In disaster cinema there comes a point in the story where, as Heidi Klum would say, one is either in or out. One knows going into the theater or popping a DVD into the player what one is in for the same way one knows more or less what to expect from a slasher pic or a romantic comedy. No matter how the genre's formula is tweaked, it is up to the writers and filmmakers to provide the hooks that will draw you into their specific event or world. What hooks me varies all the time; just as often those same elements may turn me off completely.
The make-or-break moment for me in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure is the sequence when the survivors must climb the Christmas tree to escape the ballroom. In 1964's Fail Safe, the make-or-break moment is encapsulated in the tense conversation between the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, which must be precisely interpreted. In Deep Impact, the scene is Tea Leoni's first conversation with President Morgan Freeman. There has to be something to make me care or I won't wait for the credits. After learning who lives and dies, the story is over in a movie.
As ongoing stories, soaps present a different challenge when staging major events like natural disasters. Writers must balance the potential short term gains that incorporate recent history into the event itself with a plan for long term stories that will hopefully spin out of said event. When done right, viewers are rewarded with story and character dividends which payoff over time. When done wrong, viewers shrug and switch back to Doña Bárbara.
General Hospital has a long history of staging spectacular events with little long term payoff. On the other hand, The Young and the Restless scored major points with the fallout from the charity gala car wreck. You never really know how these gambles will pay off until you feel the tug of the hook. So how did All My Children do today?
They knocked it out of the ballpark.
THE DRAMA: Today's episode was the one I've been waiting for, the one that truly underscored and highlighted the anguish faced by our characters, the hard choices they had or have yet to make and what everyone stands to lose or, in a few cases, gain. What made the episode even more richly satisfying was less about what these characters said or did but more about what they did not say and not do.
Take Angie and Jesse, for example. With the revelation that Natalia is Jesse's daughter, Angie did not fly into over the top histrionics. Hers was a perfect reaction. The confirmation that she'd suspected something between Natalia and Jesse existed, but not that particular revelation. A marvelous Debbi Morgan communicated Angie's paralyzing emotional numbness after being blindsided with her professional responsibilities as a doctor, a perfect counterpoint to the sheer elation and joy she felt after discovering that Jesse's was alive. Ms. Morgan, always one of daytime's finest actresses, delivered a knockout performance that was as notable for its carefully calibrated emotional precision as it was its understatement!
For his part, Darnell Williams provided the perfect counterpoint to partner Morgan. What could have come across as weasely from a lesser character or actor, Williams navigated a tricky tight rope between acknowledging Jesse's guilt about keeping Natalia's parantage a secret and utter fear about Angie's reaction. Jittery, nervous, and scared are not words that one usually uses to describe Jesse, but Williams made us believe his fear as much as he felt it.
On the other side of the hospital, JR and Krystal struggled to say goodbye to the dying Babe. What was missing here were all the right things: no table throwing or order barking from JR, who accepted the grim reality of his wife's fate and tried to put on a strong front for his wife and son; no crying jags or railing against God by Krystal, struggling to summon the strength to say goodbye to her "Baby Doll"; and finally Babe, who accepted her fate with a grace and dignity not formerly associated with the character. Her insistence that she and JR be married was heartbreaking in its simplicity; his determination to make her last hours as happy as possible had a terrible sense of inevitibility. Babe asking to hold Little A one last time melted the heart. Jacob Young and Amanda Baker, with able support from Bobbie Eakes, were at their best today. More...
The gold standard, though, in my opinion was Michael E. Knight as Tad. Tad was a supporting character for anyone with whom he came into contact, yet one could not keep one's eyes off him. It would take too long to list the number of realistic choices that Knight made during any of his scenes in today's episode, but there was one in particular that stood out as a testament to his skills.
The scene involved JR trying to talk Krystal down from an emotional ledge in order for her to support Babe's last wishes, barely holding it together himself. As JR and Krystal went back and forth, Knight switched his gaze from his adopted son to his wife as each of them spoke, each time shifting his expressions and body language ever so slightly showing different shades of concern, alarm and sadness. In that scene, though he said next to nothing, Knight was engaging in the art of acting every bit as much as Young and Eakes and he was a joy to behold.
Elsewhere, Zach and Bianca were airlifted to the hospital, Greenlee fretted with Jake about whether or to take responsibility for Kendall's operation and Ryan, Annie, Pete and Colby converged on the Chandler mansion to obstensibly search for the missing Emma. For the most part, these scenes did not carry the emotional punch of the others cited above but they were by no means bad, notable for their lack of over the top theatrics. Instead the scenes were more or less played in a very straightforward fashion with the kind of gravitas appropriate for the situation.
As a result, I thought that as good a job as he's done since joining the show, there was something about Ricky Paull Goldin's performance today that really made Jake click at long last. The ghost of Guiding Light's Gus Aitoro finally melted away completely and I finally saw Doctor Jake Martin.
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Another slow CGI day, notable for the CGI helicopter rescue, the approaching storm effect during Bianca's flashback and the tornadic wind activity at the end of today's show. On par with Monday's episode, pretty good work all around.
GENERAL PRODUCTION WORK: Today's episode was mostly confined to the hospital, but was commendable for the effective use of extras, injury effects, and camera work.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: There were a couple of cheesy moments: Babe singing "You Are My Sunshine" to Little A (Dixie's song for baby JR, in a touch many might think as a great nod to the Dixie's connection to JR & Little A but I didn't) and Babe literally smelling a flower before she died. Thank goodness these scenes were saved by Bianca's tenderness and Krystal's loving retort to Babe's maudlin declaration about the flower's beauty, "It's just a dusty old weed compared to you."
At the end of the day, this installment was the strongest of The Great Pine Valley Tornado of 2008, filled with great acting, sharp writing and a wonderful employment of restraint.