Agnes Nixon’s All My Children Book I: Tara & Philip By Rosemarie Santini

An Annoying Autobiographical Pause: For years I was fascinated with every aspect of daytime soaps, except actually watching them: the visual grammar (Everyone has a hair-halo!) the narrative constructs (Why does a single conversation take all week, while a transatlantic flight can happen with a scene change???), and the portrayal of social issues (When did they get their first Black character? First gay couple? Which social problems will they address? Passing For White? Cough Syrup Addiction???) While I could not get into daytime soaps’ glacier-like pace, the very longevity of the series were also daunting. For example, when Guiding Light was finally cancelled in 2009, it had been on the air (radio and then television) for 72 years! In the age of DVD it is pretty easy to get caught up on most TV shows- but 72 years! That is 18,262 episodes!! Even the episodes still existed (the show was broadcast live until 1969), getting “caught up” would be an impossible task.

(How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Watch The Bold And The Beautiful is an essay for another day)

Background: Making its debut in 1970, All My Children was created by long-time soaps writer Agnes Nixon to appeal to a new, younger audience than typically watched daytime TV. The show was successful, pulling in not just teenagers, but also a substantial male audience (about 1/3 of the show’s total viewership during the 1970s) by focusing on the teenaged characters and introducing plots that dealt with such topical issues as legalized abortion and the Vietnam War.

In 1980, ten years after the series debut, three novelizations of AMC’s early storylines were published, so that new viewers could catch up on the characters’ pasts. The novelizations were not only a convenience, but a necessity for doing so: even in the 1970s, TV networks still had a standard practice of “wiping” (erasing and re-using) the master video tapes of daytime soaps. Most of the first decade’s worth of episodes are lost to time.

AMC was cancelled in 2011, after a 41-year run. The rights to the series were acquired by Prospect Park, an independent production company out of Stamford, Connecticut, along with Nixon’s other long-running, recently-canceled series One Life To Live. After a rocky start, Prospect Park has re-launched both AMC and OLTL as  half-hour, four-day-a-week web series, which debuts… today! Go watch it on Hulu! There are rumors flying that, freed from the FCC’s restrictions, the rebooted series will have Spartacus and/or Game Of Thrones levels of (ahem) adult content!

All My Children Book I

The Plot: This book in the trilogy covers the first two years’ worth of All My Children episodes. Now, when meted out 30 minutes at a time, five days a week, the viewer can suspend disbelief to the point where the situations have an air of, if not realism, at least verisimilitude. Condensing two years worth of scripts into 240 pages just reads like insanity. Fact: at one point I declared aloud “Oh, no! Not another coma!” before collapsing with hysterical laughter. That is the kind of book this is.

The story centers on the wealthy Tyler family and the middle-class Martin family and the various goings-on in the Philadelphia suburb of Pine Valley. But, there are so many characters and they’re all intermarried, that is really hard to keep track of who is who and which family they belong to. This is less of a problem with the TV episodes, when the expository dialogue is constantly reiterates who each characters is, what their relationship is to the speaker, and which plotline they are involved with, e.g.:

“Caroline, you are my daughter and I love you, but you just haven’t been yourself since your uncle, Bill Spencer, pushed you off of that balcony for confronting him about wrecking his son Liam’s relationship with Hope Logan.”

So, for the sake of keeping this manageable, we’re just going to look at the teenagers of Pine Valley and their many comas today.

Pine Valley’s resident ne’er-do-well, Nick Davis, has returned home after a 19 year absence, having made his fortune, which he will now use to buy his way into Pine Valley society by opening a discothèque and chairing many Charity Balls for the local hospital. His secret reason for returning is to find out the identity of the illegitimate son he abandoned. Nick may be good at making fortunes, but he is not very bright, since it takes him 100 pages or so to put two and two together and realize that 19 year old Philip Brent, whom he feels an eerie kinship with and LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HIM is the son he seeks.

Phil is going steady with new girl in town Tara Martin. They are basically the Elizabeth Wakefield and Todd Wilkins of Pine Valley High: boring and co-dependent. Tara constantly daydreams about their life together:

Marriage to Phil would be so wonderful. In their own little apartment she would cook wonderful gourmet meals from magazine recipes. Every evening she should set the table as though they were in an elegant restaurant. There would be candles and linen napkins. Phil would bring her flowers. She would serve dinner and Phil would open a naughty bottle of wine.

Ugh, how old are these people? 12?

Tara and Phil’s idyll is complicated by Phil’s BFF, Chuck Tyler, who is also carrying a torch for Tara; and classmate Erica Kane, who is just up to no good in general.

