where the writers are
Yearning for the world as it was...

Over the past few weeks I’ve been checking in on the blog Sam Ford set up for his class on The American Soap Opera: here. The student comments touch on many of the issues that underlie the current, sorry state of the American Soap Opera. Of course, being only a few weeks into the course, and from what I can tell, relatively new soap viewers, they lack the contextual understanding to connect the dots.

They’re watching As the World Turns, a show I’ve watched since it premiered in 1956, the year I started kindergarten. But they’re watching and studying ATWT as it exists today; I’m watching the same show and yearning for the show it used to be. So when a student comments on how certain characters are either actors or reactors, I hesitate to respond. I could reiterate Sam’s point that characters often switch between actor and reactor depending on the circumstances. He’s absolutely right. But that barely scratches the surface; what I really want to tell them is that there used to be a time on soap opera when characters might switch between actor and reactor in the course of a single conversation.

It’s been a good long while since that happened on ATWT, certainly not in the time that they’ve been watching. So long in fact, that I’m hard-pressed to think of a specific example to give them, one downside of the sheer volume of soaps’ text. Then, is there available video, or do you have to try to explain the context? And even with video, how to capture the full depth of a story that ran over months, if not years, by showing just a few isolated episodes?

All of which brings me to Ryan’s Hope, a show that ran from 1975-89, and is currently shown on SOAPnet, a digital cable channel created by ABC to rebroadcast their soaps. (How the channel has evolved from its original mission is a subject for further discussion.)A few months ago, just as  the RH’s 1982 episodes were to begin, the show went back to its 1975 premiere. There was a huge hew and cry from viewers; SOAPnet claimed that they couldn’t clear the rights to the music used in shows after 1982. While I appreciated the outrage, I was thrilled; RH was a show I’d dipped into now and then over the years, but had never really watched. When it premiered in 1975, I had a fulltime job, no VCR and had just begun working on my undergraduate degree at night. I could barely keep tabs on ATWT, but could depend on my mother to fill me in – Guiding Light, too.

Since I’d already been watching RH for a while before the switch, there was little about the actual opening story that surprised me since I already knew how much of it had turned out. What did shock me was just how awful the first few episodes looked – flat and dull – dreadful lighting. The graphics were amateurish, and have only slightly improved. And, I have to say, Frank Ryan, the show’s ersatz hero, in a coma for weeks on end was less than scintillating storytelling. But that first day, when Mary Ryan met Jack Fenelli in her family’s bar, I was in for the duration.

As I write this (March 2008), what’s currently on screen is just over a year into the show’s run. I have to say, as much of a pleasure it’s been to watch the first year of RH, it’s been a bittersweet experience since in that year’s worth of episodes (they run two a night Monday-Friday) I’ve seen more genuine soap opera drama than I have in I don’t know how many years of ATWT and, occasionally, GL. In the soap opera of recent memory, I have to settle for a moment here, some subtext there. In RH, I get to see fully-developed characters and fully-integrated storytelling – albeit, 30-years old. But, has it ever held up.

However, what’s truly jarring – surreal, actually – is the juxtaposition between the down-to-earth Ryans, et al – characters who actually wear coats and scarves in the winter – and the SOAPnet promos featuring the current crop of soap opera characters where women’s most important piece of clothing is a pushup bra and men often go shirtless – regardless of the weather. And then there are the promo taglines: “Ruthless people who will do anything to get what they want.” That one’s for Y&R. The OC’s described as “Pretty people, pretty messed up.”

This is not to say there aren’t ruthless people on Ryan’s Hope: Roger Coleridge comes to mind. But the insecurity that underlies Roger’s behavior is so transparent, it’s hard to think of what he’s doing as pure ruthlessness. Even the local gangster (and neighborhood undertaker), Nick Szabo is clearly a devoted and loving, if infuriating, father and when a major character died, he behaved decently and compassionately.

And there are certainly pretty people on Ryan’s Hope, and yes, some of them are pretty messed up, but messed up in ways that real people can identify with, not just watch agog. Anyone who grew up without a family can understand the behavior of those characters on the outside looking in: Jack, who’s been so traumatized by growing up in an orphanage that he never misses an chance to sabotage his relationship with Mary and her family – a tension the writers continued to play years down the road as Mary’s father, Johnny, never forgot how much pain Jack’s fears created for Mary, and her mother, Maeve, never forgot the cause of Jack’s fears. I always wondered if those early conversation between Johnny and Maeve discussing their concerns about Jack resembled conversations my own parents had about my boyfriends

And then there’s Delia, who also lost her parents young. Dee’s so unhappy in her marriage to Frank Ryan (and who can blame her, he was cheating on her for years, yet being the golden boy, no one ever really blamed him), so in need of the love that Roger Coleridge wants to share with her (cruel as some of Roger’s actions seem, he really does love her), and yet she’s willing to give it up to remain a Ryan.

