Monday, September 27, 2010

How The Internet Killed The Great American Serial

The Internet is a great thing. It has been, without a doubt, the most important technological breakthrough to occur in my lifetime. It makes possible seamless, real-time communication between people from all over the globe. Early this year, Astronauts sent the first Tweets and Twitpics from space, expanding even further the reach of Everyman. When people of my parents' generation talk about the assassination of JFK, their descriptions are of hearing the news on the radio, phone lines going down with so many people calling all over to share the sad news, and people gathering around television sets in hopes the reports were mistaken. When I think about the death of Princess Diana, I remember being logged into a chat room full of Australians and New Zealanders, all of us getting the news as it happened, directly from Internet-based wire services, the television playing in the background, the phone barely a consideration, and the radio nowhere in sight. The world had changed. How we got news had changed. How we shared collective sadness had changed.

The fact is, the advent of the Internet has changed the playing field, for all of us, forever. Some - in my opinion, most - of these changes have been positive. There are, however, drawbacks to having access to all kinds of information almost all of the time.

How It Used To Be

If Mr. Peabody were to take you on a trip in the Wayback Machine to witness the impact the Internet has had on entertainment, specifically serial drama, he might choose as a destination Pine Valley. Here, he would show you star-crossed lovers Jeff Martin and Mary Kennicott, who have overcome hurdle after hurdle and finally found their way to one another after years of struggle. They are newly married and in the process of adopting a young foundling named Tad. Yes, that Tad. It is an afternoon in 1975 and you are watching All My Children.

All seems normal. Mary arrives home from the grocers and finds two intruders in the house. She has stumbled upon burglars who have no intention of letting any eye-witnesses survive. When little Tad enters the apartment and finds his adoptive mother in the clutches of armed robbers, Mary causes a distraction that gives the boy just enough time to escape. Tad makes it out but Mary is shot dead by the intruders. It is a heart-breaking moment, and a shocking one. Mary is a major character, and a much beloved one. No one could have seen this coming. Every AMC fan sits still in shock, horror and sadness. It is, after all, 1975. The word "spoiler" isn't even a part of the television viewing lexicon.

The Tide Turns

The Internet has broken down many barriers to communication. In the process it has made secrets almost impossible to keep. In 1975 there was really only one game in town, when it came to getting news about soap operas: a new magazine called Soap Opera Digest. For the most part, SOD consisted of re-caps and interviews. The recaps were mainly aimed at women who, for whatever reason, had missed their soaps and wanted to catch up. Remember, this was before VCRs, let alone TIVO, Youtube or Soapnet. You'd buy a copy of SOD to find out what had happened on your favorite show last month, and to read an interview with Susan Lucci or Robin Strasser. Actors who were interviewed never gave away any upcoming story lines. Instead, Lucci might talk about what it was like when fans saw her at the airport and made comments about Erica's latest evil-doings. Back then, the closest you'd come to a spoiler would be an announcement about someone joining the cast of a soap and, really, announcements like this were only made when it came to known entities. When George Reinholt and Jaqueline Courtney, who had been incredibly popular on Another World joined the cast of One Life To Live, it was news, at least for soap viewers. And soap news was most definitely not mainstream news. Again, this was before Luke and Laura broke through that  fourth wall. In 1975 - and for many years after - soap opera viewers were an almost negligible niche market. What's more, television viewing was a strictly passive activity. In 1975, we sat back and watched. This isn't to say that we didn't react to what happened on the screen - of course we did. If something was sad, we might get teary. If something was funny, we laughed. Soap viewers, especially, have always been heavily invested. A habit I still have today is that of talking to the television: "Oh, Erica, shut up." "It serves you, right, Nikki, for thinking Victor is anything but a control freak, after all these years."

Today, television viewers don't just react to what happens on the screen - they gather to dissect it, they write blogs and articles and even university level papers that critique it, and they mobilize to shape it. The Internet and its capabilities as a powerful networking tool has turned television viewing into an interactive experience. Viewers are no longer content to just watch what happens. Fans of a specific show can hold virtual screening parties online and discuss the action in real time. Your favorite character has been killed off? You don't have to accept this - why not start a global Internet campaign to bring him back from the dead? Sick of reading other people's opinions about your favorite show? Start a blog or an online forum. After all, what makes the people who write Soap Opera Digest any better at watching television and forming opinions than you are?

