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.
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.