If Tara and Phil are Todd and Elizabeth, then Erica is Jessica. The daughter of a middle-class single mother, her absent movie-director father has left her saddled with some major Daddy Issues. But, she also just has a love of stirring up trouble since Pine Valley is bor-riiing. At the spring prom, she catches the eye of Tara’s older brother, Jeff, who is visiting from college. It is Love At First Sight:

“What’s your name?” he asked softly.

“It’s Erica,” she answered. “Erica Kane.”

“Well, Erica Kane,” Jeff said suddenly. “Would you mind if I fall in love with you?”

Predictably, Tara is not pleased. Even less so when Erica finds out the secret of Phil’s parentage and tells him, kicking off a chain of events that leaves a body count in its wake. OMG! Everyone blames Erica!

“She’s a witch!” Tara shouted.

(Sadly, this is not Dark Shadows, so Tara is speaking metaphorically)

This revelation causes Phil to come down with a mysterious ailment that results in a coma. When Nick sees him passed out on the floor he breaks into the Brent house to rescue him, but the exact nature of his collapse remains mysterious:

“Did you notice any unusual odor?”

“Are you thinking about pot, doc?”

“Yes.”

“There wasn’t any.”

“Sure?”

“You can be sure, I’d know.”

“I see.”

Doctor Sergeant Joe Friday understands that Nick is a man of the world, and knows reefer when he smells it.

When he finally comes to, Phil has undergone a personality transplant, and tells Tara that he doesn’t love her anymore and is going away.

Phil runs away to Greenwich Village, where he is immediately gay-cruised by a White Castle line cook, who takes him back to stay at his “pad”. When his old buddy Chuck shows up looking for him, Phil is playing guitar at a “folk restaurant” called The Factory (“Everybody’s talking at me…”)

Before Chuck can convince him to return to Pine Valley, he has another fainting spell that puts him in another coma. This time when he wakes up he has amnesia! But only of the past year! He doesn’t even know who Tara is anymore!

Tara has always been on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but as the months go on and Phil doesn’t remember her, she finally reaches her breaking point and runs outside in the middle of a snow storm to die of exposure. Devoted Chuck finds her in a local park, but now she’s in a coma! When she finally comes to, she has also undergone a personality transplant and swears off of Phil, having decided that she is in love with Chuck.

What’s Erica up to? Well, her meddling pays off when she cures Phil of his amnesia and re-transplants his original, Tara-loving personality back into him. Complications!

Erica also secretly marries Jeff, but the whole town finds out about it since there is only one justice of the peace in town and he can’t keep his trap shut. She also is knocked up, but she doesn’t want to ruin her girlish figure, so she has Daytime TV’s first legal abortion, which she is punished for by contracting a life-threatening infection and falling into a coma. When she wakes up she has amnesia!

Meanwhile, Tara is following through on her plan to marry Chuck, but when they get to the “speak now or forever hold your peace…” part of the ceremony, Nick springs to his biological son’s (that would be Phil) defense and punches Chuck in the face. In fact, he punches Chuck in the face so hard he gives him kidney disease. Do we see where this is going? Pine Valley General has yet another teenaged coma on their hands.

Tara is less-than-thrilled with the idea of being married to someone on dialysis, and starts being in love with Phil again. Phil, of course is then immediately drafted and shipped off to ‘Nam, where he goes missing in action like five minutes after he gets there.

Tara explains to Chuck that she’s pregnant with Phil’s baby, but it is totally ok because they ran away and got married “in their hearts” before he left, when they couldn’t find that justice of the peace. Chuck gently explains to her that, in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t work that way; he offers to marry her to give her baby a name, because after all that, the one sin that is still unforgivable in Pine Valley is “illegitimacy”.

HOW WILL IT ALL END??? Fire up your internet and follow the story that has been 43 years in the making!

Sign It Was Written In 1980 Department: “Her bedroom could fit into her father’s Beverly Hills house. Erica had decorated it like Barbra Streisand’s bedroom. She’d seen a picture of it in a movie magazine.”

Instructional! Department: “She searched out the different foods she needed to make the casserole.” Man, now I am craving a casserole that is made out of different foods.

Unexplained Department: Apparently Phil’s mysterious fainting-coma disease isn’t so serious that the Army declares him 4-F. Also Erica’s amnesia seems to go away on its own.

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3 Responses to Agnes Nixon’s All My Children Book I: Tara & Philip By Rosemarie Santini

  1. Carrie Laben says:

    Maybe the Army air-dropped Phil’s inert body into the jungle to give all the Reds the Convenient Coma Disease, since it seems to be contagious.

  2. Pingback: Dark Shadows By Marilyn Ross | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

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