There's The Rub

So, we now have a community of television viewers who are also self-proclaimed know-it-alls/critics/reporters. And, no, I don't exempt myself from this group because: hey - most of what I've written about on this blog during the last year has had to do with television. (Superhero Lunchbox used to be a very different blog, but older content has been deleted.) In addition, the Internet makes it possible for people such as myself to communicate not only with other television viewers from around the globe, but with television actors, writers, casting directors, and journalists. In many ways, the barriers that once existed between television viewing and television production no longer exist. If you don't think this is true, think about this: in the grand scheme of things I am nobody - just someone who likes to watch television and happens to enjoy the Internet. This is unremarkable. It describes about 90% of the people I know. I do not hold a degree in television production or broadcasting. I have never worked for a television network or motion picture producer. I am not an actor. The writing I've had published has had absolutely nothing to do with television or entertainment, at all. I don't have an uncle in the business. I am just someone who likes to watch television and dissect it. Big deal. In 1975, this would have earned me a seat on the couch and a subscription to TV Guide. In 2010, it means I interact (mainly via Internet and telephone) with television actors, writers, casting directors, and journalists. And this isn't remarkable. Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can reach out and start a conversation - there's no guarantee anyone will respond, but my experience tells me that lots of people do. Let's put it this way: if I can get interviews with actors, have long talks with writers and get casting directors to read my email and follow up with phone calls, anyone with a PC and an Internet connection can.

Television is no longer just a spectator sport.

Monster in a Box

With this shift in paradigm comes some problems. If the Internet makes it possible, in theory, for everyone to share information, it also means the chances of keeping anything a secret are next to nil.

In 2009, as Guiding Light was winding down, I was privy to some information about the show that some of the TPTB wanted to keep under wraps. Again, there is nothing exceptional about me as a television viewer or as a blogger. The moment I got wind of this information I thought to myself, "If someone connected to the show sees fit to tell me about this it means there are lots of others - people with actual credentials - who know about it, and probably have for a long while." One of these bits of information was Maureen Garrett's return to the GL set in the role of Holly. It was presented to me as something GL wanted to keep under wraps - a bit of a gift to the loyal viewers. I remember getting this information, being really excited that my favorite GL actor would be back, and thinking, "I won't leak this, but this secret won't keep for long." Two weeks after I learned of it, news of Garrett's return to GL was all over the Internet. Some people were happy to have gotten the "scoop." I thought it was kind of sad that die-hard GL fans were deprived of what could have been a pretty cool surprise. But, as I said - I knew that if I had been told, many, many others had also been told, and at least one person was going to let the cat out of the bag. It was inevitable.

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that every leak is accidental. Planting stories and planning leaks is the bread-and-butter of entertainment PR. But I do know there was at least some desire to end the show with a few surprises, and that just was not ever going to happen. So strong was the desire to keep certain details under wraps, that one of the interviews I conducted for The Guiding Light Project was granted only under the condition that a P&G representative be present to make sure there was no specific discussion of the final episodes, and that the actor didn't inadvertently slip up and tell me more than I was supposed to know. This effort turned out to be moot, as well: the specific details that the P&G exec took such pains to guard became common knowledge when a cameraman posted still photos of the final days of shooting on Twitter.


Last week, One Life to Live aired what (while badly executed, IMO) was clearly intended to be a Mary Kennicott moment: the big reveal about Tea still being alive. Is there a single viewer who was genuinely shocked? Did anyone believe, for even a minute, that she was dead? Stories about Florencia Lozano's being let go from OLTL, only to be rehired (thanks, in part, to noise made by fans) had been circulating for months. We knew Tea might be gone for a little while, but we also knew she wasn't really dead. What could have and should have been a classic, "OHMYGOD, TEA'S ALIVE!" moment fell flat. Hear that sound? It's the sound of crickets chirping. And here's the thing - while soap viewers love continuity and familiarity, we also love waiting to see what happens next. As serial dramas, they're meant to carry over from one episode to the next with some semblance of suspense.  And we really love a good shocker. Remember when AMC's Cliff, heartbroken that Nina had perished in a plane crash, stood in front of an elevator whose doors opened to reveal...Nina - alive and well!?!?! Or the wedding where "Adam"'s mask was pulled off to reveal GL's Roger, back from the dead? Or every, single time James Stenbeck shocked the hell out of Barbara by showing up, again? Those were true shockers. Those were scenes with which to end a Friday episode...scenes that guaranteed viewers would be back on Monday. That element of surprise no longer exists. Nothing about the big reveal regarding Tea compelled me to go back for more on Monday.

There can be no more Mary Kennicott, Nina Warner, Roger Thorpe or James Stenbeck moments. In a world where your favorite soap writer is your pen pal, and your favorite actor is part of your Mafia Wars family, the air of mystery is all but gone. The monster is out of the box, and he's got no plans to crawl back in.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dribs and Drabs

Time, again, to ramble on a little bit.

