Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Save This Soap" Challenge

A few months back, after reading a piece I wrote about what I would have done to try and save Guiding Light, had I been in charge, a poster challenged me to lay out plans for how I'd try to save All My Children. Robert was only kidding when he posed the challenge, but it's been on my mind, ever since. After all, I grew up watching All My Children. In fact, I actually watched the very first episode of AMC, right next to my grandmother, who was my caretaker, and who loved a good story.

For starters, let me lay this on the line: All My Children, as it exists today, is virtually unwatchable. It's a mess. If my grandmother were alive today it would break her heart to see the train wreck this show has become. And, really, there's no good reason for it. They still seem to have a decent budget. There are still several legacy characters around. In fact, they've even brought back some classic characters in the last few years, only to waste the actors' talents. Yes, I'm talking about Angie and Jessie. A great deal of noise was made about the return of Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams, and the first two weeks they were back were great fun. It's now two years later, and there really is no evidence that bringing back these key characters was anything but a publicity stunt. Debbi Morgan is, perhaps, the most under-used actress on daytime television. Even the long-suffering Colleen Zenk Pinter (Barbara, ATWT), who is tragically under-appreciated, gets more to do than Debbi Morgan. But, I digress. This is supposed to be about how I'd try and save the sinking ship, so I'll get on with it.

History, History, History

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: soap fans know their history. People who have watched AMC for ten or 20 or 30 years know who is who, what happened when, and why their favorite characters behave in certain ways. If something's broken, it might be a good idea to visit a time when things were running smoothly, and examine how things have changed. The answer probably lies in the show's history.

It's all well and good to bring back characters such as Jessie and Angie, but only if they're connected to other characters we care about, and only if there are interesting, engaging story lines in place in which to involve them. Looking at the current AMC character list, three names jump out at me as Pine Valley indispensibles:
Adam Chandler
Erica Kane
Tad Martin
These three are lynchpins. Drama tends to revolve around them. Stories develop around their work, their relationships, their family lives. If you can stand to watch AMC today, though, there's very little going on in any of their lives to really bother caring about. The whole "Stuart has been murdered!" thing has been a huge failure. For one thing, no one wanted sweet, inocuous, comic-relief-on-legs Stuart to die. Stuart gave David Canary some balance on the show. Fans resent the fact that the character has been killed off, and the so-called murder mystery was never even an interesting one. Erica? Well, really, who the hell cares what she's doing? She's been relegated to being a bit-player in The Further Stupid and Pointless Adventures of Kendall and Zach. And don't get me started on Tad. Seriously...I do NOT want to go there.
What these characters - Adam, Erica and Tad - need is a good dose of... (drumroll, please) - Brooke English.
Yeah, I said it. Brooke fucking English.

I freely admit it; Brooke was always one of my favorite AMC characters. She had chutzpuh. She was the only woman who ever gave Erica Kane a real run for her money. She was also the only woman who ever tamed Adam Chandler for longer than ten minutes, and the first to ever make him show himself as anything other than a monster. And it was Brooke who basically ushered Tad from bad boy status to responsible adult. In my opinion, AMC was never better than during the golden era of Brooke and Erica at each other's throats, Brooke and Adam wrestling with their passion, and Brooke and Tad forging a friendship that would withstand a bad marriage, a child, and all sorts of adversity.

When Brooke English was written off of All My Children, and her exit made so uneventful that if you blinked you missed it, a big piece of an already-weary animal died.

Push The Freaking Envelope, Why Don't You?

Let's say you've got a burning building. Flames have overtaken the structure. Smoke is everywhere. There's no water source in sight. The only thing at your disposal is a dumpster full of soil. You could sit around, do nothing and wait for the flames to completely destroy the building, or you could dump the soil on the fire and hope it will put out the flames. Does soil put out fire? I have no idea. But I do know that trying something beats a blank. And, really, if you were to pour soil on the fire and the fire continued to burn, it wouldn't be as if you made matters any worse - it would have burned down th house, anyhow. Throwing soil on that fire would be a win-win situation; if the fire is extinguished, you're a hero for saving the day, if it continues to burn, at least you know you've made every effort to avert complete disaaster.

