All in a lather 


There are some things I never thought I'd hear myself say. One is "I'm really disappointed in Ricky Martin." (The inauguration footage of him teaching Dubya to salsa still gives me nightmares.) Another is "I'm really glad they replaced Kathie Lee." Kathie Lee is too weird to hate, but I'm glad she's gone, because her replacement is Kelly Ripa from All My Children.

Ripa debuted on "AMC" as Hayley, an enchantingly rotten, Goth-y teen-ager who graduated to become the alcoholic teen bride of the town rapist, Will Cortlandt. In one of the most ripping plot lines the show ever had, Hayley stayed a virgin long into their wacko marriage. Poor Hayley! Her life was one big car wreck. You couldn't take your eyes off her.

After she sobered up, it took Hayley about 20 minutes to go from a loopy drunk to the golden-haired, golden-hearted CEO of a major corporation who everyone loved for her spunky honesty and real vulnerability. Soon she fell in love with Mateo, who was just as perfect as she was. It was boring enough to make a corpse break out the Travel Bingo. Their pairing was one reason I quit watching soaps for years.

Afternoon delights

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But with the possibility of Hayley's departure, the tug of nostalgia and a nudge from devoted watchers, I recently took in soaps again. And I was shocked at the appearances of the cast members, many of them now thin and bug-eyed, like Ignorance and Want dressed by Donna Karan. Daytime soap stars, like the worlds their characters inhabit, are even more exaggerated than their nighttime counterparts. If Ally McBeal is paper thin, Hayley was rice-paper thin.

Despite plots so outrageous they'd make Lewis Carroll roll his eyes, the soaps lured me back in like a hot bubble bath, and I realized everything my life was missing without daytime drama.

Even David Sedaris, a writer who nears comic genius, has high praise for soaps. In his book "Me Talk Pretty One Day," he writes: "In order to get the things I want, it helps me to pretend I'm a figure in a daytime drama, a schemer. Soap-opera characters make emphatic pronouncements. They ball up their fists and state their goals out loud. ‘I will destroy Buchanan enterprises,' they say. ‘Phoebe Wallingford will pay for what she's done to our family.'" Sedaris goes on to say that, after meeting a man he liked, he looked at the man's apartment and said, "You will be mine." They moved in together nine months later.

Another plus: Soap theatricality sucks the drama out of your own piddling circumstances with the scary force of an airplane toilet. I tend to overreact, but after watching Dixie cry convulsively in her hospital bed because she was nearly thrown off a building by crazy Leslie, my dreary little troubles seem as dramatic as insurance paperwork. I don't need a cathartic cry, because Dixie, like Jesus, has suffered enough for all of us. Soaps tend to attract commercials for medications such as Paxil and Serafem, but I don't know why; watching that much angst in one hour would drain you of the ability to have your own. You might fret over a yeast infection, but at least Colin isn't trying to extort money from you because he knows you kidnapped Nora.

Soap scum

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Amy, a friend from San Diego, told me soaps benefit her at work because they taught her how to stand her ground. "The actresses go for blood, not bruises. They can shatter your heart faster than a gun. I don't know that I could be that shitty to anyone I cared about, but I could at least think that way."

This is absolutely true. In real life people practice diplomacy. Soap stars unleash holy hell every time someone drops by. They never say, "Let's talk about this later," or, "Drop it." They say, "Admit it, you've hated me since you've met me," or, to the family boozehound, "Shouldn't you be falling-down drunk by now?" It's thrilling to watch them have every fight we want to and can't. In real life, there are no writers to work you back into the script after you destroy all your relationships. Better to just narrow your eyes in a soap-bitch death stare and hold onto those thoughts for later. It gives you a small sense of power without having everybody hate you for having it.

Contrary to those who look down on them, soap operas do serve some purpose -- psychological, emotional, escapist. In fact, they're no different than Survivor, the Clinton scandals or any other contrived human drama whose thready plots draw us in. They just have better names. I know some people think soaps are just mind candy, good only for decay of the brain. But they're wrong. Oh, they're wrong. And (clench fists, narrow eyes, state emphatically) someday they're going to pay.


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