How “Days of Our Lives” is like the Royal Danish Ballet
I spent a lot of time indoors over the weekend, since the weather was weird and for reasons I can't remember I agreed to copyedit four projects simultaneously this summer. Higher education textbook publishing stops for neither lord nor country, is the moral of this story, which really isn't so bad since summertime is horrible and I'm already tired of looking at everybody's feet. In addition, I'm giving up wheat for the month, which means cooking for myself instead of eating out, and using cheese to fill up all the holes in my life that used to be crammed full of bread. (So far so good! scream my arteries, now toss us a ham.) I'm also a little homesick.
Thankfully, 'twixt the chapters and Manchego binges and sadness I managed to read my way through the latest New Yorker and watch about a thousand Youtube clips of Days of Our Lives, genus: Classic '80s; species: Roman and Marlena.
It's no secret that daytime soaps are dying, and I haven't watched one in decades, but back in the '80s this pair was one half (↓) of the televisual dynamic that informed almost all of my gauzy romantic notions about things like falling in love and being in love and the nearly certain yet clearly ratings-driven impossibility of staying that way for more than a season without your husband falling off a cliff.
Anyway (transitions not being my strong suit), Joan Acocella, my favorite New Yorker writer, makes two salient points in her article "Danish Modern," about the Royal Danish Ballet's recent return to New York:
- "We are won without being pushed, always a satisfying experience.... This is related to a moral appeal. [Former director and choreographer] Bournonville's world is Biedermeier. It is centered on home pleasures, middle-class virtues: reason, harmony, fidelity, affection. The ballets feature ordinary mortals. One is hot-tempered; one likes the ladies too much. These flawed characters are still cherished, if also chastened. Bournonville frankly instructs us, and the fact that the ballets are both kind and commonsensical makes the lesson seem true. You exit a Bournonville evening vowing to be a better person."
- "I think all male ballet dancers should perform in kilts." (↓)
I like that: "a moral appeal." After I looked up "Biedermeier" (↓) in my Webster's, I realized this was what Roman and Marlena and Days of Our Lives did for me in the '80s:
They made adult middle-class home life seem ordinary and comfortable, dramatic and funny, romantic, hard, honest, sweet, sexy, responsible, respectful, affectionate, honorable, frustrating, and joyful. They made it look like a true and decent life, an earned life, and one that I wanted to live. (↓)
Here I'll go ahead and guess that most of my Important Readers who were actually alive back then are either male or were too smartypants to sit around watching soap operas in their spare time, so I'm going to lay it all out for you and assume you're reading every word.
Roman & Marlena, the cop and the doc, were one of the Fabled Soap Opera Supercouples of the '80s—the decade of Fabled Soap Opera Supercouples—and at the height of their fame were even featured on the cover of TV Guide, which in spite of Luke and Laura was still no small feat for a daytime soap:
Look at that hair! They were pure '80s sunshine and pop ballads, all Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, frosted tips and pre-Miami Vice jackets. She was the classy shrink and he was the blue-collar flatfoot assigned to protect her from the Salem Strangler by sleeping on her living room floor. (Hey! It's the soaps!) Opposites attracted; of course they argued, of course they fell in love. Of course they were parted constantly—by circumstance, by necessity, by assassination attempts and kidnappings and fake honeymoons and faked deaths—there was a house and a wedding and babies, lots of laughing, lots of sex, oceans and oceans of crying, and then: THE END. Somebody's contract is up and they fall right off a cliff.
Apart from the usual silliness, though, the stranglers and slashers and superhuman nemeses, they were both grownups, another gift of the soaps, whose biggest stars—at least back then—were actually allowed to age. They teased and hurt each other and forgave each other, and above all they enjoyed each other's company. It helped that the actors were obviously friends, but what seems notable now is that the characters spent most of their non-working, non-sex, non-serial-killer time on square, low-rent pursuits like picnics in the park or engaging in earnest conversations on foggy piers. They weren't driving fancy cars, they didn't wear fur coats or own vineyards or mansions or charter private jets. They argued about whether or not they could afford a house and worried about their loan from the bank. So what changed all of that? Aaron Spelling and Dynasty, maybe, or just the onslaught of the rest of the American decade, when everything turned big and glamorous and rich and mean. I wouldn't know, man, I was only 13.
But here's the thing: I watched Dynasty, too, and Dallas and Falcon Crest and god knows what else (Remington Steele!), but I never wanted riches or glamour, a world that was exotic or even slightly mysterious. I was a dreamy kid, but I didn't dream of diamonds and penthouses and gold mines. I dreamed of a small life rounded with reason and care and marked by ordinary kindness. I wanted to grow up to be both warm and cool, to be pretty in that open, smiling way, and a little goofy, with a strong mind and a good heart and a man who would make me laugh. I wanted that because I saw it here, on a daytime soap in the early '80s, and they made me believe it. Because as corny as it is, I watch those Youtube clips again now and believe it still.
1 The other half: Cary Grant screwball comedies, which taught me how to be a tart dame with an eye for trouble and a sassy comeback for every occasion. You no longer have to wonder why I'm so single.
2 The part about kilts doesn't really relate to anything, I just think if male soap stars were required to wear kilts while "performing," soap operas might not be dying.
3 Biedermeier : adj. : of a style of unostentatious furniture and interior decoration popular esp. with the middle class in early 19th century Germany
4 It should go without saying that I'm talking about the early- to mid-'80s characterizations here, up to the point where Wayne Northrop's Roman actually fell off that aforementioned cliff, and not the garbage pit of storylines that Marlena (played by the great and seemingly caramelized Deidre Hall) got sucked into when Faux-Roman—he of the burnished cheekbones and smell-the-fart acting prowess—showed up to ruin everything. John Blech, that's all you need to know.