I do not have much disbelief left to suspend. After however many weeks of the pandemic, my brain has primed itself to accept wild pieces of information: a lawmaker arguing we must sacrifice grandparents on the altar of capitalism; a nation panic-buying bidets; pangolins (possibly) bringing down the world economy. The plot keeps swallowing its own tail; the curve balls keep coming. Sometimes there are even cliff-hangers, like when the reality-TV-host president suggested he might just go ahead and send people back to work by Easter, and see you next press conference. The truth right now is scarier and stranger than almost every form of fiction, except for one genre: soap operas.
A few weeks ago, I started following Days of Our Lives. I chose the show for its name: The days of my life are predictable, monotonous, and underpinned by pandemonium. I am sure these characters can relate. When Days of Our Lives debuted in 1965, it centered around a family of doctors — doctors! we love them! say more! — living in the miscellaneously midwestern town of Salem. In its early form, the show trafficked in realistic-sounding scenarios, but as ratings dropped off, the writers turned — like so many of us do in desperate times — to mysticism: One of the main characters underwent an exorcism after demonic possession caused her to burn down some churches and transform into a jaguar; others have died and come back in other people’s bodies; a woman called “swamp girl” once had to battle her way through a witch-filled Garden of Eden to reclaim her princess crown. Just to give you an idea of what we’re working with.
My inaugural episode opened on a corporate-looking couple, Kristen DiMera and Brady Black, discussing the apparent death of their baby, mysterious circumstances surrounding a man named Steve, and the recent changes in Kristen’s brother, Chad. Unbeknownst to all, Stefano DiMera — Kristen and Chad’s evil father, currently resurrected in Steve’s body — has been running around with a “mad scientist” named Rolf, planting microchips in the brains of select Salem townspeople. The brainwashed include Chad, who, on Stefano’s orders, has imprisoned two women in the tunnels under his house: a woman who, under Stefano’s influence, identified as Princess Gina; and an older blonde woman named Marlena, Stefano’s alleged “queen of the night.” Are you following?
Of course you’re not. The above is little more than Mad Libs. It’s a real balancing act, keeping all this information straight, and just imagine if you’d been watching for 55 years. But the beauty of the soap is how it requires you to succumb to nonsense. You can’t think too hard, really can’t think at all, about any of it. Maybe this is a welcome proposition, if you, like me, want to put your mind on ice for a minute, freezing the anxiety spiral in place.
Or maybe you will find it surprisingly resonant. Due (I am guessing) to budget constraints, the majority of the drama occurs on indoor sets. These people almost never go outside — a lifestyle with which you may be familiar. And even when their stories seem to settle, you know more chaos is coming down the pipe, either because the score hands you a clue or you’ve just seen someone plotting in the last scene. As in real life, every new installment brings heretofore unfathomable new details to the table. You may ask yourself how any of these threads could possibly come together, and what a satisfying ending for this show might look like in the event of its cancellation. You might ask that same question of the show we are living in right now. And while I would like to say that it feels weird to be watching my stories in the middle of a weekday, time means nothing now. It feels no more nor less unnatural than putting on latex gloves to go to the grocery store, or wearing a bandanna to the pharmacy and asking the man behind the counter to please just drop the prescription into the open bag, as if it were a stickup. I would not go so far as to say Days of Our Lives is good, or even enjoyable, but it’s a bone my brain can chew on for a while. It feels good to open the escape hatch, if only for an hour.