Moving Pictures September 2010

And the World Turned

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

On Tuesday, Emily squared off against Barbara, a Scheming Older Woman: “My house, my family, my rules. BACK OFF, BABS!” Dimpled Dr. Chris Hughes, laid up with a back spasm, rather unprofessionally chugged a couple of beers with his painkillers. Out of it, he then mistook Alison, the woman ministering to him, for Katie, the woman he secretly loves. “I’m so happy that you’re in my life, Katie,” slurred Dr. Dimples, a drowsy grin on his face. Alison looked horrified, but I was thrilled, for here we had touched on a venerable soap trope: identity slippage. Walker Percy was fascinated by the prevalence (statistically anomalous) of amnesia in soap operas—a tribute, he believed, to the unendurability of the modern self. “In all soap operas,” he wrote in Lost in the Cosmos, “a leading character will sooner or later develop amnesia. He will not necessarily develop pneumonia or cancer or schizophrenia, but inevitably he will be overtaken by amnesia.”

On Wednesday, I fell head over heels for Vienna, an old-school ultra-glamorous soap princess played by the amazing Norwegian Ewa Da Cruz. Vienna, it transpired, had been fibbing to her fiancé, Henry: she wasn’t actually pregnant. But she would be soon! “There will be a baby, Hen-e-ry’s baby!” she insisted breathlessly, and in an unplaceable accent, to Katie. “Because he thinks that I’m preg-uh-nant so he will start sleeping with me again and we’ll make a baby! But if Casey tells Hen-e-ry that I’ve been with him oh my God!” On and on she went, speaking in italics, her bangles rattling and her sleek face flaming with rare tints of arousal. What will an actress like this do when all the soaps are gone?

On Thursday, I got a bit lost. There was a lot of earnest talk about Gabriel, and Craig, and a fire, and someone getting hit on the head with a glass angel figurine. But I enjoyed the scenes out at the Old Mill Restaurant on Route 23, where Silas, superbly sleazy in a charcoal suit, was attempting to blackmail Molly with the sex tapes they had made during their now-concluded affair. Back from the bathroom he reeled, glinting with fresh viciousness. “Did you take something just now?” demanded Molly. “You told me you weren’t taking drugs anymore!” Silas leered: “What can I say? It’s a process, baby, and I’m working on it!” Then he said, “Let’s make another video!” The presence of Silas’s handheld camera, with its unblinking red eye, seemed significant. Through that red eye have swarmed all the demons of hegemonic breakdown: the crack-up of the culture into reality TV, YouTube clips, and amateur porn shoots. The death of the soap opera.

On Friday, Molly pointed a pistol at Silas, her lovely triceps quivering. Silas, slumped in a chair, was engaged in a long disparagement of Holden, Molly’s boyfriend, whom he called “the farmer.” “He doesn’t have what excites you,” explained Silas. “Money, power—you see, Molly, what you are is a whore.” And BANG! Molly shot him dead. I should have been visiting this place five times a week for 20 years, devoutly—this made-up place of banalized weirdness and rococo everydayness, where everyone is beautiful and therefore slightly crazy, colliding with other beautiful people, crazier and crazier. Now I’m going to have to get my kicks watching Entertainment Tonight. The perfume of soaps will be missed.

How will As the World Turns handle its last episode? Happy endings seem to be indicated. Last year’s Guiding Light finale was a steady, soapy seethe of endorphins: weddings, rapprochements, a soldier returning home from war, a picnic in the park. Might the As the World Turns writers be contemplating something different, something edgy and metaphysical, something like Lost, say, in which it was revealed that the characters were dead and had been bumping eventfully through the chambers and grades of the afterlife?

Probably not, and really, there’s no need. Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and whichever is next to go: they’ll all see each other in soap heaven.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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