Perhaps someone passed along my Open Letter to Christopher Goutman. Perhaps Barbara Bloom took a good look at the plummeting ratings and decided that everyone should not lighten up after all. Perhaps head writer Jean Passanante took an extended vacation to Buenos Aires. Whatever has been happening over the last few weeks, let me step out on a limb and utter the words that many fans thought might not ever be said again or even believe: As the World Turns is, at long last, improving.
I fully expect the comments section to be full of invective and angry fist shaking about how ATWT is still "the worst soap on the air," how the vets are misused, and how the "Vortex of Suck" continues to, well, suck. In addition, the now well-documented list of the show's biggest defects remain stubbornly in place: warp-speed storytelling and the soul sucking semi-episodic structure continue to test the rapidly waning patience of the show's dwindling audience.
Having said that, it bears repeating that fans are a stubborn breed. We will praise shows, actors and performances we like, but we are quick to make our displeasure known when we feel things are not up to speed and falling apart. Once the latter narrative has been established it is very hard to turn the tide of opinion, even when a show starts to address its critics and make changes. Therefore, though the longstanding criticisms of ATWT are still valid, I think it is time to once again give credit where credit is due.
The first sign that positive changes were afoot involve the now-infamous Vortex of Suck. Lest we forget, the VoS was originally coined to describe not Paul or Meg as individuals but rather what had become the insufferable Paul/Meg romance. A classic soap love story of a wounded man's body and heart nursed back to health by the love of a good woman steadily, alarmingly devolved into a morass of incomprehensible character motivations and endlessly repeated storyline beats; ergo, "vortex."
However, through a series of crazy, forgettable plot twists the VoS was broken up. The much-hated Meg (Marie Wilson) was spun off from both of her masochistic relationships with the equally hated Paul (Roger Howarth) and the increasingly-hated Dusty (Grayson McCouch), and into a burgeoning relationship with Damian (Paolo Seganti). For his part, Dusty has been launched into a new Moonlighting-esque romance with Bonnie (Chauntee Schuler), a woman who isn't simpering after him and who doesn't suffer his mysoginistic impulses lightly.
While many fans have groaned about the Meg/Damian development, the pleasure of their pairing is that it has stirred a cauldron of long dormant interfamilial complications and threatens to rip open a multitude of relationship wounds that have not yet healed! Lest we forget, Damian is not only Lily's (Noelle Beck) ex-husband but also the other true love of her life, with whom she shares a son (Luke, Van Hansis) that Holden (the underused Jon Hensley) raised and is in rivalry over to this day for biological dad Damian's affection and esteem. Though smitten with Meg, Damian is still drawn to Lily. The closer Meg & Damian have grown, the more Lily (whose marriage has been on shaky ground for years) has been unable to hide her consuming jealousy until she and Meg had a wall-shaking, history-laden, character-eviscerating verbal brawl on Tuesday's episode that brought the stakes of these romantic entanglements past and present to the fore.
The character who has most benefited from these changes is Paul, or as I call him, Paul 8.5. For the longest time I advocated that Paul move to "the dark side" after the character (and viewers) had been made crazy by inconsistent writing. What I did not count on was just how bad Passanante would botch the 30+ year on-air history of the character by driving him insane and practically ignoring mother Barbara (the criminally underused Colleen Zenk Pinter), rendering Paul nearly without any redeeming qualities or rootable value. Then something remarkable happened: a stupid bomb plot, a newly discovered microchip in the cranium and a case of amnesia later, Paul was rebooted into a funny, brutally honest, devil may care horndog without a past who has been a breath of fresh air. No longer burdened with having to play an uneasy mix of former portrayer Scott Holroyd's Paul and One Life to Live's Todd Manning Lite, Howarth seems to be having a blast, whose newfound enthusiasm has rubbed off on ex-love/new lover...
