As the World Turns is something of a mystery to me these days. I haven't been blogging regularly about the show because, honestly, I am kind of flummoxed about what to actually write about from day to day.
I love ATWT. The show is blessed with some of daytime's strongest actors. In this age of massive cost cutting, ATWT found an arguably better production alternative than Procter & Gamble sister show Guiding Light. Speaking for myself, I find most days, most characters, most stories and most events to be sufficiently captivating to keep me coming back.
Nonetheless, something is badly amiss in Oakdale. The usual criticisms of ATWT are all-too-familiar: far too many recasts, underused vets, storylines that turn on a dime, compressed storytelling and ever shrinking production values to name a few. While those issues are real and important, they are only symptons of several larger problems that encapsulate the issues that I, other Daytime Confidential bloggers and commentators all over the internet have found themselves dismayed about over the last several months. After trying to put a finger on these issues while attempting to "figure out" what's going on at ATWT from a larger perspective, several things have jumped out as serious structural flaws, like a cracked foundation in a beloved old home.
A MATTER OF CHARACTER: Everyone knows about the recast mania that afflicts ATWT, coupled with newly introduced but ill-defined characters. In the last few months alone the show recast Jade (Davida Williams), Craig (Jon Lindstrom), and Lucy (Sarah Glendening), all of whom debuted within roughly two weeks of each other! In the middle of this and since, a brand new character named Josie (Kristin Connolly) was introduced; Matt (Eric William Morris), Elwood (Alex Charak), and Kevin (Karl Girolamo) were reintroduced; and new romance kicked off between newcomer Derek (Benton Greene) and recast Bonnie (Chaunteé Shuler).
I want to focus on recasts for a moment. Whether the edict to recast comes from CBS Vice President of Daytime Barbara Bloom, Procter & Gamble/Telenext, Executive Producer Chris Goutman or all of them in concert, the fact is that the sheer number of recasts can be overwhelming. While obvious arguments can be made about the supposed detrimental effects of recasting roles on viewers, something else jumps out about how recasting almost every role is specifically detrimental to ATWT.
First, there may be more method to the madness than simply recasting a role because the talent might be less expensive than the actor who previously played the role. While that's the obvious answer, recasting ultimately allows the show to have it both ways: soaps need new faces to keep things fresh, but viewers are more unforgiving than ever of new characters. Also, actors leave or are fired for any number of reasons. The solution ATWT has settled upon is to pluck names of old characters from a hat and often recast them with new and, presumably, less expensive talent. The show has been gambling for a couple of years now that viewers are more invested in the characters than they are the actors who portray them, or as Days of Our Lives Executive Producer Ken Corday has called them, "spokes in a wheel."
A number of recasts actually do work! Lindstrom is doing great work as Craig and Williams is doing an admirable job of interpreting the troublemaking Jade as we remember her when Elena Goode played the role. In fact, some of daytime's most iconic, popular and enduring roles are recasts. In short, there are some roles that should be recast for many reasons, but ATWT's wholesale solution is to recast every role it wants to bring back to the canvas.
Here is why that thinking is wrong when implemented on such a large scale. Soap viewers today are not just generally hostile to new characters, they are also generally hostile to new actors. Making matters worse, not every character that ATWT brings back was popular during their first (or second or third) go round on the show. Therefore, ATWT shoots itself in the foot more often than not by plopping new actors in familiar roles in which they have to fight harder than might be necessary for acceptance, especially when the recast character has few interactions with family or connections that they naturally would have like the recently departed Dani Andropolous (Deirdre Skiles).
Finally, most of the time there seems to be no real plan when recast characters are brought back or whatever story they were involved in abruptly changes for no discernable reason. Complicating things is the fact that many recast characters bear little resemblance to how they were portrayed or written previously; in short, they often come across as new characters with old names. Most grievously, even when new characters or recasts actually do start clicking with audiences, they are abruptly written off. Consider Dani: why introduce the potentially juicy plot twist that Dani is a villainess with a twisted daddy complex and then ditch the character not two or three weeks later? This kind of thing happens all too often. The upshot is there is far too much turnover in the cast and on the canvas, and viewers are left scratching their heads wondering what, if anything, was the point.
