Monday, May 5, 2014

The Five Best American TV Daytime Dramas

Enduring popularity and cultural impact were the major criteria used to select our picks for the five best daytime soaps broadcast on U.S. television. Some choices were easy, while others sparked a difference of opinion among the Cafe staff. Our "Five Best" posts are always a challenge, but also fun to write and among the most widely-read posts at the Cafe. And for those of you who scoff at soap operas, remember these two facts: (1) daytime drama has long been a pioneer in tackling once-controversial subjects such as interracial marriage and AIDS; (2) many film and TV stars honed their craft on daytime TV (e.g., Kathleen Turner, Kevin Bacon, Ted Danson, Laurence Fishburne, Demi Moore, etc.). So, without further pontificating, here are the Cafe's Five Best TV Daytime Dramas.

Melody Thomas Scott and
Eric Braeden.
1. The Young and the Restless. Y&R debuted in 1973 as a half-hour series when CBS asked William and Lee Phillips Bell to create a soap opera for a young female audience. The series didn't catch fire until the early 1980s when the Bells revamped it to focus on the Abbotts and Williams families. Eric Braeden also joined the cast as Victor Newman--and a legendary soap character was born. By 1987, Y&R had ascended to the top spot in the soap opera ratings. Incredibly, it has finished as the highest-rated daytime drama every season since then. Along the way, it became an international hit, spawned a successful spin-off (The Bold and the Beautiful), and even showed up occasionally on CBS's prime time schedule. The theme song, written by Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr., originally appeared in the 1971 movie Bless the Beasts and the Children. When ABC used it for a montage for Olympian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, it was released as the instrumental single "Nadia's Theme (The Young and the Restless)" and peaked at #8 on the Billboard chart.

Anthony Geary and Genie Francis.
2. General Hospital. Since its 1963 premiere, GH has had its shares of ups and downs. Yet, no other daytime soap will ever surpass the tremendous pop culture impact of its Luke and Laura storyline. Shockingly, it began when a drunken Luke (Anthony Geary) raped Laura (Genie Francis). However, their story arc took a dramatic turn when the couple subsequently fell in love. By the the time they married in 1981, the huge popularity of the characters made their nuptials a television blockbuster event watched by 30 million viewers. Over the next four decades, Luke and Laura left and returned to Port Charles multiple times--amid kidnappings, murders, and family squabbles. They even had two children, Lucky and Lulu. Yet, while GH never recaptured the magic of their first pairing, it remained a popular daytime drama with younger viewers. Over the years, it furthered the singing careers of stars Rick Springfield and Jack Wagner and spawned the hit songs "All I Need" (Wagner), "Baby, Come to Me" (Patti Austin and James Ingram), and "Think of Laura" (Christopher Cross). GH was also a favorite soap for celebrity guest appearances and featured stints from Elizabeth Taylor, Roseanne Barr, and, recently, James Franco.

Jonathan Frid.
3. Dark Shadows. Dan Curtis created Dark Shadows for ABC in 1966 as a contemporary Gothic soap set in the New England town of Collinsport. The show didn't perform well initially, so in an effort to liven things up, a plotline involving a ghost was added. Viewer interest perked up a little, so Curtis and head writer Art Wallace introduced a vampire in episode 211--and a pop culture icon was born in the form of Barnabus Collins. As the conflicted bloodsucker still pining for his beloved (but long-dead) Josette, Canadian actor Jonathan Frid made Barnabas alternately charming and cruel. Arguably, Frid was daytime drama's first superstar--his popularity even prompted a House of Dark Shadows theatrical film (plus a less-successful sequel, Night of Dark Shadows, without Frid). Although ABC canceled Dark Shadows after just five years, it has been revived numerous times in film, television, and audio recordings. Other actors who have played Barnabas include Ben Cross and Johnny Depp.

Kim Zimmer.
4. The Guiding Light. The genre's longest running TV series actually began as an NBC radio drama in 1937. It moved to television in 1952, where it was a mainstay on the CBS daytime schedule for the next 57 years! Soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips created The Guiding Light, which initially focused on Reverend John Rutledge, who lived in a Chicago suburb, and the Holden family. The show's title was derived from an old lantern that Reverend Rutledge placed on his desk near a window to serve as a "guiding light" for others. Over the years, the Bauer family took center stage on The Guiding Light and the setting ultimately shifted to Springfield, Illinois. The show's length expanded from fifteen minutes to a half-hour and finally one hour in 1977. In 1983, actress Kim Zimmer joined Guiding Light as Reva Shayne--the show's most popular character. As Reva, who was married nine times to seven different men, Zimmer won four Daytime Emmy Awards as Lead Actress.

