Most of my readers and some of my friends will be surprised to learn that I have had a 25+ year obsession with the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. The show, which aired its last episode last Friday, embodies everything I love about storytelling which, for me, is the crux of my love for movies (and books, theater, opera, etc.) Any episode could swing effortlessly between romantic melodrama, heart-pounding action, self-aware parody, witty comedy, and socially conscious commentary. It was a smorgasbord of narrative storytelling that has allowed me to giddily follow characters for, in some cases, decades.
When ABC announced the cancellation of One Life to Live in April, it hit me like a bomb in a wedding cake. I had been hearing rumors of the show’s inevitable demise for a few years, but it never felt like a real threat until then. Still, the end wouldn’t be until January, so there was still plenty of time to stay immersed in the trials and tribulations of my favorite fictional town, Llanview, Pennsylvania and I didn’t have to process what I would be losing until the time came.
Friday, however, was the day. (Fitting that it was Friday the 13th.) The last of 11,105 episodes of One Life to Live, which has been aired continuously, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, since 1968. My grandma and mom both watched One Life to Live (in addition to Days of Our Lives and General Hospital) and, though these shows were always on during the summer months, it wasn’t until about 1985 that I began to take notice. And it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.
While I was moderately interested in the other two shows, One Life to Live stood out as the best of the bunch. I loved the characters, storylines, and the history which my mom dutifully explained, no matter how complex the relationships or histories might have been. I think the first storyline I really paid attention to was the famous faux Bo storyline, as it has become affectionately known among fans. Patrick London got plastic surgery to become Bo’s doppelganger, kidnapped him, and took his place in so he could drug Bo’s billionaire father Asa and steal his company. Then he and his accomplices (Elizabeth Saunders, I believe) had to kidnap his wife Didi and his ex-wife Delilah as they got suspicious, holding them all prisoner in a basement. What a great story! It cheesy as all get up, but who cares? It’s a soap opera. It’s supposed to be over the top. Someone kindly put together clips of the climax of the story. Excuse the bad audio:
Like any show that spans decades, One Life to Live went through its bad spells and I would stop watching for a year or two, but something would always pull me back. I even went through a period in the mid to late 1990s when I looked down my nose at the soap opera genre, letting snobs who had never spent more than an afternoon with a soap dictate my views on the shows. But as I got older I began to appreciate the absurd storylines even more and I came back. And over the years I was treated to more great storytelling.
Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks
Viki, played magisterially by Erika Slezak (daughter of Walter Slezak) since 1971, was the center of the show. Daughter of on overbearing newspaper publisher, good-natured Viki has struggled with meeting her father’s expectations while still making a full and independent life for herself. Over the years she has suffered with multiple personality disorder, allowing some great acting opportunities for Slezak, especially when she remembered her father sexually abused her in the 1990s. And all the marriages! If you account for them all, her name would be Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks. Whew. She’s buried three husbands and divorced three or four times. She’s also had a stroke, a heart attack, a heart transplant (with a heart donated from her recently-deceased husband Ben), been raped, had breast cancer and a mastectomy, and she’s been shot a few of times. She’s died more than once, visiting heaven, giving her a chance to catch up with deceased characters. Most of her children and grandchildren have been kidnapped at some point in their lives. Any real person would have been reduced to a blubbering mess with just a couple of these. Viki has held strong.
While Viki is the center, she’s hardly all there was to Llanview. An intense rivalry between Viki and Dorian has been simmering since the 1970s. In the 1980s alone we had the Cord-Tina-Max love triangle. Mitch Laurence and his cult. Gabrielle’s baby-switching shenanigans. Maria’s psychotic obsession with Clint and her subsequent murder. A trip back to 1888. And we can’t forget the underground city of Eterna.
Not all the stories were frivolous. The melodrama in any good soap is peppered with topical stories that touch on relevant social issues. In the early 1990s, bad girl Marty Seybrook was gang raped at a frat house and she mistakenly accuses Viki’s son Kevin as a participant, setting up a surprisingly thoughtful and provoking story arc. They’ve also dealt with interracial romance, racism, breast cancer, AIDS, child sexual abuse, lupus, teen pregnancy, addiction, and, most recently, bullying.