The World Stops Turning

Yes, it's over. As The World Turns took its final spin and, while I think it's sad that this genre is slowly dying, I can't say this particular show was worth saving. ATWT had been a mess for a long time. During the last year the writers were phoning it in. It must be frustrating to work for a show that noone wants to support. I'd rather forget the show that ran for the last year or so, and remember the glory days, when ATWT was must-see daytime television. In my opinion, ATWT hit its peak during the days of Josh and Iva's secret coming out into the open....

...and Casey's begging Margo to show mercy, pull the plug, and allow him to die with dignity.

That's the show it's a shame to have lost.

The Mad Women

Can I just say that if you could merge Joan and Peggy, that's the woman I want to marry?

"I'm Stupid"

Republicans Hating Gays? Who'da Thunk?

Someone on the government payroll is using our time and, technically, our PC, to spread hate about the gays. And it ain't a democrat.

File Under WTF?

A tornado hit my old neighborhoodin Brooklyn last week. I have a friend in Chacago who laughed and said "We call that a little wind." Nah, sorry. We had weather as windy as Chicago has when Ilived in Wellington. THIS was a fucking tornado.

This is around the corner from my old house:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The World According to Tina

Before I start writing a review of Tina Sloan's book, Changing Shoes, let's get a couple of things out of the way:

1. I'm a life-long fan of soaps
2. Being a life-long fan of soaps, I've watched Tina Sloan and been a fan of hers since her days on 
3. Having interviewed Tina and interacted with her on a personal level, I find her to be a gracious, 
    charming,  lovely person.
4. None of these things would make me give a book a positive review if it didn't deserve it. Books play way
    too much of an important role in my life for me to take a dive, so to speak.

With that out of the way, let's get on to the subject at hand: Changing Shoes. For a year or so friends and fans of Tina Sloan have heard about the book she was working on. Some folks had the advantage of having seen the one-woman show the book is based on, and had an idea what was in store for them. I haven't caught Tina's show. All I knew about Changing Shoes was what Tina had told me when I interviewed her, and what she's shared about it on Facebook and Twitter. I wasn't really sure if I'd be reading a memoir, a self-help book, a tell-all expose'...or what. At various times during the past year, Tina has spoken about her aging parents, her days as a model and young actress, the changes that she has undergone as she's aged, her time on the set of movies and television shows, her relationships with family and friends...and she's talked about them in the context of Changing Shoes. For a while there I found myself thinking, "What in the world is this book going to be about? What can the narrative voice possibly be, if not schizophrenic?" As most of you know, the book was released last week and, if you're anything like me, you devoured it in record time.

Everyone has interesting things in their life. I mean it. Everyone. Every life is full of funny or sad or ironic stories, coincidences, accidents, tragedies, etc. For the most part, this doesn't amount to much. Having a good story and being able to tell a good story - these are two very different things. Tina Sloan not only has a treasure trove of good stories, she's one hell of a storyteller. In answer to my own question - "What can the narrative voice of Changing Shoes be...?" - reading Changing Shoes feels like meeting a good friend at a favorite coffee house, sitting down on a comfy couch, and asking her, "How on earth did you get from where you started to where you are today?"

The book opens with Tina coming to the realization that she's reached a stage in life where all eyes are no longer on her, but on the much younger woman next to her. From here, she takes the reader on a narrative journey through different parts of her life. We make brief stops at her Catholic high school in New York, Paris -where she comes into her own under the guidance of a wise and liberated woman with heaps of finesse, her early days as a model and actress in NYC, marriage, motherhood, career, the steady decline and eventual death of her parents, and a bunch of other places. I'd wondered if Changing Shoes would be a memoir, a self-help book, an expose'....the answer is, it's all of these things. I have to say, though, as an expose', it's very gentle. Long-time soap fans will have fun wondering/trying to figure out who it was that wore a baseball cap to hide the evidence of too many facelifts because, when it comes to this sort of stuff, Tina isn't naming names. This makes Tina's narrative voice more likable - she can tell a great story, but she's not out to smear anyone. Everyone likes a good storyteller, but nobody likes a bitch, and there's not a hint of bitchiness in Changing Shoes. If you're hoping to read the dirty secrets and scandals from behind the scenes at Guiding Light, this isn't the book for you. If, on the other hand, you're interested in how, during a time when most characters over 40 were being shoved asside, Tina not only managed to remain employed, but ended the run of GL with a front-and-center romance, you've come to the right place. You've come to the right place, too, if you want to hear the straight dope from a woman who hasn't had plastic surgery, doesn't plan to have plastic surgery, and isn't afraid to be honest about her age.