As I've said, AMC is unwatchable. The show is in deep trouble and, at this point, I think drastic measures need to be taken to save it. The show can't really get much worse (unless they start filming in Peapack) so why not try something that's never really been done before? Something that television has almost completely shied away from? Why not take a chance, push the envelope, go out on the proverbial limb? (Okay, I'll stop it with the inspirational cliches.) The worst that can happen is that the show gets cancelled which, as it exists at this moment, would be no great loss.

If I were the woman in charge at AMC, as it exists right now, I'd throw away all conventions and tackle a subject that's one of daytime's last tabboos: domestic violence with a female batterer and a male victim.

The Story

AMC has already paired Adam and Annie, and even married them off in a quickie ceremony. I don't paticularly like Annie as a character, but she's already there, and I'm assuming I'd have to make use of the tools I've been given. Adam is known to be ruthless and brutal, but he has never been physically abusive. I don't see Adam as someone who'd ever raise a hand against a woman - he'll tear Erica to shreds in the boardroom, humiliate Brooke or Eliza in public, but he wouldn't hit them. It's not his style and, believe or not, Adam has a certain code of ethics. I don't see physical violence against a woman fitting into his code. Annie, on the other hand, seems to be a woman with no such code. I can believe an Annie who would become violent against her Annie who is capable of losing her temper at the drop of a hat and becoming physically abusive. I can also see Adam Chandler as someone who would let shame and humiliation keep him from making his plight public and getting the help he needs and is entitled to in such a situation.

I'm not talking about an isolated incident, or a little slap. I'm talking about developing a story line around a relationship that is built on full-on, blatant, unprovoked violence perpetrated by a woman against a powerful man.

Such a story line would be nothing short of groundbreaking for daytime television. It would enable the writers to explore a whole new side of Adam Chander. How does a man such as Adam Chandler handle himself in the world of business when, at home, he's being victimized? How does he deal with his children? How does he explain his injuries? Do people assume he's been drinking, or that he's entered the early stages of dementia and become clumsy? If he's too ashamed to get help or tell anyone his terrible secret, does he end up taking out his anger on others? Who? And, finally, who will come into Adam's life and recognize that something is not right?

Enter Brooke English

Who knows Adam better than Brooke? It's not difficult to imagine that Brooke, after having been gone for a few years, would come back and recognize, right away, that something is very, very wrong with Adam...and that he's clearly hiding something. If there's one true thing about Brooke English it's this: she never, ever minds her own business. When it comes to Adam, especially, she's virtually incapabale of butting out. What better way to bring back an audience favorite than with a completely fresh, new, challenging story line, a plot that hasn't been used to death, and which revolves around a character she would naturally gravitate to?

Not only would a DV story with Adam as the victim provide David Canary with a chance to stretch his thespian wings further, and add depth to Adam; it would provide Julia Barr's Brooke with a meaty plot to become engaged in as Brooke returned to Pine Valley. It would also naturally involve other characters, especially legacy characters, in a variety of ways:
Erica - By turns Adams best friend and his worst enemy, she'd want to help him, especially if it meant getting back at Annie
Tad - Brooke's ex-husband and dear friend...he hates Adam, but he has a strong sense of justice
J.R. - Shares a love/hate relationship with his dad - does he seize the opportunity to pounce on Adam's weakness and take over his business dealings?
Scott - Has feelings for Annie, but loves his uncle
Angie - The doctor most likely to notice Adam's physical symptoms
Jessie - Like Tad, he hates Adam, but he's a cop with strong convictions about right and wrong

Nothing To Lose
If I were in charge at AMC, I'd not only go foreward with this story line, I'd go full steam ahead. No holds barred. There is nothing to lose at this point, and everything to gain. As with any big "issue" story line on a soap, the ripple effect would be palpible. We've all seen how a story line about alcoholism or cancer or child abuse has far-reaching effects. When soaps have tackled these difficult but important topics in the past, viewers have been forced to sit up and notice. AMC did this successfully years ago, when Cindy (played beautifully by none other than Ellen Wheeler) lived with and eventually died of AIDS.
Adam is the perfect character to for this story line. It's a a tabboo subject that should be assigned to a character who seems to be the most unlikely for it to involve, a character who seems completely in control of his life, and in control of the lives of others. Some people might not like this story line but I can guarantee it would not be boring. Daytime television has not seen this before, and it could just be the shot int he arm AMC needs to get back on track.
It's a sinking ship, All My Children. Toss it a couple of life lines, ABC: start with Julia Barr, and keep going with a story line that pushes boundaries, provokes discussion, and forces people to tune in for something completely different.

