Friday, May 29, 2009

Do you have to act so gay? One More Reason to Love Otalia

The soap world has been buzzing with news of Chris Engen's sudden departure from The Young and the Restless, where he's been doing such a bang-up job as Victor Newman's son, Adam. According to the rumor mill, Engen stormed off the set after refusing to play a scene which featured Adam kissing another male character, as part of a burgeoning same-sex attraction story line.

Let me stress one thing: I don't claim to have any inside information on this, and a rumor is a rumor. What is a fact, though, is that Engen has released a statement about his departure from Y&R. In his statement, he doesn't directly address how much the same-sex issue impacted his sudden departure. Instead, he talks about not having felt comfortable about being asked to do certain things as an actor:

We are what we are, but we are also NOT what we are not....I believe that as an actor, and as a human being, I deserve better than to be forced to do something that I don't feel is right on many levels, and that should have nothing to do with the choices that other people make. My visage and my craft were being utilized to tell a story that I wasn't inspired to tell.

Duh. It's called Acting.

Am I crazy, or is making believe that one is something he or she is not is the very nature of acting? For an actor - any actor- to refuse to act on the basis of a character not being like him, or not doing the right thing is unprofessional, plain and simple. While Engen may not have spelled out his reasons for leaving, it seems clear to me that the rumors are probably true: he left because the very idea of having to kiss a man was so repulsive to him, he'd prefer to leave a prime role on the #1 rated daytime drama.

Whatever good feelings I had about Engen in the past - and make no mistake, I was a fan - have disappeared. I don't expect anyone to love the idea of same-sex attraction, but I do feel it's reasonable and fair to expect a certain level of openness from an actor. And think on this: Chris Engen didn't storm off the set when his character was actively framing his own father for murder. He didn't storm off the set when Adam was plotting to discredit his sister. More recently, he didn't storm off the set and quit when he faked blindness and set about to gaslight Ashley in an attempt to make her lose her baby and ruin Victor's life. All of these things were seemingly ok with Engen. I guess it's ok if we see him as an scoundrel, a fraudster, a man who would send his innocent father to prison for life, a possible baby killer, a coward who would feign blindness...but heaven forbid we see him as a man who would kiss another man!

Actors act. Case closed. If this weren't true, it'd be slim pickings, in terms of possible plot lines in movies, on television and on the stage. Central casting doesn't look for someone of royal lineage when casting the role of a king, and they shouldn't have to look for a homosexual or bisexual when casting the role of a character in a same-sex relationship. They look for actors.

The Flip Side - Otalia

While Chris Engen is busy nailing shut the coffin on his career in daytime television, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia are acting their asses off. Not that it's any of our business, but neither of these actors is homosexual. In fact, they're both happily married to men. Somehow, they both manage to show up to work every day, take on the personas of Olivia and Natalia, and act the parts of two women who have fallen in love with one another. They do this with warmth and tenderness. They bring great dignity to this actually very old-fashioned, sweet love story. And we shouldn't be surprised. They're actors. Good actors.

Don't Let This Get Around, But...

Over the years, Crystal Chappell has been required to take Olivia down many paths, and she's always done an incredible job. Jessica Leccia is a relative newcomer, but she's proven that she's more than able to hold her own among seasoned vets. I challenge anyone to watch the heart transplant story arc, which focused on Olivia and Natalia, and not become totally invested. Between you and me? Crystal Chappell wasn't really dying of a failing heart when she filmed those scenes. And Jessica Leccia? She hadn't really lost her young husband and donated his heart to her worst enemy. Weird, huh? It's almost as if they showed up on the set of Guiding Light, and pretended to be other people, in situations that had nothing to do with their real lives!

What's More...
If Chris Engen has alienated a whole segment of the daytime fan base - you and I both know that lots of gay men watch soaps, and some of the most respected people writing about television and popular culture are gay men - Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia have done the opposite. The women of Otalia have embraced a wider fan base, welcomed the attention from the LGBT media, and been vocal about their feelings regarding Otalia: it's a story that may not reflect their own experiences, but one which they feel honored to be a part of, because it's a story worth telling. In stark contrast to Chris Engen's rationalization for abandoning his role, Crystal Chappell writes:

I consider the Otalia story to be one of my proudest accomplishments. If, in any way, I've touched a life, a thought, or at least served as some kind of distraction for those who need to look away for a moment from a hardship they're dealing with, I am grateful. It truly has been my privilege.

Note to Chris Engen: That sting? It's the door hitting your ass on your way out.

© 2009 Lana M. NievesLimited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And now, for something completely different...

In case you were wondering what the big deal is about the normalization of racial and ethnic diversity in pop culture, reflect on this: President Obama's nominee for the next vacant seat on the Supreme Court is Sonia Sotomayor.  Sonia Sotomayor is a woman. She is Puerto Rican. I did not think I'd see a nomination such as this one in my lifetime.

A move such as this one can only be made when the world is ready for it and, sometimes, the human beings have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of readiness. Popular culture is a vehicle by which transitions can be made more quickly and with less pain. Feature Hispanics on sitcoms, in the world of music, on the stage...and the next thing you know, it's not such a big deal to see Hispanics as teachers, doctors, authors and, yes, Supreme Court nominees.

It's like this with anything. If television is the modern day opiate of the masses, it follows suit that it can have a lasting effect on how people see the world, and what they come to consider normal or acceptable.  Will and Grace was not exactly Ibsen, but it got a lot of people who foolishly believed that they didn't know any homosexuals to sit down for 30 minutes at a time, and watch a show featuring homosexual characters. Some of them probably watched long enough to get used to the idea that a homosexual isn't the other, but their lawyer, or their best friend, their sibling, or their annoying neighbor. 

On the same day Obama nominated Sotomayor, the California Supreme Court decided to uphold Proposition 8, which states that marriage is a union that can only exist between a man and a woman. How disappointing. It points to the fact that we need, more than ever, for pop culture to bat for our team.  

Otalia has already gone a long way towards normalizing the concepts of same-sex love and domesticity for so many people. From actress Crystal Chappell's blog

Regarding the Otalia story, I've heard from fans from all over the world and varying belief systems, who've said their hearts and minds have opened to new or different ideas. And, recognize the common thread amongst all of us, love. Asking interesting questions: Where do we find hope? What is real love? What does it look like? What is a family? What is happiness? True joy? It's been inspirational for me to hear such great words.

Imagine that! A little, old love story on a soap opera changing the way people think about the real world they live in, and the real people they live with!  A soap actress blogging about the common threads that hold us together, and welcoming a challenge of the status quo! Who'da thunk it?

Congratulations, Sonia Sotomayor! Here's to forever challenging the status quo.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The New Black?

There's no denying it: the exploration of same-sex attraction is soap opera's new black. All My Children, As The World Turns, and Passions have all gone there. Ratings leader The Young and the Restless is slated to launch a same-sex triangle (more about the casting/politics of this in a later blog - it's too big a story to tuck in here) involving a major character and a well-loved blast-from-the-past. And, of course, there's Otalia which, in my opinion, is the most adult and realistic portrayal of same-sex attraction and love on television to date. 

