What the Dickens? How do you satisfactorily conclude 41 years of intricate, incremental storytelling?

The denizens of Pine Valley did it in traditional fashion Friday afternoon: with a formal party at Chandler Mansion as the cherished soap opera All My Children broadcast its last show on ABC.

The tone was valedictory, the emphasis on family ties. Old characters were brought back - in the case of Stuart Chandler (David Canary), from beyond the grave. And Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), AMC's egotistic and ageless femme fatale, finally got her comeuppance.

Chandler won best actor Emmys five times, but the Lucci jinx defined her career. Her name is synonymous with being nominated for an award but never winning; she lost 18 best actress bids before a victory in 1999.

Though the final AMC script called for a celebration, the prevailing mood emanating from the set was sad, as one of the genre's classic sagas fell victim to changing tastes and economic realities. Its 1 p.m. time slot will be filled by a food show, The Chew.

It's no longer certain that the show will gain new life on the Internet in February. Prospect Park, the production company that bought the rights to All My Children, could not come to terms with Lucci, the cast's longtime cynosure. There are reports that Prospect Park may elect to transplant just one soap to the web, the higher-rated One Life to Live, at least initially.

AMC's future isn't clear, but its writers thoughtfully left a few cliffs for their successors to hang plot lines off.

Dr. David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) didn't reveal the identity of the other person he is bringing back from the dead. (What can I say? Soaps have always had a fatal attraction for mystical/miraculous plot twists.)

And at the very end, J.R. (Jacob Young) apparently acted on his deadly vendetta, but we couldn't see who was his target. A twist on the old Dallas trump card: Who did J.R. shoot? Nice.

There were a few attempts to evoke the storied heritage of the show. At one point in the episode schoolchildren were rehearsing this poem for an assembly:

"The great and the least

The rich and the poor,

The weak and the strong,

In sickness and in health,

In joy and sorrow,

In tragedy and triumph,

You are All My Children."

That was the credo written by the soap's creator, Agnes Nixon, when she was conceiving the program. (Full disclosure: Mrs. Nixon is my mother-in-law. I briefly wrote for All My Children.)

Later in the hour, as Erica was excitedly preparing for her trip to Los Angeles, she pointed out to Opal (Jill Larson) that Pine Valley is "still not the corner of Hollywood and Vine." She had made that observation four decades ago, when she was a bratty ingenue.

The episode contained a few brief clip montages. It could easily have borne far more. Because when the characters try to sum the show's sinuous history, it quickly turns into higher math.

Here's Jack (Walt Willey), slugging back whiskey and explaining where his relationship is at: "After 24 years, 10 broken engagements, three television shows, two honeymoons, a marriage and a divorce, it looks like Erica and I are finally over." That's too complicated for a country song.

Ironically, it was left to Tad Martin (Michael Knight) to deliver the final heart-stirring toast. For longtime viewers, he will always be Tad the Cad, the sly rogue who slept with every girl in town - and her mother.

Tad delivered a syrupy speech about how it is "neighbors, family, and friends" who make life worthwhile. He was talking to the assembled Pine Valleyites, but he was clearly addressing the viewers, reminding them of the special bond that the characters forged with their audience. Soap is apparently thicker than blood.

But Tad's heart didn't seem to be in the speech. There was something gloomy hanging over this last episode. It was like closing day at a going-out-of-business theme park.

The cast appeared to be merely going through the motions. Except for J.R. He really, really looked mad.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his pop-culture blog at www.philly.com/dod.