AUTHOR'S DISCLAIMER: The title of this blog entry is solely a reference to the writing styles of the shows mentioned and nothing more.
"The effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick." — The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
That description of what is known as the best fictional alcoholic drink in the known universe is exactly how I feel watching a few of my favorite daytime dramas these days. Unlike that improbable drinky drink, this is hardly a compliment. There is something really odd going on all over the soap dial with the ham fisted lack of subtlety and general narrative blundering going on.
In a couple of recent entries, I pointed out how All My Children's "Who Killed Stuart (Not Adam) Chandler?" murder mystery has been marred by a lack of, well, mystery. As I said, what had the potential to be a great whodunit has been turned into the soap opera equivalent of Clue, one which is losing my interest very rapidly, especially when compared to increasingly delicious and twisted "Who Killed Edmund Winslow?" whodunit concurrently airing on Guiding Light. The latter show is peeling back layers and layers of motive and opportunity, while the former is peeling like an onion: it is making me cry. As it happens, AMC isn't the only egregious offender of hitting us over the head with the narrative equivalent of a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick these days: the other two are As the World Turns and, shockingly and in some circles blasphemously, One Life to Live.
I'll keep the ATWT observation and criticism to a minimum, as I am trying to avoid all-out bashing of this show that I really love. Nonetheless, Monday's terribly uneven Memorial Day episode managed to indulge the worst of ATWT's excesses under head writer Jean Passanante while setting a new low for the show in unnecessary repetition. For the purposes of brevity let's ignore the complete tonal disconnection between the stories playing out on screen and take it as a given that watching the weirdly written all-over-the-map Paul/vaguely-confused Rosanna (an all over the map Roger Howarth and a vaguely confused looking Cady McClain) scenes at her co-op/farm vis a vis the the machinations regarding the return of Alison's (Marnie Schulenburg) father Larry McDermott (Ed Fry) felt like watching two and sometimes three different shows altogether. Instead, let's focus on the scenes where Meg (Marie Wilson), Damian (Paolo Seganti) and Barbara (Colleen Zenk Pinter) had it out after Paul mistakenly thought Barbara had betrayed him because Meg and Damian followed her:
MEG: You are helping your crazy son! Paul is crazy! Eliza is MY daughter! If something happens to Eliza, I'll pout in a very threatening manner! (I'm trying to look scary and threatening. Is it working?)
BARBARA: I was trying to help! Paul is MY son and Eliza is MY granddaughter! I thought if I brought him millions of dollars, he'd listen to reason and give Eliza back, you FOOL! (I can sell this, dammit!)
DAMIAN: Call the police, Barbara and Meg. - (grumble, grumble, try not to look confused as to why I came back to this show for this shit) - We'll get Eliza back, Meg. Don't worry. - (try to stay awake).
This huffy argument was repeated twice nearly verbatim on location at a slightly tornadic airfield and then inexplicably again once Babs, Meg and Damian had flown from wherever they were back to Oakdale. While repetition of scene dynamics and sometimes even dialogue within any given episode of a soap is nothing new, this dreadful ring-around-the-rosie argument on ATWT was written with a tin ear filled with wax. The words that were said only vaguely sounded like the characters themselves and did not ring at all true.
The writing for Meg in particular made her come off more shrill and completely unlikeable than ever; her tirades against Barbara — while laughable — were completely undone when Meg later admitted to Damian that she felt that Paul wasn't a danger to Eliza at all! So what the hell was the the previous twenty minutes of shrieking all about? Instead of making Meg look like a frightened mother, she came off just as loony, hotheaded and unreasonable as Paul. Let me just say that given the foul language I used, I could have easily won the Scripps Spelling Bee for Cussin'.
While the cited scenes are examples of ATWT's ongoing but worsening narrative clumsiness, it is far from alone. Across the dial, One Life to Live has been afflicted with a slightly different strain of narrative swine flu. As with many viral mutations, the primary symptom is a ham-fisted lack of subtlety. In recent weeks, OLTL has felt "off" in a way that I could not quite figure out until the intersection of the denouement of the Baby Chloe Is Really Baby Hope Saga with the climax of the KAD Killer/Crazy Powell/Multi-Kidnapping Imbroglio.