The fact that Ellen Wheeler has chosen to go the "no labels" route with Otalia has been discussed and written about ad infinitum. It's not a lesbian story, or a bisexual story. It's not even a story about sexuality, which is not to say that our heroines' chemistry isn't sexually charged, or that Olivia and Natalia will never have a sexual relationship, but that, in the spirit of classic soap story-telling (which is an endangered species) , theirs is a story about love, pure and true. When I use those words I am not implying that there is anything impure or untrue about same-sex attraction, or about a sexual relationship. What I mean by pure and true is this: Olivia and Natalia have made an organic - if unlikely -  transition from being adversaries and rivals, to friends and confidantes, to lovers. Their journey is based on getting to know and understand one another, each discovering that the other has strengths that complement her own, Olivia learning that Natalia has a strong, solid inner core, and Natalia learning that, at heart, Olivia is a fragile and guarded woman  who longs for simple pleasures. If they've learned to appreciate their differences, they've come to love and respect one another for that which they share: strong, protective maternal instincts. Both Natalia and Olivia would do anything to protect their children, and heaven help anyone who poses a threat to Emma, Ava or Rafe.  The evolution of their relationship is pure and true because it is, quite simply, a case of two people coming together, getting to know one another, and finding love without ever having looked for it. If Otalia has its own mantra, its: "The heart wants what the heart wants."  The human heart doesn't necessarily want a man or a woman, a penis or a vagina. It wants love and happiness, which can come in any variety of packages. No labels. 

It's true that Otalia has been presented as a label-free story line as far as sexual identity is concerned. However, there's another area where there have been no labels, an area that has received little if any attention: ethnicity and race.  For all intents and purposes, Natalia and Olivia are involved in what used to regularly be referred to as a "mixed" relationship.  Lots of attention has been paid to the fact that they're both women. A fair amount of attention has been paid to the fact that there are marked differences in their social/socio-economic status: Olivia is a wealthy business woman of independent means, Natalia is a working class woman who, until recently, made her living at "unskilled" labor: waiting tables, cleaning up other people's messes. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that Olivia is a white woman, while Natalia is Hispanic. 

Some viewers may be less than pleased about the lack of attention being paid to the ethnic diversity angle of the Otalia story line. Personally, I'm thrilled. 

Some Background History

It wasn't all that long ago that the very idea of two people from different ethnic groups - even religions - pairing up as a couple on film or television was considered controversial or cutting edge. I'm old enough to remember the furor surrounding a harmless, little sitcom called Bridget Loves Bernie, which starred Meredith Baxter and David Birney playing an Irish-American-Catholic woman and Jewish-American man who fall in love and marry. If you're under 30 years old, you're probably waiting for the punchline....and wondering when I'll explain the reason for the controversy. Believe it or not, I already have. 

In 1972, the idea of a Catholic and a Jew getting married was so over-the-top, so outrageous, so edgy that the sitcom was pulled after one season, in part because of the flood of hate mail the network received in response to their "mixed marriage"-themed show. If the viewing audience wasn't ready for this all-American-looking couple on account of how controversial their pairing up was, did a truly inter-racial couple stand a

Of course, American television audiences had, by 1972, already proven that they could, in fact, accept a sitcom couple of different ethnicities.  When the concept for I Love Lucy was first pitched to television executives, there were serious reservations around casting Desi Arnaz as Ricky - even though Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were real-life husband and wife.  Network brass was unsure the American viewing audience would be able to accept such a controversial pairing. That obstacle was overcome via reliance on Arnaz' character to provide comic relief in the way of ethnic stereotyping. Since Lucille Ball refused to do the show without Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy became a sweeping success about a lovable redhead and her husband: a Cuban bandleader with a hot temper and a penchant for butchering the English language. Those wacky Hispanics! They're apt to break into that ridiculous little Spanish "language" of theirs at any time, they can't pronounce even the simplest of English words, and they lose their Latin  tempers on a dime. They're so dumb and goofy - in Spanish, Ricky is actually short for Ricardo, which means his name is Ricardo Ricardo...silly Latinos! They're not terribly bright, are they?  And the fact that they're so musical is so quaint! Just hearing the first few bars of that silly BabaLu is enough to crack me up!

Here is where I confess: I do love Lucy, but hearing the first few bars of Babalu has always been enough to make me want to stick knitting needles in my eardrums. Ricky Ricardo isn't like any Hispanic guy I've ever met. He's not like a real person...he's a caricature.  And, yes - this is in part the way television works....characters aren't necessarily like real people. But Ricky Ricardo's two-dimensional qualities go far beyond the suspension of disbelief we make when we watch sitcoms. He's a walking, talking stereotype. He's not a Hispanic character - he's a fucking punch line.  And that's how they did it, back in the day, when they wanted to have two tv characters who looked different from one another, and came from different worlds pair up as a couple: they made the differences into punchlines, magnified and exaggerated traits, and presented cartoonish, stereotypical characters.  

In the 1970s, sitcom genius Norman Lear turned television on its ear by creating All In The Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons. With All in the Family, Lear presented the bigot - Archie Bunker - as the punchline. Archie Bunker was an equal opportunity bigot. He had something to say about anything and everything that was even slightly different than his own experience.  He was dumb. Really dumb. We laughed at his stupidity, and took note that bigotry really is all about ignorance.  Still and all, Archie was presented as a lovable bigot. Sure, he used the word "colored", he berated his son-in-law for being a "Polack", and he hated the "mixed" couple who lived down the street (An Irish woman married to an Italian man - that's some edgy shit!) But, really, Archie wasn't any worse than George Jefferson - the affluent black guy down the street who hated Whitey as much as Archie hated Blackie.  When George Jefferson and family were spun off onto their own successful sitcom, viewers were treated to an all-new "mixed" couple: Tom and Helen Willis. This time, it wasn't the minority half of a mixed couple who was the punchline, but the white guy. Tom Willis made me cringe. Oafish and a goofy. He had no rhythm. He had no sense of style. In stark contrast to the stereotype about black men and their sexual prowess, Tom seemed to be a castrato.  If Ricky Ricardo's English pronounciation was funny, Tom Willis trying to dance was a laugh riot. Look at the silly white guy trying to shake his butt!  Tom Willis was a buffoon. 

An admirable effort on Norman Lear's part - an effort to turn the tables and make viewers take note. But, still, not anywhere near a reflection of what real people are all about...and not a depiction of mixed marriage that normalized it in any way. In fairness to Lear, for whom I have the utmost respect, he wasn't trying to do anything but deliberately use exaggeration and stereotyping as vehicles for promoting social change. Where Ricky Ricardo was all about laughing at the ridiculous Hispanic, Tom Willis was all about flipping the tables and saying to white America: See? This is what it feels like to be stereotyped, laughed at and devalued. This is what it looks and feels like when your race or ethnicity, alone, make you the punchline.


Where does this all place Otalia in the grand scheme of things? No one seems to mention Natalia's race or ethnicity. We've heard the occasional reference to her grandmother ("Abuelita") and we know her name is Rivera. We know that, like so many Hispanics, she's staunchly Catholic.  We know that she has fallen in love with a woman of (I think it's fair to assume) European origin. The fact that race and ethnicity don't enter into the discussion lets us know something else. It lets us know that race and ethnicity just don't matter

Breathe deeply. Don't faint. It's strange, but true.

In 2009, in Springfield, where Rick and Mel enjoyed a longer marriage than most soap couples, and had a child together.....where Michelle and Danny were granted the rare happy ending as a couple.....where Buzz Cooper enjoyed a brief moment of happiness with Jenna.....and where Remy has had relationships with Tammy and Ava and this this place, the fact that Natalia and Olivia are a "mixed" couple just doesn't matter.  

The New Normal

If same-sex love is the new black on daytime, then mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity coupling is the new normal. I like that just fine. It means the days of ethnicity and race as punchlines are over - at least on Guiding Light. It reinforces the assertion that the story line between Olivia and Natalia is, above all else, a love story.  It is not a lesbian story, or story about different races or ethnicities. It is a story about human  beings finding one another and making a connection based on things simpler, and yet more profound than gender or race or ethnicity: chemistry, friendship, trust, humor, and desire. 

