from a black-tie gala—black tie is the only kind of party soaps throw—champagne flutes in hand. A red-headed, middle-aged actress wearing a long-sleeved sequined dress admired a diamond necklace up for silent auction. A man, an old friend in a tuxedo, stood behind her and chivalrously helped her try it on. She picked up a mirror to look at herself—and then someone yelled “Cut!” The mirror was at the wrong angle. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker made a correction, and within minutes, the actors went again, quickly nailing the shot and moving on to the next.

Soap operas famously shoot at breakneck speed. Network showrunners often complain about having to do 22 episodes a year, but soaps run on a schedule similar to the post office’s: Come rain or shine or snow or sleet, only Christmas, Thanksgiving, and breaking news events will keep them from their appointed time slots. Despite no longer having time slots, AMC and OLTL remain labor-intensive. On ABC, both shows aired for an hour, but only 36 minutes of that was content. (The rest was commercials.) In their new form, episodes are 30 minutes long, and all of it is content. The series also have staggered shooting schedules: AMC gets the studio for five weeks, followed by OLTL, so episodes need to be banked to run even when the show isn’t shooting.

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.”

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.