I warn you now, what follows is not strictly a bit of soap opera nostalgia. Though cloaked in fond remembrance, there are deeper issues at play here, if you will bear with me...
My late mother loved “her stories.” One might say she was a one network kinda woman, too. When I came along into my parents' lives, her soap schedule was more or less as rock solid as the dawning of the sun: Love is a Many Splendored Thing, As the World Turns, Love of Life, Search for Tomorrow, The Guiding Light and The Secret Storm.
I vaguely recall a few of these shows as I was all of about 5 or 6 years old at the time, but they began to imprint themselves on my mind because by some strange coincidence or another I was always catching some memorable scenes or events that would be the equivalent to sweeps stunts today.
There was beautiful bad girl Jennifer (played by an extraordinarily young Morgan Fairchild) crashing through a glass door and becoming disfigured on Search. On another show, I saw two men fighting in a jungle over a disheveled woman named Holly; one of these men, Ed, sent the other, Roger, over a cliff to what would be one of the more memorable of the latter characters many deaths on GL. I can't recall how many times after school I sat mesmerized by all the vampires, witches and supernatural dealings going on — it wasn't Tabitha or Timmy from Passions, but rather the dashing figure of Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. To my young mind, these were very interesting things but not of much consequence. After all was said and done, I had to finish my homework or get back outside to play. However, there was one episode of a certain show I caught that would change everything and make me soap fan forever.
I do not know if it was summer recess or if I was home sick from school, but leading up to that day there had been a fever building between my mother and her friends for some time over something terrible that was on the verge of happening on this show called The Edge of Night. It seemed as if the father of this woman named Nicole was trying to kill her, Nicole was about to marry this guy named Adam and there was a bomb aboard their honeymoon yacht! Would they find they get blown to smithereens? Would Adam save her? Would she not dodge death again? Who would live? Who would die? Sound a bit familiar? It should and it should not.
Not to belittle the fine and popular work that is done here at Daytime Confidential or elsewhere on the Internet, but you see it must be pointed out that before the faux-democracy of Internet message boards and spoilers that gave away every plot detail and overzealous network marketing departments, my mother and her friends got on their rotary phones and called each other about their “stories.” They were not the stereotypical “soap opera housewives” either, none of them desperate. All of these women had full lives outside of their homes as well as within them. My mother, for example, was a school teacher and later a district superintendent, extraordinarily active in a half dozen or more church boards and committees at a time; a businesswoman and a landlord who actively helped raise our livestock and was planting and harvesting our crops alongside my father. There was no such thing as men's work or women's work in my house; there was only work. Somehow, my mother still had time for her stories, just like people you know or once knew. (continued)
How my mother and her equally busy friends kept up was a simple affair. They would fill each other in on the day's events by phone if one or the others were busy. During the summer months (for my mother), breaks and holidays they would catch up with “the stories” because, well, they could catch up with them. The point here is that prior to the 70's and only until very recently, there was a prevailing sentiment among viewers and in entertainment that soaps were going to be around forever.
Don't get me wrong. My mother and her friends were not of the opinion that specific, individual shows would last always. Among others, they had seen the losses of The Brighter Day, Young Dr. Malone, From These Roots and even the demise of an entire network, Dumont, and its few soaps right along with it. Thus it wasn't the thought that a single show would last forever that was at play, but that the genre itself would be with us and they immersed themselves in the stories and shows they claimed as their own.
By the time my fidgety ass rolled up on the scene and I'd overheard untold dozens of conversations about these “stories,” I was familiar with the names of soap opera, but not the faces: Bob, Bert, Ed, Holly, Kim, Jennifer, Geraldine, Colin, Joanne, Mike & Nancy and “that devilish” Lisa. Of them all, the whole business of Nicole's daddy trying to kill her on The Edge of Night, kept coming up among my mother and her friends with a sense of urgency and palpable fear until the fateful day arrived that summer.