So What?

Natalia and Olivia's stance on the difference in their ethnicities seems to be "so what?" It's a stance that's a world away from that which was the norm on television a mere 35 years ago.  More than that, because nothing exists in a vacuum, and every action causes a reaction. The normalization of "mixed" couplings makes possible other shifts about other issues. If same-sex pairings are the new black on daytime television, the next logical step for such pairings is normalcy. If soap opera continues to exist as a genre - which is questionable - it is reasonable to expect that what has happened regarding race and ethnicity will happen regarding same-sex relationships. As I've written elsewhere, soap opera has always been a tool for social change...a vehicle by which the masses have learned to take the controversial and turn it into the normal. While the proud Puerto Rican in me is psyched that one half of Otalia is a strong, fiesty, positive Hispanic female, I'm also thrilled that Natalia's race and ethnicity are non-issues.  I look forward to a future where, just as Guiding Light no longer stresses ethnic or racial differences,  soap operas don't have gay characters or characters involved in same-sex relationships, but just characters. Whether or not the genre will survive to see this day is anybody's guess. 

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Natalia Rivera: Freaking Superhero or Power Bottom?

"Test all things and hold fast to that which is good"
1 Thessalonians 5:21

In the gay vernacular, the terms "top" and "bottom" take on special meaning. Specifically, the Top is the partner who takes on a dominant role, while the Bottom is the partner who takes on a more submissive role. These terms need not be limited to the description of sexual roles. They can and often are used to describe the emotional and even domestic dynamic between two people in a relationship. A Power Bottom is someone who reinvents her role in a relationship, and directs from the bottom up. The Power Bottom is walking, talking proof that being submissive, as opposed to being aggressive, is not necessarily  a position of weakness. The Power Bottom has great strength and integrity, and faith in who she is and what her place in the world is. The Power Bottom sets boundaries. The Power Bottom says, "I prefer to be submissive, but this is exactly how submissive I will be - no further." The Power Bottom often surprises with her determination and strength of character. It is easy to underestimate the Power Bottom. It is also a mistake. 

The dynamic between Olivia and Natalia began as very cut-and-dry: Olivia was the powerful, pushy, successful - if terminally unhappy - aggressor. She took what she wanted, she called the shots, she manipulated people and situations. She was the bulldozer. Not only did her aggression and power manifest itself in her using her failing health to muscle her way between Natalia and Gus, but it was tangible on a very basic level: she owned the Beacon Hotel, while Natalia was a paid chambermaid. She called the shots.This was no imaginary  line in the sand, but a clear distinction. How many times did we watch Gus tend to Olivia's needs, while Natalia waited at home for him? The one time Natalia took a stand and made a concrete effort to block Olivia's actions (by locking her in the bathroom), her plan backfired, resulted in Olivia's losing a chance at a transplant, and saw Natalia's guilt drive her to sacrifice that which she held so dear - her relationship with Gus. Olivia made things happen. Natalia had things happen to her.

Even before love blossomed, Olivia was on top, while Natalia remained on the bottom. 

One year later, and the dynamic has changed. The change is not only in the nature of the relationship (Olivia and Natalia going from enemies, to unlikely allies, to friends, to housemates, to romantic partners), but in the power dynamic. 

Declarations of love

When, after months of internal struggle, Olivia finally confesses her feelings to Natalia, she does it with a caveat: I love you, but I forbid you to say you share these feelings, or to even entertain the idea that we have a future....I have already decided that the best thing for you is to marry Frank is not up for debate.  This is business as usual - Olivia bulldozing her way through a situation, Natalia letting it happen. Or so it seems. 

As it turns out, Natalia has determined what her boundaries are, and she will be true to them. For her, a loveless marriage of convenience is unacceptable. She draws the line, steps away from it, and will have her say. In a triumphant Power Bottom moment, Natalia leaves the altar and, minutes later, makes her feelings clear to Olivia: I don't love Frank, I love you. It is Olivia in this instance who is vulnerable, because she is not in complete control, which is what she believes she wants in a relationship. While Natalia wants to explore this newfound territory, Olivia wants to shut it away in a box and pretend it doesn't exist. The Top does not deal well with uncertainty, while the Bottom, who is by nature more open to new and different experiences, is more willing to navigate unchartered waters. It takes both strength and courage to be a Power Bottom.

Olivia retreats, Natalia advances

Afraid of an uncertain future, Olivia retreats, and urges - fairly orders -  Natalia to do the same. Olivia points to Natalia's faith and relationship with God as the stumbling block she believes their feelings cannot overcome. Always unsure of that which she cannot control, to Olivia, religion and God are anathema. Natalia counters Olivia's fear of hitting a brick wall when it comes to reconciling their feelings for one another with Natalia's faith by facing it head on. Where Olivia seems to say, "Let's go no further - you will be forced to choose between me and God, and you will always choose your religion", Natalia seems to say, "There is room in my life for both, because these are the boundaries I have set." She expresses this not in a figurative sense, but in a literal one, by taking Olivia to church and telling her, before the altar, that everything will be ok, and that God still loves them. It is the Power Bottom deciding what it is she will submit to - she will submit to her faith, but she will not submit to the restrictions it might otherwise place on her love for Olivia.  Natalia sits in a church, before God, holding Olivia's hand and saying out loud that they are together. It is an affirmation of strength. How's that for directing from the bottom up? 

Father Ray and Olivia not moving in

Religion clearly plays an important role in Natalia's life. Natalia sees it as a source of strength. Olivia thinks - or maybe she pretends to think - it's a source of weakness. Both have apprehension about the inevitable - the moment when Natalia must come clean to her spiritual leader about her feelings for another woman. Olivia's apprehension revolves around the idea that Natalia will surely choose her faith over her heart's desire. Natalia's apprehension sits on the other end of the spectrum. She knows she loves Olivia. She knows this is how it is and how it is meant to be, and she fears that her church will no longer have a place for her. Her mind is already made up, when it comes to being open to loving Olivia. She accepts this love as a gift from God. She is, however, not so sure her church will be as accepting.  When Father Ray offers her guidance and counseling, it is significant that Natalia makes the clear distinction: this is not a confession. To a Catholic, confession is about reporting sin. In declaring her love for Olivia, Natalia is not confessing a sin, but accepting a blessing. Again, she has set boundaries around what she will submit to. She will submit to her feelings for Olivia. She will submit to the reconciliation she has made with God about these feelings. She will not submit to a narrow-minded doctrine that makes distinctions about love based on something as arbitrary as gender. And, in the ultimate Power Bottom/Freaking Superhero move, she uses scripture to hammer her point home: Test all things, and hold fast to that which is good.

Olivia fears that facing a priest with the truth will weaken Natalia's resolve. Quite the opposite is true. If anything, this confrontation provides Natalia with both confidence and strength. When she tells Olivia that she doesn't feel ready to live together, it is the Power Bottom setting concrete boundaries: I will be with you. We will be together. It will be meaningful and important and life-affirming. I am not afraid of loving you. I am afraid of not giving this the time and care it deserves. It is too important to rush. You will wait. It will be worth it. 

Game, set, match Freaking Superhero/Power Bottom. 

