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Inherit the Wind

I would be willing to bet that the most terrible words for daytime executives is "lapsed viewer." One might think that "cancellation" would be at the top of that list, but when a show goes off the air it is essentially a period at the end of sentence with everyone eventually moving on to something else. One also might think "lost viewers" might rank high, but the top brass is keenly aware that the television world has changed; viewers who have exited stage right have either different things to do or are far more selective with their viewing choices, two things that often go hand in hand.


As it turns out, the "lapsed viewer" is the elusive "independent" or "undecided" voters of the daytime world. Not unlike presidential hopefuls, network executives, producers and head writers stumble all over themselves to reel these people in to a new show or back into the fold of an old one. Their efforts vary from sincere to misguided to empty lip service depending on their audience or agenda.

They will try anything: lure back popular stars for meaningless guest stints, create huge event stories with no repercussions, generate fake controversy, revisit storylines of the mythical days of yore, resurrect the dead and reinvent the living. Or not.  At the end of the day, their objective is to capture the fickle, jaded heart of the lapsed viewer and perhaps recapture the high ground or, at the very least, hold the center.

Soap fans are knowledgeable enough to discern who is shoveling bullshit talking points compared to what appears to be a genuine effort at outreach and a sincere attempt to write good story. As in politics, the soap viewer has heard many a pledge made only to watch them be broken, not followed through or emerge as something different from what was promised. Therefore, genuine shock sets in when someone comes along who says they will make things better and lays the groundwork to deliver on that undertaking. Soap viewers sense when real change is in the air.

After watching Friday's episode of All My Children, I think we've witnessed the beginning of the promise of a new, stronger show rise from the wreckage the old. There are many obvious metaphors in that last statement. My intention is to avoid them in favor of deconstructing some of the most important and exciting elements of what I think has been one of the most successful  soap "reboots" since Hogan Sheffer took over as headwriter of As the World Turns in 2000 and, interestingly enough, The Young and the Restless this year.

Fans have every reason to be jaded, but I think it would be a grave mistake to underestimate what Chuck Pratt accomplished with The Pine Valley Tornado of 2008. For months, Pratt (with a reported assist from Agnes Nixon) has been laying the groundwork for both redefining AMC and returning the show to its roots as a character driven, au courant, socially conscious, progressive daytime drama. Friday's episode demonstrated why AMC fans have reason to be hopeful about the direction of the series in Pratt's hands:

EVERY STORY IS DEFINED: The best that can be said about Megan "Maddog" McTavish's storytelling is that things are always happening. The problem with her writing is that those things are usually the wrong things, so erratic, out of focus and plain misguided that even when one knows what is going on, it is very hard to figure out why it's happening at all. James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten tried to improve on McTavish's toxic, tangled knots of Zarfy, unaborted craziness, but it was a little bit like what might have happened if the Carpathia had reached the Titanic just before the latter went down: a lot more lives would have been saved, but the ship would have gone down anyway.

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Pratt took a look at the situation and decided to not simply to level the town with a series of fictional tornadoes, but to refocus existing characters and his new ones. From the whimsical (Pete's pursuit of Colby) to the melodramatic (David's vow of revenge against half of Pine Valley for Babe's death) or the short term (Emma's kidnapping) to the long term (the fallout from Jesse's newly revealed "secret" family), not only are the possibilities nearly endless, but from nearly every angle and about any direction these stories may go should have the kind of clarity of purpose long missing from Pine Valley. More...

MOTIVATION MAKES A COMEBACK: One of the keys to investing in any character, good or bad, is that the audience knows and understands that character's motivations whether they agree with them or not. In a nutshell, motivation involves two basic factors: what someone wants and why they want it. By answering those two questions, a good team of writers can establish practically any character they want, from a control freak high society dame determined to control her children's lives (Phoebe Tyler) to a whole ecosystem of hillbillies who made good (the Chandlers and Cortlandts nee Cooneys of Pigeon Hollow).  Once established, the rest is just fill in the blanks. Once upon a time, AMC was the bastion of character motivation on daytime. In recent years, far too many head writers and producers dispensed with motivation altogether in favor of sensationalistic plots and endless guessing games of emotional roulette.

