Friday, July 31, 2009

Too Little, Too Late

"Go back to your roots. That's going to tell you everything."

In a recent episode of Guiding Light, a distraught Olivia, lost and confused and unable to figure out how to get on with living her life told Blake, "I don't know what to do." Blake's response, "Go back to your roots. That's going to tell you everything."

This bit of advice might have been useful to the writers of GL a year ago, or more. If they'd had that advice, and heeded it, we wouldn't now be sadly saying goodbye to the longest running serial in broadcasting history. If they'd thought to go back to the roots of GL, we wouldn't have wasted so much time on less-than-stellar, inexperienced young actors and/or characters who have no connection to Springfield's core values or history. If the writers had thought to go back to GL's roots - its history, its core characters, and story lines that made us care - we wouldn't now be faced with rushed swan songs by actors and characters who should have been in Springfield, all along.

The Mo Bauer Effect

Few plot lines have made as deep an impact on GL in the last 20 years as the death of Maureen Bauer. The major players in that story line, though - Ed Bauer, Lillian Raines, Vanessa Chamberlain - have been all but dead for the last few years, as far as the writers of GL have been concerned. On 7/28, we were treated to a reunion of sorts, when the scene opened with Ed, newly returned to Springfield, having lunch with Lillian, only to have Vanessa walk in to Towers. For those of us who know the history these characters share, their roles in GL's greatest tragedy, and how each of them has suffered guilt or sadness (or both) since Maureen's death, it was a charged moment.

Anyone who knows this this story knows that Ed Bauer's heart has never truly healed, and that his work in epidemiology is fueled, in part, by his guilt - if he couldn't prevent Maureen's death, he's sure as hell going to save anyone else he can.

Anyone who knows this story knows that Lillian has lived with insurmountable guilt, as well...that she blames herself for creating a situation that led to the death of her dear friend, deprived Ed of a wife and Michelle of a mother. We know that Lillian has not allowed herself to love or be loved for all these many years and that it is only now, with Buzz, that she has begun to let her guard down, forgive herself, and believe herself worthy of love.

Anyone who knows this story knows that, in Maureen, Vanessa lost a soulmate of sorts, and that the friendship these two women shared was closer than that of sisters. It's a rare thing on television or in film for platonic friendship to be honored in the way GL honored the friendship of Vanessa and Maureen. From the get-go, it was made clear that there were two primary grievers - Ed and Vanessa. Vanessa has suffered a sort of widowhood all these years. And, no, I don't mean to imply that there was any sort of sexual energy between these two characters, but that the bond between them was so strong, their friendship so pure and full of love and admiration, that the spot left empty in Vanessa's heart has never since been filled. And, while Vanessa has great love for both Ed and Lillian, it is also true that she knows about their long-ago indiscretion, and hasn't gone completely without feeling anger over it.

When these three are in the same scene, something happens.

This is strong stuff. It's the stuff good soap opera is made of: characters who we know well reacting to the events in their lives, living with the consequences of their actions over the long term, never forgetting where they've come from, or what they've been through. When Vanessa walked in and saw Ed and Lillian eating together, I felt something. How could I not? Just as Proust's Madeleine dipped into a weak cup of tea conjured up a lifetime of memories, the sight of Vanessa, Ed and Lillian sharing space brought me right back to a time and place when characters, history and continuity really mattered on Guiding Light:

Soap opera is, by definition, all about continuity - the story lines are on-going, characters are established and grow over time, and viewers become invested. Guiding Light - in fact, soap opera as a genre - would not exist if not for a core of long-term, heavily invested viewers who have followed the characters over time. Why, then, has it taken the cancelation of this show to bring these three actors and their characters together on screen? As an ensemble, they pack a wallop. They're all strong actors, who work really well together, and whose characters share rich, significant history. Isn't this exactly what a truly invested soap opera audience tunes in for?

Cheekbones and Pecs

In the future, when students of pop culture, screen writing,and broadcasting look back at this genre (and make no mistake about this - they will) and try to figure out what went wrong, one of the issues they'll undoubtedly bat around is casting. Somewhere along the line, Central Casting decided that the main requirements for landing a role on a soap opera were aesthetic: if someone looked the part, they got it. At some point in time, acting ability took a back seat to great hair, a strong jaw line, and looking great in a tight t-shirt. Combine this with America's cult of youth, and it's a wonder any soap continues to thrive.

This is not to say that there are no talented young actors - E. J. Bonilla has done some excellent work on GL, especially in the last two months. And I'm certainly not saying that no one over 40 can be attractive - GL's present cast is fairly teeming with incredibly talented actors who also happen to be over 40, and great-looking: Maeve Kinkead and Tina Sloan are two of them. What I am saying is that too much of an emphasis has been placed, over the last few years, on youth and beauty, and not enough on good acting and meaty content that actually goes somewhere. Whereas Vanessa and Lillian were once the center of incredibly popular, front-burner story lines, they've been virtually invisible for the last few years. It would be a logical assumption of any new GL viewer to come to that Lillian is pretty much around to help Beth get ready for parties, or that Vanessa is just Dinah's mother, whose main job is to keep Billy from eating too much pie. And Ed? Ed Bauer, who used to be the backbone of the show? He was evicted from Springfield, long ago. A new GL viewer would have no reason to know who Ed Bauer even is. Are you listening, Irna? The Bauers haven't much mattered for a long time, now.