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What We Lose If We Lose Guiding Light

This blog is a direct response to Patrick Erwin's piece A Hypothetical Question

The cancelation of Guiding Light has hit viewers, and hit us hard. For many, soap operas are old friends who have been with us a lot longer than most of the people we know. For many, watching daytime television is something we look fondly on as something we shared with our mothers and grandmothers.  Soap opera has changed the way we look at women, and families and relationships. It's changed and helped shape what popular entertainment is today. When no one else dared, soap operas brought us stories about cultural and religious diversity, race relations, reproductive rights, euthanasia/assisted suicide, HIV/AIDS, sexuality among people with disabilities, ALS, addiction and recovery, domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder and, yes, same sex love.  Like so many things, the elements of soap opera add up to more than the sum of its parts. 

Guiding Light is at the center of all of this - the longest running soap still in production. 

If you've never watched a soap opera you won't - you can't - understand why people care so much about some old tv show being pulled off the air....especially  since it's had such a long run. You probably have no idea that soap opera, as a medium, can only exist if an actual relationship exists between product and viewer. And exist it certainly does. Fans of this genre don't just watch. We become invested. It wouldn't work any other way. Soap opera offers an interesting duality: total escapism and total immersion. For the hour Guiding Light is on, we, the viewers, can leave all of our own details behind. The traffic, the noise, the financial problems, the deadlines at work, the neighbors who annoy us, the dinner we have to cook, the laundry that needs washing, the leaky roof that needs seeing to....these things dissolve away. They disappear for a short spell, as we immerse ourselves in the world of GL. We can leave New York or San Francisco or Chicago and spend an hour in Springfield, where we immerse ourselves the lives of others - others we know so very well. Our professional worries are replaced by the goings on at Spaulding Enterprises. Our aches and pains go by the wayside as we watch Olivia deal with heart disease. This hour-long escape and immersion is something we look forward to, something we cherish. It's more than a comfort. It's a relationship. On some level, it helps keep us sane. And, damn it, it's fun. It's fun to put aside all the big stuff that makes up a put it aside for just one hour and indulge in a harmless vice. I don't smoke. I don't drink much. I don't gamble. Instead, soap operas are my addiction and the television is my opium den. Have you tried taking crack cocaine away from an addict? This is what the cancelation of Guiding Light is like - taking drugs away from an addict.

Of course, the implications of this particular cancelation are huge and daunting. CBS has been merciless in pulling the plug on Guiding Light, the longest-running soap opera in history. A show that started on radio and has been running every week day for 72 years. This is a show that holds an important place in the history of broadcasting. It's a landmark, and it's been pulled down in the way one might pull down a tent when the circus run is over. No mercy. If CBS shows no mercy for the grand dame of soap opera, what does it say about the future of soap opera as a genre? In my opinion, it's the death knell. As far as I can see, CBS is making a statement about their overall plan for the future of daytime television: they want low-cost, fluffy programing to frame around paid advertising.  Why employ some of the best writers in the field,  when it's cheaper invite a studio audience to watch trailer trash take paternity tests? Why offer young actors a training ground on which to cut their teeth, when its cheaper to film people arguing over dry cleaning bills in small claims court? 

Once Guiding Light is gone, other daytime dramas will follow. And, when they're all gone...when soap opera is truly a thing of the past, we will have lost not only a piece of our social history, but a valuable resource. I'm sure the results of a Google or Wiki search would be much longer, but I prefer to do this off the top of my head....  a list of people who got started on soaps and/or who I first saw and always associate with their soap roles:

  • Julianne Moore
  • Ray Liotta
  • Susan Sarandon
  • Jill Claybugh
  • Kevin Bacon
  • Meg Ryan
  • Christopher Walken
  • Robin Wright Penn
  • Kathleen Turner
  • Jobeth Williams
  • Alec Baldwin
  • Alison Janney
  • Marg Helgenberger
  • Melina Kanakaredes
  • Francis Fisher
  • Mark Hammill
  • Nia Long
  • Kyra Sedgewick
  • Kate Capshaw
  • Lori Laughlin
  • Michelle Forbes
  • Demi Moore
  • Christopher Reeve
  • Marissa Tomei
  • Tommy Lee Jones

Without soap opera, where would these folks have honed their skills, learned the ins and outs of working in front of a camera, had an opportunity to work with and opposite dozens of other actors of all calibers, and developed the discipline necessary to memorize a new script and film a new mini-movie every day? 

The demise of the soap opera can be likened to doing away with minor league baseball. Who needs all those farm teams, anyhow?  Surely, the New York Yankees can just hit the streets and find a bunch of guys who can hit a ball with a bat, so why set up a system where young men can learn about working as part of a team, develop their skills by playing with and against a variety of other players in a variety of situations and terrains, find out if traveling around all the time works for them, and generally become mature enough to, hopefully, one day be ready for the big leagues?  A system which makes it possible for sports fans to find out about up-and-coming players, and support their careers/watch as they develop? What's the point? 

 © 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Friday, May 15, 2009

The People Vs. Emmy

Scene: A courtroom. The gallery is full of spectators. Reporters line the aisles. At the very front is the judge's bench. Next to the judge's bench is the court reporter's station. The court officer enters the room.

Court Officer: Please rise for the Honorable Judge Snapperino

(Everyone in the court rises...except the defendant, who hesitates. His lawyer tugs his arm, reminding him of protocol. The Judge, a 42 year old Hispanic woman enters the courtroom, and takes her seat behind the bench.)

Judge: Be seated. We are here for the People versus The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, on the charges of robbery, fraud, breech of contract and pandering. How do you plead?

Defendant: Not guilty, your honor.

Judge: Very well. Mr. Prosecutor, proceed with your opening statement.

Prosecuting Attorney Ross Marler: Thank you, your honor. I'll keep this short and sweet, and let the evidence speak mostly for itself. It is the people's assertion that, during the course of 2008 and part of 2009, and specifically on May 14th, 2009 the defendant, commonly known a "Emmy", did with malice aforethought perpetrate an act of fraud, followed by and related to the commission of a robbery. The severity of these crimes is compounded by a blatant history of pandering. We, the people are, of course, referring to what has come to be known as the television crime of the century: the Crystal Chappell Emmy debacle - a swindle the likes of which we haven't seen since Bernie Madoff's affairs came to light. During the course of these proceedings we will prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, or "Emmy", has carried on a long tradition of pandering to the Neilsen ratings and network brass, defrauding the American public by presenting a rigged awards process, and robbery, in their absconding an Emmy nomination that is, by all rights, the property of a Ms. Crystal Chappell.

This is a scene I'd like to see because, ladies and gentlemen, Crystal Chappell was robbed of an Emmy nomination this year. I am not about to trash any other actors by name, but the fact is, there are people nominated for Emmy awards this year who are just plain awful. In stark contrast, the last 18 months or so have seen Crystal Chappell tackling some of the most challenging scenes on television. If there really were a trial, Ross Marler would have a wealth of evidence:

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C:

Exhibit D:

Exhibit E:

Exhibit F:

Is there even a need to submit more evidence? If you're still unsure, check out Otaliafan's channel on Youtube. There is no one hitting it out of the ballpark as far, or as consistantly as Crystal Chappell has been since the begining of the Gus/Olivia/Natalia story line bagan. No actor on day time has had to cover anywhere near the range of emotions or situations that Chappell has had to convey during the past year. No other daytime character has undergone so dramatic, and yet so believable, a change as Olivia Spencer has - and the believability factor is all about Crystal Chappell's acting. For the last 18 months, Crystal has not just been acting - she's been taking us on a journey.

