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What Is One Life To Live Really Up To?


To say that One Life to Live is on fire these days is making a declaration verging on cliche. Each and every episode is a marvel of writing, acting and storyline integration. It is a shame that its ratings don't reflect the awesomeness of its writing and ensemble.

If OLTL has two weak links story-wise, one is the Vanessa/Ray/Cristian black widow/revenge story and the teen drug plot. I agree that the former is very undeveloped at this point, with characters that few seem to find interesting on an already crowded canvas. The latter, the drug storyline, has suffered from a different sort of problem: despite some solid acting, the interactions and dialogue among most of the teen set (not to mention the unrealistic shock of the school principal) is rather unbelievable. At times it sounds as if the teens are in a very bad ABC Afterschool Special and we're waiting for the inevitable overdose, a crisis of conscience and a moral to the story that "drugs are bad."

However, I'm beginning to think the story is not about completely about the teens. I think there are two drug stories going on at the same time and the second one is about the adults. The drug isn't marijuana or cocaine. The drug is alcohol.

The first clue came when Bo (Robert S. Woods) and Nora (Hillary B. Smith) first confronted son Matthew (the fantastic Eddie Alderson) over a joint Nora had found. The scene, a realistic confrontation between parents and a potentially rebellious child, was brilliantly written and acted by all involved. The one element of that conversation that stuck out most was one that could easily be interpreted as a kid "talking back" or "giving lip" to his parents: Matthew called Bo & Nora out about their own "legal" habits — their drinking and even questioned them about whether or not they had ever smoked marijuana, instantly putting Nora uncomfortably on the spot. It also put Nora at odds with Bo over how to handle their son. Check the scene out here, thanks to amazinghbs:

There was another scene a couple of weeks later when Matthew made another comment about his parents' drinking, followed shortly thereafter by a scene between John (Michael Easton) and Cole (Brandon Buddy) at Rodi's. John confronted Cole and during the conversation Cole pointed out that John runs an establishment where people can get drunk.

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Finally during Monday's first Go Red Ball episode, Bo muses aloud about sending Matthew to military/boot camp (something he's talked about doing since discovering the joint) to "straighten him out" and turn him into an upstanding young man. As he says this, Matthew's immediate family is getting pissy drunk. In addition, as the Buchanans are getting sauced, all hell breaks loose at the Go Red Ball itself where several of the participants — especially Marty (Susan Haskell) — have had way too much to drink.

I don't think any of this is entirely coincidental. Head writer Ron Carlivati and his team have become experts at juxtaposition. Dialogue cues segue one scene to the another. The direction and editing provide us with visual yin and yang, compare and contrast. Where The Young and the Restless continues it's long tradition of dramatic ambiguity, OLTL has perfected something I call dramatic clarity. In other words (and if the viewer does not have benefit of spoilers) with Y&R the fans are never 100% sure where anything is going until it happens, while with Carlivati's OLTL the viewer almost always knows what's going on as it happens without benefit of knowing exactly where things will end up. The ironic upshot is that OLTL's more plot-centric approach gives it more leeway to play with subtext, or rather the thing beneath the thing being discussed.

Therefore, the text of the drug story is exactly as it appears: the teens at Llanview High are becoming embroiled in a drug story involving new teacher Schulyer (Scott Clifton). The subtext of the story however is the hypocrisy of the adults in Llanview and, perhaps, a subtle critique of recent soap opera conventions in general and, possibly, society at large. The teens on OLTL have not calling been out the adults in their lives and their behavior for nothing.