In the last few weeks GL has given us little glimpses of what once made it so great. While I welcome this - I can't imagine having this show go off the air without one last glimpse of Ed or Holly, and I'm glad Lillian finally, finally has an involvement in something other than helping Beth decide what to wear - it makes me sad. Revisiting past greatness is always a mixed bag. In this case, it makes me wonder: what took them so long? Why did TPTB wait until it was too late for any of this to make a difference? I know there have been serious budgetary constraints, but I also know that there exists a group of strong, talented actors who have been associated with GL, all of whom play/played characters who actually have history in and strong connections to Springfield. In the past few years, these actors have been either dropped from contract status, or pitifully underused. I'm talking about:

Tina Sloan
Maeve Kinkead
Liz Keifer
Justin Deas
Michael O'Leary
Peter Simon
Maureen Garrett
Ron Raines
Lisa Brown
Marj Dusay

I'm sure I've missed a few, and I'm sure I'll get emails about who they are.

What About Otalia?

Was it worth it? Did stomping all over what once made this show great, and treating both actors and characters the viewers love as disposable pay off in any way? Has anything been gained by ignoring the importance of continuity in this genre? And, what about Otalia?

I'm not against progress and growth. Nor do I have anything against developing fresh, new story lines and introducing new characters...but they can't stand alone. Not on a soap opera. There have to be connections. When Maureen Bauer died, every single character in Springfield, every single story line on GL, felt the impact. When Holly was raped by Roger, it touched everyone. When 5th Street burned down, no one was left untouched. Continuity. Connection. These things are vital to the success of a soap opera, but the writers of GL seem to have missed this point, time and again. Even in the strongest story line the show has boasted in years - Otalia - writers dropped the continuity ball long ago. In early May, Patrick Erwin finally said what he'd undoubtedly been holding in for a long time: Olivia and Natalia desperately need a one-way ticket out of the storyline island they’ve been stuck on.

And where do we find ourselves with Otalia now, as the show gets closer and closer to winding down for good? Watching a disjointed mess due, in part, to the fact that, without Natalia, there is no Otalia story line. If the writers had taken heed of Patrick Erwin's words, Crystal Chappell might actually have had something interesting and logical to do during Jessica Leccia's maternity leave. Instead, we have this:

Olivia: I just feel like I'm dealing with everything on my own.

Philip: I don't think that's true. You're a huge part of this town. You're connected to everybody.

Olivia: Why do I feel so alone?
Why do you feel so alone, Olivia? It might just be because, when they could have been developing your story line in such a way that made it an integral part of the Guiding Light/Springfield saga, as a whole, the writers were busy with Disneyworld, pretty boys using stolen diamonds no one cares about as an excuse to show off their sculpted bodies, and the inconsequential nonsense of Remy/Christina's marital status. None of that was good or interesting or relevant....but it sure did bring the young and pretty.

© 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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why That Damned Kiss Is So Important

That kiss. That damned kiss. We talk about it as if it actually exists which, of course, it doesn't. It might just be that it never will. Why, then, do fans of Guiding Light (and Otalia, specifically) care so much about, talk so much about, fairly obsess over the very idea that Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera might one day, before this show goes off the air, share a kiss? (And do not send me emails or post messages saying that, technically, they have kissed. Because they haven't. That thing in January was cute, but it wasn't a kiss. Not really. It doesn't count. Any lip lock that ends in one person yelling in fear, "WHY???? Why did you do that?!?!?" does not count as a real kiss. Seriously, if you write in about this, I'll just delete your post, because it's lame. And sad.)

Why does this seemingly mythical kiss hold so much significance for so many of us?

Gay Hate is Everywhere, but Gay Love is a Scarcity, Especially in the Mass Media.

Positive images of same-sex love are almost non-existent on mainstream network television, and the outlook isn't much brighter on cable tv. At the same time, anti-gay violence has risen at an alarming rate. The LGBT community needs this kiss like black people needed Julia and Cosby. If television truly has replaced religion as the opium of the masses, it's about damned time the viewing audience took a long, slow hit of positive, loving, hot, not-neutered, lesbian kissing.