It may be high time for fans - especially those of us with Internet savvy - to band together and develop our own awards for this genre. We, after all, are the people who actually watch soaps. We're invested. We care. And we know what really moves us in a performance. And that's what good acting is all about - moving an audience, provoking a response, making people feel and experience what a character is feeling and experiencing. This is what Crystal Chappell has consistantly brought to the small screen, especially during the Gus/Oliva/Natalia and Otalia story arcs. Her failure to garner even a nomination for her efforts seems like reason enough to rethink the awards process, and try to re-invent it, so that it truly honors the deserving.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Buzz about Buzz and Good Man Frank Cooper

Ok, this is not going to be popular among Otalia cheerleaders, but here goes: Buzz was 100% justified in the way he spoke to Natalia. I love Natalia as much as the next person. And I'm Team Otalia 100%. That doesn't mean it's ok to use people and lead them on the way Natalia did with Frank and, by default, with his family. She knew she didn't love him. She knew. All along, she knew. Buzz is just being a concerned father. Anyone who had to sit back and watch his son be humiliated that way, and then proceed to watch his son walk around like a depressed robot afterward, would be angry at the person who had caused the pain and humiliation. That person is Natalia. And, really, I felt Buzz addressed it in a very real and sensitive way: you hurt Frank, you hurt my family, you made promises that you didn't can't just do that to people. And you know what? He's right. You can't. Not even pretty women who love other women are allowed to rip apart other people's lives without having to face the resulting hurt and anger.  

Again, I think this whole exchange is another brilliant example of the writers pointing to how insane the whole situation is, just because people can't or won't face the fact that love is fluid, and that the heart wants what the heart wants. I think the writers are saying: See? Because the world is so phenomenally screwed up and judgmental, Natalia found herself backed into a corner where the only possible solution to her problem, the only remedy for her shame, was to pretend to be in love with Frank. If the world would just buckle up and be ok with women loving women, this would never have happened. It's also a nod to the fact that when hate and prejudice and fear of the new and different exist, human hearts end up as collateral damage. In this case, Frank is a victim...and Buzz is a secondary victim. Not a victim of same sex love...but a victim of society's narrow mindedness about same sex love.

Justin Deas, one of the most sadly underused actors on Guiding Light, does a great job with the confrontation scene. He manages to seem both angry and hurt. It is to his credit that the genuine love and affection Buzz has for Natalia shows through this hurt and anger. When he puts his hand on Natalia's face, it's out of love and heartache.

I know a lot of viewers are sick to death of hearing about what a good man Frank Cooper is, but I'm not. Few words are wasted by the writers of this particular story line. Coming out can be really difficult. So difficult that lots of people never come out - to themselves, or to the rest of the world. Instead, they tell lies, set up facades, enter loveless marriages of convenience. The idea that romantic love always looks the same, that it must be between a man and a woman....this idea is harmful to everyone. If the writers are hitting us over the head with the message that Frank Cooper is a good man it's because there's a more universal message, aimed at bigots: when hate and intolerance and xenophobia are the order of the day, people get hurt...not just faggots, who you have no use for, anyhow, but Good Men, like Frank Cooper.

 © 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

An open letter to Josh Lewis

Dear Josh :

It's time someone had a good heart-to-heart with you, because you're really a good guy. Yes, Josh - this is going to be about Reva. 

I don't know if you've noticed or not, but Reva is married to someone else, now. She's got a  new baby that isn't yours. You and I know full well that you can only act like the friendly, supportive ex husband for so long. Who are you trying to kid? You and Reva will never, ever be just friends. It doesn't work that way. Not with you guys.  And, Josh? Believe me when I say that this is not a matter of me pulling for you and Reva to get together. To be honest, I find you and Reva a little, tiny bit tired and boring as a couple. I think that whole cloning business left a bad taste in my mouth but, to be honest, it's so much more than that. I've never, really understood how you could even want love and intimacy with a woman who has been married not only to your brother, but to your late father. That's kind of disgusting.  And - don't take this the wrong way, but - are we entirely sure she hasn't hooked up with young Bill, at some point? I mean, she has this thing about needing to have sex with every Lewis guy, unless he's her son. By my estimation, that leaves Bill ripe for the picking. 

But I digress. I'm writing about you and Reva, not Reva and everyone else. Here is what I think: you either need to move in on the whole Reva and Jeffery thing and just pull the rug out from under them, or you need to never darken their doorstep, again. It really is that black and white. It is not realistic or healthy for you to think that you can be a pal to Reva and Jeffery, even while you harbor some unquenchable thirst to drink Reva down whole like so much funky cowboy Gatorade after the SuperBowl. Because that's how Reva is meant to be taken - not in smalls ips, but in big, old, take-a-dive-in-and-drown gulps. And, when it comes to her, you're an alcoholic.  So, make a choice. Turn away forever, or do the inevitable: move in for the kill. Reva has to be all or nothing in your life, or you don't have a life. Make up your mind, make a decision, and then stick with it. Are you The Man in Reva's life, or are you not in Reva's life? Those are the only choices you have. 



PS: The whole pastor thing? Not working.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Storyteller

I've had two mother figures in my life: my mother and my maternal grandmother. These women helped shaped me. I owe them my very existence. Less dramatically, I owe them my sense of humor, my love of a good story, my gift of gab, my love of babies, and my penchant for cooking. Most relevant to this blog, I owe them my love of soap opera. 

It was my beloved Abuela who first sat me down next to her to watch All My Children, Somerset, and a whole line-up of daytime drama. To me, these little tv dramas were just continuations of the great story-telling tradition of the women I loved so much, the women I fairly worshipped. And that's what we do when we're children. We worship the one or two adults who nurture us and seem to have the ability to make everything in the world work out just fine.  And when we worship, we emulate. I tell stories because I was raised by two women who told stories, and told them well. I love words and laughter because I was raised by two women who were smart and quick and had a healthy respect for the written word. This is a true story:

My grandmother grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico,  during a time when few boys went to school beyond third or fourth grade. Most girls didn't go to school, at all. My grandfather was forced to leave school after the fourth grade. My grandmother, a bright child, whose parents nurtured her talents, stayed until the 8th grade. Unheard of at the time for most boys. A complete anomaly for a girl. When, in 1990, my dear, sweet, funny, feisty grandmother left this world, I learned something extraordinary from some old-timers who made the long trek to Brooklyn to pay their respects. During the 1930s many Puerto Ricans headed to NYC, they told me. It was common for a man to make the trip first, leaving wife and children on the island for a year or more, as he settled in. These men, so far from home, would write long letters. Sadly, the wives they'd left behind could not read. The only woman in the village who could read was my grandmother. Women would line up around her little house, and wait their turn. Wait their turn to have my grandmother read them their long letters. Wait their turn for my grandmother to take their dictation and write, in her beautiful penmanship, letters back to their far-away husbands. She didn't charge money for this service. It was an act of friendship. Of being neighborly. Of love. And it was certainly a sacrifice: my grandmother was not a woman of leisure, but a mother of 9. Yes. Nine children. She had nine children, and the river and a rock in place of a washing machine, but she took the time to read aloud every neighbor's mail, and to sit down and write responses. 

I love it that my grandmother never told me about this. It is maybe the one story she chose not to tell. 

She must have read some great stories in those letters. She must have written some great letters back. I have no doubt that she made those letters her own, and embellished as she wrote responses. 

Since the day she left this world, not a day has passed when I haven't thought about this amazing woman, this great storyteller. I've never stopped missing her. Thank you, Abuela, for making me love stories. For showing me that great stories are often found in unlikely places. 

