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ABC's The Story of Soaps Has Us Waxing Nostalgic

If ever a time called out for the daytime dramas of yesteryear, it's now.
  • Genie Francis and Anthony Geary in General Hospital. (ABC)
    Genie Francis and Anthony Geary in General Hospital. (ABC)

    Airing tonight, ABC's two-hour primetime special The Story of Soaps looks at the history and lasting impact of the daytime drama. We asked Primetimer's resident soap superfans Joe Reid and Sarah D. Bunting to engage in a dialogue about the new special and why they're missing the once-dominant genre now more than ever.

    Joe Reid: I'll start. The Story of Soaps seems to want to discourage viewers from dismissing soap operas as mere daytime fare, arguing that the genre ended up influencing a host of primetime shows, from overt translations like Dallas and Dynasty, to the modern, serialized dramas of Peak TV. And while the irony isn't lost on me that it's Andy Cohen — whose Real Housewives reality shows have often often fingered as the culprits behind the steep decline of the soaps a decade ago — who rhapsodizes about everything daytime dramas have done for television, this approach ends up circumventing an appreciation of the soaps for exactly what they were, and are: escapist TV that you can tune into and sit with as part of a routine. Since at-home routines are a thing we're all very much dealing with right now, this feels like a missed opportunity to me. What do you think, Sarah?

    Sarah D. Bunting: Someone with a masters in cultural history — i.e., not me — can surely get into the many structural parallels traditional soap operas and Housewives franchises share; that is a thesis I would cheerfully read. Said thesis would surely note how little of note is often happening in both a mid-week daytime-soap episode and a mid-season RHONJ... how much filler both types of shows have, and how much time is spent in obvious moving of chess pieces to create drama later. This isn't a clock; it's me agreeing with you that old-school daytime drama is a perfect fit for these times, which seem to call specifically for distractions that aren't too challenging. You want something to take your mind off... you know, everything. But not your whole mind, just enough of your mind that you can still grumble "girl, how do you not see he's lying?!" while tweeting about Liz Warren at the same time.

    Joe Reid: Absolutely. One of the things I've been observing a lot in quarantine, anecdotally, is people taking on these lengthy viewing projects. Watching all the seasons of Survivor or finally watching The Wire or The Sopranos. Just something that will kind of expand to fill all this new negative space in your schedule. And while I am so in favor of all these things, I also sometimes think, "I cannot imagine willfully signing up for the high-stress life that comes with embarking on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or some of these other heavy dramas." Getting into a soap, though? That makes a TON of sense to me. It's engrossing while being completely light. The much-ballyhooed insane twists of plot that soaps have been notorious for — evil twins, returns from the dead, deadly freeze rays — are not going to raise your blood pressure. Wondering whether Kristen DiMera on Days is going to be able to keep whatever paternity secret she's holding onto so she can blackmail Marlena into breaking up with John or whatever the hell is not going to have any chance of reminding you of the horrors happening outside (unless you have problems that are way bigger than COVID-19 on your hands). It is the perfect blend of bulk (all those programming hours!) and empty calories that can be a genuine refuge these days. And if you don't feel like getting into a current soap, there's this little treasure trove called YouTube…

    Sarah D. Bunting: I am tempted to get back into a current soap — I used to watch The Bold And The Beautiful in college, and the half-hour format makes "plotting" so glacial that probably only a couple of months have passed in the show's universe since then — but part of the refuge for me is the nostalgia factor. I had to look up something or other involving John "Sean Donely on General Hospital" Reilly the other day; an hour later, I was still at the bottom of a mid-eighties GH wiki-hole. Robert Scorpio! Anna Devane! Grant Putnam! FRISCO!! ...And again, it's not that the material is good, exactly. It's that it's familiar. It's something I shared with my mother, whom I haven't seen in person in three months and may not see for another three. My grandma and I "traded" soaps every summer when I went to her house. A Duke Lavery imitation is an in-joke for half the people who were at my wedding. I miss my people, and going back to the daytime dramas we shared lets me spend some more time with them. (But do I miss the days when you couldn't fast-forward? Reader, I do not.)

    Joe Reid: NBC canceled Another World in 1999, a full half of my life ago. But that was the soap I watched with my grandmother when I was a little kid, and the nostalgic pull is so strong. So, yes, I will absolutely fall down the hole of a 176-video playlist on YouTube (god bless the obsessives who mine their old VHS collections and curate them online; your meticulousness has been my salvation) of how uber-villain Carl Hutchins reformed and ultimately wed show matriarch Rachel Cory. Yes, I will absolutely chain-smoke a succession of One Life to Live opening-credits videos as they changed over the years and I remember all the lifetime soap veterans like Erika Slezak and Robin Strasser, as well as the big-time actors who got their start there (Renee Elise Goldsberry! Melissa Fumero! Tika Sumpter!).

    The wild thing is that, with production having halted back in March, we're going to start to see which soaps had banked more storyline than others. Days of Our Lives famously tapes so far ahead that when casting changes get announced, they won't be reflected on air for months. Other shows keep a tighter lag from production to air. General Hospital, which had stretched out its remaining new episodes by adding Friday repeats is set to run out of fresh content this Thursday. To fill the void, they'll be rerunning more classic episodes, starting with three weeks of Nurse’s Ball-themed outings. Down the road, maybe they'll start thinking about packing longer arcs to air through the week. Not too long ago, GH had gotten enamored of these sweeps-month stunts where they'd run a whole disaster arc — a hotel fire, a train crash, a hostage crisis — for a whole month. That seems like the perfect thing to serve up to nostalgic, homebound viewers. Get Days to re-run the summer Marlena got possessed by the devil! This quarantine can be your playground, daytime programmers. Though I suppose I've just re-invented SOAPnet?

    Sarah D. Bunting: Some kind of re-imagining of SOAPnet would be a welcome public service in these frightening times. A lot of the culture, from how it's made to how it's consumed to what it's even about, is going to look really different going forward — but there's no reason "really different" can't be "the way it was in the VCR+ era" at the same time. It's an opportunity to rethink why we watch TV and what we like about it. And, not for nothing, it's also an opportunity to revisit my husband's heel turn on Loving. (Not a joke! Go to the 1:08 mark!)

    Joe Reid: Never a bad time to reveal that you married into soap opera bit-part royalty. But yes, The Story of Soaps is one of influence and historical import, but it can also be an unexpected port in a storm. We don't have to fall back on the "thanks for giving us Real Housewives" of it all to appreciate an artform whose chief attribute is being there for us every day.

    The Story of Soaps airs on ABC tonight at 9:00 PM ET.

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    TOPICS: Loving, The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, The Story of Soaps, Andy Cohen, Daytime TV, Soaps