ABC Daytime’s “One Life to Life,” a show with more creative energy coursing through it than much of what passes for bigger-budget prime-time fare, won’t breathe its last until Jan. 13, but the show is already giving itself a grand send-off with a storyline that has shaken many of its characters to the core.
This week, amid their ongoing dramas and traumas currently including a murder mystery, amnesia and a teen pregnancy -- the residents of fictional Llanview, Pa., received bad news that momentarily eclipsed everything that was happening in their lives: Their favorite soap opera -- the long-running “Fraternity Row” – has been cancelled.
At first blush, it may appear that this brilliant bit of reflexive storytelling is being played for laughs, especially because it has so many of the show’s adult characters in tizzies of varying intensity. After all, “Fraternity Row” is just a TV show (or in this case a show-within-a-show), right? Not really. Apparently it’s as important to the fictional characters on “OLTL” as “OLTL” is to the real people who watch it. There is nothing funny about the end of a soap opera, especially one that has entertained millions of people on a daily basis over the course of five decades. It leaves those people just a little bit less interested in broadcast television and a little less apt to commit to something else that might be taken away from them. It is also a terrible loss for the dozens of hard-working people in front of and behind the cameras.
The many reactions by “OLTL” characters to the end of “Fraternity Row” have been priceless. Perhaps it’s because news of the show’s cancellation hit -- on the cover of Soap Opera Weekly, no less -- just after the shocking revelation that Brandon and Brianna, “Fraternity Row’s” hottest young couple, were actually brother and sister. This stunning plot turn left its fictional viewers more riveted than ever by their beloved soap and certain that its ratings would rise.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that many male “OLTL” characters have been outed as closet soap fans who watch their shows on different platforms, just like the many men in real life who are rarely included in formal audience measurement for daytime dramas. They include evil teen preppie Jack Manning (who admitted to watching old “Fraternity Row” episodes online), hunky conman Cutter Wentworth (who stopped a rattled waitress from spoiling the surprise about Brandon and Brianna because he was going to watch “Fraternity Row” that night on SOAPnet) and ruthless business tycoon Clint Buchanan, who watches the show the old-fashioned way, when it is actually on broadcast television.
“I was watching the markets tank on the finance channel and I went to turn up the volume and hit the wrong button,” he told his ex-wife Viki when she caught him indulging in his secret guilty pleasure.
She didn’t buy it. “How could you think I would forget that you like this show?” Viki asked Clint. “We used to watch it together all the time when Megan was on.” (Viki’s daughter Megan, now deceased, briefly acted on “Fraternity Row” many years ago.)
“Yeah, but I didn’t think you watched it anymore,” Clint said.
“Where do you think I disappear to every Monday through Friday from 2-3 in the afternoon?” Viki asked. (That’s the time period that “OLTL” occupies in most markets, including New York City.)
It was eccentric hairdresser Roxy who first saw the headline about the show’s cancellation on the cover of Soap Opera Weekly and emitted a scream, the likes of which soap characters usually reserve for news that a loved one has died.
“It’s not just a TV show! It’s family!” Roxy wept. “My mom Stella passed it down to me, and I passed it down to [her kids] Natalie and Rex, and you bet that Rex is passing it down to [his son] Shane.” In that moment, she pretty much expressed the emotions that millions of people are having during this decade’s ongoing soapageddon. Eventually Roxy regained her composure. “There’s no use in crying just because some empty suit thinks ‘Fraternity Row’ is for the birds,” she sighed.
A passionate Roxy later approached Clint and insisted that he buy the rights to “Fraternity Row” and find a way to keep it on the air, reminding him that it has been telecast for 43 years (just like “OLTL”).”
“Roxy, I’m so sorry, but as a businessman I have to respect the bottom line,” Clint replied, giving voice to all those network executives who are happily canceling soap operas in order to balance budgets and ensure hefty bonuses. If there were even one more nickel to be made off ‘Fraternity Row’ I would be making it. But I will not be saving an institution whose time has come.”
Roxy has since made it her mandate to singlehandedly save “Fraternity Row.” I suspect this will make for an entertaining story during the final weeks of “One Life to Live.” The best soaps have always reflected reality while telling stories, no matter how intimate or over-the-top. Even in its last weeks, “OLTL” -- one of the best soaps ever -- is holding true to form, this time reflecting the harshest reality of all: its own heartbreaking demise.