Emily (Kelley Menighan Hensley), who drifted about the canvas so long at some points it felt as if one needed the Hubble telescope to locate her. Thanks to still great chemistry with Paul and the discovery her poached-egg son Hunter (the wonderfully quirky Evan Alex Cole), Emily has purpose, spark, sassiness and sexiness again. She also has a family. For all of the wacky twists involving Emily's powdered eggs (which is rooted in the show's history), the Stewarts — once pillars of Oakdale society — are back. The aforementioned Hunter, an exasperated Susan (Marie Masters) and her shady ex-husband Larry (Ed Fry), along with Alison (the wonderfully improved Marnie Schulenburg), are all present, complete with their own twisted backgrounds and family dymamics. (continued)
ATWT's continuing long voyage back isn't isolated to these aforementioned stories. Carly's (Maura West) depature to rehab has provided grist for the mill of the extended complications among the blended Snyder/Ciccone/Tenney-Cabot clans. The sudden, highly coincidental arrival of Janet's (Julie Pinson, giving her all) sister Teri (wonderful new addition Vanessa Ray) further grounds both Janet and Liberty (Meredith Hagner), while providing more friction between her & Jack (Michael Park). In a few short episodes, the debut of Lynn Herring's conniving Audrey has carried more weight than the two months it took to introduce and unmask her son Henry's (Trent Dawson) sister as a serial killer.
(A note about Audrey/Herring: while some fans have noted what they see as little difference between Audrey and General Hospital's Lucy Coe, I don't see this as a bad thing. If the show's plan was to get GH's fans to sample ATWT, then it only makes sense to cast an accomplished character actress like Herring for a role suited to her talents and acting style. She has risen to the challenge admirably, infusing her lines with so much subtext that I consider any comparisons between Audrey & Lucy moot.)
Finally, no less than the venerable but long-neglected Hughes family is bubbling again. Kim (Kathryn Hays) is embroiled in Oakdale Now hijinks. There is something new (or old) going on with Bob's (Don Hastings) health. The Riley/Adam storyline has moved away from its initial plastic surgery-switch setup to be more about a mother's desperation to keep her believed-to-be-dead son with her, the grudging rebuilding of the relationship between estranged brothers, and the suspense of what will happen when the truth comes out. Will Riley/Adam (Tom Degnan) go to jail for his past crimes? Will Alison forgive Casey (Billy Magnussen) for not telling him the truth? What will be Tom's (the awesome Scott Holmes) reaction when he learns of Margo's (the brilliant Ellen Dolan) staggering number of lies?
In addiiton, there have been an unusually strong number of scripts over the last several weeks. Attention is being paid to the show's history. Dialogue is sharper, more focused and sometimes cuts to the quick. Even some of the studio sets seem to have been enlarged in subtle ways that make the actual viewing experience easier on the eyes.
In terms of story, there is a common thread: ATWT has used a number of narrative shortcuts, hoary soap cliches, and outrageous plot twists to build and rebuild the show's families and focus on their relationships. I normally would heavily criticize this decision, but in many ways I don't believe ATWT had any choice. With ratings actually at, and sometimes below those of P&G sister soap Guiding Light at the time of its cancellation, and with comments as recently as a few days ago by CBS' Nina Tassler foreshadowing possibly the same fate for ATWT in the not too distant future, sometimes a show has to do what a show has to do to get its proverbial shit together. If that means scrambled eggs, heretofore unhinted at brain implants, a bout of amnesia, and a little back-from-the-dead action in order to jumpstart what is really important in terms of family, history and getting to the roots of classic ATWT storytelling, then I'm on board as long as the stunts are kept to a minimum and the momentum continues toward human drama.
ATWT is still far, far from perfect. The show needs to figure which Rosanna they want instead of the one who they straddled in the middle between Cady McClain's more glamorous business mogul under Hogan Sheffer's regime or Yvonne Perry's more down to earth version that first showed up at Emma's doorstep. The compressed storytelling and semi-episodic structure, while easing up, still crams too much story into thirty-eight minutes without letting the tales breathe over several shows or allow more natural beats play out. Luke & Noah (Jake Silbermann) barely get to smooch but Emily & Paul and Damian & Meg get to writhe all nekkid and nasty on couches. Most perplexing, the show's best secret weapon not named Maura West — Ms. Zenk Pinter — languishes on backburner hell.
For all of these very legitimate complaints and a few others, As the World Turns nonetheless is making positive changes. Given its precarious chances for survival and the state of daytime as a whole, they could not be changing direction literally one minute too soon.