Only once in my life have I watched a soap opera for more than a few minutes. I’m not a snob about it; they’re just never sordid enough for me. But I often wonder if I’m missing a key TV viewing experience, because that one extended soap spell proved to be the strangest TV I’ve ever seen.

The soap was As the World Turns. It was always playing at noon in the employee lounge of a company where I worked almost 20 years ago (which only goes to prove what a dull outfit it was; in those days, the hip lunchtime soap was All My Children). The plot of As the World Turns was completely incomprehensible to me, because it had been running for several thousand years by that point and had long ago reached the terminal stage of self-referential complexity; but with the help of a regular viewer in the lounge–a company lifer who had seen every episode since its primordial days in ancient Sumeria–I was able to work out one relatively lucid thread of story.

The current heroine was a saint unluckily married to a cad so vile he made Iago look like a trifler. But now she was falling in love with the long-suffering hero, who bore a close resemblance to Dudley Doright, including a dimple in his jutting chin the depth of a meteor crater. After several weeks of weepy dithering, the heroine left her husband and holed up in a motel on the outskirts of town. Dudley visited her there and proposed marriage. She accepted, with tears of happiness in her eyes. They kissed, chastely. He departed. She stood at the window, lost in thought–and then (I should have guessed something like this) there appeared in the window a grainy, stock-footage film of a tornado. End of episode. She woke in the hospital the next day with a bad head injury and, needless to say, amnesia.

Now comes the part that shattered me: when she woke up, she was played by a different actress. The two women didn’t look anything at all alike–not even as much as the first and second Darrins on Bewitched. If it hadn’t been for the reassuring presence of Dudley and the cad squabbling in the waiting room, I would have been convinced that a rival faction in the lounge had seized control of the set and we were now watching the amnesia subplot on The Guiding Light.

But I tried to adjust. It even made a kind of spooky sense that this impostor claimed not to remember any of her swarming multitude of friends–after all, she’d never seen any of them before. I wasn’t even outraged when she fell in love with the cad (he made a supreme, albeit temporary, effort not to sneer in her presence) and became offended by the romantic advances of Dudley (he was slow to appreciate that her amnesia meant she didn’t remember him)–who knew what her taste in men might be, as opposed to the woman she’d replaced? But then came the final twist of the knife: just as I was reconciled to her new form, she hit her head on a hospital gurney and her memory returned–and the next day the original actress was back in the role.

For two decades now I’ve been tormented by questions. Did the original actress decide she couldn’t face playing an amnesia victim? (Maybe she’d had to do it one too many times.) Did the producers, their hearts set on amnesia, simply give her a vacation to keep the peace? Or was there some secret ally of Luis Bunuel working behind the lines at CBS who devised the whole experience as an exercise in surrealist estrangement? Either way, it brought home to me a truth I’ve never forgotten: the people on TV just don’t have the same problems I do.

It is, I’ve since been told, relatively common on soaps for an actor to be replaced, and the change is often unannounced. It has never happened in my life that suddenly there was a brand-new person inhabiting the life of someone I knew and I had to carry on as though nothing was any different. But it’s one of the facts of life for the people in soaps: their physical form is unstable. At any moment, anybody they know–they themselves–can mutate into a new body, and it’s simply not polite in their world to call attention to the metamorphosis. So they go on nattering about adultery instead of raving about epistemology.

I admire that, really. It has a kind of poetry to it–the only poetry TV is really good at: the inadvertent and backward kind. Deliberately or not, it suggests something about the mysteries we ignore in the real world, of how people do change or disappear without a word of explanation, and how we go on as though nothing had happened. It’s almost a metaphor about death–not the big, classical soap opera death, the kind that requires years of ritualized buildup–but the little deaths, the casual deaths that happen daily without changing anything about a community.

Certainly I prefer it to the way actors disappear on prime time. There’s no poetry at all there: the season premiere rolls around, and where’s the nosy neighbor, or the cop’s slick young partner? Gone; extinguished; retroactively infected with a fatal disease that killed him off during the summer hiatus (no matter how healthy, if sullen, he looked in the season finale). You could be the star of the show in one episode, and in the next, alas, there was “that plane crash.” This was actually the way the long-running McMillan and Wife abruptly became McMillan; Susan Saint James was excised from the show in a single brutal line of dialogue. On the 80s show Fame, when the lead actress quit, they loaded her character into a car with a drunk driver–thus trashing the character (who was supposed to have been the soul of snotty good sense) and conveniently providing a pretext for an hour-long sermon about drunk driving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another show be as vindictive and sanctimonious simultaneously. But I have seen a few try. Every contract dispute on M*A*S*H resulted in yet another searingly powerful statement on the casualties of war.

They’re very cold, those prime-time producers. They can’t even make you feel good when they decide to make something nice happen to one of their characters. On Beverly Hills 90210 this season, the producers decided to improve the lot of the sullen and useless Brenda by granting her a previously unsuspected gift for acting (though Shannen Doherty, faithful to the original conception of the role, did not display this gift on camera). The effect was exactly the same as if they’d poisoned her. She ended the season being shipped off forever to an acting school in a different zip code–southern California evidently being a bad place to stay if you want to be an actor. I’m not sure she’s out of danger even now–she was still alive in the season finale, but don’t be surprised if she took Amtrak over the summer and the other characters begin the season premiere wailing over that switching error.

