Tuesday, June 30, 2009

FLASHBACK: Young, Restless And Socially Aware 1992

TELEVISION VIEW; The Young, the Restless And the Socially Aware

By John J. O'Connor
New York Times
July 19, 1992

Ridiculous! Preposterous! Yes, and indestructible! The daytime soap opera, television's most original contribution to popular entertainment, has faced possible extinction more than once over the past decades and then has confounded detractors by striking out in new directions and ending up livelier than ever. And it's happening again.

No daytime executive is likely to insist that, after decades of creeping change, soap operas are now enlightened arenas of social awareness and responsibility. Certain subjects, abortion being the most prominent right now, remain off limits. Lower rungs of the social ladder are virtually ignored; residents of soaps could hardly have been prepared for the recent racial explosions in Los Angeles. Weddings, births and murder trials are still most favored gimmicks for grabbing an audience.

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But there is a new sophistication in both style and content. A broad range of serious issues are being tackled on soaps, and increasingly so. One key reason: Daytime audiences are also privy to the slew of talk shows, from Oprah Winfrey's to Sally Jessy Raphael's, in which every possible sort of human behavior and foible is discussed in excruciating detail. "Next on DONAHUE," promised the announcer on one commercial break, "My Mother Was a Slut." For better or worse, the chance of offending delicate sensibilities grows ever more remote in the tell-all world of the public confessional.

On the soaps, the more sensational topics like rape and incest have never been in short supply. But the writers obviously read newspapers and watch talk shows, and their scripts now encompass other current concerns. The issue of illiteracy, for instance, surfaced this past year for at least two attractive young characters, Dru on the top-rated YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (CBS), and Jason on ONE LIFE TO LIVE (ABC). The problem of alcoholism is drawn in subtler strokes, seen primarily as a disease in the case of young Hayley on ALL MY CHILDREN (ABC), but perhaps growing into a character defect for Asa Buchanan on ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

As more black performers become contract players on daytime dramas -- their numbers are still relatively few but steadily improving -- there has been a noticeable increase in interracial love stories, inevitably featuring a black woman and a white man. Jessica the attorney and Duncan the debonair Scot, perhaps the most successful of these couples, have been cultivating their relationship very, very slowly and carefully on AS THE WORLD TURNS (CBS). (The troubling issue of racial bias is generally shunned by the soaps, one of the few recent exceptions being on ALL MY CHILDREN when young Terence was attacked by white bullies.)

By far the loudest message coming out of audience research, soap executives say, is a desire for women characters to be stronger, more independent and self-sufficient. While the concept of family remains important, viewers are not very enthusiastic about women depicted primarily as appendages to men. Then, of course, there is the blazingly hot issue of sexual harassment. Right now on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, Cricket is plotting revenge on Michael, the hotshot lawyer who would boost her new law career in exchange for sexual favors. Michael was clever enough never to have witnesses around, and except for her husband, nobody will believe Cricket. But just wait.

The past several years have been dicey for soaps as ratings dipped, in line with the rest of network schedules, and producers were urged to rein in budgets. After all, game shows and talk formats are cheaper than daytime dramas. Today, though, a new energy can be detected in certain soap quarters.

Among the newer creative collaborations in soaps, one of the more intriguing involves the ONE LIFE TO LIVE team of its executive producer, Linda Gottlieb, and its head writer, Michael Malone. Her production credits include the film Dirty Dancing. He is the author of several favorably reviewed novels, the latest being "Foolscap." Arriving in soapland about a year ago, neither could claim much previous acquaintance with daytime drama, but both were enthusiastic about the possibilities. Their bustling ABC studios in Manhattan, housing a staff complete from directors to costume designers, prompted memories of Hollywood factories in the 1930's, the ones that occasionally turned out something brilliant.

Story lines for ONE LIFE TO LIVE (three or four are usually in simultaneous rotation) have become even shorter, with a greater abundance of middles and ends. Faces aren't always as pretty as the daytime norm, perhaps with more of an "ethnic look." Stories are being tailored more closely to the personalities of the actors, Mr. Malone says, a creative decision similar to that of "doing choreography on a dancer." Ms. Gottlieb brings to the scene a film maker's approach, focused on postproduction editing and elements like music. Lee Holdridge created the show's new theme, and mood music is employed more extensively. Long gone are the days when every other scene faded out, with organ music, on a close-up of a trembling coffee cup.

Mr. Malone, who has taught fiction at Yale, Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, reaches past Hollywood to Shakespeare's Globe Theater to explain his delight at being able to make up characters and then rush over to the studio and see them in flesh and blood. In novels like "Time's Witness," Mr. Malone has written long, rather complicated stories peopled with dozens of characters, his favorites obviously being the most colorful. So it's not surprising these days to find ONE LIFE TO LIVE giving new prominence to Luna, an endearingly spacey young woman whose exploits have already included sessions with an odd radio host, played by Dick Cavett in a Howard Stern fright wig.

Currently the series is exploring, gingerly to be sure, the subject of homosexuality or, to be more precise, homophobia. A boy in his early teens, evidently a virgin, decides that he is gay and looks to his minister for advice. Several weeks ago the secret got out and some of the town's good citizens began harassing not only the boy but the minister who is being supportive. However tentative, this is the kind of continuing story line, scheduled to run through the summer, not likely to be even touched on prime time. Any sympathetic depiction of a homosexual character can still get certain protest groups into a righteous lather. The willingness of ABC and ONE LIFE TO LIVE to take a calculated risk is, at the very least, noteworthy.