Proposition 8 = Hate

I have the unfortunate distinction of living in California, the state that recently passed and upheld Proposition 8 - a law banning marriage between two adults of the same gender. Think about that for a minute. In San Francisco, in 2009, I can go down to the corner dispensary and buy an ounce of marijuana for my migraine headaches, and it's completely legal...but I can't marry the woman I've shared my whole life with for over ten years...Since we can't marry, and aren't considered to be "family", I can't serve as her immigration sponsor...or have her down as my next-of-kin for Social Security purposes. In most states, she'd have no right to visit me, should I be laid up in hospital. Even though we've lived together for ten years, have a healthy income and a ridiculously stable home environment, it'd be difficult and, in some places, impossible, for us to adopt a child who is in desperate need and deserving of a family. If I were killed in some natural disaster, my partner would not be eligible for any kind of aid from from federal programs such as FEMA. If the jerks at CBS continue to keep America's unsullied eyes from viewing the horror of a lesbian kiss, if even that tiny thing is considered too risque, how can any of us believe in a day when Proposition 8 is a thing of the past? The more I think about it, the more I need some of that legalized marijuana, because the fact that I'm denied my civil rights gives me a migraine. (For the record, I support the legalization of medical marijuana...but I'm just saying....)

Olivia Deserves a Little Bit of the Happy

Olivia is a likable character. Even when she's a bitch-on-wheels, I can't help but like her. She's like that scrappy, little mutt down the street who never stops challenging the German Shepherds and Dobermans that pass by. I love that little mutt, because he's all heart. And, in a pinch, it's that mutt I'd want on my team. I feel this way about Olivia. No one deserves to be the loser in love every, single time. And that's been Olivia's history, hasn't it? Well, this dog's day has come, as far as I'm concerned. Olivia has earned this one. She's deprived herself for it. She's sacrificed for it. She's put herself last for it. She's humbled herself for it. She's put everything on the line for it. She's fucking earned this.

We Deserve It

I don't care if I sound like a petulant child. I've watched soap operas for most of my life. I've rooted for Greg and Jenny, Bill and Laura, Miles and Nicole, Sky and Raven, Matt and Vanessa. Hell, I rooted for Roger and Holly, even though it was sick and unhealthy, all because the chemistry was palpable and the acting was so damned good. The acting is just as good, and the chemistry is just as palpable between Olivia and Natalia, and it's not sick or unhealthy - but sweet and redeeming. I've put in my damned time, and I deserve a pay-off. It isn't even necessarily about this being a same-sex story line: if GL had never given us Cliff House and that last Roger/Holly fling (hell, they even got a last kiss, when they weren't even a couple, anymore!), I would have been livid. They owed it to us. And they owe us this one, too. I've put in my damned time. A lot of us have. We deserve at least one meaningful kiss between these two characters who so clearly belong together. Truth be told, we deserve more, but too much time has been wasted avoiding the portrayal of intimacy between these two, and anything more than a kiss, at this stage in the game, would seem rushed and ridiculous. Show us the damned kiss.

There Really is Nothing to be Afraid of

The kiss is important because the fact that there hasn't been a kiss is so damned worrying. What is CBS so damned afraid of? Two beautiful actors, who have great chemistry, playing the parts of people in love with one another, sharing an on-screen moment of intimacy. What about this image is scary? Isn't that basically television gold??? We've seen Olivia have sex with Buzz, while dating Frank. We've seen her pick up two random strangers, while drunk, and wake up the next day in bed with them. We've seen her marry a despicable man, and then sleep with his son. We've seen her hire a hit man to kill someone (who turned out to be her own daughter!!!) We have seen Olivia do despicable things, and we've lived to tell about it. What's more, we still love her. How, then, can Olivia kissing the woman she loves be such scary territory for CBS? The American viewing audience is not afraid of this, so why are network executives being such pussies? When you have no trouble showing us a character lie, cheat, manipulate, commit adultery and plan a murder, but act as if the same character kissing another woman is too dicey what you're really saying is: THERE IS SOMETHING FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG WITH TWO WOMEN KISSING ONE ANOTHER. To that, I say, GROW THE FUCK UP AND JOIN THE 21st CENTURY.

The kiss is important for so many reasons. It's important because we still have a don't ask/don't tell policy in our military. It's important because young people who question their sexuality harm/kill themselves at an alarming rate. It's important because children being raised by same-sex parents have a right to see that they're every bit as normal as everyone else. It's important because there is so little in the way of happy endings in real life these days, that we need every reminder we can get that they are possible, and not just for Christian, white, upwardly-mobile, heterosexuals.

© 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, July 23, 2009

Guiding Light or Olivia: Which One is Hitting Rock Bottom?

The temporary departure of Jessica Leccia seems to have thrown the writers of Guiding Light into a tailspin. Their first act of lunacy was creating a highly unlikely, very unpopular pregnancy. The second was Natalia's reaction to finding out she was pregnant. Did she take her steely resolve to Olivia and tell her about her condition and hash out what adding a baby to the mix would mean for their future together? Did she confront Frank with the news that she was carrying his child? No. She did neither of these things. Instead, she ran. And she didn't just run. She ran without saying so much as a word to the woman she loves, the woman who was, at that very moment, waiting for her to join her and come out to the entire town. The writers would have us believe that Natalia is strong and brave enough to stand her ground and tell her son that she is in love with Olivia, strong and brave enough to walk away from a safe wedding to a decent man in exchange for the unknown territory of loving a woman, strong and brave enough to challenge her priest and stand firm in her belief that God loves her no matter what. The writers would have us believe Natalia is strong enough and brave enough to do all of these things, but too weak to and cowardly to pick up the phone, dial Olivia's number and say, "I'm ok. I still love you. I'm confused about a couple of things in my life and I just need to work some things out." I don't buy it. But I've said all of this before. It is what it is and, as a viewer, I'll have to live with it.

