Despite gloom and doom about the state of daytime in almost all of its aspects, fans have been treated to some good soap opera lately. The Young and the Restless is the Must See Soap right now. One Life to Live has regained it's glory and Guiding Light is steadily improving. Some of daytime's best actors are giving some of the performances of their lives. With that in mind, there are three performers new to their respective shows deserving of special mention who I think are doing a bang up job.
JR MARTINEZ (Brot Monroe, All My Children)
Introduced amid a publicity blitz, JR Martinez came aboard AMC with a fascinating, real life backstory: an Iraq War veteran seriously injured and disfigured by explosives, eventually becoming a noted inspirational speaker for and on behalf of veterans coping with their life altering injuries. His addition to AMC's canvas was purposeful and deliberate. The show wanted a real life injured vet to play Brot, former love of newcomer Taylor (Beth Ehlers).
AMC has received much justly deserved praise for casting Martinez, but make no mistake, this was as much a bit of stunt casting as it was groundbreaking decision. There is nothing particularly "new" about the character of Brot either. We've seen many characters who have been injured and/or disfigured on soaps, who have wanted to reconnect with the love of their lives. So what makes Martinez, despite his real life experiences, different?
The man can act. Don't get me wrong, Martinez is no David Canary or Michael E. Knight. He has rough edges and there are a few kinks in his performances. However, in a soap world full of hair models and glistening pecs, it is refreshing to see an actor new to the genre (I don't like the term "newbie") who hits his marks, knows his lines and can deliver them with believability and emotion. In fact, Martinez seems clearly enthusiastic about his role and one can see his efforts to be good is paying off every day he is featured. Martinez also has great chemistry with just about everyone with whom he has come into contact, including a refreshingly sympathetic Colby (Brianne Moncrief), romantic rival Jake (Ricky Paull Goldin) and the previously hard to grasp Taylor.
As a character, Brot has potential to bring a unique set of stories to AMC. Martinez's physical appearance provides the opportunity for the writers and producers to explore a wide range of stories and issues without easy fall backs like miracle plastic surgery to turn the character into a himbo. So far the show has slowly and wisely integrated Brot onto the canvas without sensationalizing or exploiting his portrayer. Here is hoping that as Martinez improves, we will get to see more of what the character of Brot and this young actor is capable of delivering. (continued)
JON LINDSTROM (Craig Montgomery, As the World Turns)
Everybody seems to have their favorite Craig. Newer viewers have special affection for Hunt Block, who brought a mix of sarcastic insolence and bemused charm to the role as a self-aware, manipulative soap version of Gordon Gekko. Older viewers tend to love the original and last incarnation by Scott Bryce, who played Craig as a complicated schemer not fully in control of his emotional appetites. Even Jeffrey Meeks started to gain a tiny number of supporters before his ouster, playing a much darker and sinister incarnation of Craig that most fans seemed to reject; this last version also uneasily fit Bryce's last tenure as the character.
Many fans like to think of Craig as a rogue, a devilish rapscallion who does awful things, but is lovable because of his soft spot for Lucy and his sisters. Others lean toward a slightly harsher view of the character. They hate many of the things Craig has done (like kidnap Lucy and his still debated responsibility for the death of Sierra's last husband) but they love to hate him and chalk up these misdeeds to Craig being written "out of character."
Craig certainly is these all of these things. Craig is also rather unhinged. Craig has been involved in typical soap villainy: blackmail, faking paralysis, kidnapping (not just Lucy, but also Parker Munson and Dani Andropolous when she was a baby!), embezzlement, bribery, arson and even sleeping with his ex-wife's daughter who he helped raise for a time. However, Craig also has attempted to murder Steve Andropolous (Dani's father) at least twice, ran down Dusty, and killed the dude who helped kidnap Lucy. For all of his snarky and charming qualities, Craig is one dark, dangerous man.
The darker side of Craig is obviously what head scribe Jean Passanante has been interested in writing. However, if a writer is going to pursue a specific vision of such a long standing character with a tangled history, then he or she needs to adapt to the strengths of strong actors playing the role to pull it off. Passanante didn't write to the strengths of Meeks or Bryce and obviously had no intention of doing so. The flip side then is to find an actor who can embody the most important aspects of that character's historically rich personality regardless of story direction.
For my money, I think they have found that actor in Jon Lindstrom. He has Bryce's cockiness, Block's sarcasm, and the darkness that Meeks was to have embodied. Lindstrom has chemistry with just about everyone too. He and Ellen Dolan (Margo) spar off each other marvelously. Terri Colombino (Katie) and Lindstrom bring a subtext of complicated younger sister/older brother dynamics. Lindstrom, Roger Howarth (Paul) and Grayson McCouch (Dusty) come alive as a trio of characters who hate each other. Last but not least, his scenes with Colleen Zenk Pinter (Barbara) positively crackled with electricity.
The fact that Daytime Confidential's Mike Jubinville created a poll asking us if we believe what Craig is selling (redemption) is really indicative of the two things that are essential to the character of Craig: inscrutability and a twinkle in the actor's eye. DaisyClover remarked that she felt Lindstrom is playing his old General Hospital character Kevin Collins playing Craig. In my opinion, that's not necessarily a bad thing because Craig and Kevin had/have a lot in common. There is plenty of room for Lindstrom's version of Craig to grow and expand beyond whatever similarities there are to Kevin. So far, Lindstrom is delivering the goods. (continued)
JEFF BRANSON (Shayne Lewis, Guiding Light)
This year the gold standard of soap recasts is Billy Miller, who plays Billy Abbott on the The Young and the Restless. I've been a fan of his from his days as the terribly wasted Richie on All My Children and from what I've seen on Y&R, I couldn't agree more. The young man is a revelation in the role, fitting easily and seamlessly in the show and among his castmates. AMC's loss is most assuredly Y&R's again. Make that two losses by AMC, because Jeff Branson is bringing the heat as the new Shayne Lewis on GL.
Branson has only aired for a few days but his impact is undeniable. In a handful of episodes Branson has practically erased the impact of predecessor Marty West, a likable enough actor, but something of a wet noodle. By contrast, Branson commands the screen in practically every scene. Physically, Branson looks like he could be the son of Josh and Reva, complete with the signature fiery temper and red hot emotions of the Lewis men and the Shayne women. He plays extraordinarily well off Kim Zimmer, Robert Newman and Robert Bouge (Mallet). He has surprising and unexpected rapport with Mandy Bruno (Marina) and his chemistry with Gina Tognoni is stratospheric!
There is one other issue where Branson is proving his talent, perhaps exceeding both Lindstrom and Miller on general principle. Both of the latter actors have been given good or great character accurate material with which to work. To be fair, Shayne's reintroduction to Springfield has been pretty good from a writing standpoint, albeit slightly compromised by GL's unerring tendency to bring in young male characters as sullen and angry for one reason or another.
Comparatively speaking though, Branson has had to work with some sketchy scripts (Shayne would be hung up on Marina after all these years?) and a preposterous plot point (Dinah wouldn't recognize Shayne?). Branson nonetheless has managed to fully flesh out the "new" Shayne into someone with whom we can sympathize and recognize although the actor is new. This is no small feat and the vast majority of the credit must be given to Branson.
Despite a lot of difficulties still to be ironed out, Guiding Light is very much on the upswing in terms of production and stories. The much anticipated returns of Grant Aleksander and David Andrew MacDonald have folks buzzing with new hope for the show. However, don't wait for them. Jeff Branson is one of the many reasons to start tuning back in now.