For many Americans the phrase great soap opera--like a great Douglas Sirk movie--will always remain an oxymoron. Pity the unenlightened: melodramas, like cheap beers, are not created equally--there are Rolling Rocks in the sea of Schmidt's Lights. For many of its 26 years on air, All My Children has been one of TV's best soap operas, not only because it limns believably impassioned lovers and cruel, cruel villains and tantalizingly suspenseful story lines, but also because the writers and actors have always recognized the inherent absurdity of the genre in which they work. Susan Lucci may not deserve an Emmy for her dramatic acting, but who can deny her talents as a first-rate comedienne? For years she has tackled Erica Kane with a mockingly forced resoluteness as Erica has gone about collecting ex-husbands through various careers as a supermodel (an occasion for Mahogany-inspired fashion-shoot montages), a cosmetics executive and editor of a news magazine called Tempo.
AMC gave birth to the soap-as-satire, but no other serial has advanced the idea as marvelously as Melrose Place during its glory days--glory days that the current season, due to conclude in two weeks, has proved are long gone. The show will return in September, but its decline has been so steep--should it even bother?
Melrose, centered around the booth-tanned inhabitants of a Los Angeles apartment complex, debuted in 1992 as an unconvincing thirtysomething for Gen Xers. When it returned the following season it was something else altogether, a dumb-brilliant parody of the soap universe, a show in which women dressed for work as though life were a continual audition for the Howard Stern Show. Heather Locklear was now entrenched as a nasty, libidinal Leona Helmsley-ish landlady in the making, while Sydney the hooker-stripper was chasing her sister Jane's amoral husband Michael.
All was right with Melrose, and it only got better. During the 1994-95 season the story lines became more and more compellingly ridiculous. Former porn star Traci Lords showed up to lure Sydney into a polygamous cult, while nutbag Dr. Kimberly Shaw joined a paramilitary self-help group featuring Mackenzie Phillips.
But in spite of all the whirling lunacy they concocted, Melrose writers still kept a hand in the world of plausible fantasy--the bend-don't-break rule that is the essence of soap-opera craft. The writers also understood that soaps must always have, at their core, at least one pair of earnest lovers whose thwarted longing fuels the drama. Melrose has Billy and Alison, lovers too personalityless to be destined for any other. Last year we cared whether they would beat gargantuan odds--Alison's alcoholism, her affair with an N.F.L. sex addict--and find their way back into each other's hearts. This year Billy and Alison have been ripped asunder for so long we wouldn't care if they took vows of celibacy and joined the cast of Saved By the Bell.