Pathos, Passion, and Pine Valley

Post Author: Bromleigh J. McCleneghan

It’s astounding to me that the entertainment industry asks questions like this, but I suppose it shouldn’t be.  Back in the 1970s, Time magazine covered the move of the networks in expanding what were then half hour soap operas into the hour-long format I grew up accustomed to, and described them – programs which were born as advertising vehicles to housewives – as “TVs richest market.”  Now, this very month, All My Children, which has been running for over forty years, will air its last episode, and it’s only the latest on the network chopping block.  I find this endlessly curious, especially in light of that terrific Time piece (which, I confess, I located as a link in the Wikipedia entry on “soap operas”), which concluded that the market for soaps was no longer limited to blue collar housewives, but had since expanded to include college students (that’s when my folks got hooked), richer housewives, hippies and the unemployed.  It was a “ghettoized” market, but man, did it bring in money.

Whatever combination of factors (economics, particularly plateauing economic power for women, working women, cable television) led to the rise and fall of the daytime soap opera empire, I am here to mourn this death.  In sermons on those ridiculously self-defeating patriarchs of the faith, in ordination papers describing the importance of memorizing congregational family trees, I have been a staunch defender of the form.  I grew up watching AMC, though I traditionally missed the first ten minutes walking home from school at lunch (but could usually sucker my dad into driving me back if there was a cliffhanger that carried us all the way to 1pm).  And, though I can empathize and nod my head with any and all complaints about the show’s silliness and scenery-chewing, I have loved it, and it has shaped me.

And so I present, now, in no particular order, the top ten things I have learned about life and ministry from All My Children:

1)      Fridays are for cliffhangers; the real story begins on the first day of the week.

2)      Everyone is related.  I have served two congregations now where this is totally the case, and while they lacked any particular animosity towards one another (unlike the Chandlers and the Martins and the Courtlands and the Kanes), it was really a critical step for me in becoming the pastor when I could name who was related to whom and how, despite their having different names.  I contend that I was able to do so because I spent so many years internalizing the family trees of Pine Valley.

3)      Divorce or infidelity or marriage, or whatever, is never the end of a couple’s relationship.  Relationships go on and on, for good and ill, and continue to affect their participants indefinitely.

4)      There is no social issue, and, more to the point, no feminist issue that doesn’t make more sense to people, and gain support, by being carefully portrayed in relation to personal narrative.  Erica Kane’s been raped, had an abortion, come to terms with her daughter’s sexual identity, been an entrepreneur trying to be taken seriously while being an attractive, passionate woman…  Agnes Nixon knows how to blur the line between pastor and prophet.

5)      No lie can live forever.  Dixie will find out that Adam’s trying to make her think she’s crazy so that she’ll give up custody of Junior.  Someone will always find out about the crime or the infidelity.  And it’s not God (God may well know, too, but most of us sinners seem less concerned about that); I mean, someone in your town or household will find out.  And will probably blackmail you.  (That might happen more in Pine Valley than in any given church).

6)      Resurrection is totally possible, especially if no one ever finds a body.  (My particular favorite? Tad Martin falling off the bridge while fighting with his ne’er-do-well biological father, plunging to his presumed death, only to return years later with amnesia as an heir to some vineyard fortune.)  (Also: Jesus)

7)      Sin is real, for sure, and Agnes Nixon and her writers must have read Paul at some point: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (These characters do not understand [their] actions, and neither do we.)

8)      The Time writer describes watching soaps:  For the uninitiated, there is only one word that really describes them: weird. To watch a soap is to be drawn into an enclosed and not particularly welcoming world.  I always loved the way Pine Valley managed to function as a small town, but also housed national magazines like Tempo and several moguls like Adam and Palmer, and encouraged Hungarian royalty to take up residence.  This reminds me of no community so much as the church.  And I am chagrined to realize that to many of the uninitiated, that’s just what we are: weird. 

9)      People are motivated by a lot of things (some of which may never be known, like anything Janet (Natalie’s crazy twin) has ever done); love is the most powerful, and leads to the best story arcs.  No contest. 

10)  There are bad guys, and there are good guys (and at least that many kinds of women), but no one situation, no place or station, nothing is absolutely determinative for a person’s life.  We are free to grow and change (within limits, or the city limits of one fictional Pennsylvania town) 

And one more for good measure, discovered only in hindsight, as I see kids I pastored leaving for college, as I look at the show’s website to discover that I don’t know many of the current regulars:

 11)  Kids grow up so fast. (Bianca Montgomery and Jr Chandler, whose births and maturation I witnessed in the space of my own adolescence, come to mind) 

There are two, however, quibbles I must make with All My Children’s portrayal of the life of faith: “Amazing Grace”, while a wonderful hymn, is really not appropriate for a wedding; and secondly, I have rarely seen anyone actually using a hospital chapel, and certainly not to deliver a soliloquy.


Bromleigh McCleneghan serves as the Associate Pastor and Director of Christian Education at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, IL. She is kind of a sucker for melodrama, and fears that way too much of her understanding of sex as a kid came from All My Children.

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