As this is where the writers have brought Natalia, my only hope was that Olivia's reaction to it would be more in-character. I fully expect - I embrace - the idea of Olivia Spencer hitting rock bottom. She's had the rug pulled out from under her. Remember - Olivia was afraid to pursue her feelings, sure that someone would get hurt, convinced that Natalia could not handle and was not ready to accept the love she had to offer. Over time, Natalia convinced Olivia to let her guard down, stop fearing the unknown, and end her fatalistic thinking. It would be only natural and logical for Olivia to react to this betrayal of trust by going headlong into a downward spiral. And Crystal Chappell is so damned good at the wounded anti-heroine thing - any opportunity to see her in this light is long as it makes sense.

"Olivia...she's her own worst enemy - when she starts hurting she makes everyone around her hurt even more." - Frank Cooper, describing Olivia Spencer

Let's look at how Olivia has reacted to the love of her life disappearing without a trace.

A heartbreaking, private display of sadness and grief in the woods, starting just a few feet from the Bauer BBQ.

While others play Happy Hetero around the grill, Olivia falls into a fit of crying and wailing that even makes the almost ridiculously beautiful Crystal Chappell look, well, less than beautiful. I like this. Even though the visual image of it alongside Happy Heteros is pure, unadulterated, homophobic evil....Crystal Chappell is perfect in this scene. It's what I think Olivia would do- find a place to be alone, be pissed off, and vulnerable, and let her heart break in privacy. Olivia does not like to let her cracks show.

A "religious retreats of the Midwest" road trip with Doris Wolf.

What does Olivia do when her girl disappears? She sets out to find her. This is the Olivia I know and love - she doesn't give up without a fight and, when she wants something, she goes out there and just takes it. I can even suspend disbelief long enough to buy the screaming in the churchyard: Olivia is, after all, brokenhearted. What I don't believe: inviting Doris Wolf along for the ride. Olivia and Doris may have formed a certain bond with one another, but I hardly think Olivia would so willingly show the chinks in her armor to someone who isn't exactly a friend. This is going to be an emotional road trip - Olivia has to know this. Would she really, truly invite Doris, a woman who, really, she hardly knows? I don't believe it. My Olivia takes this trip on her own. The only person I believe she'd possibly share such a revealing journey with (besides Natalia)? Oddly enough: Reva. With Reva tied up in a murder investigation, Olivia would most definitely have taken this trip alone.

Forgetting to pick Emma up from day camp because she's drunk, considering driving Emma home while she's drunk. This is not what Olivia does, not how she operates. Olivia hurts herself. She hurts other people around her. When it comes to her child, though, she is a fierce lioness. Olivia does not forget her kid or put her kid at risk. It just isn't something she's done or would do, and I hate that the writers make her do it. Olivia would be the last person in Springfield to ever neglect her child.

A fool's errand to Chicago.

With all due respect to the writers of Guiding Light, what the fuck is this piece of nonsense about? There's so much wrong with it, that it would probably save space to say what's right with it. What's right with it: Olivia doesn't force Emma to accompany her on this stupid trip, because she doesn't like the idea of scaring her. Ok, I actually do have to say what's wrong with it: It's pointless. Olivia knows full well that Natalia is at a religious retreat. Why the hell does she go on a wild goose chase to Chicago? And how does she get it into her head that Natalia has run away to some dive bar where she once worked? If Olivia absolutely has to go to Chicago, doesn't it make more sense for her to look up Natalia's relatives, and not some guy who employed her a million years ago? And the handcuffs. Really? Really? No. Just no.

Which brings me to...

Flirting with Josh.

I believe Olivia would flirt with Josh. Sex is something that Olivia has always turned to when she's vulnerable and/or in pain. (Remember that threesome action with two complete strangers she took part in when she found out she only had weeks to live? Good times.) However - and this is a big however - I don't believe Olivia would flirt just for the sake of it. The writers have Olivia looking as if she's enjoying the flirtation with Josh that never amounts to anything. Even as she calls him to bail her out, it's in her most flirtatious, almost light-hearted way. This is not the Olivia I know. I'd be more willing to buy an Olivia who is so broken-hearted, so full of pain, that she jumps into bed with Josh, and fucks his brains out, in a self-loathing effort to forget her troubles. This business of casual flirting that leads to nothing, and almost looks fun? It doesn't ring true. There is nothing fun about what Olivia is going through. If she's turned to sex as a balm in the past, it's always been a poor cure....she shouldn't be looking as if she's enjoying the cat-and-mouse game quite so much.

