Establishing a Soap Is No Day at the Beach
By Justine Elias
New York Times
February 23, 1997
When a fresh-faced Kansas girl ditches her husband-to-be in favor of a mysterious Southern California man she met on the Internet, she finds herself in a picturesque coastal town touched by romance, murder, misunderstandings and nefarious schemes in equal measure. Welcome to Sunset Beach, Miss K.C. Now, get busy. After a formidable publicity campaign to hype its Jan. 6 debut, it's time for SUNSET BEACH, Aaron Spelling's new daytime soap opera (weekdays at noon on NBC) to find a devoted audience.
In an industry in which shows are created and discarded by the dozens, a new daytime drama is a rarity. NBC's SANTA BARBARA, which survived for eight years, is considered the most recent success; GENERATIONS and THE CITY (which has its final episode March 28) were both canceled after little more than a year. NBC, whose current daytime lineup ranks last in the ratings, hopes its newest series is built for a long run.
Mr. Spelling, the prolific and successful creator of past prime-time hits like CHARLIE'S ANGELS, THE LOVE BOAT and FAMILY, had never worked in the daytime field, although his biggest hits (DYNASTY, MELROSE PLACE, BEVERLY HILLS, 90210 and SAVANNAH) are known for lavish, racy, fast-paced drama and strong characters. With SUNSET BEACH, the aim is to bring nighttime to daytime.
"One of the goals for the show is to make it more cutting-edge," says Laura Harring, who plays a Sunset Beach police officer. "That's why the story lines have a lot of humor and lots of conflict."
The Spelling influence is already apparent: characters on MELROSE PLACE, for example, are often hilariously direct in stating their desires and dislikes, and similar clashes are in the works for SUNSET BEACH. Two actresses, Lesley Anne Down (of UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS) and the newcomer Sarah Buxton, show signs of becoming a classic matchup of battling soap opera vixens. And there's at least one soap stud in the making: Jason George, a recent drama school graduate who plays a heroic lifeguard, won his role after beating 14,000 actors at nationwide open casting calls.
Gary Tomlin, the executive producer, who has 20 years' experience as a daytime actor, writer and director, was chosen by Mr. Spelling to run the show's day-to-day operations. "The pace of our storytelling is slightly faster than on other shows," Mr. Tomlin said. "And with all the location shooting on the beach, we look different than shows that are shot mainly in the studio."
Mr. Tomlin said SUNSET BEACH was breaking away from some soap traditions. Most series begin by focusing on three families in a single town, but SUNSET BEACH, like MELROSE PLACE and 90210, also features a beach house shared by roommates in their 20's. "For a lot of single people living far from their hometowns, their friends are their family, and we want to reflect that," he said.
Ms. Harring, whose character is enmeshed in a confusing romantic and professional relationship with her lieutenant, said she was grateful for the chance to play a more complicated role than she had in the past. In 1990, she was the center of daytime's first Hispanic story line when she played a Central American refugee on GENERAL HOSPITAL.
"I was a victim all the time, and I hate that," she said. "When I joined SUNSET BEACH, I said, 'I am not going to be a pushover anymore.' I may wear a little more hair spray than most cops, but police are normal people with real, full lives."
Ms. Harring, Mr. Tomlin and the rest of the SUNSET BEACH cast and crew regularly receive notes from Mr. Spelling on everything from story lines to hairstyles. Mr. Tomlin said the first character on the show to attract a following was Meg, the Kansas City transplant played by Susan Ward, probably because she was "emotionally vulnerable, optimistic and a risk-taker."
If SUNSET BEACH is to outlast its 12-month tryout, NBC and Mr. Spelling must attract millions of Megs in the audience. "We're giving the audience very strong rooting interest, and we hope to make the stakes very clear in every scene and every story line," said Mr. Tomlin. "But after a year, the only thing that matters will be the ratings."