June 3, 2005
Since I've been dieting, there is some kind of column-starting Pooh witticism about my tummy being empty and my mind being full, but it being Summer vacation and all, I am so up to my ears in kidworld that I am bane to look the exact damned quote up. Each soap columnist has their own way of writing a column. Some are note takers. Some write as they watch the shows. Some write, stop, sit down the next day, write some more and so on. I am a muller. I have an idea that sparks up in my nog and rolls around in there for a few days or months or, as in the case of the never written "What soap characters are really secretly gay?" column Sage, Kate Brown and I have been kicking around, even years. I mull.
Lately, I've been mulling specifically about the current state of soaps. Admittedly, I cannot speak intelligently about the deterioration, or lack thereof, of AMC since I only started watching it in 2001. I came on board around the time of libidozone, that wretched Laura person marrying Leo and Dixie and David wallowing around on the floor together. I now regret missing the early years, but could never seem to get into it before.
GH and OLTL, however, are lifelong buddies of mine, cozying up to me around the age of 3 (me, not them) and 7 respectively. With dose guys, I know from which I speak. So this particular column will be about them as they are the ones about which I feel I have a legitimate license to bitch. ...and bitch I have ...and bitch I am certain I shall again. Many fans are unhappy with the current state of the shows and many, including myself, are very vocal about their dismay. I've been asked on occasion why I still watch the shows if I am indeed so frustrated with them and my answer varies according to the mood I'm in at the time. I may wax metaphorical and say that when you are a decades-invested veteran of the shows, your relationship with them becomes akin to a sibling-hood. During the bad times, it's as though your "sister" (the show") is married to an asshole (The Powers That Be) who spends an hour beating the shit out of her five days out of every week. You don't stop loving her or wanting to "save" her, but you do get pissed off at her for denying what's happening and staying in this horrible situation. You also feel really bad for the kids (the characters), who are the ones who really suffer. If I'm feeling defeated, I might just sigh and shake my head. "Child, you don't even know." If obstinacy is the flavor of the day, I might get into how this damned show owes me because I know more about it and have watched it more than everyone currently making decisions about the show combined. Either way, I always have a decent explanation for why I have the absolute right to complain about how screwed up my shows are right now.
But really, what am I complaining about?
I could give you a list. I'm so bored that my eyes are falling right out of my head over the Natalie-John-Evangeline triangle. They are easily the most boring threesome in the history of soaps. I'm watching Bree Williamson chew up the scenery and half of the props in this whole Tess/Jess thing. I'm seeing kids kill parents and adults giving the same kids the most screwed up messages ever ("I'm not under arrest, I'm just here for questioning. Can you say 'questioning' with me? You'd better learn the difference if you are going to live in our world. No, you don't tell ANYone you killed AJ. They got no evidence and that means we didn't do it! We don't TAKE responsibility here and it's best you learn that fact early!") I see couples that "no one" likes being crammed down everyone's throat (as we choke and gag and fight and protest it). I'm watching positively brilliant actors sitting on the sidelines, begging for any acting crumbs they can be thrown in a scene just to get a moment on camera.
Do I like these things? No, I do not. My response? To cry out in this "Woe is Me" mantra about how things used to be, how great the shows were in their heyday and how much the power that be have screwed things up. It used to be so much better before, didn't it? Well?
I'm not so sure. Are the soaps really that bad or that different than they were before or have they just evolved on, transferring the same stories to other characters and the same shock value to different taboos in our society? My immediate reaction is yes, they really are that bad. Faith's lap dance on Benny's shocked lap was repulsive. Parents being sent a photo of their presumably dead child (drugged by his own biological father or his own biological father's emissary) in a swamp is unthinkable. Elizabeth giving Courtney and Jax some womb service to pay off Lucky's medical bills when they have been together for all of 4 and a half minutes this time is absurd. The fact that suddenly, after 40 years of quickie GH Dominican Republic divorces, Alexis and Ric, two extremely educated and resourceful attorneys, can't get themselves divorced without one of them giving "grounds" insults our intelligence. For that matter, the idea that Luis Alcazar could yell at Alexis to make her go into labor is equally as dumb.
