By Dan Sullivan
New York Times
June 23, 1968
JIM HARMON, in his recent, wonderfully elegiac book "The Great Radio Heroes," recalls certain long gray afternoons 25 or 30 years ago, when a kid home from school with the sniffles had nothing to do but listen to soap operas on the radio. Harmon recalls how delighted he always was to find that the daytime people on PORTIA FACES LIFE and JUST PLAIN BILL got mixed up with the crooks, just like the nighttime people--his people-- on MR. KEEN. Sometimes, he confesses, he would even prolong the sniffles a couple of days just to see how the stories would come out. But--radio soap opera being as devoid of final solutions as life itself--they somehow never did come out. Eventually he would give up and go back to school, forgetting Mary Noble, Helen Trent and David (FRONT PAGE) Farrell until the next time he got sick.
Mr. Harmon's memories are shared by millions of former sniffly American kids, including me and quite possibly you. We, of course, have changed over the years. But what of the soap operas? Those of the alumni who have not kept up with the genre--who are not at home during the afternoon to watch AS THE WORLD TURNS, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and the rest of a dozen or so TV dramas that have replaced yesteryear's beloved radio serials (77 of them in 1938)--may be interested in a night-worker's notes on how things have changed in daytime drama since the last time you heard Oxydol's Own MA PERKINS.
To begin with, the old gang is gone--Portia, Helen, Papa David, all vanished without a trace in a sea of new blue Cheer--and so far the old certainties.
Radio soap opera was vividly simplistic. People were clearly divided into Good People and Bad People (with a subcategory in the Good column labeled Good But Weak), and it didn't take Ma Perkins or her listeners two minutes to figure out who was, morally speaking, who. Good people suffered nobly and were above temptation. Bad people had cynical laughs and came from the city. And they had to be thwarted. "You have to stand up to evil and fight it!" Just Plain Bill used to tell his customers at the barbershop. In times of stress, Portia would quote Scripture.
Compared with these inner-directed types, today's soap opera heroes and heroines are sadly deficient in backbone, and, worse, color.
Almost all of them fall into the Good-But-Weak category, and their ambivalence gets them into scrapes that would have stunned Young Widder Brown. (That nice young Dr. Bill Horton on DAYS OF OUR LIVES, for example, got drunk at the hospital this spring and raped his sister-in-law.) But even their sins lack zest. They know that "nothing's all black or all white" (THE DOCTORS) or "things are never what they seem" (SEARCH FOR TOMORROW). They know all about the subconscious and guilt feelings, and the knowledge lies heavy on their hearts. Although the plots are racier, the characters on TV soap opera are more lugubrious than ever.
Lacking heroes in the old sense, today's soap operas also lack villains. The closest thing to a bad guy on THE DOCTORS ("dedicated to the brotherhood of healing"), for example, is Mr. Bunker, the crippled old newspaper publisher who wants to throw Dr. Matt Powers off the staff at Memorial Hospital. Significantly, Bunker--who isn't really bad, just bitter because Matt couldn't save his wife's life after an auto accident 10 years ago--talks a lot about moral stigmas and decency and the importance of community respect. Fusty stuff like that. "This is the 20th century!" somebody yelled at him the other day. "There are more important things than moral stigmas!" Ma, Portia--where are you?
Besides being grayer than their radio ancestors, TV soap operas are also longer. SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and THE GUIDING LIGHT are the only ones to have maintained the 15-minute format; and CBS will inflate even these to a half-hour in the fall. The new length has meant new problems for the writers and new burdens for the audience.
For instance, the Exposition Explosion. Exposition, in dramaturgical terms, is what an audience has to know beforehand to make sense of the plot. On the radio soap operas, which classically revolved around a central figure with an ever-recurring problem (Would Our Gal Sunday find happiness with Lord Henry Brinthrop?) Would Helen Trent find romance after 35?), it was enough for the announced to set the scene at the beginning of each episode.
The April 4, 1948 broadcast of PORTIA FACES LIFE, for example, started this way.
ANNOUNCER -- Portia's heart tightened sickeningly as she saw the fear grow in Mark Randall's face. Could she tell him her chances of proving his innocence were desperately slim? That everything depended on how Bill Baker being able to bring Kathie to the courthouse before Joan took the stand? What can she say now as Mark demands...
MARK -- For God's sake, Portia, don't just stand there!