The section of Changing Shoes which deals with Tina's parents and their last years was something I found especially moving. It's an important story she tells, of having to cope with the mixed emotions that the failing health of a parent can bring. Most people are afraid to talk about how frustrating it can be to watch our parents get old, or how guilt drives a lot of what we do,when it comes to caring for them. Still fewer people are able to discuss the inevitable feeling of relief that comes when a person who has lived with prolonged illness finally dies. It's something we all experience, but it's something of a taboo. Having recently lost my mother, this section of the book was painful, but also a catharsis. While I miss my mother terribly, I've also experienced a sense of relief since she passed; no longer do I worry that every late-night phone call is THE phone call I've dreaded. Tina discusses this frankly - the fact that loving one's parents and being devoted to them does not make caring for them an absolute joy, and that the range of emotions that comes with this experience is not only natural, but universal.

Tina gets brownie points for managing to tell stories about her interaction with famous people without being a showoff. When she relates a story about Jodie Foster it doesn't feel as if she's bragging about having worked with a major movie star. Quite the opposite - it reminds us that Jodie Foster may be a movie star, but she's also just a woman...a woman Tina Sloan happened to have worked with, once. This, ultimately, is what makes Changing Shoes such an enjoyable read. It's not really about a soap star. It's Everywoman's story. The names and dates and specific details may be different, but the fundimental truths are the same: girls become women, young women become middle-aged women who become older women, parents live and die, kids grow up, people laugh, cry, complain, and make mistakes. It's how each of deals with these parts of life that matters.

I realize this may not be the most interesting book review, as I have nothing but good things to say about Changing Shoes. It's well written. It's touching. It's funny. It's juicy. It's full of homespun wisdom about things you never thought you'd hear homespun wisdom about. Tina Sloan will not tell you how to make a perfect pie crust, but she will give you tips on the best hormonal supplements to take if you want to kick up a sagging libido, but don't want to grow a moustache. You don't get that kind of advice every day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

CPR for Y&R

Anyone who's read my ramblings for any length of time knows I have a soft spot for Y&R. When Y&R is good, it's damned good. Unfortunately, it's been so long since it's been good, I've almost forgotten what good looks like.

Genoa City has become a mess of soap opera cliches, bad storytelling, terrible casting, and missed opportunities. All hope is not lost, though. It's not too late to get the #1 rated daytime drama back on track. In its favor, Y&R has some really good writers, talented actors, strong history to draw from, what would appear to be a more generous budget than the other daytime dramas still on the air, and good ratings. If it's going to remain a well-rated show, something's got to give. Actually, A LOT has to happen, if I'm ever again going to rave about Y&R, but change has to start somewhere, and here's where I suggest the changes begin.

Ten Things That Can Be Done To Make Y&R Watchable, Again

1. Rely on the tried and true. Time and again, during the last year or so, viewers have commented on how damned good Y&R is when Beth Maitland is on the screen. Maitland is a rivetting actor with tons of charisma. What's more, her character, Traci Abbott, is one we know and love. People who watch soaps are in it for the long haul. We love the continuity. We love knowing a character over the years, and riding the roller coaster with them. The tried and true is always a good bet. Give us more Traci, more Nina (Tricia Cast kicked ass this week), meatier storylines for Paul. Hell, I even liked having Cricket around the last few weeks, and I was never a big Cricket fan.  The fact is these are all good actors/interesting characters. Fans of Y&R already know and love them. We know they can carry a story. Let them have it. Familiarity is one of the things soap fans tune in for.

2. No more gimmicks, at least for a while. No more switched babies, no more plastic surgery, no more look-alikes, no more locking people up in makeshift dungeons, no more people rising from the dead, ok? Give it a fucking rest, and concentrate on character-driven stories.

3. If I want to know what Paris Hilton is up to, I'll tune in to E! I don't give a damn about the real Paris Hilton, and I really, truly don't give a damn about Genoa City's faux Paris Hilton. Basing a whole story line on a person whose real life is sickening is a bad, bad idea. Drop it. I don't care about Abby Newman's life as a celebutante. Nobody does.

4. Legacy characters - you've got them...use them. You know what works? Billy and Victoria as a couple. I like them. I don't even like Victoria, but I love me some Billy, and I love the idea of the Newmans and Abbotts once again finding their lives intertwined. Romeo and Juliet was already an old story when William Shakespeare got his hands on it, but he knew a good story when he stumbled upon it. This is good stuff. The stuff good soap is made of. Because it's not just about Billy and's about Victor and Jack and and Nikki and Ashley and every ugly piece of history the Abbotts and Newmans have shared. It's maybe THE story that really matters in Genoa City.