Teen-agers have long been among the soaps' most popular characters. Now soaps for younger audiences are by far the busiest trend in current programming, with Fox's "Beverly Hills 90210," Nickelodeon's "Fifteen" and the syndicated "Swans Crossing," not for a moment to be confused with Proust's "Swann's Way."

MTV has recognized that soaps enjoy a widespread following on college campuses, and the music-oriented cable service is trying to crack the market with "The Real World," its cast consisting of seven twentysomething non-actors herded into a Manhattan loft to interact as naturally as possible in front of video cameras. The MTV effort is called "a reality-based soap opera" but the results so far, without the benefit of writers and scripts, only demonstrate that whipping up a soap is not as easy as it looks.

But when they work, their success can be perennial. Even without tracing their literary roots to the the Arabian Nights tales of Scheherazade or the serialized novels of the 19th century, the kind Charles Dickens churned out, soaps can claim an electronic longevity unparalleled in the entertainment business. This year CBS's GUIDING LIGHT, which made its debut as a 15-minute radio serial in 1937, is celebrating its 40th anniversary on network television. Runs of 20 or 30 years are commonplace among the 11 daytime dramas that are presented Monday through Friday, 52 weeks a year.

Each has its own production staff, writers and repertory company of actors, all caught up in a unique enterprise described quite aptly by one veteran executive as "the train that never stops." But the passengers and their attitudes do keep changing, even as the basic story formats, revolving around families and relationships, love and conflict, remain as rigid as any medieval-quest yarn.

The on-screen fates of soap characters are linked to everything from audience research with focus groups to the sudden decision of an actor to leave a series. Although the latter development is becoming less serious a problem as, increasingly, viewers are simply informed by an off-camera announcer that a certain role is being filled, temporarily or permanently, by another performer. Surely, in the sense of being frequently indifferent to questions of consistency and continuity, soaps are the perfect embodiment of trendy postmodernism.

Behind the scenes, landmarks in soap opera history are linked to a relative handful of names: Irna Phillips, who created for CBS the first major half-hour serial, AS THE WORLD TURNS, in the early 1950's; Agnes Nixon, who brought to ABC ONE LIFE TO LIVE in 1968 and ALL MY CHILDREN in 1970; and William J. Bell, who upped the glitz-and-flesh ante in 1973 with CBS's YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, later to be supplemented with THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

A key shift in traditional administration took place in 1978 when Gloria Monty took over as producer of ABC's "General Hospital." Instead of a show being controlled by its creator and a stable of writers, it was now overseen by a collaboration of executive producer and head writer. GENERAL HOSPITAL made scenes shorter and sets splashier, eventually hitting a payoff of sorts with the 1981 wedding of the characters Luke and Laura, attended by Elizabeth Taylor (as a character she had portrayed on the show earlier) and racking up the highest ratings ever for daytime television.

In the end, soaps can be glorious grab bags, full of dizzying surprises. In the past year or so, viewers could have found anything from a full-fledged black-and-white film-noir parody of Sam Spade detective stories to a fashion show held aboard the QE2. A memorably nasty villainess on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, mistakenly thought to have been killed in a fire, simply moved over to THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, where she is now plotting further horrors. And then there's Susan Lucci of "All My Children," nominated and passed by 13 times for the Daytime Emmy as outstanding lead actress. Losing has brought her more publicity mileage and respect than winning ever could. At the recent ceremonies, wiping away tears of gratitude, she received a standing ovation from her peers.

That recent NBC broadcast, live from New York, of "The 19th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards" captured the sense of revived spirit as nominees accepted their prizes exuding a zesty combination of justifiable pride and, with a knowing wink, understandable sheepishness. Significantly, the ceremonies, long considered too much like a poor relation to merit a prime-time showcase, became the week's top-rated program.


Of the 11 daytime soap operas, all have at least one socially relevant story line currently unfolding. Here is a sampling.

* ALL MY CHILDREN (ABC): The battered-wife syndrome. Carter is out of prison, back in Pine Valley and already making trouble for his wife, Galen, who has been the victim of his physical abuse before.

* ANOTHER WORLD (NBC): The problems of Amerasian children. Lily believes that her father, an American soldier who died in Vietnam, never loved her.

* AS THE WORLD TURNS (CBS): Interracial romance. Duncan, who's white, and Jessica, who's black, are engaged. Tune in for an August wedding and see which of their friends and family stand by them.

* THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (CBS): Late-in-life pregnancy. Sally, who is in her 50's, went through amniocentesis and learned about the risks to herself and her child. Now the baby's here, but Clarke has left her.

* DAYS OF OUR LIVES (NBC): Sexual harassment. Gavin, a college professor, attacked Molly, a student who also works for him. She's pressing charges.

* GENERAL HOSPITAL (ABC): Alcoholism. A. J. Quartermaine still doesn't realize that his drinking is a problem, though it led to a car accident that almost killed him and Nikki. Karen Wexler's mother, Rhonda, has the same problem.

* GUIDING LIGHT (CBS): Breast cancer. Lillian, a nurse, has had her mammogram, biopsy, treatments, support-group meetings and a bout with denial.

* LOVING (ABC): Custody. Trisha and Trucker are fighting for the child she gave birth to after leaving him.

* ONE LIFE TO LIVE (ABC): Homophobia. Billy, a teen-ager, told his minister he was gay. The town is in an uproar, assuming the minister, because of his sympathetic reaction, must be homosexual, too.

* SANTA BARBARA (NBC): Child abuse. B. J., who was molested at the age of 10 by her godfather, has carried the secret for years. That's about to change.

* THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (CBS): HIV testing. When Victoria asked Ryan to be tested, he said no. When Nina asked, he said yes. So far all tests are negative. But who does Ryan really love?

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