Today All My Children will go off the air after 41 years. I haven't watched the show regularly in years, and when I tuned in this month I found one of my favorite characters is now played by a new actress, another suddenly realized she's a lesbian, and at least four characters I saw die are alive again. And yet everything still feels familiar and comforting. That's something you can only say about soaps, and why the show's cancellation feels like a such huge loss.
I started watching All My Children in the summer of 1996 when my friend and I were being watched by her grandmother. I was 12-years-old and dreaded facing the indignities of another year of middle school, so watching a show about evil doctors kidnapping patients and glamourous people fornicating in every room of their mansion was a welcome escape. I probably should have been channeling my pre-adolescent angst into blasting music my parents hated, but instead I got hooked on a soap opera.
I watched the show religiously through high school, though it was never something I openly discussed. According to the L.A. Times, the median age of the show's audience is 57 and people my age certainly weren't swooning over Erica Kane's romance with Dimitri the Hungarian count. I would never announce that I set my VCR for All My Children every morning and watched it as soon as I got home from school because to the uninitated, soap operas seem hokey and idiotic. Actually, I found a sizable chunk of the show hokey and idiotic too, but after awhile soap conventions like ridiculously long stares and kids aging three times as fast as human children just seem quaint and funny.
I stuck with the show in spite of its corniness because it satisfied a need for daily drama that studying for history tests and going to school dances with girlfriends wasn't providing. I don't want to know what it's like to have your boyfriend cheat on you with your mother, but it's entertaining to watch it happen to someone else. Also, you get pretty invested in the characters when you spend five hours with them every week. Every single episode ends with a cliffhanger, and the season never ends. You know that even if you stop watching while you're at college, when you come home for the summer, you can still turn on the TV at 1 p.m. and eat lunch with your old friends.
As a one-time loyal viewer who hasn't been able to get through a full episode in the past few years, the show's cancellation isn't really a surprise. Mixed in with the bed-hopping, All My Children had always featured progressive and substantive storylines. In 1973 Erica had the first TV abortion since Roe v. Wade. In the '80s, Stuart Chandler's wife Cindy died of AIDS. Recently the show cast real-life Iraq war vet J.R. Martinez, who was badly burned when he ran over a landmine, as a romantic lead. The writers used Erica's daughter Bianca to explore a variety of social issues; she's a recovering anorexic, lesbian, and rape survivor. Lately it seemed like the writers were trying to drive the show into the ground. Anytime I'd check in with the residents of Pine Valley, their antics were increasingly absurd. When the fetus Erica aborted, now resurrected as a hot 20-something, was put on staff at Pine Valley Hospital, I stopped watching for years. Then I checked in briefly two years ago, only to see the exceedingly lovable Stuart get shot. I can't stand to see a good man pointlessly murdered by his somewhat-evil twin, so decided I was done for good.
That's why I'm a bit surprised that I'm so emotional about the show ending for good today. I lost track of The Office a few seasons ago and when I heard Steve Carell left I wasn't fazed. Yet, though I don't know why David has taken to bringing people back from the dead, when Stuart was resurrected yesterday I found myself tearing up. Some fans have been saying that seeing All My Children end feels like someone dying, even if an online company plans to continue the show with a fraction of the cast. For me it's more like your parents selling the house you grew up in. Even if you haven't lived there in years, there's a part of you that felt like it would always be there, and it's sad to know it's gone.