5. Gay it up, or forget it. Rafe is gay. Big deal. If it doesn't come to anything, who cares? If you're not going to give Rafe a storyline where his sexuality actually comes into play, I don't give a damn that he's gay. You don't get a medal for just having a guy admit he likes other guys. And,  I know this will make some people really angry, but Thom Bierdz is not a good actor. He just isn't.  The fact that he's a gay man does not make him well suited to play the only other gay character in Genoa City. Rafe is a nice enough guy, and a handsome enough guy. How about having him hook up with a romantic counterpart who isn't 1) a psychopath pretending to be gay (Adam) or 2) a boring schlub played by a really bad actor (Phillip)? Jabot is a cosmetics company, for heaven's sake. Do you mean to tell me there's not one other queer in a city that's basically a cosmetic firm's company town????

6. If it's broken, fix it. One thing Y&R has traditionally been good at is recognizing when things aren't going well. This has fallen by the wayside, though. If something is a mess, and the writing is on the wall, Y&R execs need to pounce while the iron is hot, and make changes. Chance is a poorly written character and the actor chosen for it may be handsome and have a following, but he's about as interesting as a bowl of white rice. This has been clear from day one. Why this has been prolonged is beyond me. Clementine Ford as Mac is a disaster. A bore. Again, this was clear the minute she got on board. Nothing personal, but she's not the right person for the role and, frankly, no one cares about the character. Why is she still in the role and why is the character still relevant?  The whole nonsense with Kay Chancellor's long lost son? It never worked. Stephen Nichols has never fit in at Y&R. This was clear early on. Why let him keep chugging along? If something is broken, you don't wait for it to repair it self - you fix it.

7. Recognize the best of the 'new' talent. It's not always about sticking with the old. Y&R has some great "new" talent. Elizabeth Hendrickson is awesome, and Chloe is so promising, but she's languishing due to por story line. Chloe and Chance were never interesting or sexy. Give this woman a worthy co-star who she shares some chemistry with (Jeff Branson???) and provide them with a solid story line that people actually want to watch. Also, Hendrickson and Tricia cast have great chemistry...they remind me of Kay and Jill, the early years. Let this bird fly, baby!

8. Leave the comfort zone. Lauren Fenmore has been a nice character for so long, we've almost forgotten what a brat she was when we first met her. The set-up of Jill as the bastard Fenmore sibling was cheesy and gimmicky, but what's done is done, and they might as well make the most of it. This is Lauren's chance to get back to being the spoiled brat we all know she really is. There's a rich bitch inside of Lauren Fenmore, just dying to get out. As for Jill, face it: she's most fun and interesting when she's in a catfight with another female. The days of Jill and Kay going at it full force are just about over. She needs a formidable opponent, and Lauren could suit that purpose. To make it interesting, why not make Jill better at running the Fenmore empire than Lauren ever was?

9. Expand Phyllis' sphere. I love Phyllis but, for too long now her entire universe has consisted of Nick, Nick, and more Nick. Michelle Stafford is a great actress, and she's capable of doing so much more than she's been doing for the last two years. Phyllis and Nick are over. So over. Let it die. No one wants to watch Phyllis beg Nick to love her for the umpteenth time. I want to see her kick Nick in the balls. Or dump a load of manure on Sharon's lawn. Better still, I want Phyllis to get deeply embloiled in a story line that has absolutely nothing to do with Nick, at all. Great character, great actor...she's on contract...use her, dammit. She's good for so much more than just being the devoted wife who stands by and lets her husband make a fool of her.

10. A lot of people want Dru back, but that won't happen. For far too many reasons to go into, I don't have a hope in hell that Victoria Rowell will be back on the set of Y&R, EVER. That leaves us with Drucilla's pathetic, little family and, frankly, they're not cutting it. Here's the thing - I don't believe...I've NEVER believed that Dru would end up with a bland, boring, milquetoasty daughter as played by Christel Khalil. The Winters family is lacking in spunk, and Lily is where it should come from. If viewers won't get the satisfaction of getting Dru back, Y&R should infuse the character of Lily with a lot more of the characteristics that made Dru so damned likable: a tougher attitude, a more outspoken demeanor, a lot less gentility. Frankly, Khalil doesn't have the chops for this, and a recast is in order. If we're ever going to care about any of the Winters family, and if there's ever going to be a chance for Dru's legacy to be passed down, this is pretty much it.