Article from Channels magazine 1981
One Man's Soap
One Amherst don is happily hooked on a venerable daytime soap opera. He tells here what he gains from it and how it keeps him from faculty meetings, scholarly works, and healthful jogging.
FOUR YEARS AGO I suffered what I feared would be an irreparable loss; not of the tragic sort -the death of loved one or the grievous ending to some human relationship -but of a sort curiously painful nonetheless . Somerset, a soap opera I had become deeply devoted to, ended its run; and on December 31, 1976 -in a shocking half hour of reconciliations, tying up loose ends (not all of them got tied up), and generally empty affirmations ,the show disappeared forever. It would have been a sensible time for me to form a New Year's resolution and decide to spend that half -hour after lunch engaged in some admirable pursuit like reading through Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or buying a pair of running shoes, some funny clothes, and preparing to run a bit up and down my local Northampton Road. Oddly enough these alternatives never entered my head. After a few days of mourning, and of surly midday dissatisfactions, I sat down for a serious session with TV Guide by way of mapping out a strategy for latching onto a new Soap. Although for the leisured housewife or lazy college student, many Soap viewing possibilities exist, the rigidity of my own habits precluded much freedom in choosing. The Soap had to occur in the 12:30 -1:30 time period and had to be of the half -hour variety -a whole hour of watching takes too large a chunk out of the day in which books have to be read. For a time I tried Lovers and Friends, a charmless, short -lived replacement for Somerset; then I watched a bit of The Young and the Restless, but found it filled with too many beautiful young people talking to excess about their various "hangups" and how so- and -so had "copped out" or been "hassled" in some manner or other, usually sexual. Clearly The Young and the Restless would not do for a man of settled habits, even though it dealt with controversial matters like birth control pills. Ryan's Hope had been highly praised for its vigorous characterizations and on -site photography, but it was an Irish soap, filled with wonderful lovable Irish characters -not the sort of thing for a Welshman of morose leanings. That left Search for Tomorrow, a half -hour show which I was delighted to find out had premiered in 1951, thus making it, along with Love of Life (since deceased), the most venerable of all the Soaps.
By that spring I had settled into becoming a Search watcher, and now, four years later, consider myself an authoritative commentator on the whole affair. Let me therefore tell you a bit about the characters and their situations, and then try to explain how someone in his right mind (my current illusion about myself) could become enthralled with the whole operation for years on end. To begin with, there is the amorphous, elusive title. Somerset was the straightforward name of a small town in Michigan where things took place, but Search for Tomorrow? Whose search, and just how "for tomorrow "? Clearly an old- fashioned radio soap opera title, like Life Can Be Beautiful or The Guiding Light (the latter now on television), meant to evoke romantic yearnings and a vaguely uplifted sense that there's Something More To It All than there appears to be day by day. It would have been too simple, I guess, to title the show Henderson, the imaginary town where its action takes place. Henderson is out there somewhere in the Midwest, southern Illinois maybe. There are oil fields to the south, and people often have to fly down to New Orleans, home of the powerful Sentell family, a number of whose members have moved to Henderson for obvious reasons of plot. Henderson has, of course, a hospital, in fact two hospitals (one on the "other side of town "), into which various members of the cast are taken or wheeled for attention to their assorted brands of blindness, leukemia, slight skull fractures, or brain tumors pressing on the optic nerve causing major headaches. They will be cared for there, in Henderson Hospital, by Dr. Bob Rogers, head of it all, good friends with most of the cast (he's seen 'em come and go), and filled with the richest bedside manner. When people are not in the hospital they tend to gather at the Hartford House or Inn, run by the two oldest members ,from point of service ,of the Search cast, Joanne (Jo) Tourneur (for years Jo Vincent, but recently married yet once more) and "Stu" Bergmann. Jo (played by Mary Stuart, who has been with the show since its inception and is thus accorded star status) is, quite simply, the finest person in the world. Not an ounce of pretentiousness, or greed, or envy, or lust (that I can detect) or pettiness or rancor or any other of the deadly and not -so- deadly sins stains this lady's character. A fount of homely wisdom with a wonderful temperament, Jo has lived all her life in Henderson; indeed she behaved in New Orleans, when she visited there recently, as if it were as morally remote as Tangier. "Stu," co -owner of the inn and married to Ellie -a woman whose simplicity makes Jo look sophisticated -is, as he would like to say about himself and often does, a man of relatively few words and basic human decency. He will take a drink, but only now and then, and if he has more than one becomes wholly confused and infantile, then winds up being put to bed by Ellie and catching a bad cold as a result of his folly. Though Stu is simple, he knows what he likes (and it's not Art). Or rather what he doesn't like. He doesn't like charming, verbally articulate men who attempt and succeed in winning the affections of (1) Jo, or (2) his daughter, Janet Collins, who is especially prone to disastrous affairs of the heart. He would be equally enraged if one of these men tried to cotton up to (3) Janet's daughter, Liza, or (4) Ellie. Fortunately for Stu, Liza is completely wrapped up in her dashingly handsome, extraordinarily rich and powerful husband, Travis Tourneur ( "Rusty ") Sentell, and their recently adopted baby. While no- body has ever been seen making a play for Ellie. Anyone who watches Search for a while becomes aware of certain patterns, which by their repetition provide an odd satisfaction.
