Saturday, September 19, 2009

FLASHBACK: Hogan Sheffer's Oakdale Days (2002)


Why do so many terrible things keep happening to one town?

By Larissa MacFarquhar
The New Yorker
April 15, 2002

Barbara Ryan has not been lucky in love. She was dumped by her stepbrother for a jewelry thief who reminded him of his ex-wife, and later she dumped him for a pretender to the Swedish throne who turned out to be an Egyptian-tomb robber. She was jailed for the murder of her first husband until he showed up alive, she lost her second husband in a mysterious ballooning accident, and she married her third husband three times but it didn't work out. As a consequence of her various marriages, she has been shot, drugged, kidnapped, committed to a mental hospital, afflicted by amnesia (twice), nearly gored by a bull, nearly poisoned in a remote Scottish castle, tormented by visions of herself as an eighteenth-century woman named Bianca, and had her oxygen supply turned off by a murderous uncle-in-law as she lay hovering between life and death. Just last summer, she was caught in a fire intended to kill her archrival, Carly; she lay in a coma, hovering between life and death again, and the unscathed and winsome Carly ran off with husband No. 5. Now, her once beautiful face burned and hideous, she hides in her lonely house rather than suffer the pitying gasps of strangers. Is it any wonder that in recent months poor Barbara has begun to nurture thoughts of revenge?

The shame of it is, though, that she will never be able to avenge herself on the true author of her torments -- a friendly yet floridly sadistic man named Hogan Sheffer. As the head writer of the soap opera AS THE WORLD TURNS, Sheffer is responsible not only for Barbara's agonies but also for those of her thirty-odd enemies and so-called friends in Oakdale, the small fictional town near Chicago where she lives. Sheffer torments Oakdale, but Oakdale also torments Sheffer: he spends his days urging his brain to create ever more ghastly fates for the characters in his charge -- bitter and complicated misunderstandings that will take months to resolve, evil conspiracies, appalling streaks of terrible luck -- and at night he walks the streets of Oakdale in his dreams. He has five blank hours of programming to fill every week, fifty-one weeks a year, and if ever the thought arises that he may at last have plumbed the very deepest well of human misery he must push that thought aside and create misery anew. He must, in addition, master the countless rules of the soap genre, few of which are obvious but all of which are essential to success. It helps that he feels he has no choice. "I literally have no other marketable skills," he says. "I don't fix things. I'm a techno waste. I don't have a college degree. It's either this or I sell shoes."

AS THE WORLD TURNS has been on the air continuously since Eisenhower was President and television was just a few years old. It premiered in 1956, and Helen Wagner, who spoke the show's first line -- "Good morning" -- is still in the cast. The show has been sponsored from the start by Procter & Gamble, and is produced in a big old studio in Midwood, Brooklyn, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood halfway between Brooklyn Heights and Coney Island. The studio is a factory as the Hollywood studios of the thirties were factories, in which stories are squeezed out as regularly as sausages, and all the ingredients are assembled on-site: upstairs are hair and makeup, the actors' dressing rooms, and the production office; downstairs are wardrobe, the writers' room, and the soundstage, with all the sets. The Midwood studio has been around since 1915. "The Birth of a Nation" was shot in Studio One when it was owned by Warner Bros., and Esther Williams filmed specials there -- her pool is still underneath the floor.

Many of the program's fans have been watching it for all forty-six years of its history. Novels, plays, movies, and other TV shows come and go, beginning and ending, suturing stories into shapes, but AS THE WORLD TURNS goes on forever -- as melancholy and inconclusive and inscrutably fascinating as watching neighbors through a window. Since it is a rare fan who never misses an episode, there is a sense, too, in which Oakdale exists in its own time, its tragedies and conspiracies unfolding whether or not there is someone there to see them.

Sheffer is extremely good at his job. In 1999, the year before he was hired, AS THE WORLD TURNS was nominated for only one Daytime Emmy. The year after he was hired, it was nominated for twenty-three Emmys and won eight, more than a show had ever won in a single year. But Sheffer has been around the block too many times (he is forty-three) to assume that his luck will continue. "There are two hundred and fifty episodes a year," he says. "Some of them are going to suck, and some of them are going to be fine."

One day, Sheffer sat at the head of the table in the writers' room scratching his nose with a pen. His hair was a mess, he was wearing a black T-shirt over a gray T-shirt, he had just come back from sticking his head out the window to smoke a cigarette (Benson & Hedges), and he was slouching in his chair. He took up a lot of space in the room, both because he has a big personality and a loud laugh, and because he is big in general (when he accepted his Emmy last year, he faced the audience with a blank expression and asked them to remember that the camera adds five hundred pounds). Around the table sat six other writers, waiting for his direction.

Sheffer stared at his notes. Over the weekend, he had written a fifteen-page thrust -- an outline of the story for the next week or so. The purpose of the meeting was to break up this story into days, and segments within days, and scenes within segments. Each hour would be interrupted six times by commercials, and the scene preceding each break had to end with a tag line sufficiently tantalizing to seduce the viewer into watching the rest of the show. The scenes had to be ordered so that each segment led up to the most exciting possible tag, and the segments had to be ordered so that the second-best tag would lead into the longest commercial break, at the half-hour mark, and the best tag of the day would end the show. The writers at the meeting that day were "breakdown writers," whose job it was to help Sheffer figure out details of the plot and break down his thrust into scenes. Later, scriptwriters, the next group of workers in the story assembly line, would translate the breakdowns into scripts.