I do not want these new actors fired or their characters written off! I just want their characters defined, their actions to have motivation, and the stories they are involved in to play out instead of switching on a dime because somebody among ATWT's brass gets bored. This is no way to keep one's audience invested in a show, indicating that ATWT's brass suffers from....
FEAR FACTOR: On paper, most of head writer Jean Passanante's stories and ideas are not half bad. Most of them — at least for this viewer — are rather entertaining and a few are downright thrilling, like last year's aborted Chris/Emily romance and the Carly/Holden affair. Unfortunately, these two examples are indicative of ATWT's aforementioned maddening habit of switching course or dropping storylines altogether midstream. This is a familiar refrain among critics and fans, but there are a couple of deeper issues here, too.
Let's use last year's Holden/Carly story as the prime example. Here the show had two longtime tentpole characters in Holden (Jon Hensley) and Carly (Maura West) with long and deep roots across the entire canvas, who shared a rare hot "forbidden" chemistry. Their affair and the betrayal it represented served to redefine the recently recast Lily (Noelle Beck) as a force to be reckoned with, just as former head writer Hogan Sheffer had redefined Barbara (Colleen Zenk Pinter) several years earlier, only this time burned emotionally instead of with fire. Their affair threatened to shake all of Oakdale to its very foundations, tearing asunder kinfolk, forcing residents to take sides, and putting their children of various ages through an emotional cuisinart. There was a certain East of Eden-type quality to the story, which had the potential to shake up Oakdale for years to come.
And then came the reset. Holden and Carly broke up for some reason that to this day is not 100% entirely clear and his reunion with Lily has him adrift in the storyline wilderness and left Lily something of an inconsistent mess ever since. Is she Carly's friend? Is she her frenemy? Is Lily still angry? Why would she turn down a loan request from her husband's ex-mistress one day and then jump in bed with the woman as a business partner the next? What could have been a complex emotional rollercoaster for Lily comes across as something bordering on wishy washy hypocrisy. Meanwhile the kids are back to whatever passed as normal prior to the affair, Carly's ex and Holden's cousin Jack (Michael Park) and Holden are back on good speaking terms, and so on. For the first time in many years, ATWT had a story that was chock full of thrilling unpredictability and they threw it away.
In addition, let's take the recently departed Josie. The show introduced an amnesiac Jennifer look-a-like who came complete with a seriously loaded name: Josie Matthews Driver (who for the longest time was listed on the official CBS website as "Josie Matthews Davis," Kristin Connolly), a character who could have been related to two of the defunct Another World's most prominent families. A great many fans never picked up on that name, although several questioned the possibility on various message boards. ATWT foolishly never pursued this possibility — because , let's be honest, they didn't just pull that name out of their arses — and sent the ill-defined, undeveloped Josie hopscotching and ping ponging through the Dusty/Paul feud before before being sent flying out the door. There are a number of stories and characters that ATWT treats this way. Did they change their minds because a few fans thought Carly/Holden was distasteful or that a few former AW viewers figured out that something might be up with Josie's possible connection to AW? Ultimately, not only are they cheating the actors, they are cheating the audience.
To that end, the question must be asked: What exactly is ATWT afraid of? Because all of this backtracking and switching reeks of fear. I think one answer is obvious: the show (meaning Procter & Gamble/Telenext and CBS) are terrified that — more often than not — doing anything that might scare away a few more viewers in these perilous times is too risky if any number of fans express the least little bit of resistance or negative reaction to a storyline or character, or if a few people figure out "the great mystery" or twist they might have planned. That is the "fear factor."
Goutman was quoted in the 30 September 2008 edition of Soap Opera Digest that he doesn't really listen to fans and follows his gut as a producer. Personally I absolutely have no problem with that position if it produces a consistent vision. If it was only Goutman we'd have someone definitive to assign blame for this state of affairs at ATWT. However, Procter & Gamble and CBS also have a say and it is this "too many cooks in the kitchen" approach that has led to criticism of things like, among others, the erratic pace of the Luke (Van Hansis) & Noah (Jake Silbermann) romance. The end result of the constant tinkering and resetting is that the show becomes even more maddening for the viewer still invested in the show until they decide to divest and spend their time playing Dance Revolution instead.
The truth is that every soap is struggling and that no soap can afford to lose large numbers of viewers. It would seem the wiser course of action instead of playing tiddly winks with plots and characters would be to not start a story unless it is broadly worked out and tell it to its logical conclusion. If a story or character is not working, then find elegant, graceful ways out of non-working or unpopular situations that have some consequence for the characters they affected. Also, it would be just as wise to take time to develop newer characters/recasts before shoving them out the door. Unfortunately, a lot of these issues are holding the show hostage and can't be properly resolved until...
THE SEMI-EPISODIC PRODUCTION MODEL IS SCRAPPED: When GL was faced with massive budget cuts, the show switched to a highly publicized, highly controversial, and — in many quarters — highly unpopular production model that focused on permanent standing sets and heavy location shooting. Around the same time but far less publicized, ATWT increased location shooting and kept several standing sets as well. ATWT did one other thing that at first went virtually unnoticed: the show gradually switched to a more "episodic"-style of production, where each episode is as contained as possible. While this might sound good on paper and certainly allows the show to conserve money by featuring fewer actors per show, the reality of this production model is that it almost flies in the face of what soap operas are all about!
Soaps are continuing day to day dramas, not consumed by fans like episodes of Law & Order. Producing soaps in a more episodic form, contrary to what Goutman believes is the short attention span of today's soap audience, provides even less incentive for the audience to tune in. It gives the impression that one can miss any number of episodes and then come back at any time and jump right in without investing in what has gone on before. That might work for a show like House or Chuck that have continuing storylines but whose primary narrative device is the case of the week, but not for a daytime drama. On ATWT, story moves so fast under this semi-episodic model that a returning audience member who has missed only a few days — especially in episodes where entire storyline arcs are told in the space of 60 minutes — can feel completely lost. After all, at the end of the day fans are not just looking to enjoy stories but to connect emotionally with the characters and take their journeys with them. That's the reason why many fans often say that they know long term soap characters as if they were old friends or family.
Goutman (whose career I have followed since he played Matt Sharkey on The Edge of Night) has it all wrong. Today's soap audiences aren't less attentive, they are merely less patient. Fans want stories to move, but not hurled at them as if the writers were monkeys in a zoo throwing feces at spectators. They still want the "continuing" part in continuing drama, not to miss two days and come back wondering how a character who was considering filing for custody of a child has completed what should have been a soaptastic week long custody hearing only to find that character taking the kid to their first day of school. The semi-episodic nature of the ATWT current production model borders on the antithesis of what we call "soap opera." Another massive consequence of this semi-episodic production model is even more problematic because...
ATWT FEELS MORE "ISLAND"-BASED THAN EVER: By focusing on the "A" story roughly three days a week and the "B" stories roughly two days a week in compartmentalized episodic fashion, the stories and characters feel more disconnected than ever. In addition, "C" stories barely get any airtime, which in turn makes the experience more disjointed for the viewer. Few storylines intersect and there is almost no feeling of any sense of real "community" in Oakdale. Even worse, certain vets are more underused than ever, characters and stories compete for airtime, and newer characters barely get a chance for development and are wasted because they don't even have an opportunity to catch on with already fickle and hard-to-please audiences.
How does this play out? Luke & Noah are arguably ATWT's most popular current couple but can barely rate 2 days a week of story. Bonnie & Derek's romance has happened almost totally offscreen and they hardly get any airtime, much less the exploration of Derek and Jade's newfound father-daughter relationship because she is off doing barely seen Emily's (Kelley Menighan Hensley) bidding wreaking havoc in Casey's (Billy Magnussen) love life. Lisa (Eileen Fulton), who owns about half of Oakdale, is barely on the show; Lucinda (Elizabeth Hubbard) needs to be shaking up Oakdale every other day; and the much recast Dallas (Wole Parks) hasn't been given enough airtime to prove why he's even on the show. Meanwhile, Dusty (Grayson McCouch), Paul (Roger Howarth), Meg (Marie Wilson), Jack, Carly and a few people in their orbits, including Craig, eat up a lot of airtime. When viewers see Don Hastings (Dr. Bob Hughes) and Colleen Zenk Pinter (Barbara Ryan) do extremely entertaining, scene stealing work in a special episode like the Valentine's fantasy show, it only begs the question of their conspicuous absence from regular story. There are so many wasted opportunites here that they only point to...
THERE IS NO MASTER VISION: To say there is no master vision is another way of saying there is a failure of imagination at the root of the show. Right now, ATWT is a hodgepodge of rewound plots, hastily dropped stories, retraced relationships, missed opportunities and a revolving door of new characters and actors that that barely get a chance to catch on. It is the soap opera equivalent of throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks, although more and more it seems like monkeys hurling the aforementioned feces.
World Turns would be an easier show to take if the characters were not running around in well-worn plot circles. Certainly, the idea of doing something new is a daunting one in today's soap environment because fans are more often than not hostile to the prospect. However, ATWT struck storytelling gold last year and fans started warming up to the prospects of those provocative threads before the plug was pulled on them. What to do?
1. Plan stories more fully and integrate them as much as possible, even if it means stretching the budget to the limit. Reintroduce Oakdale's sense of place and community which far more effective by playing story beats across the canvas and characters outside of their own storyline orbits as much as possible than outdoor filming locations ever will.
2. Remove as much ambiguity from the the more unfocused characters as possible and define them. Let us know what the residents of Oakdale really want in their lives, not just for the moment or based on a whim. It is called motivation and we miss it.
3. Connect the dots. Oakdale is filled with a lot of characters who have a great deal of connective tissue and who are bound by history. Much of that history is not apparent the way stories are currently unfolding or not unfolding. For example, the late Rose (Martha Byrne) was connected to both Paul and Dusty; a writer with imagination could find a way to mix up both Jade and Derek with those characters by exploiting that connection instead of merely having Derek act as a boydguard/henchman/semi-major domo for....is it Dusty now? I forget because I barely see him. See what I mean?
4. Take a cue from the rest of the CBS daytime soaps and start playing the vets more heavily. If they are not going to have their own stories they still should/could have airtime. One of the principal reasons viewers came to love Katie (Terri Colombino) was less because of her connection to Margo (Ellen Dolan) and more because a sympathetic Nancy Hughes (original cast member Helen Wagner) took the young troublemaker under her wing. Lisa, who was hell on wheels when she arrived in Oakdale, could serve the same function for Jade. Bob could interact more with Casey in the same way he did with son Chris (Dylan Bruce) this last summer; Tom (Scott Holmes) should be mixing it up just as much as Margo. Lucinda not only needs more story, she needs to be butting in and controlling everybody's business that she can. Barbara needs a romance; Brian McColl (Mark Pinter) might be available again if he leaves Port Charles.
5. Stop second guessing and just tell the stories. That's what all this resetting and rehashing or reshuffled plots on ATWT ultimately is about among the CBS brass. Standing pat or going back to the recent past is neither safe nor is it particularly entertaining. Move the show, its stories and characters forward — even at the risk of upsetting a fan or two here or there — instead of replaying different variations on the same old tune.
I have two dozen storyline suggestions in my head but CBS doesn't pay me to write ATWT. What I can do is encourage Mr. Goutman, Ms. Bloom, and the folks at Procter & Gamble/Telenext to remember the reported words of Abraham Lincoln during this month of celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."
It's fantastic that ATWT has seen a slight surge in recent soap-to-soap ratings to the #4 slot, but don't get it twisted. The savvy fan is not fooled by this constant rehashing of plots and resetting of buttons. With a talented cast and focused writing in the recent past, we know know ATWT has the talent and capacity to produce amazing, must see soap opera as a whole, not just individual scenes or sporadic episodes. Let's hope they get back to doing it as soon as possible.