By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Daytime dramas are the domain of a peculiar niche demographic: the unemployed, half-baked college students killing time between lectures and those who care enough about The Bold and the Beautiful to shamefacedly entrust this secret to TiVo. Soaps have been mocked, scorned, and symbolically quarantined from "real" TV since their inception; even the most accomplished soap stars have to make do with paltry Daytime Emmys, which I suspect are milk-chocolate replicas of the real thing, wrapped in gold foil. Certain actors have successfully fled the glycerin ghetto (Anne Heche, Kelly Ripa, even Dancing with the Stars champ Kelly Monaco--John O'Hurley was robbed!), but the average soapster languishes in obscurity, known only for playing the second Marley on Another World.
Daytime dramas feel almost imaginary to most of us 9-to-5 drones: We don't watch them, we don't know anyone who watches them, and our mental image of them harkens back to the late '80s, when that guy with the eye patch was on Days and summer seemed to last forever.
However, a quick surf reveals that soap culture is alive and well on the internet, and message boards for new shows as well as classic soaps are abuzz with literate and thoughtful posts (as well as a healthy amount of "I HEART Antonio Sabato Jr.!!!"). Many people who love soaps are aware of their absurdity and enjoy the seemingly boundless reality in the shows' diegeses. (Though, like sci-fi fans, they tend to accept certain implausibilities while nitpicking others. For instance, it's okay for a character to be buried alive, but it's unrealistic for him to become a racecar driver.)
Soaps are also surprisingly progressive, possibly because they air during school hours and are less restrained by the censors' muzzle. There are at least three shows at present that feature openly gay characters, and same-sex relationships are portrayed in a far less tokenistic manner than on prime time. GLAAD-approved All My Children introduced the first recurring gay male character in 1995, outed teen character Bianca in 2000, and featured the first lesbian kiss on daytime television in 2003. And while minorities are still underrepresented on soaps, interracial relationships are so common as to be unremarkable. Daytime is a liberal genre, and its most vocal fans have more in common with fantasy buffs and Joss Whedon-worshipers than with the stereotypical housecoat set.
The audience's willingness to suspend disbelief has led to increasingly wacky narrative arcs on many shows, and NBC's Passions represents the acme of this trend. The six-year-old series has featured talking dolls (played by achondroplastic actors), characters trapped in bottles, roaming ghosts, and eerily preserved dead bodies. Despite the popularity of these elements, the show never descends into total camp; the traditional soap story lines tend to outnumber the ridiculous ones these days. What's disarming is how Passions matter-of-factly juxtaposes low-budget fantasy kitsch with standard melodrama. It's jarring to see two characters engage in a serious discussion about their child's paternity only to be interrupted by a cackling witch named Tabitha who shows up with her own "bumbling villain" theme music.
Last week's publicity stunt, the hotly awaited Passions: Disaster!, centered on an earthquake produced by one of Tabitha's spells. Scenes of chaos and tragedy were played with straight faces, despite the fact that Tabitha has always been a comic antagonist. Sci-fi, drama, and humor can coexist (as in the "Buffyverse"), but the proportions need to be perfect. In a way, Passions reminds me of a group of kids staging a wild play they know the grownups (i.e. critics) won't see. Soaps answer to fans alone, and Passions has a fierce following.
In terms of ratings, One Life to Live is more popular than Passions. On the air since 1968, OLTL is straight melodrama of the cheating-and-beating variety, with an especially attractive cast. And yet, even established soaps like this one can't seem to resist incorporating elements of mystery and horror. Serial killers are especially hot right now: OLTL has taken a cue from Days of Our Lives' now-retired "Salem Stalker" subplot and introduced its own killer to terrorize Llanview. (Curiously, fans on the official OLTL message board think the device is dullsville.)
A soap with a solid following could probably maintain its numbers with romance alone. Still, even warhorses like Guiding Light (which features a character hilariously named "Mallet") employ murderers, evil twins, short-term amnesia, and other timeworn gimmicks to create that soap-specific hyperreality. In fact, you won't find a daytime show that doesn't have a soundstagey feel; the visual language of soaps is universal, as are the implausible events that plague every fictional family. Passions and One Life to Live are more similar than they may appear--the former is merely more literal, more self-referential. It's all wildly unnatural, so why not take things to their logical extreme? Bring on the talking dolls!
As two-income families become the norm, it's surprising that soaps have managed to survive. Is anyone even around to watch these things? The genre is surely feeling its age, which might explain why a show like Passions caters to smirking college students with ample free time. But message boards have replaced the neighborhood coffee klatch and technology makes it possible for working stiffs to rendezvous with Mallet and friends after dark. Daytime soaps have managed to stay under the radar while stealthily maintaining their influence on pop culture. The O.C. might have hip music and a bloated budget, but it doesn't have half the heart of those scrappy soaps. Another chocolate Emmy for the underdogs, please!