I have been watching soap operas for a long time - 50-plus years - and never can I remember a story that has generated more passionate, thoughtful and, yes, contentious, discussion than the past six months of One Life to Live's Todd and Marty saga. And by that measure alone, this current story, controversial and divisive as it is, has been a smashing success.
It all started back in 1993, when Roger Howarth was cast as "frat boy #1," the ringleader of a monstrous act - the gang rape of college student, Marty Saybrooke. I wasn't watching OLTL at the time, but Soap Opera Weekly kept me up-to-date on what was a truly brutal story. I remember thinking that for Howrath, "frat boy #1" was going to be a short-term gig.
But there was something about Roger Howarth's performance that caught on with viewers - young female viewers - so here it is 15 years later, and "frat boy #1," now known as Todd Manning and played by Trevor St. John, is a fixture in Llanview. On soaps, monsters are generally plot devices; exhibiting no human qualities with which viewers can identify; their sole purpose, to move the story and move on - to jail, or the morgue - they are not intended to be missed by viewers. Figuring out how to transform the monster that is Todd into a viable character has been an on-going challenge for TPTB.
I've been back in Llanview since June, just as the latest effort to transform Todd Manning commenced. And what a complex and controversial effort it has been. The Cliff Notes version: Todd secretly brings an injured and amnesiac Marty to his home where he cares for her, while lying to her about just about everything, including that she has a son who believes she is dead (a son who impregnated Todd's daughter Starr, a baby Todd plans to steal and raise with Marty). Long story (very long story) short, not knowing he's one of her rapists, she falls in love with him, and believing that the fact that she loves him will somehow redeem him, he falls in love with her.
Because I didn't watch the original gang rape story, I understand that I relate to these characters and story differently than viewers who did. And I really do get why so many people were outraged, some tolerating the story only in anticipation of the reveal; then watching Todd get the living shit beat out of him by every character he'd wronged. I, too, anticipated the reveal. But what I, and perhaps a handful of others, including two posters on TWoP, BluBelle and TraveSteve, were hoping for was the stuff of great soap opera: an aftermath that transcended melodrama and explored the dark and complex ambiguity that is real life.
Most of the time, I watched wearing my playwright's hat, recalling the two questions author, Annie Dillard, says every writer must ask and answer before undertaking a project: can it be done and can I do it? Could OLTL's headwriter, Ron Carlivati, actually construct a story that would move the characters through the all of the inescapable, conflicting emotions inherent in creating a relationship between victim and rapist that went beyond the obvious, a risky story with no margin for error. Did he have a writing staff that could plumb each and every nuance such a story would demand? And, perhaps most important, would the actors be able to wring every drop of subtext out of the dialogue? Questions that must be asked and answered before attempting to write the kind of story BluBelle so beautifully described on TWoP:
The world is not black and white - and neither is the human soul. The only thing that is certain is that time clicks along; while some victims heal, and others cannot. And some perpetrators are capable of real and effective change while others lie to themselves and convince us the delusions are absolute truth because we want to believe. RC gave us a sobering glimpse of just a little bit of exactly that...so who will Todd and Marty turn out to be? I suspect a lovely shade of obscure grey somewhere either left or right of in between.
I'm not sure that Carlivati intended to tell such an audacious story. Then again, I can't be sure that he didn't. At the beginning, it felt like he was. At times, it deeply disturbing to watch as Marty fell in love with Todd, knowing what we did. Some of us wanted to believe that in the aftermath of the reveal, Todd just might, after 15 years, finally be "capable of real and effective change." I understand that many viewers will never accept Todd as anything other than a monster. But I would have loved to watch a true transformation: a deeply troubled and damaged man confronting the demons that have led him to act so monstrously toward virtually every person he's ever come in contact with. Even Todd's portrayer, Trevor St. John, saw the possibilities (post no longer available at soapzone.com):
It could be a really interesting task for the writers to figure out how to justify Marty sticking with me because she has to figure out the truth (after the reveal). If they could, it would be a wonderful story. But I have no idea where they're going or how far they're going with it.
It would have been an interesting, and to be sure, difficult task. Not to mention, risking the rath of many viewers. Ron Carlivati acknowledged as much in a Soaps In Depth interview:
I'm certainly not saying that it is okay for a rapist and his victim to fall in love. Todd raped Marty, and it's one of the most seminal stories on the show. Make no mistake: Todd did an extremely bad thing! But at the same time he was trying to desperately in his own twisted way to redeem himself...and Tess pointed out to him that if he can get this person who represents the very worst of him to love him, then maybe he's not as horrible as everyone-including himself-thinks he is.
But where they're going is melodrama, which Peter Brooks describes as "terminal conflict between polarized moral forces." That direction was pretty much set in stone as soon as Todd gave in and slept with Marty. I understand that Carlivati wanted to position Todd emotionally so that he would try to stop the kidnapping of Starr's baby, and why he thought that sleeping with Marty would do that. It's just that there were other ways to get him there. And the sex will make it all the more difficult for Carlivati to get viewers to accept his vision for the characters down the road. How wonderful it would have been if instead, Todd had "broken down, confessed everything to her and taken her rage," as critic, Ed Martin, suggested; then, "There would have been no question at that time that Todd had indeed changed. That would have brought the saga full circle and been enormously satisfying for long-term viewers."
But of course, this was all happening in November. I suppose it would have been too much to expect TPTB to go for nuanced and subtle when they could juice the ratings for sweeps with overwrought melodrama. That said, now that Todd has effectively raped Marty once again and the fans have justifiably vented their collective spleen in outrage (and actress Susan Haskell has her Emmy reel in the can), I will join Ed Martin in tuning in to One Life to Live to watch as the aftermath of this riveting story unfolds.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only. Lynn Liccardo
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