But my all-time (thus far) favorite juxtaposition between Ryan’s Hope and the SOAPNet promos came during the most recent mindless bloodbath on General Hospital. Bruce Weitz, best know as Mick Belker on Hill Street Blues, played Anthony Zacchara, leader of said bloodbath. Back in 1976, Weitz also had a one-day gig on RH playing an assistant district attorney prosecuting a euthanasia case (the love story between Seneca and Nell Beaulac remains a powerful testament to forgiveness, reconciliation, and the real meaning of love between grown-ups). In a single conversation with Seneca’s lawyer, Jill Coleridge a very young and smooth-faced Weitz expressed compassion for, and understanding of, a tragic situation while making it clear he intended to win the case. I had really looked forward to seeing how Weitz would play the trial and was disappointed to see another actor playing the role. Seeing Weitz as Zacchara in the GH promos stood in stark contrast to the depth and complexity he brought to his one day on RH.

The issues underlying those juxtapositions explain a lot about the current sorry state of soap opera and I’ll be writing more about how down the road. But back to my initial point: how characters might switch between actor and reactor in the course of a single conversation. I’ve always believed that the higher one’s tolerance for ambiguity, the better one can experience the full emotional impact of soap opera. What happed on RH recently provides a perfect example:

Frank has found out about Delia’s affair with Roger and wants to use that information to divorce her and win custody of their son, Little John. Except that Frank cheated on Dee with Jillian first, but since Dee took him back she can’t use that first adultery to block the divorce Frank wants so desperately. So she enlists Frank’s brother Pat (they were an item in high school), to find evidence that Frank has resumed his affair with Jillian. The repercussions play out among all the characters, including the deeply-Catholic Johnny and Maeve, who don’t believe in divorce, yet know that the marriage was never right. They want to defend Frank and blame Dee, but Pat never lets his parents forget that it was Frank who cheated first.

These scenes are long enough (another big change; the short choppy scenes currently on ATWT and GL make me dizzy) that the characters move from actor to reactor seamlessly, and the camera shows each character’s ambivalence in the reaction shots. And viewers get to experience the real life emotions of characters far more real than those on any reality show.

I know these kinds of moments happened on As the World Turns in the past, most recently, during the Douglas Marland era. Marland was ATWT’s headwriter from 1985 until his untimely death in 1993. One of his best stories involved legacy characters Bob and Kim Hughes, Kim’s ex-husband, John Dixon, their son, Andy Dixon and Susan Stewart, a longtime rival of Kim’s.

I’ve always believed that the most powerful and compelling drama is created when all of the characters involved in a storyline are trying to do the right thing – the right thing for the situation, not necessarily the right thing for their character – and it’s their efforts that come into conflict. The situation in this case was John and Kim’s son, Andy’s alcoholism. So, of course Kim and John were spending time together; their son was in trouble. And, of course, Bob wanted to help, but he wasn’t Andy’s father; John was. Susan may have been a troublemaker in the past, but here, she was Andy’s AA sponsor. And so when Bob and Susan finally hit the sheets, viewers were sighing to themselves, “oh no,” not screaming, “what the f***!,” as is all too often the case with current daytime soaps.

Sad to say (sad for soap viewers, anyway), these days the only place to see this kind of character-driven drama routinely played out, with the depth and intimacy that used to be the hallmark of soaps, is on primetime: Friday Night Lights; Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money are three examples of the best of what primetime has to offer. In these shows, as in the soaps of old, conflicts between and among characters begin with the emotional conflicts within the characters; as the audience watches the former unfold, they are never permitted to lose sight of the latter.

The question of whether these primetime shows are in fact soaps came up last summer in the follow-up to a discussion between Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea here, which led to further discussion here. And Sam has opened up a discussion with his students as to what exactly defines a soap opera here.

Given the deep-rooted stigma long attached to daytime soaps, it’s not too surprising that fans of primetime serials invest time and effort parsing the textual and structural differences between daytime and nighttime soaps. What did surprise me, though, was the resistance that came from within daytime, in particular the daytime media. One daytime critic actually said, “Daytime drama and primetime drama are two very different genres with two very different audiences.” I would argue (and will in an essay for the book Sam, Abigail and C. Lee Harrington are co-editing that grew of last summer’s discussion) that daytime would do well to understand what is working on primetime soaps, because it's what used to be working on daytime. And right now, daytime soaps are in so much trouble that none of us can afford to be territorial if it stands in the way of figuring out how to fix daytime.

 

 

© 2008 Lynn Liccardo