Monday, September 3, 2007

My Life is not a Soap Opera

On this day in 1951, the first long-running soap opera Search for Tomorrow aired its first episode on CBS. Although I grew up watching soaps with my Mom, Search's cast was not among the characters whose lives I followed vicariously. My mother watched Days of Our Lives (I still remember the hourglass and the announcer intoning, "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives..."), The Doctors and Another World. When I became a teenager I did the typical teenage thing and rebelled against my Mom's shows by watching my own--All my Children, One Life to Live and, sporadically, General Hospital.

I think One Life to Live was my favorite. Long before Judith Light was the boss on Who's the Boss?, or Daniel Meade's dipsomaniac mother Claire on Ugly Betty, she played Karen Wolek former hooker with a heart of gold and world champion cryer on One Life to Live. Damn this woman could cry. She's got those big, liquid brown eyes which got even more liquid as her eyes filled with tears--which would then stream down her face. No overwrought sobbing or histrionics--just red-rimmed eyes and runny-nosed waterworks. Only Demi Moore's tear-streaked face in Ghost comes close to Karen Wolek's crying.

When I first tuned into OLTL, Karen was married to good guy Dr. Larry Wolek, but being blackmailed back into "the life" by sleazy pimp Marco Dane. Then Marco gets killed. It seems Karen is off the hook, but then Marco's twin brother Mario Corelli shows up in town. Later it turns out that Mario is actually MARCO--Mario was the twin who was actually murdered and Marco decided to take on his dead brother's identity and turn over a new leaf. Then Karen's sister Jenny's baby is born prematurely at the same time her hooker friend Katrina's unwanted baby is born. When Jenny's baby goes into cardiac arrest and dies, Karen and Marco switch the babies and then...

Well, you get the idea. And that was only about 6 months worth of episodes...For those of you who scoff or turn your nose up at soap operas, I'm willing to bet you watch at least one. The elements of serialized storylines, ensemble casts, character-driven plots and cliffhangers bringing the audience back to find out what happens has been extensively borrowed from the daytime drama format. First, it popped up in primetime soaps such as Dallas and Dynastry, but eventually was incorporated into dramatic series beginning with Hill Street Blues (one of my all time favorites!) and later with NYPD Blue and others.

But back to the bet...Do you watch Desperate Housewives? You're watching a soap. OK--that one was obvious. How about Lost? Soap opera. Heroes? Soap. 24? Yup. Grey's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, The Sopranos? Soap, soap, soap. ABC's hit from last fall, Ugly Betty, was adapted from a Columbian telenovela. Are you addicted, time-shifting and dissecting each show with your friends? If so, chances are you are watching a soap opera!

Soaps have a lot going for them--they can encourage a rabidly fanatic audience base thus ensuring a solid advertising demographic. But, unlike self-contained episodic programs, they don't do well in "re-runs." Hence they require a programming strategy that limits repeat airings and maximizes audience numbers during crucial ratings sweeps. Soaps also can be interesting to watch for examples of great writing techniques. Sure, they can be melodramatic and overdone, but while they didn't invent the cliffhanger, they certainly developed it to almost an art form.

Here's a bunch of neat tricks found on Soaps:

1. Never Say Die

You think that character has bought the farm? Think again! Characters come back from the dead all the time on soaps. And if it's not the same character, it's his good (or evil) twin. After OLTL killed off Colin McGiver (played by hottie Ty Treadway), they pulled the good/evil twin trick again and had Ty come back as Troy McGiver. And within 15 minutes of Troy showing up in Llandview, the writers were able to come up with a scenario that required him to remove his shirt. Unfortunately, Troy went insane and was sent off to a mental institution. But he's not dead so most likely he will be back one day...

In another case, OLTL killed off the character of Al Holden, who was courting Marcie Walsh, when they fired Nathaniel Marston, the actor who played him. The Marcie/Al storyline was very popular and fans vehemently protested this move. The writers then had the actor immediately take the role of Michael McBain--the plot explanation being that Al's overwhelming love for Marcie wouldn't allow him to leave--much like the fans overwhelming love for Nathaniel Marston wouldn't allow HIM to leave. So his soul inhabited the body of the soulless young Dr. McBain. Remarkably, although it was Al's SOUL which inhabited Michael's BODY, no-one--including Marcie--seemed to recognize the fact that Michael and Al looked EXACTLY alike. Now that's great writing!

