where the writers are
the rest of the countdown...

Last month, We Love Soaps compiled their list of the 25 Biggest Blunders in Daytime Soap Opera History. I posted my initial thoughts a couple of weeks ago. Here are the rest (well, except for the long piece in progress examining the colossal blunder not on the WLS list – the 1995 shuffling of the PGP soaps’ executive producers, which had been preceded the year before by the curious choice of Ken Fitts to replace the retiring Ed Trach as PGP’s executive in charge of production):

In my initial response, I grouped several blunders under what too often seems to be the assumption underlying soap opera storytelling: “It’s a soap opera; nobody gives a shit if it makes sense.” True enough, except when it’s not. I’ll explain. On soaps, more than any other entertainment genre, real life often intersects with, and underscores, what's on the screen, which demands an increased willingness on the part of viewers to suspend disbelief.

But, there has to be something in it for fans. In the years before All My Children was cancelled, several popular characters met their demise. To bring them back, the show concocted Project Orpheus, a sci-fi storyline involving stem cell research that allowed the return of Dixie, Zach and Stuart. Did it make sense? No, but fans were thrilled because they got a powerful emotional payoff in return.

The same with Roger Howarth’s recent return to One Life to Live. The show had spent eight years convincing fans that Trevor St. John was playing the real Todd Manning; I doubt that even Douglas Marland could have uncovered the logic to rewrite that history. And to Frank Valentini and Ron Carlivati’s great credit, they didn’t even try. Instead, they resurrected Irene Manning (long-presumed dead, but this is a soap opera) as a cartoonish Mommie Dearest/rogue CIA operative. Since then, the story of Todd’s return has alternated between beautiful, heartfelt scenes steeped in history and high camp.

I must confess, at times the rapid juxtaposition between such extremes has left me feeling a little whiplashed. But, like most soap critics, I’ve been cutting OLTL a wide swath when it comes to recent stories. When the show was cancelled in April, Valentini and Carlivati began preparing for a January end date. Then, in early July, Prospect Park announced they were taking both OLTL and AMC online in January and the show had to shift gears. Since then, the show’s pacing has been at best, uneven. But, because Valentini and Carlivati are clearly doing their best to roll with the punches, fans have been willing to roll with them.

Which it what makes it so hard to understand why Valentini and Carlivati would exploit this good will with a story that flat out insults viewers’ intelligence: Stacy Morasco’s return from the dead. Why they thought bringing back this character was a good idea is anyone’s guess. The show had been talking to Roger Howarth for months about returning as Todd Manning. So why another back-from-the-dead story at the same time, especially a back-from-the-dead story with no chance of an emotional payoff for fans, who loathed Stacy when she was alive, and missed her not at all when she died? This inability to discern what viewers will and will not – and should not have to – accept is why so many shows are guilty of #7 on the WLS list: Reliance on Soap Clichés,”

WLS’s #20 : Networks and soaps spoiling their own storylines

It’s not just spoiling storylines; I talked above about real life intersects and underscores how viewers interact with what they see on the screen. Even before the internet age, viewers could figure out a lot of what would be happening simply by reading which actors were coming and going.

Now that viewers can pretty much whatever they want whenever they want, then talk about it on-line, it’s going to be even more of a challenge for viewers to remain spoiler-free. Before ordering streaming video or DVDs, potential viewers often research a show on line, which makes it even more difficult to remain spoiler free. That’s what happened to me when someone suggested I take a look at HBO’s recently cancelled In Treatment. While what was revealed didn’t ruin the show for me, I would just as soon not known before watching the episode in question.

WLS’s #2: WIPING (Decades of soap history destroyed)

Last month, we didn’t just say goodbye to All My Children (at least for now), September 26th marked the final airing of Ryan’s Hope on SOAPNet. Over the years, I’ve written a lot (here, and here) about RH, most recently:

Now that SOAPNet is coming to a close at the end of 2011, I’m hoping that ABC Daytime and the Paley Center’s curator, Ron Simon, will be able to preserve Ryan’s Hope so current and future fans, scholars and producers will be able to “access the rich history of television’s longest running genre.” This is too rare and valuable an opportunity to squander.

I’m still hoping that will happen.

WLS’s #22. Introduction of focus groups and the obsession with a younger demo

The problem isn’t focus groups, or other forms of research, but with how the information is gathered and applied Former programming executives I’ve spoken with agree that used properly focus groups, which were used in the 1970s and possibly earlier, can provide vital feedback, as was the case when a focus group of Another World viewers who used to watch three times a week were now watching less than once a week because they hated a particular storyline. According to former NBC programmer, David Feldman, the information was passed along to AW’s EP, Paul Rauch, who denied there was a problem. However, the offending storyline was shortened.

Of course, probably the worst use of focus groups resulted in #14, “the unnecessary death of Maureen Bauer on Guiding Light.” Another case of important information for the suits to know – participants didn’t have any strong feelings one way or another toward the Maureen – in this case misused by GL’s EP, Jill Farren Phelps. I suggested how that information might better have been used here.

David Feldman’s observation underscores the problem inherent in audience research: “It is human nature to mold research results to back up positions you held before getting the numbers.” That was certainly the case a few years back. Procter and Gamble Productions (PGP, now TeleNext), set up a toll-free viewer feedback line. Callers were asked who they thought Emily Stewart should be with. These were the dark days of Black and Stern, and if I recall correctly it was a very short list of two long-forgotten characters, Jeff Hamlin and Diego Santana. While the feedback line may have been nothing more than a marketing gimmick, it doesn’t mean that TPTB didn’t pay attention to the results. But since “none of the above,” “other,” and because this was Emily Stewart, “a good therapist” were not among the choices, those numbers were meaningless.

Finally, two WLS blunders, the indiscriminate death of characters (#25, Killing Jo's son on Search for Tomorrow, #14, The unnecessary death of Maureen Bauer on Guiding Light) along with #3, The Elimination of Core Families, need to be considered together.

The 2001 death of Bryant Montgomery on As the World Turns throws the issues into sharp relief. Here’s what I wrote a while back: 

Both P&G soaps, Guiding Light and As the World Turns, have felt like a series of unconnected stories for a while now. On GL, the roots of the disconnect lie in the 1993 decision to kill tent pole character, Maureen Bauer, in a car crash. It was a wildly unpopular and still-discussed decision that marked the beginning of the end for GL's longtime core family, the Bauers; Rick is the sole survivor, and he is far from the center of the action

The roots of ATWT's schizophrenia also lie in a car crash; in 2001, Bryant Montgomery crashed his car after finding out that his girlfriend, Jennifer Munson had cheated on him. (Not a lot of points for originality here; Maureen Bauer crashed her car when she found out that her husband, Ed, had had an affair with her best friend Lillian.)

The reaction to Bryant's death was muted when compared to Maureen's, but no less devastating to the Oakdale canvas. Bryant was in his early 20s, and not thought of as a tent pole character. But, in fact, had he lived, he had the potential to become one...What I objected to was not how the aftermath of his death played out, but what had been squandered in the process. Bryant and Jennifer should have been the couple around whom the future of Oakdale was built, not because they had chemistry and were adorable together (they were). But because of how intertwined these characters' families were. Bryant's father is Craig who's Margo's brother; his grandmother's Lucinda, who's connected to the Snyders. Jennifer's mother is Barbara whose Aunt Kim is married to Bob whose son Tom is married to Margo. I look at what this show's become and think of what could have been if not for this kind of short-term thinking and I just want to cry.

Still do...

© 2011 Lynn Liccardo


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