I think there is a generalized anxiety, if not open panic, at work in prime time: the disappearance of a character reminds everyone else of the imminent disappearance of the show. Soap operas aren’t under that kind of pressure. They do get canceled occasionally, but most of them are designed to run forever–As the World Turns is still on the air, its plot dividing and recombining as if in an eternal petri dish, even though the shape-shifting heroine and her two suitors are long gone. But prime-time shows barely hang on to the end of each season, and the seasons keep getting shorter; there was a show last year called, I think, South of Miami, that was canceled during its premiere episode. To stave off the executioner, everything about every show these days is up for grabs–characters vanish mid-sentence, the premise changes during the commercial from a melancholy dry cleaner’s in Seattle to a comical bioresearch lab on Mars. Every episode becomes an event: All New, or A Very Special Encore Presentation–as though they’re all perpetually glancing over their shoulder, knowing that the moment the hype sags, the ax falls.

But worse awaits a show when it finally is canceled. In the old days this was a private event: the show decorously vanished off the schedule, as though reascending to Olympus. We’re more open about euthanasia these days. The Series Finale has become a wildly hyped celebration, the TV event of the year. The cancellation of L.A. Law last month was presented as some kind of serious milestone, a social commentary on the death of the 80s; and the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation was so slathered in hoopla it was almost a national holiday.

At least with L.A. Law, you knew why it was happening–nobody’s watched the show for years. The only rogue element in the finale was the news that the patriarchal Leland had cancer. This was ostensibly a symbolic gesture, about how Leland was really the soul of L.A. Law–he dies, and the law firm and the show die with him. But the cancer was some kind of humiliating genital affliction: thus crowning a long string of covert insults they’d directed at him since the pilot episode. The kindly father had spent the entire run of the series hiring crooked lawyers, or blowing easy cases, or taking on racist clients only for the money; he was perpetually shown up as vain, dotty, hypocritical, and a bit of a dope. So the touching final scene, where the other characters raised a glass to toast their stricken leader and pledge their undying friendship, had an unmistakable edge of Oedipal glee–as though they had to get in one last, mean-spirited kick before the ship sank and they all drowned.

That is to say, it was a typical prime-time show. The case of Star Trek was much different, and much more alarming–I think it’s the strangest thing I’ve seen on TV since those old days in the employee lounge. There were months of incessant promos; the blizzard of tie-in articles and interviews; the endless round of speculation as to why Paramount was killing off such a successful show; then, as the magic moment approached, a marathon of favorite Next Generation episodes, followed by a documentary of sorts on the making of the show, followed by a rerun of the original two-hour pilot episode; and then, shamefacedly, the vague little doodle of a last episode itself. When it was over, I felt as though I’d been shown another glimpse of TV’s inner mysteries–but this one I could gladly have lived without.

The episode itself was trivial. Captain Picard scurried around time to save the universe from some bibble-babble phenomenon extruding itself from the future–which might have made for an impressive story if they hadn’t already done a similar idea at least once a season. As always, the threat from the future turned out to depend on some action Picard himself was or was not about to take; as always, he made the correct choice, the threat winked out, and the universe was saved. The only mystery was why it took him so long to get it this time, and why his baffled crewmates were so impressed by the wild intuitive leap he made to reach the solution.

But then that’s always been the mischievous underlying message of the show: people in the future will be a lot nicer and a lot dumber. The general slow-wittedness of the Enterprise crew has always been summed up for me by the amazing psychic powers of their Counselor Troi, who, when confronted by the frothing, wild-eyed commander of a bristling behemoth of a warship, would invariably turn to Picard and say “I sense hostility.” Picard always found her insights invaluable; I’ve always been relieved that the ship’s computer was there to remind them all not to open the portholes.

Anyway, whatever the pretext, the point of the episode turned out to be the glimpses we were given of the future lives of the characters–which normally I find a charming conceit, no matter what the series. (I even watched The Return of the Mod Squad, to see what had become of Linc.) But this is where the show began turning seriously unpleasant, because for several of the characters the future was bleak indeed: early deaths, miserable careers, unfulfilled lives. You would have to be as dumb as a Star Fleet officer not to suspect you were being hustled–and sure enough, when Picard unsnarled the time line the dark lives ahead were revealed to be an incidental side effect of the evil time bubble. The slate was wiped clean when time righted itself, and the finale turned out not to resolve anything.

So what was the real point? There wasn’t one: the last episode wasn’t in fact a last episode but a holding action. Paramount is putting the show out of production only so they can move the whole outfit over to their feature-film division. They’re betting that they can revive their moribund Star Trek movie franchise (which used to star the withered crew of the original 60s series) by cashing in on the Next Generation’s popularity; and meanwhile they intend to replace the series with a brand-new spin-off called Star Trek: Voyager. The series couldn’t actually wrap itself up without interfering with the movie, so it didn’t wrap itself up at all–even though, the rumor goes, everybody involved in the movie thinks it’s a loser.

This is just what’s so tiresome about the mysteries of TV: when you solve them, you discover nothing more than a bunch of corporate hacks carrying on their abstract accounting maneuvers. The actual product is incidental. If you like a particular show, as I often did like the Next Generation, you invariably end up feeling a bit like Diane Keaton in the last scene of The Godfather–left standing outside the closed door, while the fatally charming Michael Corleone is inside cutting another deal. That’s why, I think, the last shot of Star Trek showed the cast sitting around playing poker, as though nothing had happened that episode. Nothing had: after all the hoopla, it was just another day in the void.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.