2. Never Can Say Good-bye...

While some Soaps remain loyal to an actor--recasting them in different roles when the character they were playing has run its course, most actors rarely remain loyal to the Soap. Oh sure, you have the long-running careers of Susan Lucci and her Emmy rival Erika Slezak who have been playing their respective roles for eons, but most actors move on to greener pastures. Sometimes it's another soap, sometimes it's a jump to primetime or even the movies. Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan and Josh Duhamel had a run on a soap opera before their careers took off. But just because an actor leaves doesn't always mean the end of the character. A sudden or temporary departure may require a voiceover announcement, "The part of Blake Chandler will be played by Brian Smith."

But usually a dramatic casting change calls for a bit more finesse. Sometimes the character goes away for a while and then comes back--albeit looking and sound just a bit different than previously. This happens quite frequently with child characters, who are usually not as interesting as adult characters. It's the whole sex, deception and manipulation thing... So the writers will send a 10 year-old off to summer camp and voila! When she returns, she's 18 and a whole lotta trouble. This time compression thing can be quite unnerving given that most of the time in soap opera land it can take three weeks for one day to pass...

Other circumstances call for a more drastic explanation. Like complete facial reconstruction that renders your face to be completely different from the actor who played the role before. Of course, that doesn't quite explain how your eye color, voice and even HEIGHT have changed--but details, details...

Maybe the writers at Grey Anatomy could use this trick the next time Meredith is teetering on the edge. But instead of drowning, make it a car crash or ambulance wreck or have her house get whipped up into the eye of a tornado and land on top of her--like the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. Then McSteamy could do reconstructive surgery and she could be replaced with--well, Ellen Pompeo could be replaced with Doris Roberts who played the nagging mother on Everybody Love Raymond and it would be a far less grating and irritating portrayal...

3. It's Never Too Late

If you're Susan Lucci or Erika Slezak--or any other soap actor who has spent their entire career playing the same role--chances are it can get a little...boring. I mean after you've been married and divorced twelve times, been kidnapped, had amnesia (twice--but you forgot about the first time...), been on trial for murder, been convicted of murder, had the murder victim come back to life and try to kill YOU--well, what more is there to do? The answer is a role reversal. If you're an evil character, you experience redemption. And if you're a straight-laced goody two shoes, you get to be evil. Or your evil twin. Or, in the case of OLTL, your evil "alter." OLTL not only has the character of Viki Riley with dissociative identity disorder, but her sweet daughter Jessica inherited the propensity to "split" as well.

Every time nice Viki turns into evil Niki, Slezak wins an Emmy. You know Susan Lucci is bitching to the AMC writers--"Dammit--why can't Erica Kane have DID?" "Susan, your character is ALREADY a conniving, deceitful bitch..." "Then give me DID and make my alter nice. Or a man! Yes, make the alter a man. That will top Slezak's antics...Yeah, take that bitch!"

4. I Never Promised you a Rose Garden

This one is the most important--never let your characters been happy or satisfied for more than five minutes! They don't call it daytime DRAMA for nothing...There's nothing dramatic about "And they lived happily ever after..." But there's plenty of drama if your characters are unhappy, thwarted, unfulfilled, desperate, etc. My first writing teacher taught us about obstacles and conflicts--you never want a clear and easy path for your protagonist's journey.

Soaps are great for this. Whether it's the deceased wife (see point number one...) who shows up ALIVE and well just as you are about to marry your long-lost love, or your deadbeat Dad whose illicit past threatens your big career promotion, or that nasty brain tumor that rears its ugly head after you've escaped from the evil crime lord, rescued your family from the rubble of the highrise building after the bomb exploded, woke up from your coma and finally regained your memory after that bout of amnesia. As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say, "It's always something..."

So sneer all you want at soap operas. I'm counting down the days until I find out where the hell Hiro teleported himself (Heroes - Sept. 24th), if Gabby and Carlos are reunited (Desperate Housewives - Sept. 30th) and if Jack and Kate and company make it off the island (Lost - Yikes--not 'til Feb. 2008!).

1 comment:

  1. I loved the ABC soaps. I watched those three too and especially loved GH. Funny how I still like the adult soaps. Friday Night Lights (which you MUST watch soon) and Grey's and Heroes. You can dress it up but it all boils down the same doesn't it?

    I can't find your email and I have a question. Can you send email me?