I became a daytime soap fan over a quarter century ago. My summer babysitter didn’t watch much television while I was at her house, but every afternoon at 12:30 the set would be tuned to The Young And The Restless without fail. I don’t remember paying much attention at first, but soaps pull you in almost by osmosis; the slow-moving storylines, restatement of emotional beats, and focus on character over plot pull you in almost by accident, and suddenly you’re invested in whether or not rock star Danny Romalotti is going to choose sweet, girl-next-door Cricket or devious, scheming redhead Phyllis.
Was I too young to watch this very adult-themed show? Probably. But this is how soap fans are created—a love for a show is passed down from mother to daughter, friend to friend, and even babysitter to child—and now I find myself recording the show every day, still caught up in the drama of Genoa City. The generational quality of soaps and the longevity of actors, character, and storylines create a bond with a viewer far beyond what happens with a simple primetime network or cable show, and this bond creates fan loyalty in a way other genres simply can’t.
This loyalty is why the devastation of daytime soaps—most recently from the jettisoning of ABC stalwarts All My Children and One Life To Live to make way for bland talk shows like The Chew—has created such a stir in the soap opera fan community. Where at one time soap operas dominated at least three hours of daytime programming on the big three networks every day, now only four daytime soaps remain in total, the entire genre a victim of the changing American workforce as women more frequently work outside the home, and the changing ways people watch television in general.
But ABC soap fans fought back, protesting the loss of their favorite programs by starting advertising boycott campaigns so successful that vacuum giant Hoover pulled their advertising from all of ABC in solidarity, and L.A.-based production company Prospect Park saw an opportunity to potentially revive the canceled shows in an online-only format, in partnership with Hulu. It is billed as a grand experiment in viewer loyalty and the willingness of traditionally older-skewing audiences to accept new content streams, and it if works it could become an interesting test model for what the broader television landscape is willing to accept as viewership gets more and more fractured each year.
Here’s how it works: Every day from Monday through Thursday, a new 25-minute (or so) episode of both shows are posted on Hulu for free, or on iTunes for a fee of $0.99 per episode, or 20 episodes for $9.99. On Fridays, each show airs a behind-the-scenes show full of cast interviews, clips, and scoop from the producers. Many of the original characters have returned, but there is a strong focus in each show of fostering a newer, younger generation of characters that can not only reboot the show in its new format but allow for the show’s future, growing along with them.
Do they pull this off? Yes and no. Of the two shows, One Life To Live comes out of the gate more fully formed simply due to the fact that it focuses far more on the older characters than it does on the younger ones. Soap fans are accustomed to change, to recasting, to rapid aging of younger characters, but All My Children here feels like a clear case of too much too soon, as the younger, less established actors get the majority of the story time during the first week. It doesn’t help that at least half of the younger characters (AJ and Miranda) on All My Children are kind of dreadful, a sort of Dawson-and-Joey-in-daytime attempt that hits pretty far off the mark.
All My Children struggles in other regards, especially to someone like me who has not seen the show before. The narrative picks up five years after the ABC finale—which ended with a cliffhanger of a shot going off didn't reveal who was shot— but leaves everything about the cliffhanger a mystery, complete with an unmasked person in a coma. Instead of focusing on enlightening viewers on this in the sort of restating dialogue that soaps use regularly to remind viewers of past events and engage new ones, the show simply brushes off most of the talk and focuses on the younger generation instead. Things will likely be revealed in time—and in fact the identity of the coma patient is revealed during the first week—but as someone new to the mythology, it was quite off-putting.
It doesn’t help that All My Children is a bit of a boring slog in comparison to the far livelier One Life To Live. Like AMC, OLTL starts out its online run with a bit of mystery—someone is resurrected from the dead with a mysterious tattoo and a catatonic demeanor, and no, I don't think this person is supposed to be a zombie—but this mystery is far easier to follow. The thing that makes OLTL work where AMC fails, though, is OLTL has personality. Having not been a viewer of either show when they were on ABC this could simply be a carryover of the shows’ identity there, but there is a playfulness and willingness to go a bit insane in OLTL that is extremely pleasing. From a stuffy butler, to a strange political corruption case involving black ops, to a fantasy Saturday Night Fever sequence that uses a clever perspective shift, to an entire sequence in a club that was a lot of dubstep, people dancing, and a drunk girl stumbling into someone getting a surreptitious blow job in a private room, OLTL is just plain fun. Not many soap operas can pull off fun, so it’s nice to see such a commitment to it here.
Beyond any story issues, both soaps look great, showing Prospect Park’s obvious commitment to doing this experiment right. The fans have shown demand and the production company, writers, and actors have delivered a fairly decent product, so now it’s just a matter of determining whether if they built it, the fans (and enough advertising money) will come.
Like me, every soap fan has a story of why they started watching. Time will only tell if there is a new generation of soap viewers whose stories begin online, but Hulu and Prospect Park are doing their best to give them something worth seeking out. I, for one, will be going to Hulu on Monday to see what crazy thing One Life To Live comes up with next.
All My Children: C
One Life To Live: B+
- I watched some of the episodes on my computer and some on my iPhone using the Hulu Plus app, just to experience the different ways people would be watching. Those methods were perfectly acceptable, but I’m sure a set-top streaming device of some sort would be the most pleasing way to view.
- That being said, never watch the Friday behind-the-scenes shows on any device. They are dreadful.
- Both shows seemed committed to involving technology and the modern world into their landscape, with many mentions of Facebook, tweeting, iPads and Skype.
- Both shows also seem committed to embracing a bit more freedom with language and steamier sex scenes. Hearing “shit” on a soap opera is a bit strange, I must admit.
- The credits of this new One Life To Live are the best credits of all time. OF ALL TIME.