Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Moment

I am five years old, sitting on the floor in front of my grandmother's couch. My mother and grandmother sit on the couch. I lean back on my mother's legs. We are all engrossed in what we see on the television in front of us: on the night before Philip Brent is to ship off to fight in Vietnam, he and Tara Martin have snuck into a church.

They are young.
They are in love.
In the darkness of an empty church, they privately exchange vows.
There is no priest.
This is their secret.
We are the only witnesses.

This is the moment that sets the scene for years of heartbreak, drama, tragedy and action in Pine Valley. It is the moment that will impact so many characters in the years to come. It is the moment that, years later, when Philip returns from Vietnam and finds Tara married to Chuck Tyler, he will bring us back to. It is the moment I first feel the power of the genre known as soap opera and fall in love with a particular kind of storytelling - storytelling that is about people and their histories, their secrets, their demons. Storytelling that is about people at their best and people at their worst, and all the shades of gray in between.

On hearing about the cancellation of All My Children and One Life To Live, I knew I'd have to write about what will truly be the end of an era for me, but I didn't know where to start. While exchanging emails with a group of friends who love soaps every bit as much as I do, and reminiscing about our favorite moments, it hit me like gangbusters: Philip and Tara. The church. Their secret. It is the first real story line I remember.

In my real life, I'd hear my parents talk about Vietnam. Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner talked about it on the news every night. It was part of the background noise as we ate dinner. But it was just a word to me. I had no idea what this Vietnam everyone spoke about really was, except that it was bad, and everyone had an opinion about it. My grandfather and father disagreed about it. A lot. And here, in the middle of the day, were Philip and Tara - two young, attractive characters who seemed like real people to me - talking about a war. About what it means for a young man to go off to war without any certainty that he'll come home, again. It is not an exaggeration to say that I figured out what Vietnam was - not through my parents or the news reports we watched every day - but  by watching Philip and Tara's drama unfold. It was a war! People had strong feelings about it, in part, because young men were going away for years and years, even though they didn't want to. Some of them never got back home. Some of them left home without ever having lived. Some of them left families behind, and people they loved.

For every crazy, stupid story line this genre has tackled - demonic possession, human cloning, time travel, a gorilla escaping from Central Park Zoo - there are so many human stories that really have made a difference in the way a lot of people live their lives. When Guiding Light aired frank and open story lines about domestic violence and breast cancer viewers paid attention - DV hotlines rang off the hook and women started booking appointments for mammograms in record numbers. Another World talked openly about abortion for the first time on television. As The World Turns revealed that a popular character was gay. Guiding Light tackled spousal rape for the first time on television. The Young and the Restless bravely introduced a story line about venereal disease in the mid 70s. Ryan's Hope broke tradition by featuring a Jewish character in the previously all Christian/ mostly Protestant daytime arena. And All My Children incorporated the Vietnam War - in real time, no less - with the Philip and Tara story line. And maybe this story line helped people talk about the war, or see it in a different light. I know it explained a lot about the war to me, as young as I was. But more. It made me notice story-telling. It made me pay attention to why characters did and said what they did and said. It made me notice that nothing exists in a vacuum, and that every action is followed by a reaction - even though I didn't have that language - and that these things are important to keep in mind if you want to tell a story that people will believe and want to listen to. Mostly, it made me want to make up and tell those stories, myself.

It is no small thing for me to think of All My Children being pulled off the air. Even though Tara and Philip are long gone, Agnes Nixon is no longer at the helm, and I haven't been a regular viewer for some time, that show is a little piece of home for me. It represents time shared with people who were important to me (my mother and grandmother), and a very specific moment in time when a big part of the person I am today was born.

It's no accident that people refer to their favorite soaps as their "stories," because that's what the genre has always been about - stories. Agnes Nixon wrote a story about Philip and Tara. Richard Hatch and Karen Lynn Gorney brought that story to life. That story made me fall in love with stories.


Marc said...

Thanks for sharing such a fond memory with us. Both my mother and grandmother watched their "stories" when I was growing up - Days of our Lives, Another World and Search for Tomorrow - and I became a fan of All My Children in college when Greg and Jenny were young and in love. It makes me very sad that I will no longer be able to tune in to see what Erica Kane is up to.

TheWeyrd1 said...

My mom always called them her stories. Although she generally watched about 3 at any given time. I started watching ATWT back in the Meg Ryan days of Betsy Andropolis (secret crush). Now, I've actually taken up watching European soaps...on BBC America when available and on YouTube in short clips. Sadly, the it's this era of the internet is somewhat to blame for the demise of the American soap as it seems to foster very short attention spans. I'm sad to see them all disappear...

Anonymous said...

I gravitated toward watching soaps when I was in high school and began cutting classes and sneaking back home. 48 years later, my addiction has waned but not disappeared. If they were to return to a 15 minute format (broadcast & online)could this genre be salvaged for current and future audiences, perhaps?


Snapper said...

I think the web is going to be the saving grace of the traditional soap opera. Shorter episodes is where it's going, too. Empire is my favorite of the ones I've seen - it's got a lot of heart, and it's obvious the guys writing it love soaps, themselves.

Also - keep an eye out for what comes out of in the near future from producers of lesbian-themed programming...and I'm talking about Venice.