where the writers are
throwing fans a bone…

There was great excitement among As the World Turns fans when word leaked out that Julianne Moore would be briefly reprising her breakout role of Frannie Hughes. Her appearance was to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of Frannie’s father and step-mother (and aunt), Bob and Kim Hughes, which coincided with the show’s 54th, and final, anniversary this past April 2nd. As it happens, on April 2nd I was in St. Louis, presenting my essay for Survival..., on the Capitalizing on History panel at the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association conference.  You just cannot plan that kind of irony.

Had I not known of Moore’s appearance two episodes hence, and had I not seen a clip somewhere online of her lifting a glass to toast her parents, the April 1st episode might have given me false hope for how the show would close out its 54-year run. The episode opens with Kim and Bob celebrating their anniversary over champagne at the Lakeview. Kim gives Bob a framed photograph of their cabin, which she had redecorated. She tells him that she’s made sure that his schedule was clear so the two of them could spend a long weekend together. But Bob’s schedule had changed, and he wants to postpone their getaway. With the conflict in place, the stage was set for the kind of story that could have – make that should have – been the linchpin for the show’s final months.  Instead, it was all over in three short episodes that barely scratched the historical and emotional surface before all was resolved.

While ATWT had used the short-arc format extensively in 2008-9, after the show’s cancelation was announced in December 2009, the writers had largely returned to soaps’ more traditional narrative structure. Why the show chose the short-arc for Kim and Bob’s anniversary reveals great deal about TPTB’s attitudes towards both longtime fans and the show’s history. Before I get into why, a little bit of background about the couple. Bob Hughes was a young boy when ATWT began in 1956. He may well have been the first character to be SORASed (soap opera rapid aging syndrome) when Don Hastings took over the role in 1960. Kathryn Hays began playing Kim Sullivan (Reynolds, Dixon, Stewart, Andropoulous, Hughes) in 1972. The admitted doppelganger of ATWT’s creator, Irna Phillips, Kim proceeded to seduce Bob, who was married to her sister (Frannie’s late mother, Jennifer). For more than a decade, Kim and Bob suffered the consequences of their indiscretion. But by 1985, the couple was deemed sufficiently rehabilitated to marry and assume the role of tent pole characters previously occupied by Bob's parents, Nancy and Chris.

In recent years, ATWT had abandoned its traditional intergenerational storytelling in favor of more isolated storylines (15 years of faux family ties and squandered opportunities…). So the flashbacks interspersed in the second episode of the arc filled in the backstory for newer viewers. For this longtime fan, it was an exercise in ambivalence: while I was delighted to see the show’s glorious past, those flashbacks were also a bitter reminder of just how much had been lost. The emotional depth so apparent in the flashbacks stood in stark contrast to the superficial, even trivial, manner in which Kim and Bob’s story was playing out.

There were no good guys or bad guys here. Both characters’ points of view were valid and easily understood. Bob was reluctant to give up his profession and concerned about the legacy he would leave; Kim, worried about the serious health issues both had dealt with the previous year and tired of playing second fiddle to Bob’s career, wanted to spend more time with her husband. In fact, the tension between Kim and Bob mirrored aspects of the tension between Bob’s protégé, Reid Oliver, and legacy character, Luke Snyder, as the two embarked upon their short-lived relationship.

This brings up another issue: When fans complain about soaps’ lack of intergenerational storytelling, TPTB often point to the budget restrictions that limit the number of actors per episode. Okay. But Kim and Bob were on fairly often in the final months, so the actors were already getting paid. But with Kim and Bob’s problems so quickly resolved, the characters’ only purpose was to prop Reid and Luke, and their son Chris, the latest love of Katie. Tom was right when he said of his father and Kim, “If they can’t make it, what hope is there for the rest of us?” How much richer the story would have been if all the couples trying to find their way back to each other could have learned from Kim and Bob’s troubles.

And the conversations: Kim with her niece, Barbara and daughter-in-law, Margo; Bob with his sons, Tom and Chris, and grandson, Casey. The old rivalries referenced; Bob’s first wife, Tom’s mother Lisa; his affair with Susan Stewart, the mother of Casey’s girlfriend, Alison. The impact being a child of divorce had on Tom. All of that could have been spread out and fully examined over the show’s final months. Instead, some of the interactions reduced characters to farce: both Lisa and Susan trying to seduce Bob as a test to prove that he really loves Kim. Really? Now, of course, maybe if this had been a facet as the story evolved the course of several months…

Not to belabor my almost morbid fascination with Executive Producer Christopher Goutman’s psyche, but I have to say that like the train wreck that killed Reid Oliver (link), the first time Luke and his first love, Noah,  made love (link), and the death of the show’s matriarch, Nancy Hughes (link), there was a perfunctory quality – even patronizing, and almost spiteful – about how Kim and Bob’s story was shoehorned into these three episodes. It was as almost though Goutman was taunting longtime fans: “Look how we remember the show’s history, and yes, we actually do remember how to lay out this kind of story and write these kinds of scenes; but three episodes is all you’re going to get. So be satisfied, and don’t complain.” And for the most part that was exactly the response from fans and the soap media. Other than a few laments about the story’s brevity, I don’t recall see any critical comments on the boards. It seems that fans have been conditioned not just to accept these crumbs, but to be grateful for them – even if TPTB make a mockery of the show’s history in the process.

Kim and Bob’s truncated story was a far cry from how ATWT’s sister show, Guiding Light, closed out its 72-year run in 2009 with the marriage of Vanessa and Billy Lewis. Both were longtime characters, to be sure, but not nearly as deeply-woven in Springfield’s canvas as Kim and Bob were in Oakdale’s. And while as a couple, Vanessa and Billy had their fans, theirs was not a manifest destiny. In fact, there were a few on the boards who would have preferred that Vanessa remarry another former husband, Matt Reardon. But Kim and Bob were forever.

Funny story: I came across the questionnaire I filled out for C. Lee Harrington and Denise Brothers’ essay for the book, “Age and Aging in Soaps.” Here’s what I wrote back in 2007: “what I’d really like to see is a former love come into the life of a vet…(but) I’m not interested in seeing a marriage – Tom-Margo, Bob-Kim – threatened.” While I’m sure I meant it at the time, I would have so loved for As the World Turns to have ended its 54 years showing Kim and Bob fully confronting their conflicts, secure in the knowledge that they would, indeed, resolve them.


Originally posted 8 December 2010 http://www.henryjenkins.org/

© 2010 Lynn Liccardo

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