Upon the appointed day, I asked my mother if I could watch the show with her. She agreed. From what I remember, Adam and Nicole had already set sail on The Sprite with bomb aboard. Nicole's daddy tried to do something to let her know what was up, but was too late. The bomb went off, The Sprite went up in flames and the last images I remember are those of Adam adrift in the sea hanging on to debris screaming Nicole's name. It was all shot on location. My mother was nearly apoplectic, in tears. I was in shock and I didn't even know who these people were or everything that was really going on at the time. Although it would be several more years before I would become fully immersed in soaps, I was hooked from that moment onward.
If that all sounds vaguely familiar, it is likely that many of you came to soaps as I did at my mother's proverbial knee or, in my case, at the foot of her bed. The year for me was around 1974. It has occurred to me that we soap fans tend to recount these kinds of experiences with fond a remembrance of things past without digging just a little bit deeper to uncover what made the event so special in the first place.
For many soap fans, we recount the experience as “generational,” as if in and of itself it is a tradition passed down from parent/grandparent to children/grandchildren. Soaps are the precious family heirlooms. To hear tell it, if you could just engineer the shows today so the parents or grandparents would invest in these shows again, their children now would follow suit just like we did. There may be some truth to that, but the whole idea begs a question: of the mothers, fathers, siblings and other relatives who are currently watching the remaining soaps faithfully, why are their children and grandchildren not becoming hooked as we once were? And how, exactly would you do it if you could?
The “generational” sentiment also does not account for the millions of fans who came to soaps on their own whether in college during the whole 80's soap craze or for some other reason before that decade or since. I think there is however, a common bond among all of us who came to the soap opera as entertainment or art form, as critics or fans: when we first fell in love with soaps no matter how we came to the genre, each of us wanted to know what would happen next. (continued)
This is not to be taken lightly. I submit to you that the definition of good, solid daytime drama and soaps in general is not simply “compelling character driven stories informed by history.” I counter that is a description of what soap operas can be at their best, but it is not what soaps are at their core. I also submit that plot-driven mechanics are and can be just as important as character-driven stories as long as there is balance in the storytelling. Writer Tom Casiello makes an excellent argument for this position in one of his recent blogs. In the final analysis, I think there is something so fundamental to soaps as a genre and as an art form, so insanely obvious that the concept has been somewhat lost in the debate about soaps and their current evolution or possible/probable extinction: soaps are continuing dramas.
The key word is continuing. Not just literally, as in the show airs every day, either. Harkening back to the long forgotten days of the 70's, the underlying idea of soaps was that multiple stories would unfold over time. The old cliché about soaps was for many years more or less true, in that you could not watch a show for several months or longer and pick up right where you left off. That cliché was a criticism of the pacing of soaps, but the fact is that the pacing of “the stories” provided an entry point for new and seasoned viewers alike.
My mother and her friends certainly came back to soaps during school breaks, vacations, sick days, and whenever they could do so. I, did too, floating in and out of several shows over the years as I defined and redefined my own tastes. I bet that part sounds familiar to many of you, too. With that in mind, I submit the most important argument in this piece: since the 1990's, a fundamental shift in how we literally view soaps has occurred and that shift by soap opera executives, writers and fans account for much of the confusion about what we are seeing on our screens today.
There is no doubt that soap executives are desperate to keep eyeballs on the soaps. Keeping them means competing with iPhones, Blackberries, Twitters, Gameboys, Wii's, Facebooks, news channels, all the court judges, all the talk shows, celebrity gossips sites, original shows on the Internet, the advent of DVR's and other time shifted viewing patterns. This is perfectly understandable.
Unfortunately, executives have lost sight of the narrative forest by focusing on the episodic trees. All My Children's episodes are chopped and screwed ad infinitum with some individual “scenes” seemingly lasting as little as 10 seconds. The Bold and the Beautiful plays the soap opera equivalent of Legos with its entire character roster, mixing and matching pairings into an indecipherable mess of emotional entanglements. A marriage proposal between two soul mates on a Monday can be undone by the end of Wednesday and each partner be with another soul mate by Friday. As has been often lamented, As the World Turns burns through plots, characters and recasts like California wildfires consuming the good, the bad and the ugly in equal measure.
