where the writers are
n = 1...

Finally: I’ve been hearing from a number of reliable sources for several months now about how much One Life to Live has improved under headwriter Ron Carvaliti. With a break a couple weeks ago in what’s still a jammed schedule, I set aside my innate skepticism and decided to have a look. But I wanted to give the show its due. I noted a back then the SOAPnet scheduling glitch, link, but since the delay allowed me to fully experience the show’s transformation, it was well worth the aggravation.

For a number of years I worked in clinical research labs, and axiomatic to research is the smaller the sample, "N," the less reliable the results. That said, when I finally got to watch my first episode on Monday, 9 June, I was just as rhapsodic as my fellow soap opera critics. The episode contained everything that made soap opera great in the past - and everything that soap opera needs to be great once again.

So much so, that I thought I might have happened upon the Emmy episode (see Connecting the Dots). It's no mean feat for a single episode of a soap to leave the casual viewer fully oriented as to who's who, as well as making clear the relationships among the characters - even those not in that day's episode. In the past - the distant past - I was a fairly regular viewer, but the last time I watched a full episode of OLTL - two, to be precise - was last August, for Asa's funeral. Yet ten months later a single episode reveals enough backstory that I didn't feel lost. And there was none of that obvious "here's the recap" going on; all the information was seemlessly woven into the dialogue. That's great soap writing!

This particular episode took place just after the death of Jessica's husband, Nash. And the 9 June episode made the most of the tragedy, in particular, Vicki evoking the loss of her first husband, Joe Reilly, while comforting her daughter. On her blog, Deep Soap, former Y&R writer, Sara Bibel questioned the wisdom of killing Nash (Killing me softly). I, too, have questioned the wisdom of killing characters, particularly on As the World Turns, where the deaths of Dusty Donovan and the children of legacy characters, Bryant Montgomery and Jennifer Munson, led exactly nowhere. But the fallout from Nash's death is already opening up Jessica's story. And Dorian's takeover of Buchanan Enterprises, the event that precipiated Nash's death, is having, and will continue to have, an impact on virtually every character in Llanview.

Along with Vicki and Jessica, that episode showcased Llandview's other families in all their broken and dysfunctional glory, but with everyone talking to each other: Blair, Todd and their pregnant teenage daughter, Starr; Charlie and his son, Jared; Clint and Vicki's other daughter, Natalie; Dorian and her foster daughter, Langston; estranged newly-weds Rex and Adriana, plus Bo, Nora and the butler, Nigel. Characters had conversations; they talked with each other, not at each other - there's a difference (just in case Jean Passanate happens to read this). They listened to each other; the show's long history was repeatedly evoked; relationships between and among characters were reiterated, fully connecting the show's landscape.

And wasn't just that one episode; it's every day. In "Connecting the Dots," I posed the following question:

"So here's an idea: If TPTB can produce an Emmy episode with nothing but conversation between characters exploring relationships and revealing history once a year, how about once a month? Better yet, once a week."

Well, after three weeks of watching the new and improved One Life to Live, it looks to me as though Carvaliti is doing it every day. Not a full blown "Emmy episode," of course, but every single episode in these past three weeks, even those action-filled episodes bringing back veterans, Susan Haskell and Andrea Evans, has been anchored by at least one "conversation between characters exploring relationships and revealing history." And more often than not, those conversations run the full length of the episode: same characters, often, the same physical space; emotionally, of course, things move along a few degrees.

And then there's the pacing of the storytelling. The 9 June episode was immediately after Nash's death; last Friday's, 27 June, was his funeral - three, maybe four days later. With the exception of some of the action scenes, my finger hasn't been near the ff button - a marked contrast to ATWT, a show I've watched since grammar school - where Oakdale's plot-driven contrivances fly by at warp speed.

Carvaliti is also giving viewers a reason to "tune in tomorrow." It's called anticipation: David Vickers tells Vicki that she should visit Charlie in the hospital. Late in the show, she's at the door of his room. She walks in at the beginning of the next episode. In Oakdale, Aaron says he's going to confront Chris, and so he does: in the very next scene, at a different location; a trial takes place in a single episode. And you thought I kidding about ATWT running at warp speed.

In the name of research (and fairness), I forced myself to sit through one episode each of All My Children, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives and Young and Restless (I was on a roll watching SOAPnet, which doesn't carry Bold and Beautiful (or the P&G soaps, but I check in on Guiding Light now and then) when this mood struck. By the next day, it has passed. So, apologies to B&B. All I can say is that those are four hours of my life I'm never going to get back. And that in those four hours (minus the commercials and promos, of course) I saw absolutely nothing that gave me any reason to want to watch again. My mind has blocked out the particulars, but my overriding impression was that nothing seemed to be connected. And the cohesiveness of the storytelling is where OLTL really stands out: as one TVwP poster put it, "Isn't the appeal of soaps is that it follows groups of people and that one person's actions can affect others?" (It was an ATWT thread, hence the question mark.)