Putting Rafe in his place.

Power suit? Check.
Aviator glasses? Check.
Kick-ass, don't-get-in-my-way attitude? Check.
Steely nerves when facing the enemy? Check.

Olivia and Rafe finally have a showdown of sorts and, for what it is, it is a thing of beauty. When Olivia tells Rafe that, quite possibly, HE is to blame for his mother's disappearance, she might as well be saying, "I have had about as much of you as I can stand. You're mother isn't here to protect you now, girly-man, so it's on." Now, this telling off could stand to be longer and stronger. For instance, when Rafe says that Olivia has forced his mother to leave him, I yearn for Olivia to point out that, in fact, Rafe abandoned his mother weeks ago. She also could mention how rich it is for an attempted murderer to stand in judgement of anyone else. There's a lot Olivia could say during this exchange, but doesn't get around to or have the time to. What she does say, though, is powerful. And the fact that Olivia doesn't break down until Rafe is well out of sight gives me hope that crazy-ass, bad-mother, illogical Olivia is on the way out, and angry, strong, dangerous Olivia who never lets her cracks show is back in Springfield.

As Frank pointed out to Natalia last year, when Olivia starts hurting, she makes everyone around her hurt even more. That's the Olivia I'm holding out for. I've missed you, honey.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tina Sloan: Changing Shoes

In my recent interview with Tina Sloan, who has played the role of Lillian Raines on Guiding Light since 1983, there was mention of her one-woman show, Changing Shoes.  Tina said that she'd be performing the show live on stage in various cities on the east coast, and a number of readers have since written for details about where and when they can catch Changing Shoes.  I'll update this as more information about dates and venues becomes available. Her next stop is Atlanta, Georgia: 

September 25th–October 8, 2009
173 14th Street, ATLANTA, GA

Order by phone: 404.733.4738
Mon–Fri 10am–8pm
Sat–Sun Noon–8pm

Order online: Click Here
404.733.4754 - Administration 404.733.4750 - Recorded phone info about current and upcoming events,
To contact by email:

Having spoken with Tina at length, and exchanged many emails, I can tell you that she's got some great stories to tell, has a wonderful -sometimes naughty - sense of humor, and that she's just one of the warmest, most open people you'll ever come across. The minute this show comes anywhere near my city, I'll be the first to get tickets.  

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Liz Keifer: Blake Thorpe Marler Speaks Out

Liz Keifer, who has played the role of Blake Thorpe Marler on Guiding Light since 1992, was kind enough to grant me an interview. We chatted about how she'd been a GL fan long before she ever got the role, what it was like working opposite such powerhouses as Maureen Garrett and the late, great Michael Zaslow, how Blake fits into the whole Otalia saga - and a bunch of other stuff, including one of my favorite recent GL happenings: Olivia and Blake's shopping spree for and frank discussion about sex toys. 

Liz is a lot of fun, and an easy person to talk to. Check out the interview at my Red Room blog spot.

Just a taste of some of Keifer's earliest work on GL...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


January, 2008:
Natalia : "All I've ever wanted was to marry Gus. And now the way it's started, it’s ruined."

Olivia: "No, you could fix it."

Natalia: "Even if I could fix it, I'm not sure I deserve it."

Olivia: "Deserve it? What Kind of woman are you?"

Natalia: "I'm the kind of woman who believes she should pay for her mistakes."

Olivia: "If I had to pay for all the mistakes I've made I would be broke by now."

June, 2009:
Olivia: “I never thought I could have anything like this. I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

Natalia: “That’s not true…"

It's difficult to believe, but it was just a year and a half ago that Olivia guilted Natalia into offering up her husband, Gus, as a consolation prize for a missed opportunity at a new heart. Just 17 months ago, Olivia was wondering what kind of a woman would even think about "deserving" happiness, instead of just grabbing it, fully aware that no one is handed happiness on a silver platter. The Olivia we see today is a changed person - a completely different animal, in so many ways, and not just because she's fallen in love with a woman. It's been a big, old soap opera year and a half for Olivia. She's lost Gus, regained her health, been suicidal, eventually come to terms with the guilt surrounding Gus' death, become a grandmother, lost her infant grandson, dealt with Ava's post-partem meltdown, landed a lucrative contract with Galaxy International, lost that contract, had a heart attack, been resuscitated, received a pace-maker, made peace with Reva and Jefferey, helped finance Rafe's escape from the law, gone from hating Natalia to depending on her, hiring her, becomming her best friend and house-mate, falling hopelessly in love with her and planning a future together. These are the sort of things that can change a person, no? Mostly, though, the changes we've seen in Olivia are connected to Natalia. The love of and for a good woman has had a profound effect on Olivia Spencer.