(The baby in the photo is my grandmother, Celina Pacheco, of Guayanilla, PR.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Soap Fans of the World, Unite

In an impressive show of loyalty and support, fans of Guiding Light have organized a "Save The Light" rally, to be held in NYC, on May 22nd.

For more details, to find information about similar events in your area, or to make suggestions on how to make the rally as visible as possible, check out the event's official website:

My suggestion: rally organizers should get the various labor unions involved in the production of Guiding Light involved. Both NYC and New Jersey are union territories. The folks who work in production and post-production, the food services people, the actors, the transport people....chances are they're all union members. Labor unions may well be interested in promoting this rally, or even sending members participate. The cancelation of GL doesn't just mean that fans will no longer have their daily fix. It means that hundreds of people will find themselves out of work. In this economy, that's a story the media may well want to pay attention to and give some coverage.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Woah, Nelly!

I keep reading frustrated posts by fangirls who want Olivia and Natalia to JUST DO IT, ALREADY. I don't get it. I don't want this, at all. The best stories, the most meaningful ones, the stories that capture the viewer's imagination and keep them going for years and years are the ones that aren't rushed. Good soap writing is all about character-driven drama. There might be some quick, instant gratification in seeing Natalia and Olivia hop into the sack, but it wouldn't last, and it would have no where to go. And, really, we've all seen Olivia fall in love (or what she's thought was love) and follow her physical urges without thinking about the big picture. It's all she's ever done, really. This story line is about people facing change. Change in the way their world works. Change in how they think of family. Change in who and how they love. Change in how love manifests itself. It's damned good story-telling, so why rush it?

Reflect on back at how this story has developed, and how Olivia and Natalia have come to be involved in one another's lives. It's all about slow change. It always has been, and their story has all the classic elements of soap:

1. A love triangle (Olivia/Natalia/Gus)
2. A beautiful woman facing early death from a fatal illness
3. Seemingly small events that lead to disaster (Olivia losing out on a heart transplant because she's locked in the bathroom
4. Guilt->Acts of Desperate Kindness->Manipulation (Olivia guilting Natalia into "giving" her Gus)
5. Tragic irony (Gus dying as he rushes to get to Oliva's side)
6. Moral dilemma (what should Natalia do with Gus' heart?)
7. Sacrifice (Giving the heart to Olivia)
8. Yet more tragic irony (Olivia survives, thanks to the heart, but just wants to die, because Gus is dead)
9. Unlikely bedfellows (Oliva and Natalia forced together by circumstances)
10. A shift in dynamic (Olivia and Natalia move from enemies, to friends, to falling in love)

This story is an admirable throwback to the golden age of soap opera, when stories were allowed to unfold without special effects or stunt casting or big, lavish location shoots. When the story, itself, was enough to keep viewers coming back, day after day. Slow and steady wins the race.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Olivia's Got Game

This is bugging me a lot. Yesterday we watched as Blake told Natalia that she'd "screwed up big time" re the wedding-that-never was. And we also watched as Olivia stood by and didn't say anything. She didn't stand up for the woman who is her friend, not to mention her beloved. She didn't do or say anything, and that's not like Olivia. No way. Olivia's not a tame kitten, she's a lioness. In her own words, when Olivia gets hit, she hits back. She's a tough cookie. She's had to be. And she's at her toughest when her near and dear are vulnerable. Case in point (around :30)

 Now, where was this Olivia, yesterday?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Random Questions

What the hell is DOLL brand beer? Couldn't they think of a better fake name for the stuff Frank gets drunk on? And, why does he even need a six-pack, if he's headed back to the bar?

Why is Frank hanging out at a lesbian bar? Check out the two bar maids, not to mention the chick who hits on him. 

I know Emma goes to an expensive private school, but they take way too many field trips. The landfill. The organic farm. Some overnight jaunt. Do they actually learn anything?

What makes Blake comfortable horning in on two women she knows, but isn't close to?
Further, does she have any concept of boundaries?

Who ripped Olivia's back open and pulled her spine out? Why is she so passive as Blake shoots her mouth, in a pretty nasty way, about something that's clearly making Natalia uncomfortable? Even a plain, old, platonic best friend would be all, "Hey! Watch how you talk to her!"

When did getting a massage or salt treatment become a spectator sport? Would anyone allow someone to sit by and watch as they had a spa treatment???

How the hell do the girls think they'll each get home, if they arrived in one car, but have decided that one of them will storm off? Don't they know they're gearing up for the Sam-and-Diane/ "are you as turned on as I am?" moment?

Doesn't it freak the shit out of Mallet that he used to have Frank as a brother-in-law, and now he has him as a father-in-law? And does it make Marina throw up a little bit in her mouth, every time she looks at her baptism photo, in which Mallet is holding her in his arms? Because he's her GODFATHER!!!!!

Why is Shayne worried about Reva showing Dinah his baby pictures? Doesn't he remember that Dinah is Vanessa's daughter, and that Vanessa was married to Billy, and that Dinah was totally around when Shayne was a baby?  Oh, no, he doesn't remember...because Dinah used to be like 17 years older than him, and now they're the same age. 

Why do people think it's weird that Marina actually wants to, you know, spend time with her new baby??? Every time she talks about leaving work, or worrying about Henry, she's laughed at as if she's suggested the moon is made of cream cheese. They went to a lot of trouble to adopt that kid, of course she wants to be with him. It's called "PARENTING."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Frank Cooper Sleeps with the Fishes

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
- Michael Corleone, The Godfather III

For a long time I've been defending the slow-on-the-uptake Frank Cooper. Yeah, I'd say, he's not smart, or particularly interesting, but he's decent. And, really, how could anyone blame a guy for being less than thrilled at being jilted at the alter? It's a pretty public form of humiliation, and few of us would be as ridiculously understanding and hopeful about the entire situation as Frank initially was. Toss in the fact that Olivia has done him wrong, big time, in the past, and there's a pretty strong argument for justifying just about any reaction Frankie might end up having, once the truth hit him on the head.

And then the other shoe dropped - Doris blew the whistle on Otalia, and Frank acted like such a fool, that even I couldn't defend his sorry ass. He got aggressive. He got even more stupid. He acted like a petulant child. And he made a big show of  barging into Natalia's home, showing off his wounds, and trying to 1) play the "Natalia-has-Catholic-guilt-and-will-take-care-of-me-and-maybe-feel-bad-enough-to-marry-me card, and 2) intimidate Olivia with his I'm-a-beat-you-up-after-school-'cause-you-hurt-my-feelings eye darts. This just bugged the shit out of me. The clincher for me, though, was this question, asked of Natalia, after she acknowledged that she and Olivia have feelings for one another:

What is it that you are, exactly?

Say what??? Once I heard that, all bets were off. It hurt to hear that question. Frankie, my boy, in one fell swoop you lost the only Otalia fan who has consistently pointed out your good qualities. It's not just what you asked Natalia, a woman you supposedly care about, but how you asked it. (Natalia's amazing response deserves an entire blog of its own. Or a GLAAD award. Watch this space.)  

Those seven ugly words out of his dopey mouth, filled with venom, and  I was sure  I'd wash my hands of Frank Cooper, once and for all, and stop playing Devil's Advocate for him. But, just like Michael Corleone keeps getting pulled back to the dark side, despite his efforts to go legit, Frank pulled me back in. How? 

