February 5, I know this was posted years back, but the New Yorker articles made me think about it again--here's the full piece. They actually quote the critic who wrote that earlier NYorker piece, Renata Adler.
Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon Monday, Jan. One of the doctor's patients, a year-old woman, was suffering agony over the deaths of so many people whom she felt she knew. A few years ago, CBS was obliged to eliminate soap opera characters who were poor because the network was receiving piles of CARE packages. Four times I've bought champagne.
The station's switchboard was immediately ablaze with calls. At Princeton, something like a quarter of the student body drops everything to watch The Young and the Restless each afternoon.
When Agnes Nixon, who created a campus favorite, All My Children, asked a group of Duke University students why they watched the soaps, a young man replied: Critic Renata Adler, who became addicted to Another World six years ago while ill with laryngitis, explains their loyalty: But it was not at all like losing a character in fiction they become more "relevant" and, sometimes, realistic.
Today it is common to see such queasy subjects as abortion, incest, drug addiction and venereal disease meshing with the old, familiar workings of unhappy families. This produces the kind of intense melodrama rarely seen in the evening. Currently, The Young and the Restless is helping a woman through a mastectomy with almost excessive realism. All My Children recently took six months to describe a child-abuse case; How to Survive a Marriage now defunct introduced a precedent-setting seduction scene that ended up with the participants in bed discussing impotence and frigidity.
Such raciness is enticing to viewers—and to advertisers. The fresher, more daring soaps are pulling younger, more affluent viewers rather than the traditional audience of blue-collar housewives and the retired.
There is also a trend to give the soaps more time for their vicissitudes. Last year NBC, in a push for supremacy in TV's richest market, daytime programming, expanded its two blockbuster soaps, Days of Our Lives and Another World, to an hour each, smashing the opposing game shows and half-hour soaps.
More of the 14 soaps now on the air may soon go to an hour too. This shift in the length of the shows makes the ratings battle particularly fierce, with NBC and CBS juggling schedules to gain an edge.
The networks lose money on many of their prime-time shows; they need the daytime profits, which are now expected to show a healthy increase, to finance the more expensively produced evening programs. One of the ironies of the soaps' success is that nobody who works during the day can see them. What has become a persistent threnody in American life is shaped by housebound women, students, hippies and the unemployed. This ghettoization of the soaps has kept them freer of the kind of systematic analysis frequently made of sources of popular culture like comic strips and rock music.
But now, after more than 40 years of near invisibility, soaps are gaining academic attention. Colleges are offering courses on them.
They are being claimed as heirs to the 18th century tradition of the picaresque romantic novel. Others think Daniel Defoe started it all with Moll Flanders. This week, the soaps receive what intellectuals might consider the ultimate accolade: Norman Lear's spoof, Mary Hartman!
Seen one, seen 'em all, say cynics. For all their huge popularity and moneymaking capacity, the soaps are something of a mystery hit.
For the uninitiated, there is only one word that really describes them: To watch a soap is to be drawn into an enclosed and not particularly welcoming world.
Take the circumstances of As the World Turns, the quintessential "coffee table" drama that is all talk. The tent-pole characters—good, decent people on whom a plot may safely be hung —are Chris Hughes, a lawyer, and his wife Nancy. They are a sixtyish couple living out their days in trauma. The night he had an argument with ugly Norman Garrison, husband of Bob's second wife Sandy, Norman collapsed with a heart attack, and Bob's current wife Jennifer was killed in a car crash.
Later, Norman also died. Meanwhile, Superbitch Lisa, Bob's first wife and once the most hated woman on TV, has a fourth husband, Grant Coleman, and has mellowed. Bob's son Tom is married to the scheming Natalie, whom he defended in court. Bob's sister-in-law, pretty Kim, is married to nasty Dr.
John Dixon, who has spent years trying to stop her from running off with handsome Dr. Last summer a tornado helped him; it knocked Kim down, causing amnesia.
Now she cannot remember loving Dan. Things are just as bad over at the Hortons in Days of Our Lives —but nipper. Tom Horton is presiding over four generations of chaos. His wife's religious faith is wavering. His eldest son Dr. His second son Mickey still has amnesia and is now called Marty Hanson.
Recently she fell downstairs, and the baby she was carrying died. Julie is really in love with her late mother's husband Doug Williams. She cannot marry him because she feels guilty. Doug has entered an artificial insemination program so that his child by Julie's mother may have a playmate. Unknown to him, his housekeeper has arranged to be the child's mother.
Julie's son David is now living with a struggling black family, the Grants, and falling in love with Daughter Valery. His abandoned girl friend Brooke tried to commit suicide. This month a couple who are indecisive about their sexual preferences will be introduced. It appears that the facts of ordinary life must be abandoned when watching the soaps. There are more doctors than there are patients to treat.
Amnesia is a plague. Neighbors are not friendly; they are sharks. Despite the melodrama, the surface proprieties are strictly observed; no one, for example, ever swears. There are no formal meals in soaps—everyone eats snacks. The main job of the characters is to repeat the plot. One woman spent 17 days in a revolving door having flashbacks.
Christmas means tragedy, the time when the soaps' already high body count rises. Women are interchangeable blondes who shuttle between two roles: Mother Mary and Lilith.
The strongest, in fact the only motivation is love, and the dynamic is fate. Moral principles are enunciated only when they are about to be discarded. Despite the Pill and abortion, pregnancy still automatically tends to follow fornication.
Pregnancy itself is an uncharted condition. One valiant mom expected for 18 months. Once they are born, children are as precocious as the zombies in Village of the Damned. Overnight they turn into voting-age monsters. The most startling physical characteristic of a soap is its sound.
The plots jerk along in a series of moans. Years ago, when radio serials were somewhat thin, actors were told to speak in "soap count," a half-step tempo. Thus many characters slur their speech, which suggests a speech impediment or drunkenness. The latter should never be discounted; social drinking seems moderate, but alcoholism now rates as soapland's top personal problem.
Bold analysts of the genre like to call soaps "the people's Iliad" a reference to the gloomy outcome of every story. Characters suffer fates that would challenge a classical god. Poor Elizabeth Stewart died a couple of days after her marriage on As the World Turns when she fell upstairs and ruptured her liver.
On The Doctors, the sinister Dr. Allison killed himself in order to throw the blame on a successful rival. Later in the same show, an urbane psychiatrist, Dr. Morrison, drove his nurse to suicide so that she would not report his criminal behavior. There is reason, other than art, for these fates.
If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then soaps are contrived in a public meeting—writers, producers and the public all pitching in. At a hint of disapproval from the audience, the snappiest soap plot can collapse.
A few years ago, Search for Tomorrow introduced a story involving a predominantly black youth center. The audience did not like it, and it was quickly dropped.
Soaps were originally intended to be nothing more than subliminal salesmen. Writers prided themselves on a seamless blend of message and drama.
Irna Phillips, the seminal soap writer who dominated the genre for 40 years, even thought she should forgo her credit to enhance the shows' realism. It was Phillips who anchored the soap to the family and peopled it with professionals. The youngest of an Iowa grocer's ten children, she used her grasp of the powerful mythologies that fill family life to enliven even the most banal script.