Thursday, January 10, 2013


80s era Luke and Laura try to keep warm while the world freezes on General Hospital
I’ve always had a fascination with Soap Operas. When other kids were outside in the sun, playing ball and riding their bikes, I was in the house, three feet from the tv screen watching Dark Shadows and Peyton Place. Yes, I’m old enough to remember Peyton Place. I was much more interested in the lives of the fascinating adults of soap opera than I was relating to kids my own age.


The cast of The Big Valley
During the 70s I watched Another World (who could forget Alice and Rachel? The Betty and Veronica of daytime soaps!) and All My Children (yes, I was among the first of the heterosexual preteen boys to think Susan Lucci was cool years before it was hip to say so. It’s still hip to say so, right?). Primetime soaps that focused on wealthy, dysfunctional families struggling to maintain and expand their empires, basically started with the introduction of shows such as Bonanza and Big Valley (which had one of my favorite opening themes). Both series revolved around a strong family leader who ruled over their ranching empires. On Bonanza it was Patriarch Lorne Greene. On The Big Valley it was Matriarch Barbara Stanwyck. This was in the 60s when TV was dominated by Westerns and Bonanza and Big Valley were pretty much the only shows that focused on the family empire theme. You did have The Waltons which started in the early 70s but, come one--The Waltons? Get real. If you wanted to see storylines about hostile takeovers, corporate boardroom drama, sex, betrayal and solid melodrama full of backstabbing and sex, then daytime soaps were the only game in town. Then came Dallas.

The cast of Dallas
I came on board with Dallas in the early 80s although it debuted in 78. This show was a completely different ball game from the average, or even above average, daytime soap. Dallas was much faster paced, much more confrontational, more outrageous and much more epic. Things happened on Dallas that made the shenanigans of daytime soap seem tame by comparison. Of course Dallas, unlike daytime soap, was only on once a week. But the show packed at least a months worth of daytime soap action into that single hour. Dallas made daytime soaps obsolete for me and based on the stories we started getting in daytime soap opera in the aftermath of the debut of Dallas, the networks realized they needed to step it up. General Hospital was taking it up a notch with the hilariously insane yet wildly entertaining story arc that had Luke, Laura, Holly and Scorpio trying to stop evil genius Stavros Cassidine from freezing the world. No, really, that happened. And it was awesome. People of all ages were talking about that story back in the early 80s.

Krystal (Linda Evans, left) and Alexis (Joan Collins) just working out some issues on Dynasty
The cast of Dynasty
Shortly after Dallas came Dynasty. Like Dallas, Dynasty used the oil industry as a backdrop but after a time, focused almost exclusively on family dynamics. Dallas on the other hand, maintained it’s strong focus on the oil industry and was about 50/50 when it came to the business end of things and the family melodrama. When I started watching Dynasty, the “Oil” backdrop had become so peripheral that I wasn’t really sure what the family business was. I didn’t care a whole lot for Dynasty when it first came out in spite of my childhood crush on former Nancy Drew actress Pamela Sue Martin. One of the main reasons I initially passed this one by was because Joan Collins didn’t come on my radar until after she’d been on the show a couple seasons(she wasn‘t a cast member until season two). I think it was around the time of that epic Krystal/Alexis catfight that I finally paid attention (yes, I’m predictably male). Collins was the main draw when it came to Dynasty just as Hagman was for Dallas. However, when it came to Dallas, I was much more interested in all of the characters. With Dynasty, it was all about Collins and I didn’t really care for any of the other characters story arcs. One thing that Dynasty did have was a seemingly unending stream of great guest stars (Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Diahann “Julia” Carroll).

The cast of Falcon Crest
Jane Wyman as Angela Channing
After Dynasty came one of my all time favorite primetime soaps, Falcon Crest. The backdrop for Falcon Crest was the wine business. The terrific Jane Wyman played the family matriarch Angela Channing and man, she was one tough old broad! The protagonists of Falcon Crest were Chase Geoberti (played by Robert Foxworth, husband of Elizabeth “Bewitched“ Montgomery) and his family. Angela Channing was always after the Geoberti winery and would do any underhanded thing to try and get it. Even though I was a fan of Falcon Crest from the very beginning, it had something in common with Dynasty in that it really didn’t take off until the second season when it introduced a new polarizing character, Richard Channing (played by former Dark Shadows star, the great David Selby). Leading up to his introduction, Richard Channing was only talked about in hushed whispers. Angela Channing’s lawyer once told her that “only two things scare me: sudden death and Richard Channing.” This added an interesting element to the story. Falcon Crest already had a villain in Wyman and a hero in Foxworth. Adding a mixture of both with the introduction of David Selby added a real wrench in the works. He was a wild card and you never knew whose side he would fall on.