While critics and fans alike are singing the praises of headwriter, Ron Carvaliti, and executive producer, Frank Valentini, many still harbor doubts about ABC's head of daytime, Brian Frons. From a TVwP poster: "I want us to stay the red headed stepchild! I think the secret to OLTL's recent success is Frons just doesn't care what happens there and keeps his hands off of it." I certainly have my issues with Frons, particularly when it comes to his "transformation" of SOAPnet, and the destructive impact of his insistance on conflating soap opera, the noun with soap opera, the adjective (more on that in a future piece). But suggesting that Frons doesn't care about what happens to OLTL, or has had no input in its current success is absurd. (Although, and I hesitate to mention this given what I saw in my single viewings of All My Children and, in particular, General Hospital, but I do wonder if it's escaped his attention that in the three weeks I've been watching OLTL there hasn't been a single instance of gratuitous or graphic sex.)

Take the budget, for instance: because, at the end of the day, it always comes down to the money. And ABC is spending money on OLTL, and it shows. In the number of sets per episode: in the 17 June episode, nine, three of which were in Vicki's mansion alone. And even more costly, the number of actors: eighteen (yes, 18!) characters in that same episode, including many longtime (read highly-paid) veterans. It is simply inconceivable that the ABC's head of daytime isn't aware of and signing off on those budgets.

So what is happening here? More times than I can count, some poster on one of the boards will say something along the lines of: "As an experiment, TPTB should just pick one soap - any soap - and just let it alone for a year, regardless of the ratings. Let the writers write the stories they want to write, instead of what the marketing people say the focus groups want to see. And let the casting directors cast actors, not cheekbones. And at the end of a year, revevaluate, then make changes."

My take (I have no inside information here, just speculation informed by observation) is that One Life to Live is that experiment. While I'm not sure that it would work with any soap (Guiding Light may be too far gone), OLTL makes sense for a number of reasons; because however bad things had become during Dena Higley's reign as headwriter (while I wasn't watching, I read a lot of bitching on the boards and blogs), the Llanview canvas was still populated with longtime characters, including one from first episode, Victoria Lord (originally played by Gillian Spencer). Having those characters already on the canvas made it possible for Ron Carvaliti to go back to the Basics of Soap Opera 101 and right the show's course.

So what exactly are the Basics of Soap Opera 101? Here's a recent MediaDomain post:

"OLTL is a perfect example of how good writing and an understanding of the soap technique (and it is a separate technique from most TV writing) can lift a genre out of the doldrums and make it soar. All ages of characters, all good actors with story, story building out of story, interwoven and yet with new twists, characters staying in character and pulling story thru that, beautiful sets, appropriate costuming, the now-and-then outdoor shot.....well, it is all coming together to create new excitement and interest in soap fans."

And ten months in, it seems to be working. Critics and fans are swooning; the show has buzz, the numbers steadily improving. And what's working for One Life to Live could certainly work for As the World Turns. Not only do they have an original character, Nancy Hughes, still on the canvas, she's played by the original actor, Helen Wagner, who, at almost 90, still makes the rare appearance. Characters going back thirty and forty years, also played by their original actors, still populate Oakdale. Can it happen? Of course it can. Will it happen? That's up to CBS, and ultimately, PGP (Proctor & Gamble Productions). I've argued before that soaps have never been a zero sum game. So while One Life To Live and As the World Turns compete in the 2:00 P.M. time slot, the success of OLTL should be raising the tide for soaps. And if PGP would invest the resources to rebuild the ATWT ship, it could float right along on that rising tide.

 

© 2008 Lynn Liccardo

 

Comments
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Great analysis!

Lynn, Thanks for this discussion. I really appreciate the way you offer specifics of what OLTL is doing (and not doing) that is making it work as soap opera in a way so infrequent on other shows these days. I've been really waffling about jumping into OLTL. I'd love some good soap storytelling but feel intimidated by the time committment of adding another show! Even though other soaps are such train wrecks, I still feel like I need to watch to see them go down--guess it's just the researcher/historian in me wanting to see it all play out. In any case, thanks for the discussion.

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i know just how you feel...

about the time commitment and watching the train wreck of other soaps. it took me a good long while to "board the ss llanview," as snark put it. but ff through the train wreck that is mostly atwt these days does free up a bit of time. and, much as i love ryan's hope (hope you still are, as well), it is nice to get a comtemporary soap opera fix that doesn't make me sad and depressed.

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Well said!!

I couldn't agree more with what you wrote.  OLTL is highly praised (risking some backlash no doubt) and it's completely deserved.  It's got everything I want in a soap: proper use of vets, ripple effect storytelling, great dialogue (unlike DAYS), and lots of OMG moments.  And I love the fact that they tell their stories at a slower pace, still moving them forward while also playing all the beats of the story - unlike other soaps that go way too fast (B&B) or have mastered the art of stagnant and/or repetitive storytelling (GH).

I watch several soaps, and the highest complement I can give to OLTL is that it's the only show I don't fast forward :)

BTW, I've just recently discovered your blog and wanted to let you know that I love it!  Thanks for your insightful thoughts on soaps!!

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glad you like my stuff...

i just read somewhere, a complaint that b&b was way too slow. guess it's all in the eye of the beholder.

thanks for coming by.