Think about soaps over the last 3-5 years. Very few characters smoke, except the occasional villain like Guiding Light's cigar chomping Alan Spaulding (Ron Raines). There are no casual recreational drug users. There isn't one regular prescription abuser in all of daytime and All My Children's Krystal (Bobbie Eakes) doesn't count. Compare that to some of the people who are drinking to and past excess on OLTL: the police commissioner (Bo), the district attorney (Nora), and the soon-to-be ex-head of a major corporation (Clint). Yes, they may have understandable reasons as individuals for the kinds of drinking they are doing, but the fact remains that these people are in one way or another supposedly respected authority figures in their community. What we are left with is a very high percentage of characters who, if they drank as much in real life as they do on soaps, would be classified as functional alcoholics. They drink in the middle of the day. They drink after confrontations with their enemies or wayward family members. They drink when it's partly cloudy. They drink just because they walk in a room.

Indeed until very recently, it seemed as if whenever any character on most shows walked into a room of any kind, they were pouring something from something into a glass. General Hospital, AMC and GL were especially guilty as characters could barely unlock the door before they headed to the bar in their living rooms, hotel rooms, or bathrooms. This is fascinating given soaps' generally historical conservatism: at one time, the only people who drank regularly were villians, drunks and the occasional comic relief. Now, again until recently, it has been a rarity to see a soap character without a drink in hand.

I say "until recently" because it seems soap characters in general have decreased their on air drinking over the last couple of months; among the more overt examples is GH's Claudia Zacharra (Sarah Brown), who has been conspicuously grabbing bottles of water from Sonny's well stocked bar. I'm not sure exactly why this turn of events has happened but if my theory is correct, it is notable in OLTL's case for two reasons. The first is that many viewers feel OLTL crossed a line several months ago by having Dorian (Robin Strasser) pour liquor down the throat of recovering alcoholic Charlie (Brian Kerwin) in a revenge plot despite the fact that Dorian's deceased husband Mel was a recovering alcoholic himself and she would "never do that." Could the show as a whole be engaging in a bit of self-reflective penance for Dorian's exceptionally cruel act even as it continues to play with the idea of Dorian's personal guilt via a pseudo-reincarnated "Mel" in the form of a young black woman?

The other is that OLTL seems to be holding up a mirror regarding our legalized national drug of choice and asking us what we see without being preachy or even obvious about it. There was a scene a couple of weeks ago where Nora scolded Marty for staying out all night and drinking even though Marty has lupus. How many people who have serious medical conditions in real life shouldn't drink or party hard yet make the choice to do so anyway regardless of their motivation?

This year's just completed Go Red Ball featured very explicit references to drinking: Todd (Trevor St. John) saying that he wouldn't be able to get through the evening without getting drunk and later getting liquored with his ex-wife Blair (Kassie DePaiva) at the bar; a closeup of champagne glasses filled to the brim as Gigi (Farah Fath) was informed by her sister Stacey (Crystal Hunt) that their parents had died, a subtle reminder that sorrow could be drowned; and after the fight, John is shown quite explicitly looking at and fingering an empty bottle of vodka. Blair even got into the act as seen in the flashbacks to the Go Red Ball's previous night as having downed 6 glasses of liquor before Todd carried her out of the shindig. That close-up of her neatly stacked empty glasses was very deliberate, not a simple segue to the next scene. In fact, roughly half of the characters on Tuesday's episode were drunk with a number of surprising and/or not so pleasant consequences that manifested themselves on Wednesday's show. The sight of Nigel and Clint stripping after losing hands at poker was particularly disturbing to this viewer.

Something as a whole is going on here and I think it's fascinating. As a bit of a disclaimer, I don't drink and never have, but I am far from a prude on the subject. I have no issue with adults drinking, I will take a bottle of wine or champagne to dinner parties as a gift, and I go out to bars with friends. Therefore, this is not some modern version of soap-style prohibition but rather an observation about what seems to be a very subtle thread that is running through OLTL these days. In fact, a great many of the drunken antics on the show have been highly entertaining, but I honestly believe there is more serious subtext at play.

What say you, gentle readers? Do you think I am seeing connections that don't exist? Or is OLTL actually winking, nodding and subtly critiquing at soap opera conventions while using them to fuel story?