Even when these shows are good, there is no time to breathe or invest in the stories or the issues faced by the characters. The executives and producers are so intent on keeping us on our toes and glued to the screen that they have confused furious tap dancing with engaging storytelling. (continued)
There is a flip side to these aforementioned whirling dirvishes of daytime too. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Guiding Light may be blamed fairly and unfairly for a lot of reasons why it is in imminent danger of cancellation, whether it was the early months of it current production model, David Kreizman's stint as the show's sole head writer or the loss of major stars and characters. GL has improved mightily over the last few months and I urge people to check it out now. However, the most detrimental issue for Guiding Light for roughly a year and a half or more was that the show had no interia at all. It was as if Kreizman and executive producer Ellen Wheeler put the show in a position where they could wrap up production and stories at a moment's notice should the ax have fallen. So couples limped along or were broken up for no good reason, the entire population of Springfield lived at the Beacon and Alan obsessed over every baby in Springfield forever. So little actually happened in Springfield (besides Tammy's death and Reva's cancer), that fans had no real reason to stay tuned.
In the middle of this kerfluffle is Days of Our Lives, a show whose entire structure shifts according to short-term panic regarding the ratings and whenever its network contract has come up for renewal. Writing regimes, whole sets of characters, entire story lines play for months on end and are then jettisoned to “honor the wishes of the fans”...which in most cases tends to infuriate them even more. Ken Corday seems to run Days like a game of jenga, managing to keep the wobbly tower intact by piling on new pieces, but then yanking out supports that threaten to bring the whole enterprise crashing to the floor. The show's remaining fans have invested in the history, characters and supercouples of Days' past, but few seem engaged in the actual stories being told, which is far cry from the golden age of soap operas.
General Hospital is not immune, either. The series may be inconsistent on an episodic or storyline by storyline basis, but Bob Guza has kept a pretty firm vision for his mobtacular vision of Port Charles intact. Unfortunately, GH also is increasingly known for producing sweeps-a-palooza, Emmy bait stunts with dizzying bouts of painfully obvious “chemistry tests” and half-assed or dropped stories left in its bullet-ridden wake.
In times past, the reason why my mother, her friends and millions of soap fans could invest so heavily and deeply in soaps was because “the stories” were being told in full measure. Morality tales or fables, plot lines or slices of life, “the stories” mattered above all else. It wasn't just rich people acting up. It wasn't merely an escape where the problems of these fictional folk made theirs seem smaller by comparison for at least a few hours a day. It wasn't about this fan base or this squish couple or another. At the end of the day, “the stories” were about what would happen next day, next episode, next week, next month or, in the case of the Bell soaps, the next several years.
Momentum is the key here, reflected in the names of some of the earliest serials: The Clear Horizon, Bright Promise, The Brighter Day, As the World Turns, and yes, Search for Tomorrow. These titles and many others suggested that the future was always ahead, not trapped in the past. Soaps were like sharks, ever moving forward with their characters and stories.
It is no small coincidence then that the two soaps enjoying the most acclaim from fans and critics are The Young and the Restless and One Life to Live. (Not to be outdone, even General Hospital: Night Shift got it right too, under the pen ofSri Rao and production by Lisa de Cazotte.) Both Y&R and OLTL are telling “good stories rooted in character and history,” but more importantly they have established or re-established the fundamental tenets element of good soap opera. Each serial has momentum moving it forward. Stories spin out from other stories. Characters collide with each other in unexpected ways that seem, for the most part, logical and well-thought out. The A story dominates while the B story percolates and the C story revs its engines. We wait to see what will happen and who will be impacted and how they and others will react. When will the truth come out about those babies or her identity? We watch in anticipation because we know the stakes are huge for these characters and other characters in their orbit and the consequences could be profound. We want to tune in tomorrow. (continued)
Solid momentum in storytelling is the key to soaps, past and present. It makes us not only invest in the shows and the characters but fills us with anticipation. It is at the very heart of continuing drama. When shows forget this central truth about soap opera, they devolve into a series of breathless moments and a collection of high strung scenes with little long term impact or consequence beyond that day's or week's episode. In other words, furious tap dancing.
