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My secret guilty pleasure

Yes, it is possible to be smart and addicted to soap operas, reality shows and other TV fluff, contends one avid watcher. What’s more surprising is that the habit may be good for you.

By Stephanie Dolgoff

From the November 2008 Issue

My secret guilty pleasure

This morning, before I’d even had my coffee, the kitchen cabinet doors fell off their hinges, and cans of chickpeas rained down everywhere. My twin 5-year-old girls were each so desperate for my attention that I felt like a piece of raw meat in a tug-of-war between two starving Dobermans. I also noticed that I have a fungus on my right big toenail. Add to that my prematurely arthritic knees, my dad’s penchant for reminding me where I’ll find his will when he dies and the fact that my husband seems to love our hybrid car more than he does me, and you’ll start to get a picture of my daily life.

When I feel overwhelmed with all of the above, I remind myself that at least no one snatched one of my twins at birth and left her to be raised by a criminally negligent alcoholic. The love of my life didn’t come back from the dead, then suddenly develop amnesia. And thank God, I didn’t hire a surrogate to have my babies (because I am barren due to a mysterious scuba accident), only to see her run off with my husband, who wrongly suspects me of cheating with his estranged nephew, who also happens to be a defrocked priest. Things could indeed be worse.

Clearly, I watch soaps. Every chance I get. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you snort and roll your eyes, like all my public radio–listening, New Republic–reading, we-only-got-a-TV-for-HBO friends. There’s not a soap watcher out there who hasn’t endured this brand of disdain and incredulity from people who may be equally addicted to Gossip Girl, Project Runway, American Idol or Survivor. Whatever their TiVo habits, I suspect that lots of folks tend to see a soapless life as proof of their intellectual superiority. That doesn’t stop me from tuning in. Like my soap opera heroines—the Dixies, Dominiques or, if they’re really conniving, Dorians—I can survive anything.

A few years ago, when one of my favorite shows announced that a beloved character was returning to the mob-enforcer boyfriend she left a decade earlier, I realized how long I’d been following these cheesy, hyperbolically acted, unrealistic, sometimes embarrassingly bad daytime TV dramas. Fifteen years multiplied by as many as three hours a day during the years I worked as a freelance writer equals, well, a hell of a lot of malignant brain tumors, evil twins and faked pregnancies. Before I had children, I religiously taped All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital and watched them in marathon weekend sessions, fast-forwarding through the advertisements. These days, I hit the gym at lunch and watch my soaps while I’m on the elliptical trainer. At least I get in some good-for-me cardio along with my suds.

I may very well be the dimwit my acquaintances assume I am. The same could be true of the millions of women who watch daytime soaps, not to mention the millions more who are pulled into the only slightly more sophisticated prime-time versions of these dramas. (Have you seen The Hills lately? Technically, it’s a reality show, but if the story lines aren’t worthy of a soap opera, I don’t know what is!) Still, I’m betting that we aren’t as dumb as our TV habits might suggest. I’d even wager that many fluffy TV devotees derive the same kind of emotional benefits from this good clean fun as I do.

I spend most of my day rushing around as if the complex infrastructure of my work, family and emotional life would crumble into pieces if I stopped my frantic scrambling for even a minute. In contrast, when my soaps are on, I am immobile and slack-jawed. This is a good thing. As someone who has tried yoga, meditation and several other supposedly mindful practices, I’ve found that a single hour of One Life to Live is what makes me feel the most relaxed and centered. Even my husband, who likes to surreptitiously watch over my shoulder so he can tease me later, gets sucked in. (“Wait, so the urologist was a fraud and the vasectomy was never actually performed? So she could truly be having his baby?”) Following the convoluted, often logic-defying stories requires Einstein-like concentration, which means that when the hour is up, my mind is totally cleansed. I simply haven’t had the opportunity to dwell on whether an upcoming work project will go well. My focus is sharper, my mood brighter, my spirit more serene. Some women knit for relaxation; others go for a run. I watch soap operas. It’s better than psychotherapy—and cheaper, too.

Soaps are available to everyone. They’re of the people and for the people, a fact I find soothing and satisfyingly democratic. Even more so than tuning in to the rest of what’s on TV, watching a soap is like going to a party where everyone rushes to include you in the conversation. If you miss a day—or a decade—you can turn it on and catch up with the latest shenanigans relatively quickly, because the characters are constantly recapping. (“Now, Rock, just because you were twice married to my mother and once to my sister doesn’t mean we don’t have a future together!”) Unlike with Heroes or Lost, a soap opera doesn’t require you to make a full-on commitment to be a member of the club.

I’ve also become more self-confident since I started watching soaps. In part, that’s because of general maturation. But I have to give my soaps some credit. The characters on these shows tend to say what you wish you could say (or they at least think it out loud in a goofy voice-over), providing a powerful vicarious thrill. Like most women I know, I was raised to be nice, to spare people’s feelings and to declare war only when the matter is critical and all other tactics have failed. Nowadays, if I believe someone is taking advantage of me, I pause, take a deep breath and ask myself, WWEKD (What Would Erica Kane Do)? While I may not opt for the All My Children diva’s typically extreme measures, merely entertaining the idea of “pulling an Erica” allows me to speak my mind more easily.

But the best thing about soaps may be that they present a world—however artificial—that somehow seems rosier than the one we real humans inhabit. Love can transform rapists and pimps into devoted husbands. The capacity for human forgiveness is the size of the Mall of America. (“Of course I still love you! When you sold my baby to that Texas oil tycoon, you didn’t know it was yours!”) The one unifying theme on these soaps is that the rich aren’t necessarily happier than the rest of us. We all need to be reminded of that once in a while.

Have I mentioned that on soap operas, gorgeous men with eight-pack abs are constantly taking off their shirt, even in situations that don’t warrant pectoral exposure? Recently, I had the unexpected pleasure of actually mingling with a few of those blow-dried, sculpted hunks and their preternaturally attractive female counterparts at a benefit to raise money for breast cancer research. At first, I was giddy and starstruck. Fellow partygoers urged me to go over and talk to my stars, but I couldn’t. After all, what would I say? “I really respect your work, particularly in the scene where you attempted to intervene when your fugitive wife held a hostage at gunpoint because the judge had revoked the adoption of your only son.” Mostly though, I wanted to leave these larger-than-life figures where they belonged: in their glittery, tacky, emotionally overwrought, fictional universe. That way, I can continue to observe their outlandish antics and feel genuinely grateful for my sometimes mundane but nevertheless happy and comparatively simple real life.

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