On Soap Operas, or, The Bald and the Beautiful

I found myself somewhat inspired by Orit Gat’s recent article “The Essay and the Internet.” In particular, I like what she has to say about the possibilities that open up when writing an essay for the web as opposed to print. Obviously, quite a few really talented writers have been doing this for a while—many have experimented with the possibilities of using websites as diverse as eBay and Google Maps to create essays; the web has also created new opportunities for video and photo essays as well. I’m not nearly as experimental (or, arguably, creative) as those people, but Gat’s article convinced me that even more “traditional” essays might be enhanced when put online.

To that end, I have adapted an early essay of my own for the web. What follows was originally written for print and published in the Spring, 2005 issue of The Bellevue Literary Review as “The Bald and the Beautiful.” I have spent the past several weeks reimagining this essay, endeavoring to create something that combines text, image, and video—complete with links to resources that might deepen the audience’s understanding of the essay, its references and its themes.

Next week, I will be sharing a second essay, a follow-up to this one that checks back in on my life, my marriage, and my soap opera habit ten years after the original essay was published. I hope you enjoy them both.

–WB, September 2014

(Originally drafted in Columbia, Missouri, 2003)

General Hospital was particularly good today. Brenda and Jason’s trial for Alcazar’s murder began, but Brenda did not appear in court. They are both innocent, of course. Framed, most likely, by one of Sonny’s enemies. Could be A.J. Could be Roy. It might even be that conniving Edward Quartermaine, who hates Sonny for adopting his great-grandson Michael and raising him as his own. Only one thing’s certain—I’ll be tuning in tomorrow.

Ostensibly, these soap operas are just on for background noise, something to fill the silence of the apartment while I write next semester’s syllabuses or dust the bookshelves or make notes for my book. But as I do these things, I find my gaze wandering towards the television, where dark, chiseled men have their arms around the waists of slim, gorgeous women and say things like, “You taught me what it means to love.” And I find myself ignoring the important, mundane tasks of real life, preferring, instead, a world of mobsters, secret agents, teenage lovers, and evil twins.

And later, as my fiancée and I sit on the couch, watching a documentary or a foreign film, she tells me about something she read earlier in the afternoon about the roles women played in Middleton’s city comedies, and I respond with, “You know, I’m pretty sure that Cameron is Zander’s father, but he doesn’t realize that he’s right there in Port Charles.”

Emily’s pretty easygoing, and she puts up with a lot of inane comments, but at this she sighs and says, “How can you watch those things?”

“They’re da bomb,” I answer.

She doesn’t say anything as I grin at her. Just tries not to smile. In our relationship, it is generally understood that she is the serious one, and that I’m the fool she puts up with. She plays the straight man, rolling her eyes and groaning at me. Deep down, though, I think part of the reason we get along so well is that she finds me charming in my goofiness.

bradley goofy

So I elaborate. “It’s like, I like soap operas because the actors get to say things like, ‘I will destroy you.’”

“Uh-huh,” she says, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms across her chest. “And that appeals why?”

“Well, I mean, it’s funny. How many times have you told someone you were going to destroy him?”

“Never.”

“Exactly. Me neither. But they say it all the time on soap operas. ‘I will destroy you.’ It’s awesome. I’d love to be able to say dialogue like that. Also, I like it when the guys on the shows are all dark and seductive. Like, they always look out of the tops of their eyes, really intense. Like this.” I lower my head slightly and gaze at her with the most smoldering intensity I can muster. Lowering my voice, I say, “I can see the light of a thousand stars in your eyes.”

“Ooookay,” she says, pushing away from my chest and rising from the couch. She walks out of the room, towards the kitchen.

bradley with mother

My mother is really the only person I can talk soap operas with.

When I was sick and living with my parents, my mother and I would spend our afternoons in the living room, watching adulterers and blackmailers scheme, while the heroic characters struggled to overcome the obstacles these villains placed in front of them. And the amazing thing was, the good guys almost always did overcome. Sure, the villains might gain a temporary victory or two, and—if an actor decided to leave a show—a heroic character’s plane might crash into the Pacific or something.

But the thing about soap operas—and this gets left out when people criticize them—is that virtue is always rewarded, and vice is always punished. If you cheat on your wife, she will eventually find out and leave you for your brother. If you fake your child’s DNA test, the real father will eventually piece things together and raise the kid with his new, good-hearted wife. If you try to use your weather controlling device to freeze the entire town of Port Charles—and all of its citizens– in an effort to conquer the world as a power-mad dictator, the device will eventually be turned on you and you will wind up being frozen alive.

I think we can all learn a lot from that.

More importantly, though, soap operas offer a type of permanence, something you can always count on. Actors may change, super-couples may ride off into the sunset, heroic characters may eventually be replaced by younger, hotter bodies that look better shirtless or in a bikini, but you can usually turn on a soap opera—any soap opera—and figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. The good guys show their teeth when they smile; the bad guys smirk. The eyes of the villainess will dart about nervously, while the heroine’s gaze stays fixed and constant. Storylines may end, but they’re guaranteed to reappear a few years later. One character’s evil twin will be taken care of, but someone else will have a doppelganger soon enough; the popular couple will face a grave threat to their relationship, but in the end they’ll emerge stronger than ever; the character who dies will come back, if he’s charismatic enough to have left an impression on the viewers.