The old Olivia was guarded, always ready with a sarcastic barb, eager to grab whatever she could, no matter who got hurt because, in her experience, good things were not ear-marked for Olivia Spencer. The old Olivia was a predatory animal, always ready to pounce. The old Olivia trusted no one, because she knew that in this world, it's every man for himself. The new Olivia is someone who is learning about patience, about having faith that good things just might come her way, that she is worthy of love. The new Olivia actually trusts someone - Natalia.

If the love of and for a good woman have have had a profound effect on Olivia, and led to changes in how she views the world and how she reacts to the curveballs life throws her, one would expect the same from Natalia. On the surface, it would seem to be the case.

The old Natalia was cautious. She didn't challenge the status quo, even when faced with grave injustice. Case in point: Rafe's treatment in prison. Natalia's strategy for dealing with the abuse her son was obviously being treated to in prison was to cow-tow to prison administration and never question authority. It was Olivia who steamrolled her way into the picture and showed Natalia, by example, that there is a time and a place when the only way good things are going to happen is when we make them happen.

The old Natalia had no aspirations to expand her horizons, and no confidence in her own abilities to be more than she was. Again, Olivia stepped in and almost forced Natalia to accept a more challenging job, put her talents to work, and think outside of the chambermaid box she'd built herself.

On finding herself drawn to another woman, the Old Natalia fearfully retreated into the arms of Frank Cooper. Good-natured, honest, hard-working and painfully decent, Frank was exactly the man Natalia thought she should be with, even though she never felt anything more than friendship for him. The old Natalia convinced herself that, by dating (and, later, having sex with and becoming engaged to) Frank, by hiding in the arms of someone who was safe, someone who didn't rock the boat or buck conventions or cause anyone's head to turn, she could purge herself of her attraction to Olivia.

Of course, the old Natalia was wrong.

The double wollop of having Olivia profess her love and devotion to Natalia, and facing Frank in church on the verge of exchanging wedding vows was enough to send the old Natalia on her way, and cause the new, improved Natalia to emerge.

New Natalia isn't just less afraid to take chances than old Natalia was. New Natalia is bold. She loves Olivia and embraces this love as a gift from God. New Natalia doesn't just declare her love to Olivia, she pursues Olivia, and convinces her that they have a future together, that neither of them will get hurt, that she knows "what it means to tell someone you love them." New Natalia tells Olivia she loves her, and doesn't regret telling her. New Natalia faces her priest, head on, and quotes scripture as she makes the ascertion that she can love Olivia and love God at the same time. New Natalia takes a frightened Olivia's hand in a church, in front of an alter, as a show of her resolve to be together before God. Most recently, new Natalia says she is finished with waiting for other people to understand and is ready to get on with a life with Olivia as her partner. New Natalia is a strong, stroppy, brave woman who doesn't cower at the first sign of trouble.

Where the hell, then, is new Natalia, now?

Apologists for the recent developments on Guiding Light claim that there is nothing out of character about Natalia running away without so much as a word to Olivia. Which Natalia are they referring to? It may be true that old Natalia might run from fearful situations, but the opposite is true of new Natalia. (I'm not even willing to concede that old Natalia would have done a runner - not on Emma, and not without at least making a phone call - but I digress.) Some apologists have used the tried-and-true "it's a super couple" argument - another that doesn't hold water with me. Over the last 35+ years, I've watched many super couples evolve, and one thing about the formula holds true - characters who make up super couples grow and change with time. Luke went from mob flunky to rapist to hero to husband and father. (Disgusting trajectory, yes, but it's a forward trajectory, nonetheless.) Laura went from naive ingenue to brave heroine. 

What the writers have done with Natalia is treat her growth, her progression, like so much fishing line. Over the last year they've let out the line, bit by bit. During the past two weeks, they've reeled that line back- not by inches, but by several feet. If it's not out of character for Natalia to abandon the love of her life and the little girl who she supposedly "would die for".....if it make sense for Natalia to run at the first sign of trouble, and to cower instead of face it head-on.... then it must mean that Natalia has not grown, at all. It must mean that we are back at square one with a timid, small-minded, fearful woman who has no confidence or faith that the love she and Olivia share is strong enough to face minor adversity. 

And, if Natalia hasn't really changed at all - as supporters of the current turn of events seem to be saying - then what the hell have we been watching? I thought I was watching a story line about two women who fall in love, and become better, stronger people because they love each other.  If it's true that running away is still in Natalia's nature, then she hasn't grown a bit, has she? Worse: she's allowed Olivia to believe that she has grown, and to trust in her newfound strength and bravery. She hasn't just allowed Olivia to hope - she has demanded it. And this is sad, because Olivia truly has changed and allowed herself to be more vulnerable.

The changes in Olivia make Natalia's betrayal - because that's what it is: a betrayal of trust - all the more profound.

Liz and Dani of Pancakes and a Valium sum it up beautifully

The saddest thing for me isn't the crying, the's that moment when Olivia realizes, "What was I thinking? I'm Olivia Spencer. I don't get the big love, I don't get the happy ending. I don't get the forever after."

