Commentary: Tough love for audiences new to soaps


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An older gentleman proposes to a woman he has apparently known for a long time, though we have no idea who either one is. An angry man is released from prison, although it's not clear why he was there or what he's angry about. Some surly guy with a scar on his cheek annoys everyone he encounters by his mere presence. There are repeated references to dead babies, and DNA testing would help sort out the parentage of almost everyone under 25.

Yes, jumping into the new versions of "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" is not easy if you missed the first 40-some years.

These two soap operas were among the longest-running shows in television history when ABC canceled them in 2011. On Monday the production company Prospect Park, amid much anticipation from the faithful, brought them back, not on TV but on the Internet, via Hulu and iTunes, using a mix of actors from the network versions and new faces.

Soap operas, once a staple of daytime television, became an endangered species as prime-time television adopted many of their themes and plotting devices, and more women went into the workforce. Who had time to block out a couple of hours in the middle of the workday to keep up with the daily machinations of a bunch of fictional families?

The Internet removes a significant obstacle faced by the network versions of the shows; now fans can watch them any time and, with the right technology, any place. That flexibility opens up a whole new world of potential viewers, but are the reboots going after them?

No. At least, that's how it looked to this potential viewer, one of the vast millions who never watched the original shows because they had jobs. The new "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" did not, from this week's episodes, seem to be trying to make themselves welcoming to the uninitiated. If anything, the opposite was true. Every minute or so, it seemed as if the shows were throwing up a neon sign that said, "Reference Understandable by Longtime Fans Only; Others Should Turn Back Here."

One scene in "All My Children" can serve as representative of what it's like trying to crack into these shows. Some people whose relationships to one another are still unclear are gathered.

"How is Bianca?" one says.

Miranda, a young teenager, answers: "She's OK, I mean, as OK as she ever is since the night ----"

AJ, a second teenager, interrupts her: "Can we let it go, people? It happened, it's over, we need to move on."

It did? It is? We do? And who the heck is Bianca?

Such maddening vignettes came along at regular intervals in both shows. So did characters whose surprise-it's-me appearances were calculated to thrill the fan base but were just annoying for newbies. A woman is in a public establishment when a man, his face hidden by a newspaper, addresses her. They trade a few words. The man lowers the newspaper to reveal himself. A beat to allow for recognition. Then a cutaway to a new scene. Repeat endlessly.

Sure, if you stuck with the episodes for the week, you could begin to pick up some of the dynamics and backstory and discern some plotlines that might be interesting. On "All My Children," someone's daughter is kidnapped. On "One Life to Live," Dorian Lord, a U.S. senator, gets herself into a vaguely defined scandal that has something to do with CIA black ops.

Yes, there are fan sites and Wikis with laboriously written-out story arcs for each and every character, so theoretically the newcomer could spend hours plowing through them to get up to speed on who impregnated whom in the distant past, who tried to kill whom back in the 1980s, and so on. The real question is, is it worth the effort?

The answer, again, is, no. Unless you're into camp, why put in the time it would take to decipher these shows when there are much, much better ones beckoning? The new versions have been promoted as racier than their predecessors, but there is more skin in prime time and much more skin on pay cable; the most the reboots offer is a very occasional curse word. Although both shows had groundbreaking moments during their long network runs -- a lesbian relationship, themes involving drugs and rape -- it seems unlikely that the reboots will hold many in the anything-goes age.

The acting ranges from mediocre to outright bad, especially on "All My Children." Any scene involving a couple over the age of 50 has the treacly gloss of a Viagra commercial. Any young characters are played by actors far too old for the roles. Any parent with a teenager is clueless about how to communicate with him or her. And the writers do not always seem up to the task of giving the actors signature moments. Fan boards were full of complaints when, on "One Life to Live," Victor apparently came back from the dead, and the other characters seemed only vaguely surprised.

Shows like "Downton Abbey," "Revenge," "Scandal" and even "Game of Thrones" are in essence soaps -- lots of characters, intertwined story lines that evolve over entire seasons -- and they're far better written and acted than the new "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." They're no easier for a newcomer to decipher, but they haven't been on for four decades, so through DVDs or downloads it's still possible go back to the beginning and get on board.

The new soaps do have the advantage of offering daily bite-size episodes, each about 25 minutes long. They're short enough and mindless enough to make the train ride to work pass more quickly. For a newcomer, perhaps it's best to think of them as you would a learn-a-language tape: Listen often enough and eventually, say in a year, you might be able to converse in soap-opera-ese.

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