We’ve known for a decade and a half that American soap operas are nearing death, but that imminent end became more immediate and more final with the last episode of ABC’s All My Children, which aired Friday.
The end of All My Children was sad for two reasons: because of what it represents for our culture and because of the way the show butchered its send-off.
All My Children was always one of the most venerable soap operas, created as it was by the venerable progenitor of the form, Agnes Nixon. Since its debut in 1970 (41 years! This show has aired almost every weekday for 41years!), AMC became known for a quality of writing often lacking on other soaps and for the genre’s breakout character Erica Kane, played by famous Emmy bridesmaid Susan Lucci.
* Lucci, incidentally, now looks like a deformed freak thanks to plastic surgery — as do many of the women on soaps above the age of 40. Trying to watch soaps now is an exercise in trying not to be distracted by the cat-like faces that abound, or by the troubling things those faces say about the television industry and our society.
By most accounts, AMC has gone off the rails the past few seasons as ABC network executives have grown increasingly desperate first to increase ratings, then to kill off its soaps once and for all so they could replace them with cheaper programming. Resultingly, AMC has gone through a string of showrunners and head writers, all answering to executives who didn’t give a good god damn about the show’s quality. Consistency is one of the main indicators of a soap opera’s success, both in the ratings and in terms of quality, and AMC lost all consistency in its waning years. (As a contrast, look at CBS’s The Young and the Restless, which has been the most-watched soap every season since 1987 while under the care of one regime.)
All My Children alienated many of its remaining fans by killing off beloved characters, dumbing down the writing and making naked attempts to capture younger demographics (an ill-conceived but evergreen pursuit in the world of soaps).
And so it got the axe to make way for something called The Chew, which nobody will watch but which will cost 10 cents an episode to produce. And network television takes one more step toward losing any identifying characteristics that separate it from cable or the Internet. And a show that was passed down through generations as a viewing tradition is gone. And an American era inches ever closer to its final curtain.
I watched the final episode to see how AMC would wrap things up, out of loyalty as a former viewer and out of curiosity to see how a 41-year-long narrative would conclude.
Not well, it turns out.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that a company called Prospect Park has purchased the rights to both AMC and its sister show One Life to Live (due to stop airing in January), and plans to continue both series online in some format. Which couldn’t be a more terrible idea. And that terrible idea led directly to some of the worst elements in the Friday finale.
I haven’t seen an episode of AMC in a couple years, and haven’t been anything like a regular viewer in decades, but I still know who most of the characters are and I know much of the backstory from doing a little reading.
* One of the main reasons the soap opera genre receives so little respect is its media coverage and lack thereof. There is a small, dedicated industry press consisting of publications like Soap Opera Digest. The quality of the writing and journalism in these publications is dreadful. For the most part, they work hand in hand with the networks, publishing very minor spoilers in exchange for little to no negative coverage. The soap opera press is as dumb as most people think soap operas themselves are. Meanwhile, soaps get almost no mainstream coverage, and certainly no intelligent, balanced coverage. When soaps do get mentioned, they’re treated as the jokes they used to be and still are at their worst. Occasionally, there will be a “Hey, did you know Movie Star X got her start on The Bold and the Beautiful?!” in a celebrity profile. But soaps are never recognized in the mainstream for the occasional good work they do with writing, acting and production — especially given the time and financial constraints of the form.
That media bias has been a contributing factor in the demise of the form, and in the shuttering of All My Children. And it’s a shame because a lot of people have done a lot of impressive creative work that’s gone completely unrecognized outside of hardcore soap fans.
The last episode was built around three central plots or conceits:
- Erica Kane and her longtime on-again, off-again beau, Jackson, attempt to resolve their relationship once and for all.
- JR, a character who has veered back and forth between antihero and outright villain, hides out at a party with a gun.
- Longtime town villain Dr. David Hayward has apparently invented some kind of potion or procedure that brings people back to life, and has used it to resurrect many of the characters who have been killed off the past few years to howling fan outrage: Stuart Chandler (played by Wilton, Connecticut’s own David Canary!), Dixie Martin, Zack Slater and others.
So, yeah. That last one. Not the kind of thing that helps out those of us who bang the drum for the respectability of the genre. And it’s particularly insulting that it comes from AMC, which has traditionally been the most grounded soap — in steep contrast to the likes of Days of Our Lives and General Hospital, which have built long-running plotlines around Satanic possession, aliens, and evil weather machines.
It’s clear why AMC went in that direction: they considered it a reset button on the mistake they’ve made the last few years, and they considered it a gift to the true fans who wanted to see their beloved dead characters again before the show went away forever. But it’s also tremendously insulting that this poorly written science fiction is how they chose to end things: magically bringing characters back to life is essentially telling viewers that nothing they saw the last few years was real. Nothing mattered. It’s the same as the Bobby Ewing shower scene that erased a whole season of Dallas. And for fans who have devoted years — decades — to this particular narrative, that’s a painful slap in the face.
But even leaving that disastrous error in judgment aside, the finale did nothing well. The tone shifted awkwardly from happy, nostalgic moments filled with hugging and winking dialogue references to the phrase “all my children” to poorly directed “suspense” segments in which the show teased whom JR might shoot.
There were any number of ways AMC could have concluded that would have been respectful of its fans and its history, but instead the show was stripped of all dignity as it attempted to both provide a fitting ending and set things up for the online Prospect Park continuation. As a result, the finale offered no meaningful resolution to key plots yet provided the sappy, dull scenes that usually go with denouements — the worst of both worlds.
Meanwhile, the final scene…ugh. Just watch it:
I don’t have a problem with the idea of a soap opera ending on a cliffhanger as a tribute to the importance of “tune in tomorrow” to the history of the form. But Jesus Christ, man. These aren’t cliffhangers designed to provide a fun ending to a long-running show; they’re actually designed to get us to watch the online version in a few months, which obviously won’t happen. And the particulars of this scene are just brutal: from Jackson’s ridiculous delivery of the Rhett Butler line to the awkward editing to the hackneyed close-on-a-gunshot ending, it’s all just so terrible.
All My Children would have had to try pretty hard to come up with a more disappointing, less fitting ending. Would it have been so bad to send some popular couples off into the sunset, have a few pleasant speeches and meaningful conversations, maybe thrown in a montage or two?
In only one scene did AMC come close to capturing the kind of tone it should have used throughout the last episode. Tad Martin, a nice-guy, everyman hero on the show since the early ’80s, offered a toast to friends and family in a scene featuring nearly all the remaining characters. The toast was nice, nostalgic and well-acted by Michael E. Knight. It wasn’t an amazing piece of writing or anything, but at least it was reverent to the idea that this series and these characters have meant something to a lot of people.
Maybe a noble death was too much to ask for. Maybe this genre, which has been openly mocked by so many, just wanted the last laugh.