On its surface, these two stories and the multiple story arcs within them exemplify the kind of densely layered, intricate storytelling that has become OLTL's trademark. Here head writer Ron Carlivati used a past storyline in Marty's rape, including two of the original actors (the terrific Josh Philip Weinstein and Sean Moynihan as Zack and Powell, respectively) to drive and push current stories and character developments forward such as the baby Hope reveal; the return of Marty's memory; Jared and Natalie's marriage; Tea and Blair's bonding; and so on. It would not be too much of a stretch to say this is exactly the kind of writing that many soap fans clamor for: the use of history to influence the present with ripple effects across the canvas.
However, in my opinion the whole enterprise fell extremely flat. The bombshells dropping in these stories should have been even bigger emotional barn burners than the fallout from the now infamous Todd and Marty "rapemance." To be fair, other commentators and some fans don't care for the intricate chess moves and jigsaw puzzles that Carlivati and his team constructs and dismiss them as mere plot machinations devoid of genuine character building, but I loved the mechanics of all of the twists and turns that went on in these and other OLTL stories from a technical writing perspective. What did not work for me was that with all of the Carvilati's balls juggling in the air, one had to be the equivalent of a soap physicist to "get" all of the relationships not only from characters in the present but also those relationships of people from the past to the current people on the canvas and to each other!
In order to facilitate these multiple narratives, OLTL turned into an exposition whore. Every relationship had to be explained. Every connection had to be referenced: "Rebecca was nutty Powell's fiance following Marty's rape and she disappeared for a while, but now she's back impersonating Marty and she has a brother named Kyle that no one knew about who works in the hospital." Of course, this leaves the viewer who might be unfamiliar with the original Marty rape storyline and its aftermath to still ask, "Who is Rebecca again?" I don't know how possible it is to get swept away by the undertow of a scene when one needs a scientific calculator and a couple of ginkgo biloba pills to sort everything out.
With all the explaining, exposition and clarifications, many scenes that should have been powerful were drained of their emotional resonance as actors were forced to move the story from Point A to Point B to Point C through a mountain of dialogue and, often it seemed, sheer will. Many of the performances like standout Florencia Lozano's (Tea) were awesome, but I will not soon forget Susan Haskell's Marty attempting to convey the idea that the amnesiac's individual memories were returning to her by heaving like a The Biggest Loser contestant as each memory flash washed over her. Not to be outdone was the scene where the legendary Erika Slezak as Viki — having sold so much of the baby reveal story on her own — was forced to literally screech "CHLOE!" as an unnecessary plot device to get Jessica (Bree Williamson) to go to the hospital hallway where the baby and seemingly three-fourths of the OLTL cast had gathered when Jessica could have just as easily accidentally run into them in her frantic state. The upshot: while some writers on other soaps don't try hard enough, every once in a while OLTL's writers try too hard for their own good.
Of course, much of this criticism is mitigated by Friday's deft juggling of four different groups of characters imparting two different storylines, i.e. the Baby Chloe/Hope reveal to Starr (Kristen Alderson) & Cole (Brandon Buddy) and Marcie (the fantastic Kathy Brier) & Michael (Chris Stack) repsectively, as well as the eyebrow raising shenanigans in what I refer to as Stacygate. I mean, who couldn't see Stacy (Crystal Hunt) asking Stan to punch her in the face? (The better question might be to ask what viewer hasn't wanted to punch Stacy in the face?) While much of the plot information was still the same, the difference is that in Friday's episode where Starr & Cole finally learned the truth, the writing felt far more fluid and controlled; as a result, so did many of the performances.
Of the five soap operas I normally watch, General Hospital (and Days of Our Lives from what little I've seen over the years) has been the biggest and most consistent exposition whore in daytime. GH's characters are in constant and varying states of talky self-reflection, navel gazing, and healthy doses of plot regurgitation to the point where there is more chattering going on than a flock of hookers caught in a snowstorm. At least GH has massaged what is sometimes a narrative crutch into its very DNA. What is accepted to a certain degree for a show like GH or Days is jarring on shows like ATWT where conversations historically tended to flow from situations and character rather than declarative sentences and lots of strident yelling, or OLTL where actions have until very recently spoken as loudly as words.
Sometimes these days when watching ATWT or on the odd occasion OLTL, I think I wouldn't mind having a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster if I drank alcohol and if it actually existed. It certainly would have the same effect. More often than not though, I just wind up thinking, "Wow, I could have had a V8."