Let me run through a few of these, by subject:
reading a book, unless he or she (most probably she) is in a blue funk about her love life. If she is interrupted while reading a book (and it will never be named, just referred to as "a book," not the Aeneid or Shogun), she will gratefully put it down and launch into an explanation, to the interruptor, of "what's wrong." More likely she will be leafing through a magazine in the most idle man- ner, just looking to begin the next con- versation about Problems. (Of course, it would be hard to make an exciting scene out of someone reading the Aeneid, or even Shogun.) At times (at least on Search) poetry is quoted, usually Shakespeare, often inaccurately or with lines left out so as to make it more "understandable." Shakespeare by the way - especially Romeo and Juliet -is Wonderful, even though no sane person would be found reading him.
Food. People are often seen dining, either at the Hartford House or at Ernesto's (one òf those terrific little Italian restaurants everybody loves), but there is never a visible piece of food disappearing into anyone's chops. Usually people toy with their food ( "You're hardly eating anything"), find that they're "not hungry," and launch once more into talk about Problems. Women tend to eat something like a spinach salad for lunch, never (say) corned beef and cabbage or Yankee Pot Roast (perhaps unavailable in Henderson). They are tempted by the dessert, but abstain because of the calorie count. Men are inclined to eat more meat.
Drink. Stephanie Wyatt, the closest thing to a "bad" woman on the Soap, is allowed to have a martini, which she does quite often. Other women, if they indulge at all, will invariably have a glass of white wine (what, by the way, is wrong with red wine ?) but never seem to drink it. Whiskey in private houses is always there in a decanter; never is a bottle visible. Younger, poorer types have been known to have a beer. Everybody drinks coffee, endlessly, all the time, all characters evidently possessing cast -iron stomachs. Nobody asks for Sanka instead. Diet soda is a possibility; also champagne on festive occasions.
Sex. Perhaps I should have put this earlier, but there is relatively little sex on Search, though heterosexual relationships are the staple of the show (no homosexuals that I've noticed). Lovemaking is highly romanticized, bodies and faces blur and swirl so you can't make out what's going on and of course nothing really is. "Haunting" melodies fill the air. There is occasionally some intense kissing that is not much fun to watch. Some characters are allowed dream -fantasies in which they meet their partner all dressed up in beautiful clothes, at some fancy occasion. The heroic male really does Sweep the Heroine Off Her Feet, something that is often difficult to accomplish in real life (I speak from personal experience). In very serious scenes preparatory to lovemaking, we get a glimpse of the male's naked torso. This must be fairly well covered with hair, at least it seems to be de rigueur for a job on Search. There is little extra -marital sex - not much at all in the way of "illicit" goings -on. We must remember that this show has been running for thirty years and has its roots in the sensible pieties of the fifties. Sometimes the dialogue becomes forcefully explicit, as when Stephanie, speaking of the perils her eighteen -year -old daughter Wendy is ex- posed to, opines that young people of that age like to get to know each other well - "and I do mean in bed," she adds, with one of her fine wisdom -of- experience facial expressions. Or there was the following exchange just the other day, when lawyer Kathy Phillips tried to compliment Garth the Artist (he is a very difficult, uncon- ventional fellow) on his dealings with her young son, Doug. Kathy: "You're very good with little boys." Garth: "I'm not so bad with big girls either." You see the force of that innuendo.
Religion. Almost everybody believes in Something, but nobody has any words for it. People don't go to church except for the occasional funeral or wedding. Catholic, Protestant, Jew -it's all the same, presumably.
Race. There is an occasional black, often an assistant lieutenant in the police department who works for a slower - witted white man (the black is invariably clever). But nonwhites appear only intermittently and are never given quite enough to do.
Children. Invariably blond- headed, incredibly cute, good at putting their arms around their (divorced) mother and saying how much they love her, which brings tears to her lonely eyes. Infants, of course , are always a good investment of time.
The Aged. Not usually visible on Search, though at the moment a whole series of credulous oldsters have gone to Jamaica with evil Dr. Winston Kyle to be (don't they wish) cured of their afflictions by his faith -healing.
Pot. Nobody on Search smokes pot, thank God.
Jogging or Running. Nobody on Search jogs or runs, except in pursuit of someone. I don't quite understand the absence of this practice but don't really object to it either.
