I have been a little blue lately, and it’s embarrassing to admit why. I am mourning the end of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”
As a rabbi, I frequently witness and help people bear very real losses. So why should I be upset about the ending of a couple of melodramas? Come September when the shows are canceled, many people will contend with unemployment. But that real-world loss was not (another chagrined admission) my initial concern. Rather, upon hearing the news, I felt it was — to use a cliché worthy of soap operas — the end of an era.
Like many other 40-somethings, I was introduced to soap operas by my grandmother. “Keep your Nana company,” my mother would urge. “It’s a mitzvah.” My grandmother drew me in, explaining the characters and the back stories. I fondly remember sitting in twin kitchen chairs, getting to know my Nana as a woman of the world. She could see through double-dealing evil twins and even wink at a racy plotline.
Like many viewers, my grandmother was loyal to one network. And that was one out of a choice of three — not 300. She called the two soaps “my stories.” They were part of the narrative of her life, and they became part of mine.
Nana died more than 20 years ago, but I still tune in periodically to her stories. In Soap Opera Land, time moves strangely. Babies age into teenagers in a matter of months, but I can leave the characters for years, and not much has changed.
Come to think of it, time moves that way in real life, too. At family gatherings, the kids seem to grow up overnight, and the adult characters are known. Surprises and twists in the stories of our lives are quickly integrated. Fresh faces keep things interesting, but for the most part, the people and surroundings are familiar. We can pick up where we left off.
I didn’t realize how connected I felt to my grandmother through her soap operas until word surfaced of their imminent cancellation. I believed that “her people” would always be there, staying the same and growing, in perfect proportions for comfort.
One reason for the cancelation is that viewers don’t have the time anymore to watch people develop in even the semblance of real time. If this limitation were confined to observing people on television, I wouldn’t be distressed. But we don’t have time for one another — period. It’s not just the fictional communities of Pine Valley or Llanview that will be lost. We are in danger of losing Community itself.
We don’t have or take the time to know our neighbors. We race to and from places designed to foster community, like the synagogue and JCC. People used to linger, shmooze and meet new friends. “I am too busy to see the friends I already have,” has become a common complaint. With the demise of these soap operas, we have lost one more link that connected people across time, class and geography.
Some analysts have remarked that the replacements anticipated for soap operas are expected to be less popular and bring in less income than the soaps themselves. However, since the cost to produce them is less, there will be a net gain. This is true only if you measure by dollars alone and consider television purely an economic — not a cultural or artistic — endeavor.
The ending of these soap operas is a net loss for our culture. Yes, we can say good riddance to some mugging for the camera. Yes, time spent watching could better be spent reading or volunteering. But as an escapist leisure activity enjoyed in moderation, soap operas are a blessing. They are a source of campy humor, comfort and community. Soap operas are one of the few outlets in popular culture that deal responsibly and honorably with controversial issues. In my spotty viewing, I have observed “All My Children” address gay marriage and “One Life to Live,” bullying.
Soap operas are modern morality plays in which kindness is always rewarded and lying is always exposed. With religion, the daytime soap asserts that redemption and healing are always possible. No sin is so grave that you cannot come back next season, do teshuvah, and turn from villain back to hero. My flip language reflects the genre, but the message of hope is serious and important.
The very names of these programs tell us about what is soon to be lost. “All My Children” implies inter-generational conversation and family unity. “One Life to Live,” though grandiose, reminds us that we need to make time for the people and priorities that are most important. Maybe that shouldn’t mean sitting together in front of the television. Nearly everyone would benefit from watching less — or none. But when we watch, I hope we will do so as mindfully and passionately as my Nana, who loved and passed on her stories.
Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in Emerson, N.J., and editor of the Lifecycles book series (Jewish Lights Publishing). Find her at www.RabbiDebra.com.