Those of you who skip over any scene that doesn't include Olivia's trench coat or Natalia's dimples need to find the scenes of Frank and Rafe at the convenience store. (Nitpicky note: why the hell did Rafe and Natalia share such a tearful, emotional goodbye a few days ago, when living at the halfway house gives him the freedom to go out for a Slurpee?) These scenes are pivotal because they show Frank remembering, for a minute, that he's a terribly decent sort of guy. A lesser man - the shitty guy who asked Natalia "What is it that you are, exactly?" - would have blurted out something nasty to Rafe. Something about "you mom ruined my life" or "your mom is a filthy lesbian." What does Frank do, though? Frank, who I've just minutes ago written off as a total bastard? He says:

Your mom is a great lady. She stands up for the people that she loves, and if you happen to be one of those people, then you're very lucky.....Don't ever forget that, and don't ever let anyone convince you other than that. 

And just like that, all my venom for Frank Cooper disappeared. I still don't excuse his nasty tirade at the hospital, but really, I can understand where it came from. He really is terribly decent, if dull and slow.  And, in a pinch, when it really matters, he does and says the right thing.  I can cut him some slack and go back to playing Devil's Advocate for him. Life has been less than kind to him.  He's not smart or quick-witted. He's always passed over.  He's never been fun and adventurous like Harley. Or lovable and talented like Coop. He's not charismatic, like Buzz. He's definitely not larger-than-life, the way Nadine was.  He's sort of the family loser. The guy who never gets to leave town, or have a real adventure, or win anything. He's always the last to know. Frank Cooper is Fredo.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Why Guiding Light is Worth Saving: Psycho Chipmunks need not apply

When I wrote about all that I see wrong in Springfield, I did not intend to be the voice of gloom and doom. I was just being honest. All the rah-rah-rahing in the world for what's right won't fix anything that's desperately wrong.  And some things are wrong. But, make no mistake, I think Guiding Light is not only fixable, but well worth the time and effort it will take.  Here are some reasons why:

1. History - GL is a piece of broadcast and social history. We grant buildings landmark status, all the time. In Brooklyn, there's a chunk of limestone on Atlantic avenue that has landmark status, just because it's been there since the 1800s. GL deserves as much. It's meant a hell of a lot more than to a hell of a lot more people, than
 that hunk of limestone. It's also the last remnant of the radio serial we have left. We need to acknowledge soap opera as a significant medium, celebrate it, and not just preserve it, but nurture it. 

2. Track record - When it's bad, it's really, really bad...but when it's good, I challenge you to find anything better on television. Great things are often hit-or-miss, and you have to miss a lot before you get a hit. When GL gets a hit, it's right out of the ball park. Other shows are as bad as GL when it's not working, but when it works?  Not even close.  At their best, ATWT, AMC, OLTL, Y&R, etc have never been as good as GL. To get even close, one would have to take the Way-Back machine and visit DOOL circa 1974, during the days of Bill and Mickey and Laura/ Susan, David and Julie. No daytime drama is ever as good. Period.

3. Changes in the new production model - Yes, I hated what that awful, cold, sterile filming looked like a year ago. I challenge anyone to look at a series of year -old GL clips on Youtube and tell me that it worked. Half the time the screen is taken up by a vase or the edge of a tree, while Bill or Reva are just a blurry, shaky blob in the distance. Awful. 

However, the good folks who handle the cameras have made huge strides over a short period of time.  They're more steady, now, and the shots are more intimate, as opposed to voyeuristic. The lighting is starting to warm up, too. For a while, there, one could see every pore on Frank's face. This has clearly been tweaked, and it's starting to really work. It looks like nothing else on television.  What these guys are doing on a shoestring budget is nothing short of remarkable. And, have you read Crystal Chappell's comment that they have to get scenes down in one take? Astounding. 

4. The actors - There has always been some great talent associated with GL. Remember when Allison Janney, just on the cusp of fame,  played Jenna's loopy maid? Or the vastly under-rated Nia Long, who was so good as Kat, and stayed with GL long after her film career took off? But it's not all about people who are household names. Justin Deas is fantastic. Tina Sloane, a veteran soap actor who, like Deas, is under-used. Crystal Chappell. Maeve Kinkead. I think Gina Tognoni shows great promise, as does Jeff Branson. Jessica Leccia is more like a seasoned pro, than a rookie. If you trim this show down to its bare bones, down to the seven or eight meatiest actors,  it's got the strongest ensemble on daytime, and maybe on television, full stop. As good an ensemble as Mad Men or Big Love or Weeds. 

5. Innovation - GL has always been the best of all daytime dramas at pushing the envelope. Rape. Alcoholism. Corrupt politics. Medical ethics. Even menstruation. GL has tackled all the big issues head on, often leading the way, and daring to go where other television shows  have been reluctant to explore. While the ratings leader, The Young and the Restless, is featuring a front-burner story line about an imaginary, six foot tall, psycho chipmunk (I kid you not) , Guiding Light's big front burner story is the universally-praised blossoming same-sex love affair of Olivia and Natalia.  Seriously, people? Team Otalia. 

6. Good business - Keeping GL on the air is, plain and simple, a good business move. The Neilsen ratings system has always been greatly flawed, but it's never been more useless than it is today, when so many of us watch television shows on the internet or DVR. The fact is, this show has a huge, built-in following. If you watch a soap, you're bound to watch just about every day. The same isn't necessarily so of a game show or talk show. People become vested in soap opera. It becomes a ritual, one that viewers will not pass up. GL is already in full production. There's no inventing to be done, only some changes to be made. The audience is here. The sponsor is here. It's solid. Keeping GL on the air is like the little pig who builds his house out of bricks, while his brothers take short cuts and use sub-standard materials. We all know how that story ends. 

 © 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fighting words - this is a long one!

These will be fighting words. If some of the fangirls read it, I may have to sub-contract a couple of Doris' goons, because they won't like a lot of what I have to say. 

With the exception of Otalia - which kicks all kinds of ass, on so many levels - Guiding Light is a mess, and has been for a long time. There. I said it. It wasn't easy to say, and I'm not even lucky enough to have Natalia's smoldering dark eyes to look into as I make my big confession, but there you go. Guiding Light is a mess. 

Now, I'm not talking about the kind of mess that can't be cleaned up. I am, though, talking about the kind of mess that requires more than just a quick sweeping. Maybe it's time to hire one of those dumpsters, Springfield. It's time for a long-overdue Spring cleaning, because this isn't new mess. It's clutter that's accumulated over the last few years. 

Much has been said about Ken Corday's recent comments about the state of affairs at GL. Basically, Corday said that GL was a mess, that it has been for a while, and that the writers have totally lost their way and forgotten about tradition, history and the core values of the show. He also made references to how bad it just looks, visually.  Fangirls are in an uproar. Ken Corday has become the Salman Rushdie of daytime. Watch your ass, Ken. A sort of Sapphic jihad has been issued against you because, those, my friend, were fighting words.  Otalia fans are a sensitive, touchy bunch. And who can blame them?  Here, finally, we have the best, most realistically written and superbly acted story line about same sex love, one full of tenderness and subtlety and pathos, and it's on a show that has officially been cancelled. Alanis Morrisette should take note: this is ironic. Fangirls want to save this show at all costs, and I think they are doing a pretty kick-ass job of mobilizing. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Lifetime pick the show up and, if they do, the good folks at GL can thank the Otalia fan base for it. These are smart chicks who know how that the Internet is a powerful tool, and that there is strength in numbers. And, while I know there are all sorts of people who love GL and love Otalia, let's face it: girls who dig girls are just the most righteously kick-ass, get-'er-done people, ever. That's my story and I'm sticking with it. 