We hold up the past as some kind of blueprint for how things should be without giving any consideration to how crappy the soaps were in the past as well. You want to talk about couples being pushed down a person's throat? I feel bad for the people who were NOT fans of Luke and Laura. How about another couple, The Virgin Annie Logan and Jeff Webber, who were the most saccharine sweet, repulsive twosome to ever pop a cherry on daytime. People complain about how the character of Carly went from being a hellcat to a domesticated, dulled, house frau, but does any one remember hell's biggest bitch, Bobbie Spencer, who lied and schemed and manipulated and whored until she married Tony Jones and became so tamed that she was the rube for Lucy Coe and Damian Smith's illicit bet that he could bed any woman in Port Charles? So devoted a wife and mom was our fiery redhead that she was Lucy's first choice, knowing fully well that Damian would never be able to coax her off her matrimonial pedestal (he did).
We complain that GH in particular revolves around a very few central characters with everyone else pushed to the sidelines. We can rattle off a few names here: Sonny, Carly, Reese, Courtney, Jax, Sam, Jason, Emily, Nikolas, Ric, Alexis and lately, Elizabeth and Lucky. They all get frequent play and that's a solid core cast of 13, not to mention the sidebar of Maxie, Georgie, Dylan, Mac and Diego who are front and center with this protracted "BJ's Heart Part Dos" story. Bring in Big Daddy John, the wonderful back burner story of Luke and Tracy's marriage, which also spotlights Skye, the Q's and not to mention the very, very delightful Big Alice and *sigh* Coleman. Really, I ask you, what's to bitch about?
What we fuss about is that "our" characters are not being seen on screen much. The Quartermaines have gotten about as much screen time in the past month as they did in all of 2004 combined. Bobbie is actually being seen more than once a month now and is likely to be pulled into a strong story with John's paralysis. It makes me wonder if this is how the fans of Jessie Brewer, Lucille Weeks, Steve and Audrey Hardy and Lee and Gail Baldwin felt when Luke, Laura, Robert, Tiffany, Sean and Holly burst onto the scene and ate up every available crumb of air time. When the Rappaports and before them, the Buchanans, took over Llanview, did the fans of the previous regime crumble as we did? Joe Riley had a family on the OLTL. So did Larry Wolek and Jim Craig. Where have all the Holdens gone? (Long time passing) For a while there, all roads, Buchanan, Rappaport and Holden led to the Vegas. Yes, OLTL has often had a rich and diverse ethnic structure (unlike now when RJ and Evangeline are the only two black people in Pennsylvania), but yes, we were very Angel's Square-centric for a while.
We had times of Cassadine focus and Quartermaine focus and Spencer focus. Remember when Bradley Ward's murder was the top story and every single scene had something to do with it? For a while, GH was Brenda, Brenda, everywhere Brenda. Around the time she told AJ he was really Michael's father, I felt like every character on the show was wearing a Robin Scorpio mask because she was All. I. Ever. Saw. I don't think I was ever so happy to see someone leave. One more scene with her pious little arms crossed over her perfect breasts below her smug, sanctimonious smirk and I was going to have to start an insulin regimen... and I liked Robin.
Admittedly, no one has held down the spotlight quite so long as Maurice Benard's Sonny. For easily 6-7 years we have had Sonny as the main focus of GH with every other story clustered around whatever Sonny happened to be doing at the time. If Sonny took a monstrous crap at 2:30pm, reading an Archie Comic and using Scott tissue instead of Charmin, it would take great precedence over Alan Quartermaine getting blasted in the back with a handgun held by his prodigal undead son or Ric and Alexis beaming over an ultrasound machine zeroed in on their little nubbin. Even Luke and Laura didn't dominate the spotlight for as long as Sir Sonny has, but could that possibly be due to their frequent departures from the show? Genie Francis was there and back and there and back, as was Tony Geary, not to mention the marathon vacations twice a year when he actually is "back." I'm not saying that Da Man doesn't deserve it. Hell, he's earned every perk and bennie he gets along the way and then some. All I'm saying is that had he and Genie Francis been consistently available for Luke and Laura action, would they possibly have commanded the front, biggest, hottest burner for as long as Maurice has? It's hard to say and we'll never know. Everyone has their own opinion about it, I am sure. Regardless, as I mentioned before, we do have several different people involved in front burner stories, two of which (Jax and Courtney Rent a Womb and The Trials and Tribulations of Emily and Nikolas) have nothing directly to do with Sonny (even though they circulate around his world, Port Charles being only about a square mile in area, as it were).
