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Everything’s Ending These Days, Part One

This week’s column was originally going to be about the sudden and shocking retirement of WWE World Heavyweight Champion Edge. Edge (real name Adam Copeland) made the announcement last Monday night on Raw after doctors warned he would risk paralysis or even death with his continued involvement.

(In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t an angle. Rather, it goes back to neck surgery he had eight years ago.)

But a bigger bombshell was dropped yesterday, and I feel I should comment on it.

ABC has canceled One Life to Live and All My Children.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “F13, who do you even give a fig about daytime drama?” But here’s the thing, who hasn’t wasted an afternoon watching television during the dead hours of 11-3 a.m.? Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, Richard Bey…yeah, all of those were around. But even as a youth, I guess I always had a taste for scripted fare.

Truthfully though, my interest in soaps came from my mother. As a small child, I would watch One Life to Live and General Hospital with her. I remember the major storyline when I first began watching it: heroic Bo Buchanan was kidnapped and replaced by the vile Patrick London, who sought to ruin his life. Bo ultimately managed to defeat London and reclaim his life, but his wife Didi died in the process, sacrificing herself to electrocute London.

But wait a second, let me back up a bit…

One Life to Live and All My Children were created by legendary daytime TV writer Agnes Nixon in 1968 and 1970, respectively. Nixon was pretty sick of seeing the same clichéd characters and situations portrayed onscreen, with high society types in staid love triangles. She sought to shake things up by creating a show where the upper class mixed with the working class, sometimes uncomfortably. And she set it close to my backyard, in a fictional Pennsylvania town called Llanview.

Soap operas mainly revolve around large families and the conflicts and connections within and between them. There were many families spotlighted during the show’s history, but one of them produced arguably the show’s most lasting figure: the Lord family, headed by twisted patriarch Victor, and the woman who became the show’s alpha heroine for as long as it’s been on: Victoria “Viki” Lord.

For all of my lifetime (and most of the show’s), Viki has been played by the excellent Erika Slezak, who portrays her as selfless, but still down to earth. It’s easy to make a character like that *too* virtuous, however, which is probably why the show–through a series of twists and retcons–has given her a nightmarish history. Pressure to pursue her own dreams yet fulfill her father’s caused Viki to develop an alternate personality in the ’70s–a crass mirror image of herself called “Niki Smith.” Originally, it was revealed that Niki’s emergence was triggered after Viki discovered one of Victor’s infidelities, but that was retconned in a much later storyline, when the arrival of more alternate personalities forced her to confront the long-buried memory of molestation at the hands of Victor.

It was that storyline that actually got me back into the show as a teen–no, not because of its ultimate result, but because catching Viki slipping back into her alternate personalities (and just so you know, Slezak took such a loaded concept and played it with frightening commitment) was a callback to days gone by when I watched the show as a younger child. Seeing Viki and the family she’d married into, the Buchanans, was kind of a comfort, and eased me back into the wide world of Llanview.

Oh, the Buchanans–I could say so much about them. Headed up by patriarch Asa (played with magnificent bluster by the late, great Phil Carey), the Buchanan boys rolled into the town as oil-rich billionaires. Asa was an ornery schemer and caused no end of trouble for his sons, cowboyish newspaperman Clint (originated by the late Clint Ritchie–and in my mind, the true and only Clint Buchanan) and honorable Vietnam vet Bo (Robert S. Woods). Clint and Viki’s relationship helped define the show during the ’80s, and also gave the show one of its ties to our end of culture: their younger son Joey was memorably played by Nathan Fillion in the ’90s, long before he wore a brown coat.

One Life started out displaying the lives of everyday people and social problems–economic issues, race relations, and the like, as well as the romances that characterized the medium. But as the soaps continued to run, they had to overheat the drama, leading to some of the more lurid storylines. Karen Wolek (Judith Light, best known as Angela on Who’s the Boss?) comes to mind, the wife of a doctor who was forced to turn tricks by charismatic pimp Marco Dane. When Marco turned up dead, Viki was framed for the crime, leading to a trial remembered mainly–and rightly so–for a blistering sequence where Karen was questioned on the stand and forced to reveal her double life as a prostitute. To this day, this remains one of the most talked about moments in One Life history.