© 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

Thursday, November 5, 2009


On the small screen, daytime soaps are quickly becoming an endangered species - Guiding Light is no more, As The World Turns is on its last legs, OLTL and DOOL seem to be living on borrowed time. Even the once-mighty General Hospital feels the sting. All My Children? It's so bad that it probably should be cancelled, but it would seem ABC is trying to breathe new life into it with a move to the west coast. Only The Young and the Restless, maintains a solid hold on a substantial chunk of daytime viewers who come for great writing, acting and production values. People are lazy about changing the channel - that can be the only reasonable explanation for the success of The Bold and The Beautiful: a hot mess lucky enough to air on CBS and keep most of the audience that tunes in for Y&R. Soaps as we know them are in danger of disappearing, entirely. How are the people who make their living in daytime drama reacting to what would seem to be pretty clear writing on the wall?

The Birth of the Web-Based Serial Drama

There's an announcement almost every day about a soap actor's plans to launch his or her own web-based series. Melody Thomas Scott has announced plans for such a show. Martha Byrne has secured a deal with Nicole Miller, filmed her first season of Gotham, edited it, and announced a premiere date and a free-to-view format. Crystal Chappell has filmed her first season of Venice, released a series of high-quality publicity stills, and promises an unlikely launch in November (unlikley because it's already November, the Venice website still looks like the amateur hour, there's no sponsorship, and no payment scheme has been announced, yet.) GL's Remy, Lawrence Saint Victor, quietly wrote, starred in and produced a relationship-focused comedy series which launched yesterday. Noel Coward has nothing to worry about, but Wed-Locked isn't anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be.

Guiding Light, it would seem, brought out the worst in Saint Victor: Remy was among the worst and most dull characters to grace daytime, and Saint Victor's performance was laughable. In fairness to him, he had crap to work with. The first segment of Wed-Locked doesn't make me think Saint Lawrence is the new Brando, but it does make me think he has the potential to eventually become a solid writer of light romantic comedy. It also makes me think that network television has ignored a completely viable alternative to game shows and "reality" shows, such as Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, or any of the other small claims court programs: the anthology series.

From 1969 until 1974, ABC aired an enormously popular anthology series called Love, American Style. LAS was an hour-long, night time series. Each episode consisted of three or four vignettes - light-hearted, self-contained, little movies that usually focused on the trials and tribulations of romance. From time to time, these vignettes would revolve around other subject matter - family love, for instance. Gary Marshall's phenomenally successful television show, Happy Days, started out as an LAS vignette in much the same way The Simpsons started out as a regular skit on The Tracy Ullman Show. LAS had a core of regular actors who would play different characters in different situations every week, as well as guest stars who did one-off appearances.

The first segment of Lawrence Saint Victor's Wed-Locked immediately made me think of Love, American Style. It isn't so much hilarious or witty as light-hearted, inoffensive, and good-natured. I honestly don't think there's enough there to sustain a full-blown series. I also don't believe it will gain enough popularity online to garner funding from sponsors or convince viewers to pay to view it. I can't imagine people will rush out to buy Wed-Locked merchandise. I do, however, think Saint Victor has successfully produced something we haven't seen in a long time: a light-hearted, self-contained, little movie about the ups and downs of romantic love. He's produced a classic Love, American Style vignette, and the television networks should sit up and pay attention.

Studies show that our attention spans are shorter than they used to be. Americans are more likely to sit down and pay attention to 8-10 minute bytes than we are to 30 minute or hour-long episodes. The time for the light-hearted anthology program may well be here, once again.

Why Do It?

