The Mouse House may be doing everything possible to tank their last daytime soap, General Hospital, in order to finally be out of the scripted TV business before primetime hours, but the same channel is aggressively developing numerous primetime sudsers. What gives?
A quick look at ABC's 2012 pilot slate and you're liable to get bubbles in your eyes from all the soap! There's Nashville, the country music-themed family drama from Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and directed by RJ Cutler (The September Issue). That sudser just cast wildly popular daytime alum Jonathan Jackson (ex-Lucky Spencer, General Hospital) in a plum role, but if Nashville makes it to air, will that be enough to lure lapsed and furious ABC Daytime fans, still mourning the losses of All My Children and One Life to Live, to watch? If that's even a point of consideration — which, let's be real, it likely isn't.
Nashville is one of multiple primetime soaps the Mouse House has in development, while rapidly ditching their daytime drama forerunners. There's also fashion sudser Americana, starring Anthony LaPaglia as a Ralph Lauren-esque designer, dealing with, you guessed it, family drama; Marc Cherry's first post-Desperate Housewives project, Devious Maids, based on a Spanish language telenovela; period soap Gilded Lilys, from Shonda Rhimes, about a New York City luxury hotel in the late 1800's; supernatural sudser 666 Park Avenue, centered on a young couple who take jobs managing a historic, Gotham apartment building, only to learn it has some dangerously undead inhabitants; and an adaptation of Judith Krantz's blockbuster beach read Scruples, about a glamorous socialite and her department store dynasty during the 1970's. Scruples has Krantz's son Tony Krantz, Oscar winner Natalie Portman and Precious helmer Lee Daniels behind it.
While several period soaps proved to be misses this past TV season—NBC's The Playboy Club and ABC's own Pan Am— PBS has its most successful series ever in Downton Abbey. I wouldn't be surprised if Rhimes' Lilys has its fair share in common with the Dowager and the gang at the Abbey, but that's just my guess.
Unlike the first time in pop culture history when primetime soaps were all the rage, the early 80's (Shout to to 60's stand alone Peyton Place!), this time around the daytime serials that inspired them are on their last legs, which begs the question — could a spike in interest in primetime soaps possibly benefit the last four daytime soaps on the air in any measurable fashion?
Revenge, one of this TV season's most buzzed about shows, essentially works from a basic "How To Write a Good Soap" handbook, complete with oodles of glitzy, fast-paced stories about sex, betrayal, scandal and murder.There's also plenty of Haves vs. Have-Nots action, thanks to a pair of hunky townies and a trailer trash lass, with a fake identity, mixing it up with the dirty, sexy monied folks.
Don't get me wrong, I love Revenge— can't get enough of it in fact—but it isn't exactly revolutionary. In all actuality, Revenge is quite retro, which I believe has helped its popularity. As fans mourn the loss of so many traditional, old school soaps in daytime and primetime over the years, Revenge came along and brought the sudser roaring back.
Lead revenge seeker Emily/Amanda (Emily VanCamp) methodically takes down her enemies on the hit 2011-12 TV season sudser episode after episode, much like Sarah Michelle Gellar'sKendall Hart and Sarah Brown's Carly Roberts were doing on All My Children and General Hospital respectively way back in the 90's. Before there were Kendall and Carly, there were their scheming soap mothers, Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) and Nurse Bobbie Spencer (Jackie Zeman), who were wreaking soapy havoc way back in the 1970's. Speaking of Erica Kane, Chrstina Yang's (Sandra Oh) marriage imploding on Grey's Anatomy over her decision to have an abortion to focus on her career isn't something new to daytime soap fans. Erica did that three decades ago!
If you go back even further, you'll find television's premiere soap superbitch, Lisa Miller (Eileen Fulton), who was so good at being bad on As The World Turns, they gave her a primetime spinoff. How is it that the very soaps who invented the art of televised revenge, sex and debauchery, have seemingly forgotten how to script it before 3 pm? Let's face it, we can blame networks all we want for cancelling them, but most diehard daytime soap fans agree that the quality of writing for daytime dramas have been majorly off for years, if not decades.
Granted, daytime soaps are at several disadvantages to their primetime counterparts. Number one being, they've all been on for decades and have therefore told every story that could be told at least 20 times by now. Plus, primetime soaps only have to be good for 13-22 episodes a season, whereas daytime soaps air five-days-a-week, year in/year out. Even still, those facts can't excuse some of the pisspoor storytelling daytime fans have had to unfortunately grow accustomed to in recent years.
A wise man once said there are only really seven plots in literature. It's all about how you tell them. In my opinion, Revenge proves that theory. Heck, it's based on the Count of Monte Cristo, a book most of us never bothered to read in high school, yet we can't get enough of this soap opera.
