Thursday, December 25, 2008

FLASHBACK: Tears Take No Holiday On the Soaps

Tears Take No Holiday On the Soaps

By Dan Wakefield
New York Times
January 4, 1976

If you, too, have been battered by the barrage of fake togetherness that assaults us every holiday season - that prime time for suicide, crime and marital discord - you may be cheered to know there is a way to see the Christmas traumas dramatized in their true form each year. If you need to be reassured that you're not the only one who gets migraines from jingle bells, just tune into soap operas. The much-maligned daytime dramas are one place you'll find acknowledgement that lots of people have a hard time with the holidays. I have found the best therapy for the crunch at Christmas is to buy a six pack of beer, a couple of pastrami sandwiches and sit back and watch the soaps on the day before Christmas.

The soaps generally work Christmas into their stories as a natural part of the lives of the characters, and this year as usual most of the serials had Christmas trees, gift-wrapped packages, and carolling by the cast. But none of them shrank from the psychic perils of the occasion, the truth that the pressure of the season heightens the tensions of everyday life.

THE DOCTORS episode of December 24th, on NBC, opened with a smiling, happy lady bubbling with good cheer about how she was looking forward to going home and spending Christmas with her son and daughter. A handsome, sympathetic man was listening to her, and for a moment I thought I was in for a taste of spun sugar, but then the kindly man said, "Eleanor, it might be best if we put you on thorazine for the duration of your visit," and the woman got hysterical. For Eleanor was a patient in a mental hospital and she was talking to her psychiatrist.

Back home, her husband and daughter Wendy were merrily trimming the Christmas tree, and Wendy said she felt "we're going to have a good, relaxing holiday this year." But I knew better.

The phone rang and it was the Doctor telling Scott that he was sending Eleanor home to him for Christmas. Scott's jaw and voice dropped to doom level, and Wendy, realizing what the news meant, grabbed a pretty ornament from the Christmas tree and smashed it to the floor. Later, apologizing to her father, she said, "I guess I wanted to beat mother to it."

Scott then rushed over to tell Althea, his lover (played by Elizabeth Hubbard), that his wife was coming home from the booby hatch and so he and his daughter couldn't come to the big Christmas dinner Althea was cooking for them. Althea, who just before Scott's arrival was singing "Tis the season to be jolly" as she added a bauble to her tree, said in a frozen voice, "I've really been an idiot - I was actually looking forward to Christmas." A shouting match ensued, and it was obvious that the holiday would be a full-scale disaster.

The program ended with Althea's young daughter Penny trying to comfort her, wondering why it was that true love always causes such pain. Althea said, "I wish I could tell you it gets better as you get old..."

But she couldn't, so they both sang "Jingle Bells" until Althea could stand it no more and clutched her head in agony while Penny continued the mocking lyrics. The Christmas tree twinkled in the background.

Meanwhile, over at "Ryan's Bar & Grill" in the "Riverside" section of New York City, most the cast of ABC's RYAN'S HOPE was assembling to sing carols and hang wreaths and pine boughs, but all was not sweetness and light. Young intern Bucky Carter (played by Justin Deas) confessed to the matriarch Maeve Ryan that he had "a bad case of the Christmas Blues," brought on by seeing his best friend Pat Ryan smooching it up in a corner with Faith Coleridge, the girl Bucky had wooed but failed miserably to win. As Faith nuzzled Pat, Bucky sighed, "It would have been wonderful if she could have related to me like that."

The gang around the piano was belting out "Come All Ye Faithful," but we kept getting close-ups of Bucky's favorite aunt Nell, who, we knew, has an inoperable aneurism. With all the tension and excitement, I couldn't help fearing when the camera zoomed in on Nell that her aneurism might pop in the last chorus of "Good King Wenceslas."

Again to keep things in balance, we cut from the jolly group of carolers to Jill Coleridge, alone at home mourning the end of her three-year affair with City Councilman Frank Ryan. The liason having been discovered by local gangster Nick Szabo, Jill knew she must give up Frank in order to save his political career. No merry Christmas for Jill, who wrapped her arms around her shoulders, squeezing, shivering.

Even soaps that didn't throw Christmas parties this year managed to sneak in some comment on the seasonal pressure. As the beautiful young Carol on NBC's ANOTHER WORLD told a friend after her man broke their holiday lunch date, "Christmas has always made me uneasy."

Over in Pine Valley, where ABC's ALL MY CHILDREN face the holiday with a pack of troubles, the usually even-tempered Kitty Shea, lost her cool when Margo, her boss at the Boutique, mocked her low mood with a "Ho, ho, ho, nad a meerrry Christmas!" Kitty wheeled around, her eyes flashing with anger, and shouted, "Lay off, will you?"

Say it again, Kitty.

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