David Selby as Richard Channing
 What made Richard Channing such a wonderfully complex villain was that even though he seemed destined to be a bad guy(what with his ties to the mob and all sorts of other dark cabals), he craved a family. He was actually looking forward to a relationship with Angela who was his real mother. However, Angela rejects him when they first meet and this rejection ignites a war between the two that would not end until the shows final episode. After Foxworth left the show in 1987, Selby’s character was softened up just a bit and he ended up becoming much more of a good guy, even marrying the shows main heroine Maggie Geoberti played by former Another World cast member Susan Sullivan.

The one thing these primetime soaps had in common were that the stars were adults. Hagman, the character that Dallas revolved around, was 47 when Dallas debuted in 1978. Over at Dynasty, stars Forsythe, Linda Evans and Joan Collins ranged in age from mid 40s to mid 60s respectively. Falcon Crest was pretty much the same thing. Of course, this had always been the case almost from the inception of television. Throughout the 60s, 70s and early 80s, TV stars were older adults. If you were a teenager on television then you were either the good son or daughter of the star or you were a pot smoking, hippie giving the cops trouble.

The cast of Beverly Hills 90210

Times and tastes and audience demographics change and eventually all of the prime time soaps that began in the early 80s had lost their appeal by the end of the decade. By 1993, Dallas, Falcon Crest, Dynasty and the Dynasty spin off The Colby’s had ended. In 1991, NBC tried to revive the gothic soap Dark Shadows but unfortunately the timing couldn’t have been worse. Primetime soaps that focused on big business and older, wealthy white adults (and vampires) were on their way out. But primetime television, like nature, abhors a vacuum and almost immediately the adult oriented soaps of primetime were replaced by a new breed of soaps that focused on the young. The 1990s were all about young, good looking teens and twenty-somethings. Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Dawsons Creek dominated television all through the 90s and the old folks were relegated to minimal screen time in roles like the wise old boss or the worrying parents.  Old folks were no longer the bad asses. This phenomena wasn’t just happening on television either. It carried over to big screen films as well.


Night time dramas that focused more on older adults didn’t really make a comeback until the resurgence of all those Cops, Doctors and Lawyers shows on television with things like CSI, Law and Order, ER, Grey‘s Anatomy, etc. Like prime time soaps about family empires, shows about Cops (Hill Street Blues) and Doctors (St. Elsewhere, Trapper John MD) and Lawyers (LA Law) had previously been on the outs by the late 80s-early 90s. It wasn’t until just recently, while watching season one of Downton Abbey on Netflix (so I could finally see for myself what everyone was talking about) that I realized that prime time soaps had come back. And in a fairly big way. The new breed of night time soap opera has become a mixture of stories focusing on the young as well as the old. Family, as well as business and have become much more age inclusive.
Hayden Panettiere(left), Connie Britton(right) and a generation gap(middle).
Take the CBS show The Good Wife for example. Unlike LA Law, which was more focused on the courtroom and law office politics, The Good Wife gives us a potpourri of storylines in which we see the main character, single mother of two teens and lawyer Alicia whose story intersects with an estranged husband running for office, a sexy, bi sexual, ass kicking investigator, a business in peril and plenty of personal family drama. ABC’s Nashville focuses equally on a 40 something Country Music star played by Connie Britton and her rival, a young rising star played by Hayden Panettiere. The supporting cast is equally varied in age. Over in the Cop’s department, you have a show like Blue Bloods which isn’t just about the lives of cops, but about a family of policemen and police women from a long line of police officers. There’s even been a revival of Dallas that’s been fairly popular although I’m not sure how well the show is going to fare in the wake of Larry Hagman’s passing.

The cast of Downton Abbey
Maggie Smith as the Countess of Grantham
Then there’s Downton Abbey. This show is probably more akin to Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest than anything else currently on television and, consequently, it’s not surprising that it’s the most popular. This is a true family saga that focuses on the Grantham Family and it’s patriarch, the Sixth Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wealthy American wife Countess Grantham, their three daughters, their servants, and the continuing struggle to hold on to the family estate Downton Abbey and the family title. The show uses actual historical events as the backdrop such as the sinking of the Titanic and World War One and jumps ahead in time by months and years, unlike other primetime soaps where time passes by the hours and days. Downton Abbey also gives us a nice mixture of characters young and old. In fact, the main scene stealer of the show has to be the 78 year old Maggie Smith as the bitingly witty Dowager Countess of Grantham.

The medium has come a long way since it’s humble beginnings on Radio and Television as small little dramas funded by advertisers such as Dial and Palmolive and other soap companies (hence the term “Soap Opera“) and yet in many ways it’s still the same. Still focused on family drama, professions, wealth and people good and bad. It’s also nice to see older actors once again getting a much higher profile. I'm happy to see these night time soap operas return with a vengeance. They’ve always been my favorite part of television when I was growing up. Well, except for things like Doctor Who and Rockford Files and Six Million Dollar Man, but that’s a whole other article.

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