If you’ve never heard of Llanview or Pine Valley, then it may surprise you to learn that both are accessible via Lancaster Avenue. Or, rather, they pretend to be. They’re the fictional Main Line hamlets, respectively, of One Life to Live and All My Children, both created by Rosemont resident Agnes Nixon. And for more than 40 years, each has telegraphed a monied Philadelphia ethos to the nation’s daytime viewers.
But for how much longer? These are tough times for soaps. This month marks the 13,858th – and last – episode of As the World Turns, after 54 years on CBS. Where there were once 19 heaving serials on the air, today there are six. One Life to Live is the subject of constant cancellation rumors. What once seemed impossible – the vanishing of the entire genre – now appears less so. “I feel that soaps have gotten off the track a little bit,” explains a clearly saddened Nixon, 82. “I don’t see the stories coming from character as they used to.”
Indeed, soaps were addictive because they were set in places we all secretly wanted to live, filled with people we wanted to know and secrets we wanted to keep. And despite their devolution into parody (who could forget One Life’s arc about Eternia, its secret underground city?), we were always glad to have them, like a stately old chest of drawers from Grandma. They created a familiar canvas, then filled it with kidnappings, baby switches, and people who came back from the dead – often.
Nixon’s soaps were trailblazers, tackling hot-button issues like race, abortion and homosexuality. But they also presented the Main Line as a repository of spicy glamour in a way even The Philadelphia Story never did, reflected in grand houses named Cortlandt Manor and Llanfair, and in Nixon’s most famous creation, bad girl Erica Kane. Because, really – haven’t we all met an Erica Kane at the bar at the Guard House in Gladwyne?
When we devour the sinful details of the scandals of Susan Tabas Tepper and Steven Strawbridge, we do so mainly because of where they occur, in our own Pine Valleys. And perhaps that’s the problem. “Reality” television (and reality) is now often more jaw-dropping than sudsy backstabbing. Why watch the feuding Chandlers when we have the Perelmans for entertainment?
But as the soaps show, optimism is eternal. On the set of One Life to Live one Friday afternoon, the mood is kicky, like a pajama party with very pretty people. “There’s a lot of great and interesting storytelling going on in daytime,” says John-Paul Lavoisier, the insanely handsome Phoenixville native and former Zanzibar Blue waiter who plays brooding Rex. (His teenage co-stars Kristen and Eddie Alderson, with whom I have an animated discussion of why there should be Wawa coffee cups on the show to add local color, are the kids of a Philly cop; All My Children’s Stephanie Gatschet also grew up in Philly.)