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I Still Miss My Soap Opera, Do You?

I Still Miss My Soap Opera, Do You?

Laurie Ulster

Remember being addicted to a daytime soap?

Last week, I watched a special on ABC called The Story of Soaps. My secret agenda: a glimpse of any of the actors and characters from Another World, the soap I was hooked on throughout the eighties and nineties until its demise in 1999. But as someone who loves a deep dive into TV history, I was also looking forward to hearing about the impact the whole genre had on the TV we have today.  Soaps were endlessly mocked when I was a kid, and parodied beautifully, but frankly, they deserve a lot more respect than they got.

There are only four left now, I learned during this show; in the 80s, there were 15 of them on every day, with some of the biggest ones, like General Hospital (which I never watched, but I sure knew who Luke and Laura were), getting an average of 14 million viewers per episode.

In the middle of the day.

I freakin’ LOVED Another World. From high school through college, and then into the working world, there it was every day, ruined only by breaking news, or the (then, to me) interminable Olympics.

Remember what a time commitment it was? Of course, that was before the internet and social media, when we were still recording shows on physical things called TAPES and even the best VCR was still a bit of a crapshoot when it came to whether or not your beloved show would really be there waiting for you. My day was simply not the same if it didn’t record. I HAD to know if the evil twin had been discovered, the secret affair revealed, the blackmail exposed, the true identity still hidden. And amidst all the outlandishness, the slaps in the face, the illogical circumstances, the outrageous plots, there was a very basic underlying humanity to it all. It was about emotional truth, under the most wackadoo circumstances in the world.

Right? Didn’t you feel that way? I mean, Sharlene had a split personality named Sharly and when Sharlene’s husband John found out that Grant, the patient whose life he’d saved, was in love with Sharly, I totally understood how everybody felt!  All four of them. Three? Four. Three.

Nowhere else on TV could characters be explored over decades, or have a secret that took, I don’t know, TEN YEARS to reveal. As a viewer, you knew these characters as well as their actors did, even more if the actor had been replaced over time (Hey, it happens). So when some new badass came to town and thought Cass Winthrop was a square, I knew they were wrong. Cass used to be such a scoundrel! And he knows just what you’re up to, new kid on the scoundrel block.

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And there was great comfort to be had. My soap was a familiar place to visit every weekday, year-round. No matter how tumultuous my life was, there was shelter from the storm waiting for me when I got home, whether I was enduring my teenage days in the hellhole of high school or stumbling my way through my so-called adult life. It anchored me.

I went to NYU to study dramatic writing, and one summer I scored an internship in the writers’ office of Another World. I could not have been more thrilled. I got to take notes during writers’ meetings, and see how the whole fascinating process worked, from long-term story arcs to assigning the dialogue for specific scenes. Despite the crazy-tight schedule–no other type of show had to produce five full-length episodes of scripted television a week— there was always room for inspiration. I remember Head Writer Donna Swajeski, whom I revered after seeing just how deeply she loved the Another World characters she wrote for, burst out one day, “I’ve got it! We’re doing one full hour of Frankie in heaven!”

Yes, they did it, and yes, it was wildly successful. The fan mail was voluminous.

When I got to visit the set, it was one full day of Laurie in heaven. I stood in Rachel Cory’s living room and took a deep breath. I met the actors and costumers and saw how one set lived on the back of another, finally understood just how meticulously everything was scheduled to work around sets, lighting, wardrobe, actors’ schedules, and bajillions of other details. And you know what? None of that ever took away from how fun the show was to watch; I stuck with it until it ended in June of 1999 and felt its loss keenly for months afterwards. Okay, not months, years. For real. Another World may not have been high-quality television, but it was a part of my LIFE, and sometimes the only thing I could count on. And I miss it.

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