TV soap operas, however, are sprawling, multicharacter epics as hard to summarize briefly as "War and Peace," which they in no other way resemble. An anchor trying to lay bare the fantastically complicated relationships on AS THE WORLD TURNS (where everyone has been married at least twice) or DAYS OF OUR LIVES (where brother-sister incest--unconscious, of course--recently threatened) who take the entire half-hour. So the exposition must be introduced drop-by-drop into the body of the show itself. The most frequent method is to have A and B sit down over coffee to discuss C's problem, like this:
A -- You've heard...that Michael was arrested?
B -- For drunken driving? Yes. But what I can't figure out is, why didn't he give Mrs. Steiner that hypodermic injection?
A -- Who knows? Anyway, Claire is standing by him.
B -- She's a loyal wife, Claire...Do you think she knows about Lisa?
A -- You mean about Michael being the father of Lisa's child?
Etc., etc. Besides keeping the viewer up to date (pollsters have found that most people watch their favorite soap operas no more than two or three times a week), these interminable kaffeeklatsches also serve the genre's classic aim: to spread the minimum amount of action over the maximum amount of time.
The time-honored, time-wasting ploys of radio dialogue are still popular: The Telling Pause ("David...there's something...I...haven't told you"); The Deep-Felt Stammer ("David, there's...there's something I...I haven't told you"; The Eloquent Synonym ("David, there's something...I haven't told you. Tried to keep from you. Didn't want you to know.")
But added to these are certain visual devices that can strrretch one of the above-mentioned coffee breaks into nearly a 30-minute episode without adding a word to the dialogue. The conversation between A and B for instance, would typically be prefaced by a long close-up of a coffee cup, the camera then pulling back as slowly as possible to show our two friends about to discuss Michael, Claire, Lisa and poor Mrs. Steiner. Between lines, A and B would be encouraged to take a sip of coffee, eat a bit of sandwich, fiddle with their pearls, light a cigarette, adjust their garters--anything that looked natural and took some time.
The last shot would be another long close-up of B pondering A's final observation ("A woman with a man like that...has a problem") with the rapt yet solemn look that people once wore in magazine ads for Capehart-Farnsworth Phonographs. Then a slow dissolve to the Dreft commercial.
Besides suffering from somnolent pace (have the pollsters ever asked why people only watch two or three times a week?), TV soap opera also suffers from a dearth of humor. No on will maintain that radio soap opera was a barrel of laughs, but Vic and Sade, and even Ma and Shuffle used to get off a good one from time to time, to say nothing of Lorenzo Jones and his wife, Belle.
The only humor for today's shows, though is unconscious. For instance, the fake spookery on DARK SHADOWS, the only soap opera that still believes in witches. Or the goofs that crop up on all the shows. On THE DOCTORS the other day, the head of the hospital board was solemnly to accuse Dr. Althea Davis of "an illicit pregnancy." But it came out "peg-nancy." It was delightful to see the rest of the board trying not to break up, and ruin an expensive tape. I know people who watch soap operas just for such boners.
Are TV soap operas preferable in any way to radio's? In one way, yes. Men come off a little more sympathetic than they used to. No long are they portrayed as being either (a) rotten, (b) irresponsible or (c) impotent, which was pretty much the radio breakdown. Now they are seen as being, in general, no worse than women, which is a victory for sexual tolerance if a defeat for sexual melodrama.
After pointing out the differences between yesterday's soap operas and today's, an observer is forced to admit that underneath they are still pretty much the same. Murder trials and hospital scenes still prevail, amnesia and plastic surgery are still the rage (Dr. Mark Brooks on DAYS OF OUR LIVES has had both), and the characters still remain curiously insulated from the larger concerns of the world where their viewers have to live. Psychedelic drugs, with their potential for exotic hang-ups, have had a minor on some of the shows of late, but Vietnam is never mentioned and Black Power means an occasional Negro glimpsed over A's or B's shoulder in the hospital cafeteria. (Late flash: THE DOCTORS, in general the hippest of the soaps, has introduce as a major character a Negro doctor just back from Vietnam.)
On the other hand--to conclude with a defense of the genre--there is no evidence that those who like soap operas are any duller, more neurotic or less public-spirited than those who do not. The women of my acquaintance who watch LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING cheerfully agree that it is not, well... literature. But halfway through a busy afternoon, it is just about all they are up to. Escape is the name of soap-opera's game (then and now), and who is to deny its audience the right to do it? As Grampaw was cackling just the other afternoon on AS THE WORLD TURNS, "Everybody's got their own opinions on entertainment."