[World, September 23, 1995]
Reporters are brave adventurers, required by their profession to visit places where they face danger in the forms of gunfire, tornados, or foreign food. Recently I undertook a similar expedition: I spent an entire afternoon in my living room. With the television on.
The journalistic curiousity that impelled me began when I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store, looking at the covers of magazines like "Soap Opera Update." I wondered for the umpteenth time, "Who are these guys?" How has the soap opera genre endured so long? What’s the appeal? Who watches these things? Howcome movie magazines have actors’ names on the cover, but soap magazines display the names of characters? Isn’t that a little creepy? Do fans actually believe that these soapy worlds are real?
My only previous experience with soaps was a pleasant childhood memory: someone ironing, the old wooden board creaking with each stroke, and steam rising off hot cotton. Across the room a small black-and-white screen displayed rolling thunderclouds, while a basso voice boomed, "The Edge…of Night."
Today "Another World" opens with a bright and empty ditty that gushes, "You take me away to another world." Soap viewers are people who’d like to get away into a vicarious world where exciting things are happening. Unfortunately for them, in Soapland very little happens. People just talk each other to death. Talk is cheap, cheaper than filming scenes where action occurs; no fights on the wing of an airplane, no cavalry riding over the hill, no Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai on the soaps.
Ads tell us a little more about the target audience; they’re people who need shampoo, cheese, toothpaste, pine cleaner, dishwasher detergent, and more toothpaste. Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like the contents of the cart I stood over last week, studying the covers of soap opera magazines. To my surprise, there are no ads for job-training courses. I guess people addicted to soaps aren’t looking for something else to do in the afternoons.
As I flipped between channels a pattern quickly emerged: a blonde and a guy talking. First, from "Another World": a blonde and a guy are talking in a bar. They have been drinking a lot, as evidenced by the array of green bottles before them, but all the bottles bear the label of a non-alcoholic brew. This cautious couple should be fine.
The color in here, as in most soaps, is lurid. It’s shot through an orange filter, so it looks like the actors are illuminated by a barn fire just off the set. Harsh lighting causes heavy shadows; the hero’s head casts a disk on the heroine’s shoulder.
Flip to "One Life to Live." Great, it’s rich people! A blonde and a guy are talking in a office, and she’s adript with gems. That’s how you know she’s wicked. The guy is a doughty old type, trying unsuccessfully to project a Southern accent. This is to show again that they’re wicked, in case you didn’t notice the jewelry.
Back to "Another World." A guy is talking to a blonde in an apartment, but this fluffy female is four-legged. He’s explaining that he’s a travelin’ man and can’t be takin’ care of a dog. Nail-biting suspense.
Cut to the blonde and guy in the bar. The non-alcoholic beer has taken its toll; her words are slurred. He stands up and stumbles into a wall.
Over to "General Hospital." A blonde and a guy are talking in a hospital room. This must be their trademark setting. For someone who’s just undergone major surgery she’s remarkably orange.
"One Life to Live." The previous wicked blonde and guy are talking threateningly to a newspaper editor. He looks like a shaggy-haired rock star, but a tired one. Every time the camera cuts back to him I expect the deep scar on his right cheek to have shifted over to the left. The Southern bad guy threatens him confusedly: "The only thing worse than not having me as a friend is having me as an enemy."
"Another World." A guy and a brunette are talking on a deck at the beach, but it appears to be an indoor beach. The orange light coming from stage right is opposed by blue light from stage left, to create that subtle sense of moonlight.
"General Hospital." A couple of very bulky guys are trying to pass as gals, infiltrating a spiritualist seminar. This doesn’t look like a bad plotline. Much talking with a blonde, but enlivened by one of the big guys trying to hide under a voluminous scarf.
A couple of hours of this is all I can stand; I’m not sure what the lethal exposure level is for Talking Blondes, but I’ll take no chances. When it’s all over the same haunting question remains: Who were those guys?