"You've come all that way ... for this?" The security guard looked bemused when I told him I was here from New Zealand to visit Days of Our Lives. I knew I was in the right place. Dwarfed by the wide, white studio hallways, a giant stencilled hourglass stretched toward the ceiling. "Like sands through the hourglass," the inscription read, "these are the Days of Our Lives." I was about to go behind the curtain of one of the world's longest-running soap operas, celebrating an unbelievable 50th anniversary this month.
As I waited for security to grant me access into the inner sanctum of soap history, I noticed that I was leaning on pallets full of props. Lush plastic bouquets stuffed into pearlescent ceramic vases, dusty houseplants and paint pots with labels like "Kiriakis study." It demystified it a bit to imagine the stately Victor Kiriakis, taking time out from his mob boss duties, donning some overalls and sprucing up the skirting. After 50 years on the go, everything needs a touch-up every now and then.
I was led swiftly through one of the soundstages, trying to soak in every opulent room I passed. The air was thick and oaky, trapped for years by velour curtains and Turkish rugs. Closing my eyes, I realised that it smelt exactly like the antique furniture store beneath the Virgin Mary statue in Paraparaumu. The same sad blend of luxury and neglect. Rich varnish and instant coffee.
On Days of Our Lives, every room is the good room - the type of fancy lounge where you curtsy at nothing before walking in on tiptoes, and count down the seconds until you can leave. Peace be with you if you ever break anything. Gilded mirrors, chandeliers, marbled surfaces, wrought-iron candlesticks - all grandiose displays of obscene wealth. These symbols might otherwise seem gaudy if it wasn't for DOOL (as it's known to its many devotees) existing in a universe immune to global financial crises and inequality. In Salem, the small town where the show is set, the 1 per cent is the 100 per cent, so it's all fine.
Growing up, Days of Our Lives represented the boring part of sick days off school or drawn-curtained afternoons at Grandad's house. It disappeared off my radar for a long time, until I was recently welcomed back into its warm, artificial glow with its return to New Zealand's screens on streaming service Lightbox. Even after all these years, it still provides some of the most jaw-dropping drama, exquisitely spat dialogue and slow zoom revelations that you'll see anywhere on television. Without warning, people will say things like "I should have learned my lesson when you burned the mansion down and left me to die in the flames."
It's strange for a half-century-old show to feel refreshing, but there's a sincerity and a theatricality to DOOL that slaps our current slow-burning, brooding anti-heroes clean in the mouth.
The show follows the wealthy families of Salem - namely the Hortons, the DiMeras and the Bradys. We see their lives play out five days a week, unrelenting in their complications and shocking twists.
Arianne Zucker, who has played the lovelorn Nicole Walker for 18 years, shared just a few of her favourite storylines with me: "I've been in a coma, I went to jail, I've stolen children, I gave my best friend a flesh-eating bacterial disease, I've married a man for money ... "
If you think that's a rough life, spare a moment for Alice Horton - she was brutally killed in 2003 by a donut attack and then resurrected on a fictional island called Melaswen (New Salem, but backwards). DOOL was writing Lost plotlines before J.J. Abrams had even put pen to paper.
Rarely a scene will go by on DOOL without a character pouring a comically large glass of wine, or chuckling gently over a 100-year-old scotch. Wedged between the twinkling Horton lounge set and the marble busts of the DiMera office, I found a dusty, carved side table. It was covered in large crystal decanters, filled to the brim with a familiar amber liquid. A man taping cords to the ground told me that they were, in fact, all full of apple juice. Later I would ask Billy Flynn, also known as baby-faced bad boy Chad DiMera, why the characters drank so much. "Because it's Salem - there's nothing else to do," he laughed. "That's why they always have such angry conversations." Explains a lot.
In the wings behind the soundstages, small dressing rooms house some of Salem's biggest stars, buzzing in and out of hair and wardrobe as they prepare for pending scenes of serial killers, affairs and secret children. Lining the walls are hundreds of soap magazine covers, my favourite of which had the headline: "Prisoners of love: Kristin and Johnny finally have sex - in his jail cell." Suzanne Rogers, who has now been on Days of Our Lives for 42 years, breezed past me in a plush robe. "She's gone to get a juice," the publicist whispered to me. It was like being in the presence of royalty, just with much bigger hair.
I had spoken to Rogers, who plays matriarch Maggie Horton on the show, at the start of the year over the phone. "I went under contract in 1974, and the truth is, I didn't really know what I was signing up for," she told me, a narrative which I also gleaned from a few other DOOL stars. Flynn was working in finance before he wound up in Salem. Zucker took the job 18 years ago to help save enough to pay for vet school fees. "Turns out I'm still saving for those," she chuckled.