But for me, the best of these, the story that touched me personally was the Billy Douglas story. It was 1992 when a young Ryan Phillippe made his debut on the show as Billy and it soon became clear that the good looking, clean cut, All American boy was hiding a secret, terrified someone would find out he’s gay. I had only come out to my parents two years before, at a time when there was really little positive portrayals of gays on TV, unless it was a movie of the week about AIDS or a guest spot on The Golden Girls. I don’t know that I can express how much it meant to see a teenage boy on the show I loved going through many of the same things I was going through: the fear, the alienation, the uncertainty. There was something affirming about seeing Billy expressing the same feelings and fears I had.
ABC didn’t have the courage to let Billy’s character grow up on the show. That would mean he might have *gasp* sex and they weren’t ready for that in 1992. The show did redeem itself with the wonderful romance between closeted police officer Oliver Fish and his former college lover, Kyle Lewis a couple of years ago, culminating in a groundbreaking gay sex scene, something I never thought I would see on daytime TV. I wasn’t happy that they ended their arc so abruptly, but at least they were given a happy ending and a baby to raise to boot.
Why Are Soaps Dying?
TV executives are some of the most uncreative, gutless executives in the entertainment industry. They make movies executives look like profiles in courage. Soaps aren’t dying because people are tuning out. Ratings might be going down, but there are still plenty of people watching in non-traditional ways and ABC doesn’t have the guts to experiment with ways to hold onto that audience. They have alienated millions of once loyal fans in their race to the bottom, the race to produce the cheapest shows possible, audience be damned.
Soaps are expensive, so it’s a risk for executives to go out on a limb and find ways to save them. It isn’t a risk to cancel them and replace them with dopey talk shows that can be produced at a fraction of the cost. That they get a fraction of the audience is immaterial to them. They’d rather fail with a cheap cooking show than an expensive soap.
A commentator on Huffington Post, Epiphany2b, said it best: “The problem they don’t seem to get is that eventually the cheapness of the final [product] (cheap in many ways) is going to send viewers back to books or watching series reruns on their computers, their advertising dollars will fall, since they are based on viewership, and their profits will tank. Eventually there will be no need for people to pay for cable or satellite connections, because there is nothing worth watching, and they will have destroyed the industry.”
But they don’t care about the future. They are only thinking about short term business decisions that are decimating the cultural landscape of the United States. Now standing up for soap operas might seem frivolous, but scraping a 43-year institution before trying radically innovative ways to save it is abominably short sighted. But these execs don’t care about soaps and have been trying to get rid of them for years. In the recent past we’ve seen All My Children, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light, which has been broadcast since 1937, get killed off unceremoniously. And now One Life to Live joins them. Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful are the only ones left and the clock is ticking for them. We’re going to be left with television filled with Kardashian, Jerry Springer, and Jersey Shore knock-offs.
Look, I get it. Everything has to come to an end some time and 43 years is a pretty good run. That, however, doesn’t make me any happier. I grew up with and have lived with these characters my entire life and I want to continue checking in on them. I want to see Viki and Clint finally get married. I want Jessica to finally find happiness. I have been loving the addition of the Patels, an Indian family who have turned out to be great fun. I want to see where life takes Starr, to see if Todd finally gets his comeuppance, and figure out how Allison got her mitts on Victor in the last episode! Roxy has more clichés to mangle, the Ford brothers have more shirts to take off, and the Vega brothers need to find love too. (I don’t buy Cristian’s romance in Spain.) There is still so much storytelling to do here. Let’s get One Life to Live back in some way, if only to get the hunky Ford brothers back.
Here are some of my favorite moments from One Life to Live over the years:
The famous exploding wedding cake! Hilarious:
Marty accuses Rev. Andrew Carpenter of making advances towards teen boys in his congregation. Billy has to set the record straight and come out to his parents and tell them Andrew was only counseling him:
Asa, who usually loves his daughter-in-law Viki, gives her a piece of his mind when he thinks she cheated on his son. “Now you listen to me, soon to be ex-daughter-in-law…” Great scene:
Gabrielle and Brenda get into it:
A compilation of Nora and Lindsay’s bad blood:
Cristian catches Oliver kissing Kyle:
One of the funniest moments of the show was when Roxy, distraught over the impending cancellation of the soap within a soap, Fraternity Row, faints and wakes up as the show’s main character, Lorraine. They do a great job of ribbing the soap genre, reminding us that no matter how serious it might have seemed, they were always winking at us:
And no retrospective of the best of One Life to Live would be complete without a confrontation between Viki and Dorian. “Any resemblance between you and a human being is purely accidental.” Ha!: