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Pine Cones in Pine Valley


Regular Daytime Confidential readers and aficionados may have noticed that this lovely website has added daily recaps of most of the soaps on the air, in addition to Perkie's longtime (and often hilarious) observations about General Hospital. Conspicuously absent from the recaps — at least as of this writing — has been what might be considered the quintessential forerunner of the modern soap opera, All My Children.

Not too long ago, our fearless leader, Luke, asked if I would be able to write a daily recap of the show since I've been watching it; I regrettably informed him that because of a currently unpredictable schedule (hence, why there are long lags between my posts these days) I would be unable to do so. Instead, I suggested that I would divert my recent attentions from Guiding Light to AMC a bit more closely and blog about life in Pine Valley more regularly. Since then I've mightily tried to get a grip on the show, but unfortunately watching All My Children is not unlike walking on pine cones barefoot: it's not the worst feeling in the world, but it is still pretty painful.

My credentials as an AMC viewer goes as far back as the 1970's of the wildly fabulous Phil/Tara/Chuck/Erica quadrangle era, when the show was one of the newer kids on the soap block, through much of the late 1980's. I was an off and on viewer through the 90's when AMC took a gothic/hyper-romance turn, returning to the fold this decade only to be mortified by ex-headwriter Megan "Maddog" McTavish's evil reign through much of it.

As blasphemous as this will sound to many currently disgruntled fans and my DC compatriots, Chuck Pratt's AMC thematically more closely resembles Agnes Nixon's AMC of those heady earlier eras than it is to its mid-1990's and later iterations when many current viewers started watching the show. This earlier period was a time when the series concerned itself with serious social and political issues (ongoing war, sexuality, addiction) and intertwined them with heady familial dynamics where parents and their children had story lines that intersected with each other (Phoebe Tyler's endless meddling in her family's affairs, for example), dastardly villains with uncommon holds on the women they victimized (Ray Gardner), and sordid lives run amok (Randi is certainly not the first Pine Valley lady with a pornographic history).

Who is Adam Chandler (the magnificent David Canary) now if not the spirit of Palmer Cortlandt (the much missed, but still popping up here and there James Mitchell) when the latter was running and ruining his ex-wives' and daughter Nina's lives? Who is David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) if not Billy Clyde Tuggle with a medical degree? Who is Dr. Angela Hubbard (Debbie Morgan) if not a new take on the once anti-war Ruth Martin (then Mary Fickett), RN? Who is Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) in relation to her daughters if not a more glamorous, Erica-esque take on her own late mother Mona? In many respects, Pratt has captured many of the elements that recall Pine Valley's illustrious roots by putting new spins on AMC staple characters and story lines. What Pratt has not found yet is anything resembling All My Children's heart or it's soul.

Ever since the now-infamous CGI-tornado —  which I liked better than most — and the initial return of artificially inseminated Bianca (Eden Riegel), Pine Valley has for this viewer felt like a particularly hollow shell of its former glorious self. The relentlessly brown & beige color scheme makes my head hurt. Sets that once evoked moneyed grandeur, like Wildwind, the Chandler mansion and the now-crispy Cortlandt estate, border on a backup spread of a very bad issue of Metropolitan Home. The once cute (to me) Confusion is plain weird with its non-stop house music blasting at all hours of the Pine Valley; the fewer words said about the eternal hot mess that is Fusion itself the better. Executive Producer Julie Hanan Carruthers recently said in a disappointingly produced Nightline fluff piece about (ABC) soaps in the current economic climate, the trick is to try to be cost efficient, but not let the budget considerations show up on screen. I say she needs to learn some new tricks.

Beyond those considerations and much more importantly, I find that whenever AMC is on (whether live or taped), my eyes glaze over and I'm increasingly tuning it out to, I don't know, read the labels of canned peas. Zach's (Thorsten Kaye) endless faux-Heathcliff brooding, order barking like a low-rent Russell Crowe and casual (and invariably apologetic) emotional cruelty toward women is only interesting to those who find those exact same qualities exciting in As the World Turns' 1930's Jimmy Cagney-lite character Dusty Donovan. Ryan's (Cameron Mathison) head spinning declarations of undying devotion to whatever woman with a GPS-enabled vagina the big oaf falls into bed with is dizzying even by soap standards, as is Kendall's (Alicia Minshew) endless vacillation of heartfelt, forever love. In fact, Kendall makes her declarations of amour like certain Republican leaders: within 24 hours, she's taken it back as if she just insulted Rush Limbaugh.

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I don't blame the actors — including the often cringe inducing Mathison — for this state of affairs, but they have played so many of their scenes so many times seemingly verbatim, I sometimes think I could recite them in my sleep. If I were the actors, I wouldn't even read the scripts: Ryan and/or Zach threatens someone and then engages in a breathy mea culpa if it's a woman or a snarly stare down contest/sucker punch if it's a man. That man is usually David Hayward; if there was drinking game for how many times he's been punched, I'd have wound up in Promises, sipping mojitos with Lindsay Lohan. Today, JR (a nicely maturing Jacob Young) loves Adam; tomorrow, he'll be calling him a lousy excuse for a father. Yawn.