There are many reasons the networks should consider this model, including:
  • No one really wants another game show or courtroom show.
  • There is nothing even remotely like this on television, today.
  • An anthology series would be significantly less expensive to shoot than a daily soap.
  • Unlike soaps, an anthology series would not require 250+ episodes a year. Such a series could be produced just as night time series are filmed: a 13 week cycle, followed by a hiatus, during which reruns air.
  • Such a show going into perpetual syndication is a realistic possibility. Ka-ching!
  • A small core of contract actors, and a revolving door of guest stars, who would be basically day players, would mean spending only a fraction of the amount of money networks now spend on large casts consisting of contract actors.
  • Daytime viewers like and are used to continuity - employing familiar soap actors and former soap actors would draw an audience.
  • The anthology model lends itself to wide cultural diversity.
  • An anthology series could include comedy, drama, tragedy, action - the sky's the limit.
  • Sets for such a series could be relatively simple and inexpensive: the segment of Wed-Locked took place in a very plain room that was meant to be a counselor's office.
  • There could be countless opportunities for product placement - very attractive to sponsors.
  • An anthology series could serve as a testing ground for concepts for tv series. In much the way Love, American Style launched Happy Days, a new anthology series could be a vehicle by which ideas are tested on the public - a lot cheaper and more efficient than shooting and airing full pilots.
  • Unlike soaps, which require a certain amount of long-term investment, anyone could start watching an anthology series at any time. Soaps are usually all or nothing: if viewers can't watch five days a week, they don't watch, at all. Not so for an anthology series.
But, What About Soaps?

I do believe that the web is where the future of serial drama lives. I'm looking forward to finding out what Gotham is all about, and I'll be happy to give Venice a go. I watched season one of Empire: The Series, and thought it showed great promise - the premise is a great one, but it needs better writing and some money poured into sets and, in most cases, stronger actors. But the folks putting it together really understand soap opera structure, and it shows. I hope Empire gets some backing, because it represents the most significant and complete attempt at capturing the flavor of old-school soap opera for the web.

I also think day time television is left with a gap - a gap that an anthology series could easily fill. Someone at CBS needs to give Lawrence Saint Victor a call and give him a chance at this sort of programming. It may well be his calling, both as an actor and a writer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Genoa City Conventions

The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three additional protocols that set the standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. The treaties of 1949 have been ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 194 countries.

We have rules for war, and I say it's high time we had similar rules for daytime soap writers. If the executives of all three major networks would just agree to a set of rules designed to minimize the amount of pain inflicted on the viewing audience, wouldn't we all be a lot happier?

The Genoa City Conventions

1. Seeing as daytime soaps are somewhat formulaic, it's to be expected that plot lines and twists will be dusted off and re-used from time to time. The Genoa City Conventions state that no hackneyed plot may be used on one soap during the same period of time it is being used by another soap, even a soap on another network. There shall be a minimum waiting period of three months before resurrecting such a plot twist. Case in point: Y&R is now running a baby swtich story line (first made generally popular by OLTL during the early 1980s.) According to the Conventions, no other daytime drama may run a baby switch story line until three months after Y&R's baby switch initially took place.

2. The Genoa City Conventions put an end, once and for all, to storylines that involve blood relatives engaging in sexual activity. A character's ignorance about his or her identity cannot be used as an excuse: if two characters are related by blood, there will be NO intimacy of the romantic variety. You hear that, Devon and Tyra?

3. Soap writers are bound, by the Genoa City Conventions, to provide all gay characters with adult relationships, complete with physical intimacy and sex. These do not have to be healthy relationships, and the characters do not have to be likable. But they have to be involved in semi- realistic relationships that provide on-screen equity with heterosexual characters.

4. The Genoa City Conventions ban the use of the supernatural as a plot device. No more demonic posessions, no more Ouija boards, no more "Opal has a bad feeling about all of this." These shows started out about people in realistic, even mundane, situations - the Conventions demand a return to this. Good, well-written stories about relationships, children, friendship, and business will always trump spooky music, crappy special effects, and Diedre Hall wearing red contact lenses. This rule also bans the use of time travel as a plot device.

5. The Conventions clearly state that, in order for soap writers to embark upon a murder mystery plot, they must verify that viewers will actually care "who done it."

6. The Conventions forbid soap writers from writing off major/legacy characters without explanation or reasonable on-screen fanfare and farewells. This rule shall henceforth be known as The Brooke English Provision.

7. The Conventions require soap writers acknowledge race and ethnicity, especially when casting babies and children. This rule (The Baby Castillo Ruling) addresses a disturbing pandemic: white character marries hispanic character and they give birth to a blonde, blue-eyed baby. "Never again," say the Genoa City Conventions.

8. The Genoa City Conventions place a strict limit on the number of secret children any soap character may have. No character shall have any more than three people come foreward and be proven to be his or her secret love children.

9. No character shall return from the dead more than twice. In the event a character has died and his or her dead body has actually been seen, there shall be no ressurection, at all.

10. The Genoa City Conventions strictly forbid the use of giant, talking rodents, in any capacity.

© 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