If this behavior - hiding the truth, running away, letting Emma down, abandoning Olivia on the most important day of her life, without so much as a phone call - if this is all in character for Natalia? Then I have to agree with Liz and Dani: Natalia isn't good enough for Olivia. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Super Couple Angst, or Just Plain Bullshit?: The Ten Commandments of Soap Writing

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: happily, ever after is the worst thing that can happen to a soap couple. It means there's nowhere left to go, No conflict means no drama, which means who gives a damn? I stand by this. The mightiest soap super couple of them all, Luke and Laura, thrived on conflict. The minute everything seemed calm and sane in their world, they'd find themselves involved in a stolen diamond caper, or a plan to control the planet by manipulating the weather (I kid you not), or a long-buried secret would surface and rock the boat. The point is, Luke and Laura were only interesting as long as there was something for them to do, some foe for them to battle, some way to illustrate that their relationship was truly a you-and-me-against-the-world proposition. If there were some bible for soap opera writers, this would definitely be listed as one of the tenets.

One would think, then, that I'd be behind the decision to have Guiding Light's Natalia discover she's pregnant and suddenly run off and go into hiding, leaving Olivia in the lurch. I mean, it doesn't get much more angsty than standing in a church yard, clenching your fists and yelling at the top of your lungs, "Nataliaaaaaaa! I Love you!!!!" But there's angst, and there's angst, and this particular dose of angst doesn't sit well with me, at all. I think it's not so much angst, as total bullshit.

Bearing in mind that there is, in fact, no official bible for soap writers, and annoyed as allhell at recent developments, I've decided to make things easy for the writers of GL by making up my own:

Soap Writer's Ten Commandments

1. Thou Shall Know Thy Characters

Know them. Know how they think, how they act, how they react. Know their histories because, I promise you, gentle writer, your audience does. Know that Natalia "would die" for Emma and that she would never just not show up when she was expected, let alone abandon her. Know that Natalia "knows what it means when you tell somebody you love them." I don't think you know any of these things, and you really should.

2. Thou Shall Do The Fucking Math

Human pregnancies last for 9 months, and pregnant women usually start showing towards the end of the first trimester. A pregnant woman starts having symptoms of pregnancy long before it's obvious to the public that she's pregnant. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: a halt in menstruation, weight gain, morning sickness, increased appetite, and odd cravings. Frank and Natalia's no-go wedding was in April, which is three months ago in real life time. In soap opera time, Rafe recently referred to the no-go wedding as having happened "a long time ago." Frank and Natalia had sex only once, and this was before the no-go wedding which, according to your own words, occurred "a long time ago." Do the fucking math. The only way Natalia would or could be unaware of having missed her period for four or more months would be if she were brain dead. If she were pregnant all this time, she'd have experienced other symptoms...possibly even felt the baby move. Do the fucking math. Again, you can bet the viewers have.

3. Thou Shalt Not Lie

We understand there are secrets that must be kept, in order to keep us, the audience, engaged, but don't lie to us. We heard - over and over again - that Jessica Leccia's pregnancy would not be incorporated into the Otalia story line. This was clearly a lie. Not cool, and not a good way to treat loyal viewers. Better to say that you're undecided or that there are elements of the story that have not yet been decided upon. But don't look us in the eye and feed us a load of crap. It's just not the right thing to do to people who have put a lot of energy into supporting what you do, which brings us to....

4. Thou Shall Honor The Hand That Feeds You

I'm not talking about kissing butt, but let's call a spade a spade: soap operas are products. Soap viewers are customers. The customer is always right. In this case, we, the customers, made it perfectly clear that we did not, under any circumstances, want the next dose of angst for Otalia to be a pregnancy. Some fans/customers felt so strongly about this that they posted comments such as, "Die, baby, die." Now, I think that's sort of insane, and definitely disconcerting, but I digress. The point is, there has to be some give and take. We expected angst. Some of us even welcomed it - just not in this form. We made it clear. We expected hoops and hurdles that made sense, maintained the integrity of the story, and had some basis in common sense. Having Natalia suddenly realize she's four months pregnant, and then run away without so much as a word to Olivia or Emma that she's ok? It's an insult to us.

5. Remember The Story Arc, To Keep It Holy

Do you even remember how this story developed? Because we sure do. And here's one thing we remember: Olivia trying hard to suppress her feelings because she was sure that nothing good would come from opening her heart to Natalia. We remember Olivia saying "there is no 'us'". And we remember Natalia chasing after her, being the strong one - hell, I even called her a power bottom! - and forcing the inescapable issue: that they were in love and meant to be together. We remember how satisfying it was that, to everyone's surprise (sort of, but not really) Olivia seemed afraid, while Natalia seemed fearless. Hell, just two weeks ago she declared, "I'm tired of waiting!" How, then, did Natalia overnight become a woman who would run with her tail between her legs at the first sign of - what? An inconvenience? Because, really - for two women who love kids and love one another, and want to raise Emma together, a baby wouldn't be a tragedy, at all! (see Commandment 1)

6. Disbelief Shall Be Suspended Only So Far

You asked us to pretend not to notice Jessica Leccia's ample bosom, large belly and glowing moon face for months, months. And we did. We suspended disbelief and ignored the fact that Jessica was pregnant, even when it became ridiculous. We did this because the character, Natalia, was not pregnant. Or so we had been led to believe. Now that Jessica has given birth and is, I assume, getting back to her pre-pregnancy shape and weight, you ask us to believe she's pregnant? Seriously? No. Just no.

