I was born into a family of soap opera watchers. In the late 60s, my great-grandmother was admitted to the hospital in her hometown of Rome, NY with a bad case of pneumonia. When my great-grandfather was walking the halls to her room, he bumped into Gerald Gordon. Gordon, who played Dr. Nick Bellini on the soap The Doctors, was in town visiting a friend. My great-grandpa ran up to “Dr. Nick” and insisted that he went into my grandma’s room for a consultation. Gordon tried to explain to my grandfather that he just played a doctor on TV and had no medical background, but quickly yielded to the requests of an old, stubborn, Italian man.
When “the doctor” walked into my great-grandma’s room, her eyes lit up. She called him over to her bedside, going over all of her symptoms, asking what his professional recommendation for treatment would be. The very gracious Gordon told her that if she stayed well hydrated and got plenty of rest, she should be on her feet in a few days. He happened to have a headshot on him (ah, the days before Twitter and Facebook) which he signed for her as “Dr. Nick Bellini”. From then on, my great-grandmother consider herself a close friend of the doctor, showing everyone his signed picture and letting them know that it was his amazing treatment that helped her kick the illness. She treasured that picture until the day she died.
Her daughter-in-law, my grandma, made sure to get her weekday cooking and cleaning done before lunch. She had a long standing 1:00 appointment, all the days of her life, in Salem with the Hortons and Bradys. At 2:00, she’d cross networks and state borders (although, has Salem’s actual location ever been confirmed?) to catch up with the Buchanans and company in Llanview, PA. She’d then take the short trip into Port Charles, NY (this was back during a time where the prestigious Quartermaine family ruled the town and the hospital; long before mobsters took over.) She passed her knowledge of the different family ancestries down to her daughters and, eventually, to me.
I remember afternoons spent glued to my grandma’s TV (and her lap), when Days of Our Lives heroine Dr. Marlena Evans was possessed by the devil. Although not even ten-years-old, I loved the absurdness of the storyline – this smart, sweet, well-off psychiatrist (the irony of her profession was not lost on my young soul) was being possessed. by. the devil. The best part was that Satan was using Marlena to keep her true love, John Black (who recently discovered that he was a Roman Catholic priest before being kidnapped and brainwashed) from going back to the brotherhood.
Say it with me now. What?!
Marlena’s unfortunate run-in with the devil was my lucky gain – it was then that I fell in love with soaps.
At a young age, I realized I wanted to be a writer. The idea of creating characters out of nothing was intoxicating to me. Here were these fictional beings that you could bring to life with families and fears of their own. In a movie, writers have roughly two hours to deliver you a character and teach you everything there is to know about this person they want you to care about. But in a soap opera …
Ah, a soap opera. A viewer gets to see this person every day, Monday through Friday, for years. And even if they die, there’s a strong chance that you’ll see them again!
The audience is there through every romance and betrayal; every pregnancy and shipment of said child off to boarding school. You know which café a character goes to for coffee after work. You’ve been inside their home more times than you’ve been to your in-laws.
And if your “story” is blessed with a talented actor, you get to watch a person’s entire life unfold before your eyes (Kimberly McCullough originated the smart, feisty Dr. Robin Scorpio on General Hospital in 1985 at the age of 7, playing the doctor on and off for years, until Robin met an unfortunate explosion early in 2012. Side note: As fictional as they are, soap operas can sometimes provide a way for viewers to broach real-life topics. I first learned about HIV and AIDS when Robin was diagnosed in 1995.)
Usually, after “Days” finished, I was ushered outside to play – you know, like other kids my age. But as I transitioned into my teen years, I began to care less about playing in the turtle-shaped sandbox, and more about this new-to-Port-Charles, cigarette smoking Elizabeth Webber, who was making a play for my Lucky Spencer on General Hospital.
I was thirteen when Lucky found sixteen-year-old Liz the night of the Valentine’s Day dance, in the park, crying and bruised in a torn red dress, having just been raped. I was supposed to be doing homework after school. In actuality, I was crying as much as Rebecca Herbst’s Elizabeth.
I’ve watched General Hospital rather consistently since that storyline in 1997. I have grown with Elizabeth and Lucky (although, I have zero children to Liz’s three-by-three-different-men). We all graduated high school. Elizabeth went on to get her degree in nursing, while mine is in journalism. I’ve witnessed their (many attempts at a) wedding, and recently had one of my own. My new husband and I have settled into a nice nighttime routine, with me curled up on the couch, watching General Hospital on abc.com, while he catches a game on tv. With the advancements of technology, between the internet and DVR, it is rare that I miss an episode.
I am so sad to see what is happening to daytime TV. Back during those warm summer afternoons, as Grandma and I watched Deidre Hall levitate over a bed and spew out Latin in a demonic voice, I told my Grandma that I’d grow up to write for a soap opera. I’d create characters that viewers wanted to tune in and see every day. Undoubtedly, my best work would be the last five minutes of every Friday episode; I’d give them cliffhangers that made them wish the weekend away, just so they could find absolution when they turned on their program Monday afternoon. Now, I’m not so sure that is possible. For decades, soap operas – with the fictional families we have become invested in and the lives that they live, be them sensible or preposterous – have been passed down throughout generations. Will a new generation of grandchildren be able to spend summers in the safety of their grandmother’s living room, munching on a snack while making mental notes of the Corinthos family tree? (There are several branches on that one.)
Many people scuff at soap operas and their audiences, but I will never feel ashamed for being a loyal viewer. Do they get a little ridiculous? Of course. But that’s their whole shtick; part of the appeal. A loyal soap fan understands that and is in on the joke. Plenty of these naysayers are the same ones who tune in to watch the “match making” on shows like The Bachelor. While Elizabeth and Lucky are a fictional couple rich with history and romance, contestants on these dating shows are real-life people looking to make a quick buck and get their fifteen minutes of fame. If anything, the relationships in Port Charles are more real than anything I’d find on a reality show.
Plus, on General Hospital, Lucky can die in a fire and come back years later, only to father one of his first love’s children. (Sure, she did cheat on him. And, for some time, the child was believed to have been his brother’s but … who wants to be bothered with schematics?)
That would (probably) never happen on The Bachelor.