All My Children

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All My Children

From its January 5, 1970, debut, soap opera All My Children, with its emphasis on young love and such topical issues as abortion, the Vietnam War, and the environment, attracted college students in unusually high numbers, suddenly expanding the traditional market and changing the focus of the genre forever. The structure of the program has been the traditional battling families concept with the wealthy, dysfunctional Tyler family of Pine Valley pitted against the morally upright but decidedly middle-class Martins. While the stories are mainly romantic and triangular, what makes the show unique is its outright celebration of young lovers and their loves.

Chuck Tyler and Phil Brent were teenagers when their rivalry for the affections of Tara Martin split apart their friendship and pitted the Martins against the Tylers. This conflict drove the series for many years until it was supplanted in 1980 by a romance between Greg Nelson and Jenny Gardner, which was beset by interference from his controlling mother; a devious young flame, Liza; and ultimately Greg's own paralysis. This was followed in succeeding years by a parade of almost unbelievable characters who, in their flamboyance and eccentricity, overcame some rather formulaic and often saccharine story lines. Among them was the matriarch Phoebe Tyler who, in her obsession with social propriety, bullied her family into almost hypocritical submission as they sought to achieve their fantasies out of sight of her all-observing eyes. Another was the gum-chewing Opal Gardner, Jenny's meddling mother. Despite being little more than caricatures rather than characters, they provided the audience with welcome comic relief from the earnestness of the show's young lovers and the stability of its tent-pole characters.

The show's most famous character is the beautiful, spoiled, and vindictive Erica Kane, played with an almost vampy flourish by soap queen Susan Lucci (perennially nominated for an Emmy but, as of the late 1990s, holding the record for most nominations without a win). Erica represents the little, lost, daddy's girl who wants nothing more than her father's love and will stop at nothing to achieve at least some facsimile of it. Although she steamrolls men in her quest for love, she has remained sympathetic even as she wooed and divorced three husbands and a succession of lovers in a reckless attempt to fill the void left by her father's absence and neglect. Much of this is due to Lucci's remarkable portrayal of Erica's inherent vulnerability and story lines that have dealt with rape, abortion, substance abuse, and motherhood. Yet, despite her increasing maturity as a character, Erica has remained compulsively destructive over the years, not only destroying her own happiness but the lives of all of those who come in contact with her.

Much of All My Children's success can be attributed to its consistently entertaining and intelligent characterizations and its penchant for presenting a mix of styles with something calculated to please almost everyone. Although this may be somewhat emotionally unsettling within the context of its mingled story lines, it does reflect life as it is, which is anything but neat and tidy. Much of the credit for the show's remarkable constancy over its three-decade run is the fact that it has been almost entirely written by only two head writers—Agnes Nixon and Wisner Washam—and kept many of its original actors, including Lucci, Ruth Warrick (Phoebe), Mary Fickett (Ruth Brent) and Ray MacDonnell (Dr. Joseph Martin).

—Sandra Garcia-Myers

Further Reading:

Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Groves, Seli. The Ultimate Soap Opera Guide. Detroit, Visible Ink Press, 1985.

LaGuardia, Robert. Soap World. New York, Arbor House, 1983.

Schemering, Christopher. The Soap Opera Encyclopedia. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.

Warner, Gary. All My Children: The Complete Family Scrapbook. Los Angeles, General Publishing Group, 1994.