Susan Lucci.
5. All My Children. One could make a case for including Days of Our Lives, Edge of Night, or a number of other soaps in the No. 5 position on this list. I gave the nod to All My Children based on Susan Lucci's emergence as a star outside the genre. Her made-for-TV movies, Dancing With the Stars appearance, and 18 Emmy nominations before finally winning made her a household name. It wasn't surprising when TV Guide ranked her #36 on its 1996 list of the 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Yet, while Susan Lucci became AMC's star, the series also benefited from a strong cast consisting of veteran performers from film (Ruth Warrick from Citizen Kane) and prime time TV (David Canary from Bonanza). It had its share of celebrity fans as well, with the most prominent being Carol Burnett, who has played characters on the show on at least three occasions.


Anonymous said...

A pretty good list. I'd drop Dark Shadows which was a flash in the pan. I'd move AMC to no. 3. I'd make Days no. 5.

Patti said...

I have never watched Dark Shadows, but at one point in my life, I watched all the others you have mentioned. In fact, for a few years, I actually watched every single soap opera on TV. I was hopelessly addicted to several of them, especially Days of Our Lives. For over 20 years (1976-1997) that show was part of my blood. There was no Soap Opera Network in those days, so thank heaven for VCR's.

Caftan Woman said...

You're walking my turf. I'm alongside the choices of "The Guiding Light" and "Dark Shadows". Personally, my list would include "The Edge of Night", "As the World Turns" and "Search for Tomorrow".

I was a rapid "General Hospital" fan until they made Luke and Laura a couple. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in North America who didn't watch that blasted wedding. However, I never could keep away from the show completely, even when it turned into "Gangsters R Us", and I'm enjoying its current run. Is it good or is it because there's nothing else left?

Never could get into AMC or Y&R.

toto2 said...

I think one of the hardest jobs an actor could have is working as a lead on a soap. If I am not mistaken, I think that "Dark Shadows" was taped live each day, which would make it even more of a challenge. Soap operas have been a mainstay for several decades, even with the cancellation in the past few years of several well known and beloved soaps. My sister loved Y & R and that is how I started watching. She will be delighted to hear her favorite has claimed your number one place.

Silver Screenings said...

Sadly, the merits of daytime dramas are lost on me. I have two sisters, and both of them have watched "The Young and the Restless" their entire lives. (!) That is quite a level of commitment to fictional characters.

Todd Mason said...

Aside from some one-off weird bits or pieces that would catch my attention (usually on series that preceded or followed the noon news in summertime), the only soaps that have sucked me in for very long have been DARK SHADOWS, THE EDGE OF NIGHT (which I suspect will be the usual Hey, howcome?) and MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN...ALL THAT GLITTERS for as long as it lasted, too, I guess (SOAP don't count!).

FlickChick said...

Hi Rick. Thanks for including The Guiding Light. My mom used to watch and my dad and I used to make fun of her. And then one day I sat down to watch and that was all she wrote. I was hooked until the very end. As for my dad, many years after he had made fun of my mother visited them in Florida and my dad had to fill me in on Reva's exploits and remind me that, although she was married to someone else, Josh was her true love. I didn't have the heart to make fun of him, but I did smile.

Rick29 said...

I've enjoyed all the comments. I know many people that scoff at the idea of watching a soap regularly, These are people that haven't sat down and watched a good one for a week.I must admit that one of my favorite soap devices is the aging of children. It seem like they go from 8 to teenager in a matter of months!

ClassicBecky said...

My Mom didn't watch soap operas, and I guess I took after her. I just never got into them. EXCEPT -- Dark Shadows! I loved that show and rarely missed an episode. This was quite a fun article, Rick!

GA Johnson said...

Dark Shadows was always my favorite soap. The only other one that I ever watched was 'Days of Our Lives'. I was pretty hooked on it for a period of about five years.

Chellis610 said...

Flash in the pan? Think again: why are people still watching the show after all these years, numbskull?