Then there’s Todd Manning, a frat-boy creep who led the gang rape of a fellow student who spurned him. He was convicted, but the writers saw something deeper in Roger Howarth’s performance, and shaped the character over time as an oddly touching antihero. To Howarth’s credit, he didn’t much care for the softening of Todd–who was later revealed to be the lost heir of Victor Lord, and Viki’s half-brother. Still, Todd has been one of the show’s most popular characters for much of his time there.

There are so many characters I’m leaving out or glossing over, like Dorian Cramer, Viki’s arch-nemesis who married and was believed to have killed Victor. (Viki was later revealed to be the killer, putting an exclamation point on the origins of her DID.) Dorian and Viki’s relationship has been famously contentious, despite brief periods of detente–and sometimes even friendship. Or lovably neurotic, yet ridiculously clever attorney Nora Hanen (Hilary B. Smith), whose fan-favorite marriage to Bo (I remember when they were married too–Little Richard performed) caused no end of fan grief when it was dissolved in early ’00s. They’ve since been reconciled.

One Life to Live has had such a rich history, and even launched major careers, including those of Tommy Lee Jones and Laurence Fishburne. It’s hard for me to imagine a world without it.

It’s also hard to fathom a world without All My Children as well, even though that show has been amazingly bad for a long time now. Still, it’s notable for giving us the pop-cultural tour de force that is Susan Lucci as Erica Kane, one of television’s grandest, most glamorous divas. Lucci has played Kane from episode ten onward, one of the longest, most successful runs ever on a daytime soap. (It’s a crime to consider how long she went without winning her first Daytime Emmy.) Her phalanx of husbands is the show’s greatest cultural reference, but there’s a lot more to remember.

All My Children debuted in 1970, but Agnes Nixon actually conceived it before One Life to Live–it wasn’t until the success of OLTL that ABC decided to take a chance on it. Taking place in another Pennsylvania town, Pine Valley, AMC sought to illustrate the contemporary struggles of its residents, much like its sister show.

I didn’t watch AMC nearly as much, but just about everyone knows the show launched Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career as Erica’s hellcat daughter Kendall. (Current Kendall Alicia Minshew is a marshmallow in comparison.) AMC actually has some of my least favorite characters in daytime, from tedious villain Dr. David Heyward (Vincent Irizarry) to sanctimonious, self-important ass Ryan Lavery (Cameron Mathison).

But it also gave us the first black supercouple in Angie (Debbi Morgan) and Jesse (Darnell Williams), who were tragically separated when Jesse (who evolved from streetwise youth to police officer) was shot, and later died in Angie’s arms. Despite illustrating in various ways that Jesse was indeed dead, they retconned all of those and found a way to reunite them a few years ago, to the happiness of many. I won’t lie, I was glad to see them back together as well.

All My Children also launched tons of careers (in addition to everyone’s favorite vampire slayer), the best known of which was Kelly Ripa, who married co-star Mark Consuelos. Kelly, of course, is on television screens everyday alongside Regis Philbin now. There’s also Josh Duhamel, who brought roguish hero Leo du Pres to life–and later death, when bigger things came calling. Michelle Trachtenberg originated the role of autistic Lily Benton Montgomery (and was immediately succeeded by The O.C.’s Mischa Barton). Lacey Chabert was one of the first actresses to play Erica’s other daughter, the virtuous Bianca (who would gain the love and support of fans during her struggles with anorexia and her emergence as a lesbian, though most of that was during Eden Riegel’s time in the role).

I’ve watched AMC here and there from time to time, and while I do have my own favorite characters–most notably the Chandler twins, Adam and Stuart, so wonderfully played by David Canary–the show has been marred for years now by bad writing and horrible decision-making. (Killing off Stuart, the good-natured yin to Adam’s treacherous yang, was the last straw for me, and let’s not even start about the awful baby swap story that crossed through both shows.) So on one level, I’m not so sad to see it go, though on another, I appreciate its history, and its prior triumphs.

For me, these were the days of my life, reading recaps, catching episodes on tape after school, watching it during the summers, and enjoying the byzantine plotting and outrageous characters. And even now, I flip through magazines in the checkout line, watch clips on Hulu, and try to keep up with this dying form of storytelling. There are three soap operas remaining on American television. That may not be the case for much longer.

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