The Story of Soaps on ABC
Credit: Image: ABC

A mixed bag of a celebration.

On May 19 ABC aired The Story of Soaps, which had been promoted as a loving homage to the daytime genre. However, what started off as a celebration, quickly devolved into something else. The special did a lot of things right but wasn’t the celebration of the genre many had hoped for. As the opening credits finished, Bravo’s Andy Cohen teased, “It was an industry by women, for women, but the bubble had to burst.”

Praise for the genre from actors

During the course of the two-hour special, current and past soap opera stars were featured, as were executives, writers, producers and stars that got their start on soaps. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston (Douglas Donovan on Loving, Dean Stella on One Life to Live) noted how a lot of unfair criticisms are levied against soaps when the work is tough. “You’re there to learn, you’re there to try and bring as much honesty and reality to the role, and it’s difficult.” Alec Baldwin (Billy Allison Aldrich on The Doctors, Joshua Rush on Knots Landing) said he loved his time on the soaps, and Full House’s John Stamos (Blackie Parrish on General Hospital) said of his work on General Hospital, “It was a great training ground,” which he knows some soap actors might consider insulting. Right off the bat, the show was a glowing praise of the work that went into soaps.

Bryan Cranston on Loving on Story of Soaps

The draw of the genre and breaking stereotypes

The special gave an excellent summation of why the genre of daytime is so addicting and compelling. In daytime there seemed to be no rules: punches and slaps flew, kidnappings abounded, affairs were multiple. And then there was the over-the-top stories featuring evil twins, Reva’s (Kim Zimmer) clone on Guiding Light, Anna Devane’s (Finola Hughes) love affair with an alien on General Hospital, and  Marlena’s (Deidre Hall) possession on Days of our Lives. Soaps were like sports for women, whereas fathers and sons watched sports, women and their daughters watched soaps. However the special acknowledged the draw of soaps to men as well, breaking down the stereotype that it’s a genre only for women. A clip of Victoria Wyndham (Rachel Cory, Another World) had her revealing some of the most beautiful letters she got were from college males. Kristian Alfonso (Hope Brady, Princess Gina on Days of our Lives) recounted the story of running into a man at an event who swore he didn’t watch soaps and it was his wife who was the soap watcher. The man lingered but kept his distance, and eventually turned to her and asked, “Are you Hope or Princess Gina?”

More: Days’ Judi Evans suffers a serious accident

Praising the creators, but forgetting others

The show did a decent job of telling the origin of soaps going back to the days of radio and the original “Queen of Soaps,” Irna Phillips, who created Guiding Light and As The World Turns on the radio and transitioned them over to television. Phillips realized the importance in the medium television of close-ups to show the emotion of the characters and the lingering camera shots to create drama. Agnes Nixon, who learned from Phillips, went on to create One Life to Live, All My Children, and Loving and was the one who began pulling real-world and social issues into soaps, such as a storyline on All My Children dealing with support and opposition to the Vietnam War. Gloria Monty (General Hospital) was also heavily hailed, but many were forgotten, many being men. Bill Bell, the executive producer of Bold & Beautiful was only briefly featured, and there was no mention of his parents William and Lee Phillip Bell, who co-created Young & Restless and Bold & Beautiful. Likewise, Days of our Lives’ executive-producer Ken Corday was absent, as was mention of his parents Ted and Betty Corday who created to NBC soap opera.

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Acknowledging firsts and controversies

The Story of Soaps did an excellent job pointing out that daytime tackled topics long before they were mentioned in primetime starting with one of the most controversial, the rape of Laura (Genie Francis) by Luke (Anthony Geary) on General Hospital. Genie Francis tackled the issue of the rape and was glad it was finally set straight. At the time ABC was on the verge of cancelation General Hospital and Gloria Monty was given two weeks to turn things around. The rape storyline was born, and written as a rape seduction which Luke did out of love. While it saved the show, decades later one can look back at the dangerous and detrimental message it sent, that even love could come out of something so brutal.

Genie Francis of GH on Story of Soaps

Still, the genre has done a lot of things right. Soap operas broke taboos such as All My Children’s Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) having one of the first abortions on daytime, Ryan Phillippe as Billy Douglas on One Life to Live coming out as the first gay daytime character, and Erika Slezak (Victoria Lord on One Life to Live) tackling breast cancer and mastectomies. All of these were important issues that someone in the audience could connect with.

Ryan Phillippe as Billy on OLTL


Things begin to go south

What began as a gushing tribute to the soap opera quickly took a turn in a different direction. In 1995 the OJ Simpson trial took over daytime for months. Unfortunately, they never recovered fully as the habit of tuning in daily was broken for many, but not all, viewers. Producer Angela Shapiro was quoted as saying, “The OJ trial was a better soap opera than anyone could ever write.” For many soap fans who remember this time, it was a dark time that was nothing to celebrate or praise. The trial was touted by many on the ABC special as the beginning of reality television.

Bravos’ Cohen, the creator of The Housewives of franchise, seemingly bragged about his triumphs and achievements in reality TV at the expense of daytime. “The Housewives have replaced soap operas because truth is stranger than fiction. Soaps became kind of unnecessary because you could do it with real people and they are writing the drama themselves.” However, it was pointed out by longtime soap opera producer Jill Farren Phelps that reality shows have only taken over because they are cheaper and easier to produce, and have the fights and characteristics of soaps.

A redeeming ending

What started as a trip down memory lane, quickly turned into a nightmare, but fortunately, the end brought things somewhat back into perspective. While we have lost many of the soaps, even the ones that began the genre, four still live on. “The ones that are left produce their shows on virtually no money which isn’t easy, it’s good writing that keeps them going,” said Farren Phelps. The special acknowledged that most primetime shows have co-opted the template of the soaps, noting even HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones is at heart a soap opera. Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry admitted, “Everything I did on Desperate Housewives Agnes Dixon had done on daytime.”

Marc Cherry on The Story of Soaps

As for the future of daytime, Stamos believes people still want an escape from their lives and the world around them, and that’s what soaps give them. Hall says, “The magic of daytime is being in someone’s home every single day.” “It’s the original binge-watch,” according to Mad Men’s Jon Hamm. “The story of soaps is the story of us,” Farren Phelps concludes.

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