So is it really different than it was during the time we laud as the glory days?
We talk about the stories that are so ludicrous that we can't stand it. The Dead Man's Hand (is that what it was called?), Jessica's "is it hereditary, no it's not, OK, well, it is" DID crisis, Todd being held captive by Margaret, Reese really being the real Carly Roberts (and some sloppy back-story revisionist writing THAT was), Viki has twins by both Mitch Laurence and Clint Buchanan at the same time, Alexis and Ric being unable to divorce... Yes, it's dumb, but jeez, we had our Loon Lake and our Eternia and our Casey the Alien and our Sword of Whatever that David Gray had and the Tin Man and the Left Handed Boy and the Men of 21... We've had a ton of really, really dumbass stories over the years, and yes, even during the glory days. We do tend to glamorize as time jades over our memories, but we went through some real vomit from time to time among the Holy Shit, Todd's ALIVE stories and the BJ's Heart stories and Marty Gets Kissed By a Really, Really Hot Irish Guy in a Pub stories and Stone's Death stories and Who Killed Diana Taylor and Karen Wolek is a HOOKER, A COMMON HOOKER *choke*sob*!! Even back then, the really, really great stories broke up some of the yawn-worthy, lame crap we put up with day in and day out.
Another frequent complaint is how repulsive the subjects are that are being addressed. Many of us are aghast at how they have just gone too far, pushed the envelope a little or a lot too much and tumbled over the line into really, really bad taste... far beyond where we want to go with daytime fare. Had there been an internet, it would have been lit up like the White House Christmas tree with shocked and devastated viewers in 1970 when Carla Benari went to visit Anna Wolek. She knocked on the door just as the neighbor across the hall opened her door and OLTL tipped on its axis. The very jolly, very black Sadie Gray said, "Clara?" and the (we thought) very white, very shocked Carla said, "Mama?" and all hell broke loose. It was then revealed that Sadie's daughter, Clara, was not, in fact, 9 years dead, but was 9 years white and was "passing" in order to get work as an actress. (One site said Clara was just estranged from her mother and other says she was thought dead and honestly, I can't remember because it was 35 freakin years ago, so give me a small break, OK?)
[Side note: I had to laugh at a point made on a website promoting Ellen Holly's (the actress who played Clara/Carla) book, One Life, in which the following is quoted, "When One Life to Live premiered, Agnes Nixon's original concept for the show was to depict several families from dramatically diverse backgrounds, a rainbow coalition if you will consisting of the Jewish family the Siegels, the immigrant Woleks, the extravagantly wealthy Lords, and the African-American Grays." With everyone rich in Llanview and, in fact, on all of the ABC soaps, it's interesting to know how far off base the original vision of the creator actually turned out to be. Bless Agnes Nixon's heart.]
AMC and OLTL both dealt with issues of homosexuality long before Bianca tongue kissed Lena and fans lost their minds. ABC soaps have confronted the topics of rape, drug use, prostitution, pedophilia, abortion, incest and many other issues that were not only controversial, but absolute taboo at the time. GH even went so far as to have a young woman fall in love with her attacker after a particularly cruel rape and turn the two of them into daytime's first super couple. If that doesn't sound like a $1 bet between two high power fat cat soap producers, I don't know what does. ("I'll bet you can't...") There have always been issues on soaps that have pushed the emotional buttons of the audience and left them drop jawed, pop-eyed and on the phone to their congressman. In today's society, the verboten of yesterday is common place and therefore, the shows reach higher and stretch further to garner the shocked reaction they could get in the past from Cathy Craig taking LSD. Today's audience would not only demand to know the grade of acid she was using, but whether or not she chased it with orange juice for that extra special kick.
