All My Children (AMC) premiered on ABC on January 5, 1970. The second daytime drama created by Agnes Nixon, it aired in half-hour episodes until 1977, when it followed the lead of other serials in moving to an hour-long format. Nixon developed her skills in dialogue and story development while working for the legendary Irna Phillips, but she made her own mark on daytime drama with her first creation, One Life to Live (ABC, 1968-2012). Her programs combined the focus on interpersonal relationships that daytime viewers had come to expect with an exploration of social issues that made stories timely and relevant.
Three central families (the Tylers, the Martins, and the Brents) were positioned at the core of Pine Valley, a fictional suburb of Philadelphia, in AMC’s early years. As the show grew in popularity, its identity became inextricable from that of its most famous character, Erica Kane. From her introduction in the show’s first weeks on the air, Erica was a temptress and a villainess, the kind of character that daytime fans loved to watch. As portrayed by Susan Lucci, she was a gorgeous and unpredictable force to be reckoned with; she was capable of turning heads, breaking hearts, and disrupting lives. Over the course of more than four decades, Erica matured into a successful entrepreneur and a proud matriarch. The Daytime Emmys began in 1974, and Susan Lucci became a cultural reference point due to the number of Best Actress nominations that she secured without being awarded the statuette. Lucci’s 19th nomination proved the charm in 1999, and she earned four more nominations before the show’s network cancellation in 2011.
Dan Wakefield’s 1976 book All Her Children documented AMC’s production and cultural impact in its first years. The most-watched era of the daytime drama was yet to come, and Wakefield outlined signs of increasing interest, particularly among young people. He interviewed Agnes Nixon, and wrote about her visits to college campuses where cultural anthropology classes were examining “the soaps” as a social phenomenon. Common rooms in college dorms were packed with students eager to tune in to Erica Kane’s latest exploits.
Each daytime drama developed its own specific style and tone. Part of AMC’s breakout success was due to its focus on appealing young adult characters that were tied up in romantic dilemmas as well as issues of the day. In 1970, liberal Amy Tyler (Rosemary Prinz) butted heads with her wealthy and conservative in-laws over the war in Vietnam. In the early 1980s, Jesse Hubbard and Angie Baxter (portrayed by Darnell Williams and Debbi Morgan) became the first African-American “supercouple” in a daytime drama. During this most-watched era, every soap opera attempted to develop popular romantic pairings who could inspire viewer loyalty. AMC’s Jesse and Angie were one of the most enduring of these pairings. Although the Jesse character died in a 1988 episode, he returned to the story canvas in 2007 as the show’s writers sought to revive viewer interest.
AMC was also groundbreaking in its development of storylines about sexual orientation and identity. Erica’s daughter Bianca (portrayed by Eden Riegel) came out as a lesbian at age 16. Erica was initially unsupportive, and Bianca’s conflicts with both family and friends offered a sensitive depiction of the struggles faced by queer youths. The story began in 2000, and continued to develop, coinciding with a major shift in cultural attitudes about homosexuality. Bianca Montgomery was the first gay character to appear in a major role in a daytime drama.
In 1971, Erica Kane became the first daytime television character to seek a legal abortion. More than thirty years later, Erica discovered that the unscrupulous doctor had performed a different operation, transferring the viable embryo to his own wife; the couple raised the baby as their own. Daytime drama viewers are accustomed to all manner of plot twists, but the introduction of Josh, Erica’s long-lost son, was controversial. The story of Erica’s abortion was significant because it engaged with a personal issue of social import, and as the character continued to thrive on the series, it demonstrated that terminating a pregnancy did not prevent her from finding love again and bearing children. The decision to rewrite that story was contentious with the show’s long-time fans.
AMC was also known for incorporating a sense of levity that made it unusual among daytime dramas. The writers’ light touch was evident in characters including Stuart Chandler, the sweet-natured identical twin brother to hard-nosed businessman Adam Chandler (both portrayed by David Canary). Natalie Marlowe and Janet Green, originally both portrayed by Kate Collins, provided a variation on the same idea. Good sister Natalie was frequently tormented by a deranged Janet (sometimes referred to as “Janet from another planet”) who wreaked havoc by posing as her sister. The show’s sense of humor was also on display in 2000, when punch spiked with a drug called “Libidizone” lowered inhibitions and sparked unlikely couplings at a party attended by most Pine Valley residents. The incident had far-reaching implications for story developments and character interrelationships over the next several years.
AMC was also known for its strong performances, and a number of actors who became well-known appeared in regular roles at an early point in their careers. Over the four decades it aired, AMC featured Michael B. Jordan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Melissa Leo, and Kelly Ripa, among many others. The cast of AMC won a total of 28 Daytime Emmys during its run.
ABC announced the series’ cancellation in 2011, as a result of declining viewership. Prospect Park purchased the rights to continue the series for internet distribution; fans were initially hopefully that the story might continue, but this reprieve was short-lived. The show’s demise was the result of a decline in the overall daytime audience and changes in the broadcast television industry as competition with streaming outlets led the networks to seek more cost-effective options. AMC was one of the most popular daytime dramas to ever air on U.S. television, launching iconic characters and storylines that resonated with viewers.
-Caryn Murphy, May 2019
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Wakefield, D. All Her Children. New York: Doubleday, 1976.