So, yeah, a lot of Otalia fans are up in arms about what Corday has to say about GL, and why it ended up on the CBS  chopping block. A fair number of them are saying things like, "He doesn't know what he's talking about."  Well, let me don my Kevlar vest as I put this out there: Ken Corday certainly does know a thing or two about soap opera. He's pretty much soap opera royalty.  The guy was weened on this stuff. It's a mistake to say that he "doesn't know" or "doesn't have a clue" about soaps because, really, few people on the planet have as much insight into this area as he does. This isn't to say that he's at the helm of anything great, himself, right now - Days of Our Lives has been a nightmare for well over a decade. But that's not the same as him not knowing. He knows. He knows full well. And, if the fangirls would stop, catch their collective breath, and really look at his comments objectively, they might just see that there's a lot of truth in what he has to say about GL. 

First off, Corday doesn't make any reference to Otalia, when he cuts down GL's current state-of-affairs and production model. I don't see any evidence that he's anti-Otalia. In point of fact, I'm guessing he's probably a little envious that Crystal Chappell is involved in this particularly wonderful story line on a show other than his own. She cut her soap teeth, after all, at DOOL. 

What Corday does talk about is how GL has lost its way, so to speak. Lost track of the overall plot, thrown away the core of the show. Can anyone looking at the show, as a whole, deny this is true? Does anyone recognize the Spauldings, anymore? Does it not seem odd that the only Bauer in town is Rick who, himself, is little more than a bit player? Is there a single Reardon left in Springfield? And, while it's vastly improved over the last few months, did anyone really like the initial switch in production models? Will someone who thought filming Olivia with a shaky camera, from behind a fuzzy glass window was a good thing please stand up? Soap opera is a warm medium. That cinema verite'/guerrilla style of shooting is as cold as it gets.  And, yes, it's way better, now than a year ago...mostly because the camera operators have found ways to make this minimalist approach seem richer and less sterile. How have they done this? By using their hand-held cameras to capture some very traditional, soap-style shots. Gone are the wacky, experimental, "let's see what it's like shooting up from below/down from the ceiling" shots of a year ago. That stuff worked for Hitchcock, but I'm not so sure there's room for it on television...especially on a daily drama. If you like it, knock yourself out and rent a copy of Rebecca. This is soap opera, where it's about telling a story over time, and not so much showing it via clever and quirky cinematography. I want to get the story from the words, the character development, and Crystal Chappell's eye brows. 

Corday does come off as something of a prick in that interview. Like I said - his own show is unwatchable. But he does know the business and the medium, and I agree with a lot he has to say. The writing has been on the wall for GL for a long time. Not just a year. Not five years. There was talk of this show being cancelled way back in the early 90s but, instead of fixing what was broken, TPTB continued to chip away at what actually was working. Here's my short list of colossal fuck-ups on the part of GL'll notice most of them go back a ways:

How it all went so very wrong
1. Firing Michael Zaslow when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness - I still can't believe the way they treated this man who not only by all reports a wonderful person, but the best actor soap opera has ever seen. Shameful. We're a loyal lot, soap fans, and a lot of us found this whole business really ugly. It was not a good move, on any level. 

2. Re-casting Roger Thorpe - Don't get me started on this. It was just....insane. Dennis Parlato did as good a job as humanly possible but, for heaven's sake, some things are sacred. You can re-cast Bill Lewis. You can re-cast Lizzie Spaulding. Whoever thought there was a chance in hell of successfully re-casting Roger Thorpe was truly a moron. If you're fairly new to GL, imagine this: you turn on the tv on Monday morning, and the role of Olivia is suddenly being played by a new actress. Would you buy it, for even a minute???

3. The Nursery Rhyme Stalker - What. The. Fuck.  Holly? Really? Shut up. This was too stupid. 

4. Reva's Clone - I swear, this was like a death knell. As a soap fan, I'm comfortable with suspending disbelief. Within reason. This was just so freaking awful. And not even just because it wasn't realistic. Fantastical plots can be great (remember Nola's amazing musical fantasies???) , but they have to have a sense of humor in order to work. One Life to Live does a lot of this stuff, but they sort of pull it off because they do it with humor. The Reva Clone story line took itself way too seriously, and it was about as much fun as walking barefoot on broken glass.

5. The demise of Alan Spaulding. No, he's not dead - not technically. But it's obvious that someone has ripped his balls off and replaced his keen, shrewd, cunning mind with a bowl of jello. Alan was a great villain. A man with no conscience. Ruthless. These days, he's sort of a simpering fool. When was the last time he hatched a real, honest-to-goodness evil plan? It's been over a year since Alan, in a semblance of his old form, first put the bee in Olivia's bonnet that ruining things for Natalia and Gus would be a good idea. What has he done, lately??

6. Alexandra, MIA. - Where the hell is she? One thing GL did very, very well was re-cast this role when Beverly McKinsey unexpectedly retired. Marj Dusay has been a great Alexandra, but she's hardly even on the show, anymore. Every soap needs a good, strong, mean-spirited villain and villainess. One of the great things about GL has been the fact that they've had a brother/sister pair of baddies for so many years. Siblings who are as likely to sabotage one another, as they are to sabotage a Cooper or a Bauer. Without a villain, there's not enough conflict. Without enough conflict, drama falls flat. Bring back the Spaulding meanies - the ones who hire hit men, embezzle money, ruin careers, destroy marriages, and sell out their own nieces, nephews and children. 

7. Dumb, boring stories about young people that no one cares about or has an emotional investment in. I don't give a shit about Ashley or Christine or Remy. The time and care was never put into place to develop a relationship between the viewer and these characters. Even the ones who do have some history (Lizzie) are just annoying as hell. I know Alan Spaulding. I knew Roger and Holly and Ross. I don't give a damn about these fly-by-nights. 

What can be done to fix this mess

1. Give the old heave-ho to extra baggage. Get rid of everyone who doesn't really matter or have anything to do with the core elements of the show. Seriously. Get rid of Remy, Christine, Ashley, and pretty much anyone else in that age range. In fact, Marina and Mallett can also go - they contribute nothing. I'd like to see a Lizzie and James recast, but not now. Maybe get rid of them, and bring them back, with new actors,  a year or two down the line. But, make me care.  I'm all for keeping Shayne, Dinah, and Bill...there are possibilities there. 

2. Back to basics: bring back Ed, Holly and Vanessa. It would not be a bad thing for Amanda Spaulding to show her face again.  And a Reardon or two never hurt. 

3. For the love of God, give Justin Deas something to do, besides be nosy and pour drinks. 

4. Set Alan up with an IV of testosterone. Shouldn't he be plotting someone's demise just about now? And give Alexandra a dose of HRT, so she can get her groove back on.

5. It would not be a bad idea for Reva to leave Springfield, for good. I honestly think they've exhausted every avenue with her, and I'm not really interested in her becoming a quiet, sensible matriarch. 

6. Three words: Otalia custody battle. I know this will make people cry. I know it would cause angst. But, believe me, angst is good for soap opera. Alan needs to sue for custody. And, yeah, of course he'll lose. But it would make for excellent, heart-wrenching drama...and give Otalia somewhere to actually go with their relationship. Too much happily-ever-after is not a good thing for a super-couple. Do you know what happens to soap super couples when they achieve 100% happily-ever-after? They leave town. Can you imagine the script possibilities if Olivia has to face Alan in court and explain her relationship with Natalia? Or the conflict Natalia will go through if she thinks her love for Olivia could cost Emma her security and happiness? Or how interesting it would be to see who in Springfield is ok with a same sex couple, and who isn't?

Fix it, GL. Hire a dumpster. Get a tool kit. Do what needs to be done. But fix it.