Search for Tomorrow
Solid momentum in storytelling is the key to soaps, past and present. It makes us not only invest in the shows and the characters but fills us with anticipation. It is at the very heart of continuing drama. When shows forget this central truth about soap opera, they devolve into a series of breathless moments and a collection of high strung scenes with little long term impact or consequence beyond that day's or week's episode. In other words, furious tap dancing.
To a certain extent, we fans have partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Back when my mother and her friends were watching soaps, they either liked what they saw or didn't. If they liked or didn't like something enough, they would sit down and write a letter to a network if they were so inclined. They mighty have been tempted to call a switchboard. If enough people were thoughtful enough to put pen to paper, spring for the money for a stamp and go to the post office, or sit down and incur a long distance toll charge then we might see change unfold on screen.
The rise of the Internet has produced a different kind of fan reaction. Yes, we are far more informed and savvy about soaps and what goes on behind the scenes than the fans of my mother's generation. However, we are far more impatient than at any time in soap history, too: new characters are routinely dismissed as interlopers. New actors with promise aren't given the time prove to prove their worth unless they hit their first performance out of the ballpark (and sometimes a photo alone can cause convulsions in some fans). A new plot can barely air for two days before angry mobs spring up on message boards proclaiming that it is dragging on too long. We can be so busy looking back at the mythical soap past, dissecting the mistakes of an episode as it is literally airing and criticizing upcoming, but unaired storylines that I think we have lost the ability to see potential when it does not necessarily conform to our preconceptions.
Under these circumstances, is it any wonder why some trigger happy executives might mistake fan-driven insta-reaction as the soap opera equivalent of attention deficit disorder? In fact, ATWT executive producer Christopher Goutman infamously stated that he doesn't think fans have the patience to watch soaps five days a week in their current format. Is it any wonder in that context (among other considerations) why he and head writer Jean Passanante have acted accordingly with warp speed storytelling?
The legendary writers and producers of soap opera understood that the genre was not predicated on immediate payoff or even servicing the immediate needs of fans or fan bases. Agnes Nixon, the soap goddess herself, said, "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait" in answer to a question about how to deal with impatient fans. Douglas Marland, Bill Bell, Harding Lemay, Henry Slesar and Irna Phillips may have approached soaps differently, but they all wrote and produced with momentum and payoff in mind according to what they felt it was for the good of their shows. They were true to their characters...until time or circumstances caused them to change those characters. The masters of the genre wrote stories forward, rarely back. They kept their eye on history, but were not slaves to it. Even the great Marland resurrected Kim Hughes' long dead daughter and turned her into twins, Frannie & Sabrina. He also shoehorned in a son for Lisa, Scott Eldridge, who had been presumably born during ATWT's short-lived prime time spinoff, Our Private World starring Eileen Fulton. History has never been completely all it's cracked up to be. (continued)