While an on cancellation watch General Hospital wasted the last few months following a third rate newcomer, as she traipsed around a gothic mansion in a night gown, Revenge had America buzzing—no longer around the water cooler— but on Twitter, Facebook and Get Glued with creator Mike Kelley's new spin on classic soap staples. We all know primetime soaps have much bigger budgets than daytime, but the great equalizer can and should be storytelling. There's no excuse for bad storytelling, nor time to allow for it on daytime's remaining dramas. So why then do daytime executives put up with bad writing for so long, before desperately trying to bring in new blood five seconds before it's too late?
GH isn't the only daytime offender when it comes to being permitted to tell really bad stories for a really long time while the genre is in crisis. Daytime's Number 1 soap The Young and the Restless has arguably been the greatest offender of the four daytime soaps left on the air. In recent years, instead of telling classic, believable tales about the rich and the wanton, Y&R descended into the outlandish — telling stories about criminal chipmunks, dueling doppelgangers, people being sprayed down with pesticide in corn fields, volcanic deaths and the like. These sad developments have left ticked off fans of the late Bill Bell wondering what happened to the soap opera that shot to the top of the Nielsens on the strength of an epic, timeless love story between a former stripper and the ruthless mogul who loved her.
Why have daytime soaps stopped keeping it simple? Even when telling out there sagas on daytime, the story has to be rooted deeply in love, family, sex and retribution. The reason Days of Our Lives' devil possession storyline worked so well was because at the heart of the supernatural saga was the ultimate love story of John Black (Drake Hogestyn) and Dr. Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall). John loved Marlena so much he fought the Devil Herself for his beloved. I would gather that ABC's 666 Park Avenue will have more than a little in common with DAYS from that era, as well as Dark Shadows — by way of Manhattan.
Nowadays it feels like whenever soaps decide to go outside of the box, it's a last minute decision, come upon by a hack writer, not a well-thought out, soberly contemplated, decisive move. Again, Y&R, which at this point is only No. 1 out of habit, is one of the greatest offenders. Often times, Y&R's current brass creates plots before even thinking about character arcs, and has gotten into the habit of casting big names before even considering who they will play, or how they will fit onto the canvas, which is evident when you tune in to watch an episode.
Even with a show like Revenge, where plot is most definitely as essential as character, you know that Grandpa Grayson and his thread into the soap's tapestry was fully fleshed out before anyone so much as picked up a phone to dial Bill Devane's number. Why is that no longer the case with daytime soaps?
One daytime soap that is farily consistent in keeping true to their characters, is Y&R's sister soap The Bold and the Beautiful. B&B keeps it simple in terms of their storytelling, but at times its too simplistic. The hit international sudser is known for sweeping triangles, pitting "true love" against a scheming interloper, and while that has served B&B in good stead, it could seriously use a dose of modernization.
B&B's central fashion dynasty, Forrester Creations, feels about as much like a real design house as Spacely Sprockets felt like an actual manufacturing firm on The Jetsons. That may have worked in the 90's, but post-Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, Project Runway, Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl, not so much anymore. B&B needs to give its young fashionistas more to focus on than who is or isn't in their bed. Today's young women want it all and boast a sense of humor, amid their angst, in trying to get it.
As enjoyable as B&B's new quad can be, I doubt many young girls are actually wowed by Hope's vestal virgin routine, or how quickly Steffy transfers her love obsessions back and forth from father to son. In order to freshen B&B up a bit, Steffy Forrester and Hope Logan may need to be experiencing dramas that borrow from Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, in addition to reliving those of Dr. Taylor Hayes and Brooke Logan.
NBC's Days of Our Lives recently underwent a comprehenisve and commendable "reboot," bringing back numerous old favorites and embarking on better, if oft-times anemic and slightly poorly-paced stories. DAYS writers would be smart to pay attention to the sense of urgency in the storytelling utilized for primetime soaps like Private Practice, as well as how marital/career dramas are play out on serials like Grey's Anatomy and/or The Good Wife. There's simply no excuse—or time—for this genre to be telling stories where in-laws dressing up like fairytale characters at child's birthday party leads to almost infidelity. Come on, people! Today's soap fans are much smarter than that. We have premium cable plans.
Courtesy of the success of numerous primetime soaps, our struggling daytime soaps have the opportunity to do what the creators of Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, etc did decades ago and benchmark from serialized dramas that are actually getting it right, only this time, the students need to become the teachers. There's still time to turn this ship around, but it's gonna take hard work, and a little help from daytime's nighttime friends.
Photo of Emily Van Camp, Sarah Michelle Gellar: ABC
Photo of Maggie Smith: PBS
Photo of Eileen Fulton and Don Hastings: Telenext
Photo of Blake Lively and Leighton Meester: The CW