Deep Soap: Farewell, ‘As the World Turns’

by | September 17, 2010 at 12:53 AM | Deep Soap, TV News

'As the World Turns' Cast (Photo: CBS)

'As the World Turns' Cast (Photo: CBS)

Today, after 54 years, ‘As The World Turns‘ – the longest running daytime drama – will air its final episode.

Given that ‘ATWT’ is the last daytime series produced by Procter & Gamble, the household products company that got into television production to sell detergent, this can be seen as the death of the soap opera.

The demise of ‘ATWT’ has a very different feel than the end of ‘Guiding Light’ a year ago.  Then, there was shock and outrage that CBS would pull the plug on a show that was an important part of television history. Now, viewers seem sad and resigned.  The show’s cancellation was announced so long ago.  Fans have accepted that the daytime drama is, in all likelihood, going to cease to exist at some point in the next five to 10 years.

How does one end a narrative that was never supposed to end?  ‘ATWT’ was lucky that it had enough time to figure it out. Most soaps that have been canceled have only had a couple months to wrap things up.  A few, like ‘Capitol‘ and ‘Port Charles‘ even ended on cliffhangers.

‘ATWTs final storylines have not impressed some of its longtime fans.  The focus continued to be on the characters who have been prominent for only the past few years, not the older veterans.  So this week has featured more Janet (Julie Pinson) and Dusty (Greyson McCouch) than Bob (Don Hastings) and Kim (Kathryn Hays).  Also, many more former characters could have returned for the farewell.

But evaluated for what it is, not what it could be, ‘ATWT’s is delivering the most satisfying soap ending that I can remember.  (‘Another World’s‘ would have been decent without the lovesick gorilla.)  Carly (Maura West) and Jack’s (Michael Park) simple outdoor wedding was heartwarming and gave the show’s current supercouple a satisfying happy ending.  For a couple who has had so many weddings, anything fancier would have been inappropriate.  The dialogue was subtly meta.  Jack’s vows included the line, “Things we never imagined could end, in fact, do come to an end.”

‘ATWT’ tied everything up with a bow, when Dusty, not Jack, turned out to be the father of Janet’s baby, and Carly learned she was pregnant with the love of her life’s child.  Holden (John Hensley) and Lily (Noelle Beck) are also poised for their upteenth reunion.  John (Larry Brygmann)  is whisking Lucinda (Liz Hubbard) off to Amsterdam — the perfect city for two unconventional middle aged folks.

The previews for the finale show Bob talking about his retirement next to a globe that is an obvious homage to the show’s logo.

Yes, it could have been better.  Unfortunately, beloved former headwriter Douglas Marland cannot send down script pages from heaven.  This is a thousand times better than the final weeks of ‘Guiding Light,’ which were nearly devoid of sets and substituted musical montages for dialogue.  ‘ATWT’ is going out as a real soap, with plot twists and romance to the end.  I like to think that’s what the show’s creator Irna Phillips would have wanted.

In its final week ‘ATWT’ feels more like itself than it has in years.  I have no idea why it took the writers so long embrace the possibilities of having nothing left to lose and stop wasting time on silly storylines that were in theoretical pursuit of younger demographics.  I suspect CBS exerted its influence until the end.

‘ATWT’ has struggled in the ratings – particularly among young viewers – for so long that it’s easy to forget that in the 1960s the show was far more popular than ‘General Hospital‘ in the heyday of Luke and Laura.  It, not ‘GH,’ was the soap that invented the supercouple with the saga of young lovers Jeff and Penny. It was the first soap to feature teen characters in leading roles, along with equally prominent storylines for their parents and grandparents.

How did ‘ATWT’ and P&G go from the contemporary soap that captured the zeitgeist of America in the ‘Mad Men‘ era to a show that was dismissed as stodgy and old-fashioned? It’s not simply a matter of the soap being long-running.  No, somewhere along the way ‘ATWT’ stopped reflecting the lives of its viewers.

‘GH’ was a staid, near-dead show about doctors and nurses before Gloria Monty came along and transformed it into a show featuring discos and eccentric millionaires that was hip and relevant to the viewers of the 1970s and 80s.  ’ATWT,’ thanks to Douglas Marland (who wrote Luke and Laura’s early story on ‘GH’ and had his eye on the pulse of the nation) crafted storylines that were equally fresh while remaining true to ‘ATWT’s premise of family life in a small midwestern town. Holden and Lily’s original arc was a scorching hot tale of forbidden love.  The creation of the Snyder family not only reflected Marland’s farming background but the struggles of small farmers to preserve their lifestyle as America transitioned to giant corporate farms during the 1980s.  It was only after his sudden untimely death that the show began to flounder.

When soap fans complain that the shows have strayed too far from their roots, I believe they are talking more about the structure and overarching theme of the storylines than the actual content. Nobody wants to watch two housewives drinking coffee and fretting about their husbands for an entire episode. The most popular soaps of an era have always had something to say about the world around them, whether it was Agnes Nixon’s take on contemporary social issues in the 1970s, Bill Bell’s instinctual understanding of viewers desire for glamorous escapism during the late 1980s when Y&R became the number one show, or even the original  Sonny and Brenda’s storyline on ‘GH’ in the 1990s.  Lack of evolution and innovation is one of the reasons daytime is dying.

‘ATWT’ stopped being relevant after Marland died in the mid-1990s. Though in the early part of the ’00s Hogan Sheffer’s stories garnered critical acclaim, in retrospect many of them were arch and self-parodic in a medium that has always succeeded with a mass audience by being deeply sincere. (Perhaps that’s where ‘One Life To Live‘ has gone wrong.)   It had a brief chance to reclaim its mantle in the early days of the Luke (Van Hansis) and Noah (Jake Silbermann) storyline, which, as daytime’s first frontburner romance among gay men was fresh and unique and attracted new viewers.

Alas, many of them chose to watch the show online and were not represented in the Nielsen ratings.  The deep conservatism of P&G resulted in a prudish take on the physical aspects of their relationship and storylines that undercut everything that made them appealing.  As fans gave up on Nuke, ‘ATWT,’ in my opinion squandered its opportunity to reinvent itself for the 21st century while still staying true to its premise.

This afternoon I will watch and mourn the end of an era, as well as the end of a fictional universe.

Goodbye, Oakdale.

Special thanks to Sam Ford, editor of the upcoming book Survival of the Soap Opera and lifelong ‘As the World Turns’ aficionado, for sharing his thoughts on the demise of ‘ATWT’ with me and helping inspire this column – especially for pointing out the significance of the final P&G soap getting canceled .