Illicit affairs and corporate subterfuge no longer impress or intrigue us, they are standard fare for soaps. If the shows want to impress us and shock us, they have to dig deeper, so they do. They want to get us talking, making us question whether or not we actually saw or heard what we thought we saw or heard. They want our jaws to drop and our eyes to bug and sometimes, they want our delicate sensibilities to be offended. The more they get us to talk, the more they have done their jobs because any press is good press.
Forty years of daytime drama has very nearly exhausted every story and plot twist that can be used. We see the 21st century Niki Smith in Tess. We see Emily and Nikolas moving past a brutal rape just as we saw Diana and Peter Taylor move past a brutal rape, the difference being that Phil Brewer didn't have Peter's face. We've seen the same whodunit murder mystery played out over and over and over with different characters in the roles. We watch Ryan sneaking a vasectomy as we saw Monica sneak birth control pills past Jeff. Two brothers, one a rogue and one a lawyer. Anyone remember Tom and Lee Baldwin?
Fans complain that there is no emphasis on friendship and family any more, but isn't that what the whole Jason/Sam/Carly/Sonny/Courtney (I'd say Jax, but he doesn't really like any of them) dynamic is all about? Elizabeth, Emily, Nikolas and Lucky are friends and family. The Quartermaines continue on in their own bastardization of family unity and values.
Broken hearted fan bases complain that their patron actors are being done wrong, but is that anything new, really? One day, Denise Alexander was a mover and a shaker and a player on GH and the next, we learn that Lesley died off-screen in a car crash. The parting of the ways between DA and GH was that fast. A whole host of soap opera super stars has been lost not only to the bigger screen and prime time, but also to oblivion because the show did not see the value in their performances that the actors themselves, and usually the audience, saw. When Port Charles ended, we were told that Lucy and Kevin would not be melding back into the GH cast because there simply was not enough room. Almost immediately, the modeling field was cullied again and a host of newcomers started cluttering up our screen. Was it really about there not being enough room or not being enough money? A model looking to break into acting will definitely work for less and settle for less contractually than would season daytime favorites Jon Linstrom and Lynn Herring. How many times does a story come up where we know Anna Devane or Robert Scorpio or Kimberly McCullough should be involved, only to have the actor report that they have not been contacted?
Recently, Carol Banks Webber reported on Soap Zone that Eva LaRue had approached GH about adding herself to the cast of the West Coast show and was turned down flat. Shall we guess why? Not enough room on the cast list, not enough money in the bank or was she just too old for GH's twenty-something preferences? As fans consider their own wants in regard to casting and story line, the powers that be do have to also consider that soaps are a business, first and foremost.
Also, in the respect of "you can't please all (or any) of the people some of the time," we must remember that if we were given the coveted job of ABC Soap God to write as we choose and cast as we choose, there would still be a whole faction of angry soap fans after your ass with pitchforks, acid and blow torches. You'd never please the JaSam people, the Liason people and the Carly and Jason people (whatever they are called) at the same time. Break up Sonny and Carly and you please a few and piss off a few. Put together Carly and Lorenzo and again, piss off a few, please a few. You'll always have people up your ass complaining, so what do you do? I know what I'd do. I'd write the shows they way *I* wanted to, showcasing the actors I wanted to see and bedamned the rest. As my sweet Rick Nelson said, "You can't please everyone so you gotta please yourself." Isn't that exactly what Guza and Pratt are doing?
There were marvelous, rich, exciting stories in the past and I treasure my favorites deeply. There are actors, some long gone and some recently gone, who I adore and miss deeply. There are vibrant, funny characters that are no longer on our show and I miss them as well. I look back on the old days with great fondness and immense affection. As time rolls on and the stories unfold, I know that I will enjoy them much, much more if I can remember this epiphany that things change, but they also stay the same. There are so many things that I still love about both shows and I, for one, am going to work harder to stay focused on the present and all that this amazing genre of television has to offer and see it for its own current value rather than constantly comparing it to the best of the past. The best of the present isn't so bad at all.