To a certain extent, we fans have partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Back when my mother and her friends were watching soaps, they either liked what they saw or didn't. If they liked or didn't like something enough, they would sit down and write a letter to a network if they were so inclined. They mighty have been tempted to call a switchboard. If enough people were thoughtful enough to put pen to paper, spring for the money for a stamp and go to the post office, or sit down and incur a long distance toll charge then we might see change unfold on screen.
The rise of the Internet has produced a different kind of fan reaction. Yes, we are far more informed and savvy about soaps and what goes on behind the scenes than the fans of my mother's generation. However, we are far more impatient than at any time in soap history, too: new characters are routinely dismissed as interlopers. New actors with promise aren't given the time prove to prove their worth unless they hit their first performance out of the ballpark (and sometimes a photo alone can cause convulsions in some fans). A new plot can barely air for two days before angry mobs spring up on message boards proclaiming that it is dragging on too long. We can be so busy looking back at the mythical soap past, dissecting the mistakes of an episode as it is literally airing and criticizing upcoming, but unaired storylines that I think we have lost the ability to see potential when it does not necessarily conform to our preconceptions.
Under these circumstances, is it any wonder why some trigger happy executives might mistake fan-driven insta-reaction as the soap opera equivalent of attention deficit disorder? In fact, ATWT executive producer Christopher Goutman infamously stated that he doesn't think fans have the patience to watch soaps five days a week in their current format. Is it any wonder in that context (among other considerations) why he and head writer Jean Passanante have acted accordingly with warp speed storytelling?
The legendary writers and producers of soap opera understood that the genre was not predicated on immediate payoff or even servicing the immediate needs of fans or fan bases. Agnes Nixon, the soap goddess herself, said, "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait" in answer to a question about how to deal with impatient fans. Douglas Marland, Bill Bell, Harding Lemay, Henry Slesar and Irna Phillips may have approached soaps differently, but they all wrote and produced with momentum and payoff in mind according to what they felt it was for the good of their shows. They were true to their characters...until time or circumstances caused them to change those characters. The masters of the genre wrote stories forward, rarely back. They kept their eye on history, but were not slaves to it. Even the great Marland resurrected Kim Hughes' long dead daughter and turned her into twins, Frannie & Sabrina. He also shoehorned in a son for Lisa, Scott Eldridge, who had been presumably born during ATWT's short-lived prime time spinoff, Our Private World starring Eileen Fulton. History has never been completely all it's cracked up to be. (continued)
More than anything, the greats of the industry understood that story trumps all. Great stories played out and more often than not, even the bad ones had resolution. This is why Bobby Martin, who is still hanging out in the attic looking for his skis, stood out as a big in-joke for all those years: his disappearance symbolized the exception to the rule. Now Bobby is crowded out in the Martin attic by Lily's trampy sister Ava, the unsolved murder of Ida and dozens of other untold plots, dropped love affairs and dangling threads hanging like so many forgotten holiday decorations.
No one expects the leisurely pace of soap opera narrative to return; the world for many of us really is turning faster than ever; but there is no good excuse not to tell a story from beginning to logical end. Thus, we must ask when did soaps become inverted? Why is every scene played as a life or death situation, while the Friday cliffhanger is largely extinct? Why must stories that used to take six months to unfold and could now take two or three months to tell being shoved at us in two weeks or, in some cases, one day? What happened to the soap trial, formerly an eight week affair, full of explosive testimonies and shocking revelations, now pared down to three scenes of rapidly shifting witnesses and a four minute verdict? When it comes to “love in the afternoon” why do entire courtships happen offscreen but the bedroom antics occur in 15 minutes?
I am a soap fan because I admire the art form. For all of the fist shaking and grumbling and criticism, I come back day after day to see the long term story unfurl, not just to see the day's events. I share that with my mother's generation and I think I share it with most of you, as well. Wherever soaps go in the coming years and beyond, it is my fervent wish that executives and writers realize that soap opera stories once again need construction, build, payoff and resolution. It is called continuing drama, the reason why we tune in tomorrow. In these dark times for soaps let us hope there are many more tomorrows to come.