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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011


As the Tumbleweed Turns

The fate of soap operas comes out in the wash.


When I was sick as a kid and had/got to stay home from school, the snowy little black-and-white TV in my bedroom was never turned to soap operas. My preferred viewing when sick (or "sick," if you get my drift) ran to "Match Game" and endless reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" (I can still whistle — badly — the theme song, so don't get me started) and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (that aliens and walnuts episode may be the best sitcom half-hour ever). The raciest thing to air in my bedroom was "The Newlywed Game."

So I missed what were probably the halcyon days of "As the World Turns," "Edge of Night" and other classic soaps. And by the time "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" debuted (1968 and 1970, respectively), I was old enough to be over ear infections and to like school again, cutting into my daytime TV watching. The only soap opera I and my junior-high friends were devoted to was "Dark Shadows," which mixed vampires and werewolves and time travel into the standard who-had-whose-baby plotlines. In that pre-VCR, pre-DVR Stone Age, we would race home from school to catch the latest doings of Barnabas Collins, the 200-year-old vampire haunting the soap-opera town of Collinsport, Maine.

"Dark Shadows" long ago lapsed into TV history, though it's proven as unkillable as Barnabas himself: Johnny Depp will soon be starring in a movie adaptation.

Other, more conventional soap operas, however, are rapidly following "Dark Shadows" into the daytime graveyard. CBS' venerable "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" got the ax within the past two years, and just last month ABC announced it would be dropping the curtain on "One Life to Live" and "All My Children." That leaves just four soap operas still on the air: "General Hospital" on ABC, "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" on CBS, and "Days of Our Lives" on NBC.

Our daughter got us briefly hooked on "Days of Our Lives" several years ago — I think when she was in college, where dorm-room viewing tended to soaps before the Internet became omnipresent (who needs soap-opera romantic tangles when you can watch giggling babies on YouTube?). She also got us watching the following program, "Passions," which goofily tossed in witches and some of the other elements I'd loved in "Dark Shadows" eons ago.

We'd tape both shows while we were at work, and watch in the early evening before viewing anything else. (You dare not fall behind on a daily program, lest the backlog overwhelm your TiVo.) How, I wonder now, looking back, did we find the time? Even zapping the commercials, those two one-hour shows had to eat up 90 minutes or so of our lives every weekday.

The other day, when our daughter was visiting, I turned the TV on in mid-afternoon to program something for later, and "Days of Our Lives" was on. "No!" she cried out. "Don't look at it! We'll be sucked back in!"

Those shows were addictive, I confess. Their far-fetched plots (even on the comparatively sedate "Days," we got cloning, a "Lost"-like scenario and a diabolical supervillain, in addition to the usual amnesia, baby-parentage dilemmas and adultery) kept us jaw-dropped and guessing: "She's really her own sister who had a baby by her brother who thought he was her long-lost amnesiac husband?!" Not even the feckless way they switched actors — "The part of Desdemona Montgomery will now be played by Natalie Minor," a voiceover would simply say — caused a ripple in our rapt attention. (It's a technique that the producers of "Two and a Half Men" might want to adopt in the Charlie Sheen situation.)

The soaps also gave us something to chat about with our daughter: "Did you see what Morgana did to Victor?" "I'm telling you, Diego is not really dead!" Hundreds of miles apart, it gave us a shared daily experience.

We all gave up on soaps at about the same time. Too much time wasted, too big a TiVo backlog, too little happening from day to day. If you can delete a week's worth of unwatched "Passions" and still catch up with what's going on, well, maybe not much was going on at all.

The world has changed, anyway, and it's tough for soap operas to top the real-life trashiness on display every night in prime-time "reality shows." Tellingly, ABC will replace its two cancelled soaps with a talk-fest about food (unappealingly titled "The Chew") and a "Biggest Loser" knock-off, "The Revolution." Presumably the viewers of the food show will later wind up on the weight-loss program.

So it's too late, I guess, for my pitch about a small Southwestern town with a mysterious "vortex" in which New Agers, colorful artists and California-refugee retirees mix with hard-pressed ranchers, Hispanics with deep regional roots and miners hoping for a rebound. "Copper City," I call it, having rejected "The Old and the Restless" and the Spanglish "Los Días of Our Lives."

Oh, the tear-stained drama that TV viewers will never have a chance to see! There's Miranda Maya, heiress to a pepper-packing-plant fortune and an alien abductee. She's hopelessly smitten, in a Romeo and Juliet (or Hatfield and McCoy) sort of way, with ruggedly handsome rancher Cliff Hardaway, despite his crusade to rid the area of wolves and Miranda's dream of using her fortune to create a sanctuary for wolves and wayward aliens (the outer-space kind). The owner of the mine, rather than some faceless out-of-town conglomerate, is fifth-generation copper king Dirk Cupric, whose deep, dark secret is that he's actually copper queen Delta Cupric, his own sister. (I haven't quite worked out the details of how.) His/her illegitimate son (again, details to come), the reckless but darkly good-looking Derek, shows up in Copper City to claim his birthright — and histrionics, naturally, ensue.

Derek's mother is the eccentric artist Hypatia Wormwood, who crafts snow globes out of local gourds (I'm still working this out, too). She came to Copper City from California, leaving her own Deep Dark Secret (to come) behind along with Derek, whom she conceived years ago on a drunken fling when the Copper Moguls of America convention brought Dirk/Delta to Anaheim. Imagine her surprise when Dirk/Delta turns out to also be in Copper City, running the family business after his father's untimely and mysterious death in a cave-in (or maybe eaten by javelinas). Well, you'll have to imagine it, since the odds of ever getting "Copper City" on the air are dwindling from slim to none.

I still have hope that these and other truly fascinating characters (have I mentioned Hector Fallingwater, the ex-mob boss relocated to Copper City in the witness-protection program, who's now an organic farmer and environmental activist?) may yet make it to the screen. If "Dark Shadows" can succeed as a movie, why not "Copper City"?

Johnny Depp would be ideal for the part of Omar Kane, the sexually ambiguous bar owner and professional cyclist who just might turn out to be the reincarnation of Marc Antony. Or Cleopatra. You'll have to tune in tomorrow to find out.



David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure when he's not sneaking off
to catch up on "Days of Our Lives."


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