The World Has Stopped Turning, But Soaps Live On

Zsa Zsa Gabor filming 'As The World Turns,' 1981 i i

hide captionZsa Zsa Gabor strikes a glamorous pose during rehearsal for CBS' As The World Turns on Nov. 19, 1981, at Studio 52 in New York. The soap opera was canceled Tuesday after a 54-year run.

Marty Lederhandler/AP
Zsa Zsa Gabor filming 'As The World Turns,' 1981

Zsa Zsa Gabor strikes a glamorous pose during rehearsal for CBS' As The World Turns on Nov. 19, 1981, at Studio 52 in New York. The soap opera was canceled Tuesday after a 54-year run.

Marty Lederhandler/AP

So now I've helped to kill three shows: Guiding Light, Search For Tomorrow and As The World Turns (I directed episodes of all three, back in the 1980s). You should've seen the mail we'd get: thousands of handwritten letters every week (some of them addressed directly to the characters) wanting to know why they'd done this or that, why they didn't drop this girlfriend or leave that husband. It was clear to those of us who made the shows that to these viewers, the characters were more real than their own family members. And why not? They spent more quality time with them.

First in radio and later in television, soap operas brought something new to dramatic literature: characters who developed not just over the course of one show, but over the course of hundreds, even thousands of shows. Nothing much happened in each episode, but you sure got to know those characters, no matter how uninteresting they might be.

That's why soap operas aren't dead; they've evolved and migrated, like dramatic earthbound dinosaurs that have changed into soaring birds. They now have names like House, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives and even The Office. Shakespeare only had a couple of hours to flesh out Lady Macbeth or Richard III, but we get to live with Tony Soprano and Bree Hodge and Don Draper for dozens of hours over several years, in much bigger-budget shows than the daytime soaps. In terms of dramatic writing, though, it's essentially the same deal: very little dramatic action, but plenty of activity, and lots of character development.

Murray Horwitz i i

hide captionMurray Horwitz writes and directs for the stage, television and radio.

Courtesy of Murray Horwitz
Murray Horwitz

Murray Horwitz writes and directs for the stage, television and radio.

Courtesy of Murray Horwitz

We discuss them with our pals. We fantasize about them. And we maintain our own relationships with them for years, longer than we do with some of our friends and lovers.

It's true that the new soaps are mostly weekly affairs, and that old daily interaction is nearly gone. You still get it in the daytime soaps that remain, and in a way on the nonfiction Jeopardy, but come on, even Ken Jennings can't hold a candle to Nancy Hughes (played by Helen Wagner), whom viewers have been following on As The World Turns since 1956.

Something about us wants these people in our lives, and the soaps provide them. The great African-African comedian Godfrey Cambridge once asked his housekeeper why she and her colleagues all watched the soaps. "Honey," she replied, "I just love seeing white folks in trouble." And that will still be amply apparent on American television — hopefully with a bit more diversity — for many years to come.

Murray Horwitz has had an extraordinarily varied career in the arts and public life. His accomplishments in the performing arts include authoring the hit Broadway musical 'Ain't Misbehavin', writing the song lyrics for John Harbison's 'The Great Gatsby' at the Metropolitan Opera, and originating the hit public radio comedy quiz, 'Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me'.

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