One distinct memory from my earlier conversation with Horton was that the lines started to blur between her and her character. At any time, her referral to "I" could be "I" as in Suzanne or "I" as in Maggie. Probably something to be expected after 40 years in a character's shoes. This confusion was shared by other cast members too, who frequently find themselves being accosted in post offices, dentist waiting rooms and even the line at Subway by passionate DOOL fans.
"It's almost like we're a part of their life," Flynn explained to me. "The other day this couple came up to me and told me that I looked pretty good, considering the coma." It's nothing new for Kristian Alfonso, who has played Detective Hope Brady for 32 years. "People often call me Hope, but I've just learned to answer to both now." I'm glad, because I called her Hope about five minutes later.
Watching DOOL is not unlike wandering through a late-night shopping mall. The lack of natural light and external settings slowly erodes all anchors of the material world. You're left not knowing what time of day it is, nor what year it is. One of the most iconic "outdoor" locations on the show is the Horton Town Square, which has seen more shenanigans than Aotea Square on a Saturday night. Rogue teen J.J. Deveraux, played by Casey Moss, once smashed every shop window in the square in a fit of blind rage. For Moss, it was the hardest scene he had ever had to shoot. "I had one chance to do it without messing it up. If I didn't hit that right, we'd be adding another shoot day."
On a production that moves at lightning speed, shooting up to 40 script pages a day, you only ever get one shot. I had wondered why I saw so many bouffant-sporting, heavily made-up characters tucked away in hallways, chanting lines back and forth to each other. "What we do in a week, most films do over six months. If you can make a scene good here you'll do well anywhere else," Flynn told me.
I asked Galen Gering, who plays the impossibly handsome FBI agent Rafe Hernandez, how he manages to remember all his lines day to day. "I record my lines on my phone every night, I listen to them on the way home and on the way to work." But sometimes, even that can't stop the dreaded DOOL "blank-out". "Sometimes you can read a script on set and think 'have I even looked at this scene before?' It can be stressful."
Stress on the show might be better taken care of at the University Hospital Wellness Centre, the brochure of which I rifled through before remembering that you shouldn't touch anything in a hospital, let alone the set of a hospital. Other useful information about restless leg syndrome, artery disease and diabetes spoke volumes to the DOOL target audience.
Like the foyer of Shortland Street, University Hospital was instantly recognisable as I stepped on to the faux-linoleum floor. "If these flat-pack walls could talk," I thought. Staring deep into the distance, I soaked in the breathless dying wishes, hair-pulling victims and swapped babies of years gone by.
Somebody, somewhere was practising the piano. There was a definite chill in the air. I never did see who was playing that piano nor, indeed, where the piano even was. It may have been the Necktie Killer, and I may even have been killed that very day. Maybe this is what purgatory is like?
I pulled up a chair outside the "Day and Night" frozen yoghurt store. With the opening hours of 10am-7pm, it could be taking some naming liberties, but I have always adored this as one of DOOL's greatest fake shops. Although DOOL might be set in this gilded otherworld, there are small signifiers of now that shine through - frozen yoghurt being one of them. Perhaps more importantly, the show celebrated a cultural milestone last year, with the first same-sex marriage on a daytime soap between Will Horton and Sonny Kiriakis (known to fans as WilSon). Tragically, Will Horton was recently strangled to death by the Necktie Killer. The DOOL hand of fate knows no prejudice.
Someone's empty shopping bag and coffee cup sat in front of me. I can only imagine that they had to drop their things immediately after finding out that their sister was in the throes of demonic possession, and their husband was actually an evil twin from space (both actual DOOL plotlines). I did some window shopping at a tongue-in-cheek "Hourglass" decor store, a stationery shop called "The Mighty Pen" and a very Shanton-looking "Janet's Boutique". The plaza felt very Orewa, where all the shops are called something like "Charisma Fashions". Days of Our Lives is basically the Orewa of the television world, a place all our parents go to retire.
Later I took a visit to wardrobe to see how the sequin sausage gets made. Outfits for the week are stuffed on to bulging racks, as a mounted television plays Days of Our Lives on loop. Running my hands through printed silk tunics, pleather jackets and corduroy trousers, I was told that there was a room below us the size of a football field that contained every character's full wardrobe. Walking along the shelves, I got more of a sense for the type of stories that might be currently plaguing Salem. Bins labelled "belts", "breast enhancers" and "blindfolds" had a strong Fifty Shades aura - but the three boxes of shoulderpads threw me off the scent. Perhaps the present Necktie Killer will graduate to the Shoulderpad Smotherer? "There's some seriously crazy stuff coming up," Flynn teased, "stuff that isn't normal in the realm of human life."
If 50 years has taught us anything, it's that absolutely anything is possible in the DOOL universe. "This show is a total amusement park," said Alfonso. "You get off one ride and you're on another. Everything is always in motion."
Days of Our Lives is available exclusively on Lightbox.