Moving Pictures September 2010

And the World Turned

Cheesy, clichéd, and still strangely bewitching, soap operas are falling victim to their own bastard children.
Lou Brooks

How to mark the passing of a universe that never existed? With invisible bells, and wreaths made of newspaper, and eulogies delivered from Styrofoam pulpits? Or with the slack jaws of 2 million viewers, a single thought in every brain: Okay … So now what do I do?

Two million. That’s a lot of people, but not very many viewers. As a viewership, in fact, it’s almost negligible. Thus CBS’s inevitable decision to terminate, this month, after decades on the air, its onetime flagship soap opera, As the World Turns. Can we be surprised? The mesmeric hold of the soap, the spell of its simmering close-ups and spiraling plotlines, has been broken. The deaths and births of these made-up communities no longer fill our hearts. Kim Kardashian, Brangelina, the kids from The Hills: these are the people we care about now. Meanwhile every man tweets his own serial narrative, from the line at Starbucks.

Video: James points out familiar tropes in scenes from As the World Turns.

Big-banged into existence by Irna Phillips, the mother of the soap opera, the world of Oakdale, Illinois, has floated parallel to our own since 1956, full of remarkable preoccupations and omissions. For 54 years, its residents have been diagnosing one other and taking one another to court; romancing, stalking, cross-dressing; suffering from memory loss and multiple personalities; having babies, cherishing babies, kidnapping babies; and so on. No more. Like Guiding Light before it (canceled last year after more than 15,000 episodes), As the World Turns is going the way of the dodo. It’s not like the end of Lost, or 24. The world is turning—has already turned!—and whole lifestyles are rolling into oblivion.

Objectively considered, the soap opera is either a diversion or a contagion. Types parade across the screen, medievally robust: Tramp, Lothario, Bastard Offspring, Scheming Older Woman. A state of permanent emotional ferment obtains, every 15 seconds a reaction shot: a horrified stare, a wild surmise. Soap-people wear the same clothes as us, more or less, and have the same hairstyles, but a strange force acts upon them: the gravity-altering proximity of our world to theirs, perhaps. Relations are accelerated; events take on an air of whimsical design. Yet somehow nothing happens. Who’d watch this, apart from the imprisoned or depressed?

To be subjectively claimed by a soap opera, on the other hand, is magic. So for a week this summer I gave myself over to As the World Turns. A dalliance, nothing more, a holiday romance. But how rewarding! The micro-narratives caught me, and I followed the characters with steadily mounting interest. By Friday—maybe even by Thursday—a quiet enchantment had settled over the hour of two o’clock.

Initially, though, there was some awkwardness, a couple of things I had to get over. First, the acoustics. The sound of a soap opera, I discovered—the hissingly miked-up room, layered over with washes of mood Muzak—freaked me out. You know this sound, as it has leaked at you throughout your life from nearby screens. It tells of deep, drugged midday intervals; of beds and crumb-filled couches and hard institutional chairs; places where people are very seriously not working. We hear jewelry clank, horribly close, and ice knocking in the glass. Somewhere, violins play. The next kiss will be abominable.

Then there was the acting. Soap actors work fast, without much rehearsal, so they tread on each other’s lines and do odd things with their breath, filling the uncertain pauses with murmurs and exhalations. Sometimes the sense will seem to escape a soap actor, and he will speak his lines in a kind of emphatic singsong, like a vocalist dummying his way through a melody for which there are, as yet, no lyrics.

On Monday, a christening occurred in Oakdale, and I was gratified—given soaps’ great debt to fairy tales—to witness some Brothers Grimm–style squabbling over little Eliza, the blameless baptizand. “I have every right to hold my daughter in front of the minister,” hissed Meg, recently declared insane, “and shame on you for taking that away from me!” Emily, the stepmother, glared back, taut-jawed. Then Noah turned up at the house of his boyfriend, Luke, having been released from the hospital after an operation to restore his sight. “Noah’s outside!” gasped Luke, startled out of a kiss with Noah’s surgeon, Dr. Oliver. “Relax,” said Dr. Oliver. “He can’t see that far. What he can see is just shapes and colors.” But the eyes of true love see all, and Noah had indeed spied his Luke in the arms of another man. Since their first kiss in 2007, “The Boys” have stirred up much controversy and adoration. Apparently I was joining them in the ashes of their togetherness. Oh well.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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