7. Angst Is Necessary, and Shall Be So - In a Proper Context

In storytelling, conflict is good. Hurdles and obstacles are good. Angst is very good. Angst and conflict that make no sense, have no bearing on the story at hand, or are caused by outside forces that seem to drop out of the sky? Not so good. Rafe being a holier-than-thou idiot about his mother's declaration of love for Olivia? Good angst! It's been painful to watch. It makes me hate Rafe. It makes me want to punch the tv. But it makes sense, and I can believe it would have a bearing on what Natalia chooses to do. A freakish, unexpected pregnancy leading to a total personality change in Natalia? Not so good. In fact, pretty freaking lousy. I repeat: that's not angst, it's bullshit.

8. Thou Shalt Not Lose Track Of Time

We'd probably have more patience if you, the writers, hadn't lost track of the fact that Guiding Light's final episode will air on September 18th, and we haven't even had a peck on the cheek between these two women. I'm all for taking it slow, and building up to a crescendo, but let's be realistic: the show has been cancelled, a pick-up is unlikely, and Crystal Chappell has already signed on with another show. Otalia is coming to a close, and you haven't delivered the goods. It's almost as if you'd lost your watches and calendars, thrown caution to the wind, and decided, "Hey....let's throw another wrench in the works and let them wait an extra six months before the girls kiss.' Well, guess what? We don't have another six months, so you've screwed up, big time. What can you have been thinking?

9. Thou Shalt Not Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes

Ok, this may not be set in stone, but it's my set of rules, after all: let's not have you writers rely on or perpetuate negative stereotypes, ok? Liz and Dani of Pancakes and a Valium made an excellent observation: Olivia's heartbreak over Natalia taking a runner was visually presented alongside the almost ridiculous level of happiness being experienced by every straight couple and heterosexual person in Springfield. Even Philip, who's dying, was having a big, old, jolly, hetero time that day. We don't want this. We've already seen every movie and tv show where the tragic faggot dies or ends up alone or loses everything, while his/her straight counterparts go for the gold. Some of us have even known that tragic faggot in real life. What we haven't seen a hell of a lot of are stories where there's parity, where couples are just couples. Why is the Bauer BBQ a festive occasion for everyone except the two women in love, and why were you so intent on sending that message out to the world? Why juxtapose the glee of heterosexual normalcy with the tragic, pathetic sadness of same-sex love in such a way? It's a cheap, obvious, insulting thing to do, and it doesn't even ring true for most of us. We don't want Springfield's Hispanics to all be street thugs, blacks to all be wife-beaters, or queers to all be miserable, unloved sad sacks.

10. Remember, Always, The Power of Revision

When it's broken, fix it. Take a cue from the top-rated daytime drama, The Young and the Restless. Last year on Y&R, they introduced a new character and immediately married her off to Victor Newman. No one liked her. The two actors had no chemistry. Their love affair was not even remotely believable. Fans revolted. The show became unwatchable. What did the writers at Y&R do? They paid attention to the feedback they were getting from viewers. They looked at Victor - an established character - and remembered who he was and what his history was. They pretty much followed Commandments 1-9, and then they fixed the problem by way of revision. Victor's marriage story line wasn't working on any level and, so, his young bride was immediately killed off -in a believable, plausible way. Victor acted in a way that was in keeping with his character. Within a month, Y&R went from being unwatchable to being must-see-tv

A storyline needs to be looked at as a living, breathing thing. If certain elements aren't working, they need to be revisited, retooled and, maybe, completely revised or rewritten. Hopefully, it's not too late to fix what you have so badly broken. Listen to your audience, and don't insult their intelligence. Know your characters. Remember where you've taken us with them, thus far, and keep it in mind as you plan to take us further. Pay attention to and use wisely the time you have left with these characters. Make choices that make some sense not just for the moment, but for the characters and plot, overall. Don't make the cheap, easy choices that send out negative messages and perpetuate stereotypes. If it's broken, roll up your sleeves and fix it.

 © 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, July 4, 2009

Pancakes and a Valium

I'm a huge fan of Liz and Dani's Pancakes and a Valium podcasts, and was psyched when they asked me to join them to discuss some Guiding Light history. If you're interested in finding out a little about how GL has been an innovator in soap-opera-as-vehicle-for-social-change, or want the lowdown on Olivia and Reva and their long-standing feud, or if you're just curious about which if the Golden Girls I'd have sex with, check it out.  

Thanks for having me, Liz and Dani - I'd happily come back any time!