As I watched while chemotherapy devoured my cancer—and the lining of my stomach, and my hair follicles— I was struck by the feeling that some of these shows might go on forever. Many of them—- The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital—- were on long before I was born, and it was easy enough to imagine that they would continue long after I am gone.

As my condition deteriorated, my mother and I moved from the couch in the living room to the uncomfortable, sterilized furniture of the hospital room (perhaps a dying room) in Ann Arbor. And still those beautiful people appeared on the glowing box, alternately pledging eternal love and planning corporate takeovers. The shows came on everyday, predictable as predestination, while I got sicker and sicker. In that hospital room, handsome men made love to beautiful women while I vomited up tiny mouthfuls of bile—all that was left in my stomach—and felt my intestines burn with painful diarrhea, all while the tissue in my mouth cracked and fell apart. Things got worse and worse for me, until… until…

Until, at the very last moment, a crack team of medical specialists arrived to administer one last, experimental treatment. Drs. Monica and Alan Quartermaine, Dr. Rick Weber, and Nurse Bobbie Spencer arrived from Port Charles’ General Hospital; Dr. John Hudson and Dr. Jamie Frame were flown in from Bay City General; Dr. Ben Davidson came all the way from Llanview, Pennsylvania. “You’ll be fine,” Bobbie whispered to me as the doctors tried to work a miracle. Fighting back tears, she said, “I won’t let you die.”

“He’s coding!” Ben exclaimed.

“No,” Alan shouted as he worked above me. “I won’t lose this one. Not him. Not him!”

“Don’t you die on me,” Monica pleaded. “Don’t you die on me.”

And suddenly, at the last possible moment, the machinery started beeping rhythmically.

“His cancer!” Jamie exclaimed. “It’s going into remission!”

“It’s a miracle,” John replied, clenching his jaw.

Okay. That’s not exactly how it happened, but that’s close enough. There wasn’t actually a beeping machine, but my doctors did work diligently, and I survived as a result of their efforts. My continued survival could indeed be considered miraculous, considering how close to cancellation The Days of My Life actually came.

These days, I find soap operas comforting. Cars blow up, pregnancies are faked, lies get told, and people are shot. But none of it is surprising. No one has ever watched a soap opera and said, “My God! I can’t believe that happened!” I doubt anyone’s life has ever been changed by something he or she saw on a daytime drama.

This, I think, is why Emily is so surprised by my fascination with these shows. We both study literature for a living, and we both believe in the transformative power of art. What’s more, we both turn up our noses at movies and television shows that pander or simplify—particularly when they seem to aspire to profundity.

But I still love soap operas. They don’t pretend to have any amount of depth, the way primetime dramas frequently tend to. The most they can offer is predictability, stability. And in a world where wars get launched for dubious reasons, where a college professor with multiple degrees may find his livelihood threatened by a fickle state legislature’s cutbacks in education, and where a 21-year-old is forced to realize that his life can—and likely will—be snuffed out, probably without much notice, that type of stability can feel like divine intervention.

I often wish that life were more like a soap opera. It’s not that I need more melodrama in my life—I had quite enough during my cancer years—but their simplified worlds seem easier to live in. For example, when my grandmother died, Emily and I had a conversation about our future, and I had to tell her—as gently as I could—that I will most likely die much sooner than she will; my medical history practically guarantees it. I will die before her; I will leave her alone. I know that this is the type of thing everyone says, but I really wanted her to understand that her happiness means everything to me, and that I didn’t want her to waste her life with anger or regret if she became a young widow, as she very well could.

It was hard for us both, but it was something that had to be done. I didn’t feel that we could commit ‘til death do us part until we had discussed what exactly that could mean. I was afraid that she was unaware of the risks, that my own positive attitude and goofy charm might have given her the impression that there was nothing to be scared of, in terms of my cancer and the chances for a relapse or damage from long-term side-effects of treatment.

It turned out I needn’t have worried. She tearfully assured me that she understood the risks, and the likelihood that she would go on without me someday. That getting married means that, when the relationship ends, rather than dividing up the CDs and books and the movies, one person buries the other in the ground. She put her face against my chest and cried, and I reminded her that we are both in perfect health, and would likely live for a long, long time.

And I wished that life were a soap opera. I wished that, instead of sitting on the couch like that offering weak reassurances, I could lift her up in my arms, kiss her neck, chin, and lips, and tell her, with certainty, that things would always be good.

“There’s never anything for you to worry about, ever again. When I’m thoughtless or cruel, it’s not me; it’s my evil twin. If my plane goes down, my car blows up, or for some other reason you have to order my headstone, don’t despair. It’s okay. I will be back, a few years later, in a dramatic, triumphant return. Love never dies, and nor will I.”

But since life isn’t a soap opera, I just kept my arm around her shoulders and periodically kissed the top of her head until it was time to go to sleep.

bradley and emily

(Originally published in the Spring, 2005 issue of the Bellevue Literary Review. Revised for the web in Canton, New York, 2014)

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