Lance and Marcia

I was in a Sunset Boulevard restaurant the other day when I heard an argument at the bar on the other end of the room.

I was not personally at the bar because I do not spend my lunch hours drinking anymore. My attention was focused there due to the couple engaged in debate.

I had noticed them in the first place because they were the epitome of what a quasi-hip young L.A. couple ought to be, emerging from a clothing ad in Buzz or Vanity Fair, a Ken and Barbie for the '90s.

Both were wearing torn jeans and expensive sports jackets, which is a way of simultaneously expressing concern for the poor and rapport with the rich, and both were slugging down tumblers of mineral water backed by white wine.

They were watching the O.J. trial on a TV set over the bar, and when it broke for lunch, the man says, "I can hardly wait for the next episode."

The woman looks at him with disdain and says, "Episode? This is a trial, not 'General Hospital.' "

He shrugs and says, "Face it, Maryanne. It's all soap."

"Get real, Mitch," she says. "We're dealing with life and death here, not Felicia's unwanted pregnancy."

He says, " 'General Hospital' deals with life and death, too."

She says, "I can't believe you." Then, in disgust, belts down the rest of her mineral water, spins off the bar stool and is out the back door.

Mitch sits there for a minute, then finally lays a 10 on the bar, says "That's life" and takes off.

*

I got to thinking the next couple of days about how there are soapish elements to the O.J. case, but, as Mitch unwittingly pointed out, that's true of life generally. We are all bit players in endless daytime drama, offering little pieces of reality to a tapestry of tears and tedium.

The O.J. trial has come to represent a portion of that reality, and we watch it the way we watch "General Hospital," because it's a lot more fun watching someone suffer than it is to actually suffer.

As Alfred Hitchcock once remarked with appropriate irony, "Television has brought murder into the home where it belongs."

In this case, art and life are intertwining with future possibilities. Do not take my word for it. Listen to Rachel Ames, who happens to co-star on "General Hospital." She plays Audrey Hardy, the wife of Dr. Steve Hardy, and has been with the show for 30 years. If anyone ought to know about soaps, it is Rachel Ames.

We met in a corner booth at Jimmy Foley's California Grill in Camarillo, which represented the halfway point between her house and my office. Ames, thank God, was not wearing torn jeans, but was dressed the way grown-ups ought to dress, in things that were neither torn nor soiled.

She is acutely aware of the O.J. trial, because it keeps bumping "G.H." off the air. "But it lacks a lot of essential ingredients for being a real soap," she said, sipping white wine, but without mineral water.

"If you could tell me in one word what it lacks," I asked, "what would that word be?"

She thought about it for a moment and then said, "Sex."

*

When "G.H." began in 1963 there was very little sweaty grappling and pawing, but now erotica has become a staple of daytime soaps, from "Days of Our Lives" to "The Young and the Restless."

"A courthouse drama could work as soap," Ames said, "but it would have to be crafted to include sexual tension in its many forms."

She suggested, for instance, that if one were rewriting the O.J. trial for daytime drama, Marcia Clark would have to be having a secret love affair with Judge Lance Ito, which would be dramatized by quick, meaningful glances in the courtroom and passionate embraces in his chambers.

"There would have to be an illegitimate child somewhere," she said, "and maybe a gay love affair among the jurors."

She would call the series "Courthouse" and feature a fictionalized Lance and Marcia as the main characters.

A trial similar to the O.J. trial would only be a part of this soap. "We would have to end that trial with some kind of clever conclusion and go on from there," Ames said. "Perhaps the Akita could identify the real killer by barking and pointing."

I write of serious things in a light manner to suggest how we have become desensitized to the pain of others. The victims of reality assume fictional status if their cases are televised, because there is no warm flesh there, only a screen.

We are small animals on an insignificant planet, hoping that whatever anguish exists will not touch us. I guess there's a soap in that, too.

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