If GH is also guilty of repeating scenes and leaves the impression that whole patches of dialogue have been recycled (two years of Patrick and Robin having the same argument every day, anyone?), at least there is something resembling a good faith effort on the part of the actors, producers and directors to infuse those repeated scenes with a certain level of energy which gives the appearance that something is happening even when it isn't. Unfortunately, AMC repeats its scene dynamics so much that even new shows often seem like a rerun of Mannix.

Even worse, AMC doesn't have a handle on too many of its characters and the actors who play them. Shannon Kane (Natalia) and the criminally miscast Beth Ehlers (Taylor) are two actors who, despite giving it their all, continue to flounder on the show with inconsistent screen time, maddeningly obtuse characterization and story. If Bobbie Eakes wasn't playing the role I would not know who Krystal is these days either, except being perhaps the worst mother in the world. (Where is Keith Olbermann when you need him?) In addition, I'm none too pleased that in order to give her more screen time, Opal (the delightful Jill Larson) has been turned into a psychic version of Sylvia Fowler from The Women. It's a sad, sad day when I wish that Opal was back to being the bit of a racist was during the Dorothy Lyman era and the homophobe she was when Kevin Sheffield came out of the closet.

In addition, I must completely agree with my DC colleagues about Jamie Lunerwho is playing someone named Liza Colby. I have nothing against the actress (confession: I've never watched an episode of Melrose Place ever) and I even like the character she plays. I just wish the character she plays was Liza instead of some unrecognizable stranger carrying the name. Mind you, I usually cringe when fans say things like that and I don't mind recasts in the least, but whoever Pratt is writing for Luner is so far removed in looks, temperament, and personality from the essence of Liza that even the new back story given her does not mitigate how unwatchable her interactions are with people who supposedly know her.

There are lots of bright spots on AMC, despite its horrible flaws. Pete (Daniel Kennedy) and Colby (Brianne Moncrief) are a great young couple; Adam Mayfield (Scott Chandler) is a real find; Amanda (the soon to be departed Chrishell Stause) and Jake (Ricky Paull Goldin) have awesome chemistry; I've long been a fan of Frankie (Cornelius Smith, Jr.) and Randi (Denise Vassey); Erica is making a welcome return to her own self; Tad (Michael E. Knight) & Taylor actually look very interesting as a potential couple, and Canary has been acting up a storm as Adam and twin Stuart as the intriguing (to me) mystery of what really happened to Dixie unfolds, despite the show having brought back for a short stint the insufferably cartoonish Alexander Cambias (Ronald Guttman, who deserves a purple heart for playing one of the most ludicrous characters I've ever seen on daytime). I even like the silly love story of Aidan (Aiden Turner) and Annie (the fabulous Melissa Claire Egan) because I am always trying to figure out which one of them is nuttier, although it certainly isn't written to be as hilarious as I find their cuckoo for cocoa puffs love story.

I've listened to DC's podcasts, read other bloggers and various pundits and I find that I am not on board with the degree of their hatred of Pratt's PV. I think there is a lot of good in this murky mess: I more or less am digging the "Who Really Killed Dixie/Babe?" double mystery, despite the cartwheels and triple axles it is taking to tell it. The "Marissa is Babe's Twin" and "Countdown to Adam/Stuart Chandler-cide" stories doesn't bother me at all, even though they are being told with As the Turn Turns-style sonic barrier breaking speed.

What I am not digging is the general lethargy that oozes from the screen every day. What I am not digging is a company of actors who by and large are attempting to serve as the soap opera equivalent of a tugboat, carrying a lumbering and floundering show on their backs as uninspired production and by-the-numbers dialogue weighs them down despite their best efforts. What I am not digging is leaden, repetitive dialogue underscoring leaden, repetitively directed scenes. What we have here, folks, is a failure of imagination.

It was not always so in Pine Valley. Colorful characters who wore their hearts (and their villainy) on their sleeves with frequently scathing wit once populated a richly imagined small city/town where scions of old money wealth (the Tylers) vied with the nouveau riche (the Cortlandts and Chandlers); where the Pine Valley Inn and the Pine Valley Country Club stood in stark contrast to the dilapidated The Pine Cone and sleazy Foxy's in Centre City; where folks ate at The Goalpost, partied at Holidays and got their hair done at the Glamorama. Now what we have are some of the most mind-numbing imagined brown sets like Zack's matchbox casino from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (don't believe me? check this clip out) serving as a backdrop for torpidly written characters who all too often are given things to do and huffy puffy, breathless direction instead of emotionally resonant story to play.

I like All My Children, I really do. I just wish I liked it enough to not fall asleep while watching it.