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A Runaway Train


This is what has been happening on As the World Turns:

A dangerously jealous and reckless Paul hired an unwitting young woman and her small son to impersonate Lucy and Johnny, both of whom Dusty is looking for after inheriting James Stenbeck's fortune. Emily, now reunited with Dusty (who recently returned from the dead), did major detective work and unearthed Paul's involvement, which in turn prompted Dusty to track down the young woman in New York and return to Oakdale to confront Paul. Meanwhile, All About Eve played out out as new WOAK talk show host Spencer McKay developed a huge crush on Brad after they exposed a negligent toy manufacturer on her inaugural broadcast. Smitten with Katie's husband, Spencer cried wolf about an intruder being in her room to get Brad closer as a supportive, yet suspicious Katie tried to act non-threatened. Margo continued her dogged investigation into the circumstances surrounding Dusty's fake death and resurrection, this time zeroing in logically, but wrongly on Emily, who recently broke Casey's heart.

If you haven't been watching ATWT recently, you might think these individual stories and developments played out over the last couple of months. Or perhaps a few weeks. What if I told you this all happened in one single episode?

Compressed storytelling is quite possibly As the World Turns' greatest weakness bar none. To be completely fair, the show is blessed with a talented and attractive cast. The actual stories are more interesting than not; even when a clunker or two in the bunch rears its ugly head like Putin over Alaska, others take up the slack. Though the budget constraints on the show are more obvious by the day, Executive Producer Christopher Goutman has kept ATWT looking relatively fresh and vibrant despite the massive downsizing. But for the love of God, I want to make a direct appeal to Goutman, Head Writer Jean Passanante, Senior Vice President of CBS Daytime Barbara Bloom, and the good folks at Telenext Media:

Slow this freight train down!

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We understand competition is fierce in the daytime arena, not just from other soaps but also from the judges Judy and Joe Brown, telenovelas, as well as the political and stock market soaps operas dominating cable news networks. We also understand it is harder than ever for soaps to compete against the ever-expanding array of entertainment and lifestyle choices viewers have to make. We understand that above all soaps are not mere entertainment vehicles; they also are economic engines driven by commercial revenue and ratings. Therefore, reasonable and reasonably informed viewers can pretty much understand the necessity to  push stories moving forward at a steady clip in order to keep those eyeballs you have and maybe entice some new ones as well.

The problem is there exists a difference between a maintaining steady clip and ramming story through like a screaming locomotive. All of the stories mentioned above are to this viewer fairly entertaining, perhaps much more so over the last few weeks than in a long time. Events move along at such an accelerated rate that many defy logical explanation (such as Dusty's round trip to New York in the space of three or four scenes) and others require a massive suspension of disbelief (Spencer's ridiculously sudden antics one episode after her introduction).

The result of this increasing reliance on compressed storytelling is that it has rendered ATWT schizophrenic: one day the show can be brilliant in its economy or with a story like Stenbeck's just-the-right-length return and on other days the show can turn into a near incomprehensible, choppy hot tranny mess. Popular couples get split up, actors are hired and then summarily fired, recasts fill their places and then don't see the light of day for weeks, jump cuts in time are jarring and stories with potential come and go seemingly with whichever way the wind happens to be blowing. This is not a new phenomenon either, as ATWT has been employing compressed storytelling for what seems to be the last couple of years. Now it is out of control.

No one expects a return to the routinely leisurely pace of the 60's and 70's. Nor the kind of lavish attention showered upon popular couples and storylines of the 80's. Even the 90's, for all their aimless search of direction within the genre, is an era of exposition long past. The days of the six month front burner murder mystery are no more. The nine month month long development of a love triangle has gone poof into the night. Characters no longer have the luxury of a three month introduction onto the canvas of any show. If there is one trait that soap audiences of any generation and era have had in common, it is the desire to connect and invest in the stories told, the characters developed and the actors bringing both to life. Now, we barely have time to absorb anything before the next thing comes along.

Here is a thought: no producer, writer or executive can ever hope in this lifetime that their every story or character will be a hit with the entire audience all the time. Good reasons exist to cut these elements if they are clearly not working, but perhaps some care should be put into rethinking good ideas that haven't gelled in their original form or playing up the popularity of characters and stories that viewers like regardless of competing interests. To that end, there is no good reason on earth why Luke and Noah play 13 minutes a week while they have a massive fan base in place as opposed to waiting for some magical combustion of ill-defined interest to qualify them for a "platform" for story.

Each of the stories which played today could have taken anywhere from 2-3 weeks (the continuation of Margo's investigation) to 3-4 months (Paul's plan to send Dusty on a  wild goose chase and its denouement), drawing us deeper into a maze of lies, deceit, secrets, near misses and anticipation. Instead it seems 1/3 of the plot and beats play out in 43 freakin' minutes. It is a sad day when a typically overstuffed episode of Heroes is more coherent than As the World Turns.

I really like the stories on As the World Turns right now. I even liked today's episode, but could the good folk in charge keep the show moving without mowing down viewers in the process?