The tornado and its aftermath have provided the citizens of Pine Valley with motivation once again. Some are obvious, like David's rage-fueled revenge, Adam wanting Fusion (and Erica), Annie wanting her life with Ryan back, Pete wanting Colby and Randi wanting the respectability and self-esteem she never thought she could have. Taylor wants to serve her country, Erica still wants to be wanted, Natalia wants her father,and Amanda wants Jake (and to be taken seriously). Yes, Pratt has been laying this groundwork for months and clearly some elements of his grand design, like the Aiden/Greenlee/Ryan triangle, are still seriously fractured. Other characters still need work. Coming out of Friday's episode however, one would be hard pressed to make a case that Pratt has not left the majority of characters on the canvas in a more solid motivational space than Pine Valley has seen in years.

LESS IS MOST DEFINITELY MORE: The most striking observation about the sound and fury generated by this tornado event has been the stillness and quiet among the characters. When "Maddog" McTavish was writing AMC, actors were forced to deliver dialogue with an element of breathless babbling, spitting, repeating and stuttering lines like meth addicts chasing a bouncing ball down a dark alley. Brown and Essensten improved things somewhat, but characters still sounded "off." Pratt, on the other hand, has let characters express complete sentences and thoughts. More importantly, actors now seem to listen and react to their partners and when no reaction is necessary, no reaction is offered. It is what we used to call "feeling" and "heart."

The two characters who have benefited the most from this direction are Kendall and Greenlee, the pre-Pratt queens of excess breathless line delivery. Now, not only are the characters more clearly delineated by their ability to speak without tripping over their own tongues, both Alicia Minshew and Rebecca Budig are stronger actresses as a result. It helps that Greenlee also has had most of her brain restored.

GREAT ACTING: I've already cited Jacob Young, Bobbie Eakes, Darnell Williams, and several others for their great work this past week, but there are two actors who delivered some of the best work of their careers. The first is Debbi Morgan, topping her Wednesday performance with a bravura turn on Friday. Morgan delivered work of such quiet, often inscrutable intensity that it rivaled the late Beverlee McKinsey.

The other actor who was absolutely mesmerizing on Friday was Thorsten Kaye. For the last couple of years, Kaye has played Zach as an unusually bored, borderline dangerous control freak alternating with an unusually sullen, borderline psychotic control freak. Often mistaken for brooding masculinity, those two performances have been trapped behind Kaye's let's-cash-this-paycheck eyes and sometimes listless line delivery for longer than I care to remember. At long last, with the news of Kendall's coma, Kaye transformed Zach into a true force with which to be reckoned. In a carefully modulated turn worthy of castmate Morgan, Kaye's eyes were full of the kind of crazy, murderous fury in his character only hinted at in the past, including times when he'd actually done physical harm to others. Whatever was different this time, Kaye turned up the heat so high that one really believed that he would burn Pine Valley Hospital to the ground for revenge against Jake. Truly great, great work by Kaye. More...

Both involved David. In reverse order of air time, one was Ryan's cowardly attack on David by punching him from behind at the hospital, followed by a total lack of concern or empathy for David, JR or even Krystal after learning of Babe's death. The other was Tad pulling David off Babe's body and ordering Hayward out of the chapel. Both acts were so incredibly insentive and made Ryan and Tad look like such compelete assholes that I actually got mad. As aggravating as those two acts were, they were compensated by some excellent writing and performances overall.

As we head into the aftermath of The Great Pine Valley Tornado of 2008, there is wreckage aplenty to be cleaned up, discarded and foundations to be rebuilt. The Comeback and the Chandler mansion are the least of the worries for the citizens of Pine Valley. In my opinion, Chuck Pratt has set the stage for truly remarkable creative comeback for AMC. With so much going on inPV right now, things feel a bit like the days of soaps past, when if one set of stories or characters didn't grab you another two or three could fill the void. AMC still has a long way to go in terms of improving its canvas and stories, but the signs are very encouraging from my perspective. Who knows? AMC just might lure back some of those lapsed viewers after all.

The stage is set. The characters are in place. The actors are ready. Now that Pratt is firmly ensconced in Pine Valley, let's see if he can deliver the type of change we can believe in.