How to (Not) End a Soap

Curator's Note

 In one of the great last acts in television history (no really, trust me, it was that good), One Life to Live’s final month offered an abundance of traditional serial intrigue, nostalgic flashbacks, reverent speeches about the value of soaps, and clever meta plotlines. Most brilliantly, a soap within the soap called Fraternity Row was cancelled, and OLTL’s characters channeled OLTL fan reaction in their responses. In one episode, Fraternity Row’s number one fan, Roxy, passed out on the show’s set after learning that her beloved soap had already filmed its last episode. She then dreamed herself and the rest of the cast into an exceedingly over-the-top version of Fraternity Row, providing a hilarious spoof of soap opera storytelling, yet also a genuine tribute to it, as it acknowledged the joys of narrative excess in soaps.

At the episode’s end, depicted in this clip, Roxy wakes up and shuffles out of the desolate studio with friend David. Across only a few minutes, the episode shifts from absurd parody to heartfelt sadness, and therein lies my love of soap opera narrative, where the goofy and the profound nestle happily together. This image of finality was not the end of One Life to Live, though. Four weeks later, the actual final scene resurrected a dead character, offering no explanation as to how he could be alive when we had seen him bleed to death on screen months earlier. Of course, this cliffhanger resulted because the writers expected the series to continue online (it won’t), but I believe this is a perfect ending for the series anyway. How better to end a soap opera, a genre defined by its continuing stories, than with a cliffhanger? And what could more boldly defy the form's detractors than to end on the most mocked soap opera trope of them all? I fear that the demise of daytime soaps means the departure of such storytelling, as the genre heads off after Roxy and David into the darkness of an empty, forlorn studio.


 Chris, so glad you chose this, as it is an amazing clip that illustrates beautifully the range of emotion one can find in daytime soaps. I wonder how meaningful the clip is to those with no knowledge of the characters? (I often wonder/worry about this with soap examples.) There is also so much extratextual knowledge that makes a clip like this compelling. For me, that includes Ilene Kristen's 1970s role on Ryan's Hope, and the end of Santa Barbara, when exec producer Paul Rauch walked out of the empty studio

Also, while your clip is a great illustration of qualities that I think all soaps share, it is also a great example of the distinctiveness of each soap, something those outside the genre tend not to notice. OLTL is (was!) more meta, more self-aware, and more comedic than many others, and this clip (and the entire end to the show) highlights that.

Without knowledge of the characters, I can say the clip is still compelling! Its poignancy and self-referentiality comes through. Judging from Chris' description, it looks like OLTL had it both ways: a serious ending set up by meta-hilarity (this clip) and a meta/hilarious ending with a hint of seriousness about the genre (the Lazarus cliffhanger). Very smart.

 I remember being upset when All My Children ended on a cliffhanger, but I've come around since then. You're completely right about how fitting it is for a soap to end on a cliffhanger. OLTL's ending was so fantastic that I couldn't quite believe it had happened. 

Of course now I wonder what will happen when some of OLTL's characters are integrated into General Hospital. GH can't just ignore the events of the OLTL finale. I wonder if the continuation of these characters on another soap will affect how we remember or feel about the OLTL finale. Soaps have had crossover characters before but never like this. Llanview will live on in this crop of characters coming to Port Charles, but I have no idea how the producers and writers will pull it off.  

Elana raised an excellent point here: both that a 2-3 minute clip (In Media Res' usual media artifact length of choice) is awfully difficult to use from the soap opera, where typically any given 2-3 minutes in and of itself means much less than it would in a sequence in a primetime show...but also that the genre's meanings and ways of storytelling are so different than that of primetime television that the many layers of meaning packed within, especially for soap opera fans with years of experience watching the genre, is difficult to understand "from the outside."

Of course, the idea of externally located content is not new, nor is it exclusive to soaps (one only has to look to visually rich filmic traditions like the Western or Western literary traditions to see a great deal of extratextual referencing. But I think it is, as Chris put it, the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the poignant that makes the complexity of soaps especially hard to see from those who aren't intimately familiar with the genre.

I also think Elana's point about the different feel for each show is key. I compliment OLTL because it, like B&B and a few others, have maintained the feel for their show, where-as some shows have struggled with a revolving door of creative talent to stick with what differentiated them.

Most of all, I appreciate your sharing this clip because I, like Aymar, was not an OLTL viewer and was especially hesitant to get involved in another soon-to-be-cancelled soap after ATWT ended.

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