Christmas is a good time to watch Search because it shows off, by contrast, one's own real life Scrooge -like tendencies. "I love Christmas, I love to wrap presents," breathes Jo, a light in her eyes, many wrapped presents testifying to this enthusiasm. But we know it can't go on for long, that happiness, and indeed within minutes Martin's playing of the market has become an issue, has caused the light in Jo's eyes to be replaced by the pained, martyred forbearance she is so good at expressing. In the midst of Christmas joy, trouble lies ahead. But of course in the Soap, as in life, trouble always lies ahead, the difference being that the hooked viewer feeds on this trouble and finds it exhilarating, both in anticipation and in the event. I know someone who avoids depressing movies because she says there's enough sadness in life. The viewer of a Soap would like to avoid, or postpone considering until evening, the sadness and trouble lying about him in the world outside, and ahead in his own life -so he cultivates its daily occurrence on the television screen. At least my life is not, for the moment, as hopeless as that one, says he. At least (looking at despondent Lee Sentell, staring gloomily at a beautifully decorated Christmas tree) my fiancée does not have a brain tumor and has not been spirited away by Dr. Kyle to Jamaica, there to be subject to his "incredible power over women, in every way" (as Lee has been informed). But then, a paper Santa Claus hung on the tree miraculously turns into the fiancée, Sunny Adamson, who says to her Lee, "Hello there, Gloomy- Face," and proceeds to remove her Santa Claus cap and cloak! They embrace fiercely, until the vision fades.
From the tone of this report it may seem to you that my interest in Search consists wholly in picking apart its absurdities, unrealities, and generally half -baked attitudes, which I as a superior person don't share. I think you would, however, be wrong. How superior can one be toward an event that provides one daily sustenance? On the other hand, there has of late been a compensatory inflation in the value of Soaps - claims made that here is where the finest acting anywhere is to be found, or where certain social, cultural, medical facts are at least recognized. Though the acting is good enough for my tastes, and though I suppose you could say that an issue (like Alternatives to Surgery) is at least raised, I can't believe that therein lies the Soap's real power to compel. Its compellingness has more to do with the construction of a world -not a world of complex thought or psychological penetration, but a world nonetheless -full of names, faces, voices, gestures, and attitudes that impress themselves on our ears and eyes and that don't disappear after a half -hour or hour as they do on evening television. Or rather, we know that they will be back tomorrow, certainly the next day; that five days a week, give or take an occa-sional national holiday (or Presidential Inauguration, damn it) they will be there for us on CBS. It is the ongoingness of Search, or of any Soap, that is the key to its power and that a person untouched by this power can never understand. How many times have I heard someone say authoritatively about a Soap that "nothing ever happens in them. I watched one for a while, missed three weeks of it, turned it back on and they were still talking about the same things" -as if that settled it for the Soap. I may ask in return, "What do you want to happen on the shows you watch ?" Try Vegas or Starsky and Hutch if you like a snappy little incident begun, middled, and ended over the course of an hour. Something happens in our life every clay; at least we grow older, finish one thing, begin another, lose this and gain that. But Search, though certain characters come and eventually go, remains essentially the same. Time stretches out endlessly, it seems, for the latest complication is clearly going to take months until it begins, even slightly, to unravel. And as it just goes along, nothing really happening, one suddenly finds oneself pleased or moved by the merest, smallest thing -a gesture, a twist of the voice, a way of saying something. (David Sutton, an admirable character who I fear may be about to leave the show, has a way of saying "Thank you," sincerely, that makes me feel life is worth living.) You never quite know at what moment some- thing strangely evocative may occur, but you can only respond to these moments if you've sat around many months or years and watched programs that evoke nothing.
FEW FINAL REMARKS: The most painful moment for any Soap watcher is when a visitor or guest says, "Please, go ahead . and watch your program . . . what is it ... Reach For the Sky? maybe I'll watch it with you." In any event, total silence must be enforced, else you may be confronted with questions like "Who is she ?" or "What is that? ",which reduce the hardened viewer to stuttering confusion and despair. How can this outsider ever begin to understand what is so deep within your bones? Also, if you are going to watch Search you must plan to be un- available for any business or friendly lunches, brown -bag, intimate, or otherwise. When colleagues (I am a teacher) suggest that our department might meet next Tuesday at noon or 12:30, I find myself devising various strategems by which to disentangle myself -but how many dental appointments can one legitimately claim to have? Conferences with students must be ended briskly with the phrase, mumbled in some haste, "I have an appointment with ... " (the rest left indistinct). Once I quitted a friend under the pretense of having to see a person named Somerset. I suppose he could as well have been named Search. And since I dislike taking the phone off the hook, there is always the chance that it will ring (who could be calling at this hour ?), in which case the thing to do is to say quite urgently and intensely, "Can I call you back in fifteen, (twenty, ten) minutes ?" then rush back into the inside world. There are some lines from a poem by David Slavitt that say as well as anything I know what is involved in watching a Soap. Mr. Slavitt's favorite appears to be All My Children, but the name hardly matters, as he lays out the essence of them all: They wade through sorrows scriptwriters devise in kitchens , hospital rooms, divorce courts, jails or cemeteries, and nearly everyone tries to do the right thing. And everyone fails. Slavitt goes on to note the usually "desperate" mood of these characters whose "happiness is only a setup for woe," then concludes with the following confession: Stupid, I used to think, and partly still do, deploring the style, the mawkishness. And yet, I watch. I cannot get my fill of lives as dumb as mine: Pine Valley's mess is comforting. I need not wish them ill. I watch, and I delight in, their distress. That "delight" may not be the Eternal Delight that William Blake once identified with Energy, but in a world of time, not Eternity, it does pretty well.