As usual, Oakdale was a disaster. Barbara was in a coma in the I.C.U., looking like the top of a quiche. "Just now one of the MONITORING GIZMOS starts to go berserk," Sheffer had written in his thrust. "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! -- and Paul, Jack and Jen jump up and check it out. [RESEARCH -- PLEASE! THIS WRITER KNOWS JACKSHIT ABOUT MEDICAL SHIT.] Maybe it's the heart monitor or something. But it alarms them. Paul turns to Jack and says -- 'Get Bob Hughes in here quick! Something is wrong!' Jack flees."

James Stenbeck, Barbara's evil first husband (the tomb robber), who had come back from the dead four times in twenty years, was about to show up in town. Craig Montgomery, her evil fifth husband, was in jail charged with attempted murder because everyone thought he lit the fire that almost killed Barbara. Carly was back together with Jack, but their union was precarious. Jack was worried that, with all Carly's success in the fashion world, he would be left behind.

"I've got about fifteen scenes in the first day so far, so I'm just looking for a third story line," said Stephen, the writer who was working on Episode 11,555, the day at hand.

Sheffer told him to write a relationship talk for Jack and Carly, but to make Jack bleat less than usual, because he was getting annoying. Sheffer had only a limited number of characters with whom to generate romantic intrigue five days a week and he couldn't afford to have one of his male leads turn into a ninny.

"So my challenge on that is the old keep-him-strong thing," Stephen said, writing this down.

"Yes," Sheffer said. "This is Jack saying, 'I'm just a meat-and-potatoes guy.' He works a shift, beats the dog, fixes his car, and goes to bed."

"But he's not having a self-esteem problem."

"No, that's just it -- you can give him his dick back."

The restoration of testosterone to the show's men is one of Sheffer's most urgent concerns. "When I first started here," he says, "I used to sit and point to the list of male characters and say, 'No dick, no dick, no dick, no dick, no dick.' It's one of the reasons that daytime shows go south -- the men are turned into whining idiots while their women run amok. You can't write scenes where the men say, 'Why don't you love me? What can I do to help you?' It's horrible." Sheffer was trying to figure out ways that men could demonstrate attachment without talking about it. There had been a lot of daring rescues lately.

On the wall of the writers' room facing Sheffer hung two large whiteboards, on which were detailed a few of the innumerable structural constraints that determined what kind of story could be told. There was, for instance, a list of the sets that were currently up in the studio (Jake's apartment, the police station, the radio station, the old mill, Barbara's room in the I.C.U.), and a list of characters' birthdays and significant dates ("July 27, 2000: Jake/Molly 1st kiss"). Also to be taken into account were: actresses who were pregnant or planning to become pregnant (two, due in January -- a situation complicated by the fact that both actresses were married to other actors in the show), cast members on vacation (several, including one of the leading ladies, who counted as two, because she played identical twins), people leaving the show (the actress who played Lien, the lawyer and half-Vietnamese love child, had signed up to star in a Broadway musical), Oakdale's bafflingly complex relationship history (avoiding incest was a significant challenge), and, at the end of it all, Procter & Gamble -- the source of many strictures of taste and morality, against which Sheffer struggled daily with a mixture of frustration and enjoyment.

"We don't have any Carly-and-Craig stuff here, do we?" Hal, another writer, asked.

Carly was in an awkward position. She was known to be both Craig's only friend in town and Barbara's archrival, so she was worried that she would be suspected of being Craig's accomplice in setting the fire. The question was, then, whether she should visit Craig in jail in order to discuss strategy or avoid him in order to placate Jack, who suspected (correctly) that Craig had a crush on her. Carolyn, a third writer, suggested that she lie to Jack and go see Craig anyway.

"But I don't want her to say to Jack, 'I'm never going to see Craig,' and then a scene later go see Craig," Sheffer said, frowning. "It really makes Jack look like the biggest douche bag."

The other problem with Carly seeing Craig in jail was that Hunt Block, the actor who played Craig, was going to be on vacation until the Tuesday following the taping day they were talking about.

"We don't have Hunt until Tuesday?" Sheffer asked in disbelief. In fact, several leading actors were going to be on vacation at once. "Jesus Christ," he said gloomily. "We're left with three sixty-seven-year-old people and a fucking dog."

Sheffer grew up in York, Pennsylvania, a small town near the Maryland border. His mother worked in the county laundry; his father was a prison guard and an ex-marine. Sheffer hated school, so after high school he didn't go to college but hung around York, tending bar and working in a bank. He thought about writing a novel, but didn't. He read a lot and watched movies and developed strong opinions about them. ("We used to keep a list of things that Hogan hates," one writer on the show says. "Every single actor except William Holden. Every movie ever made except 'All About Eve.' ") His younger brother, Craig, decided to become an actor and moved to New York, and he persuaded Sheffer to come up and join him. "If it weren't for Craig, I wouldn't be here," he says. "I'd be dead in Pennsylvania, I guess, or maybe still a bartender. I always tell him, 'You're a shit, but you'll go to Heaven.' "

When Sheffer moved to New York, in 1983, Craig was acting on Broadway and making movies on the side (he is best known for playing Brad Pitt's older brother in "A River Runs Through It"). "I'd do one movie a year, and then we'd spend all the money in three months on meals and limousines," Craig says. "We were living the white-trash dream. It was really fun." Craig and Hogan shared a bed for a year in a tiny room on West Nineteenth Street, and then they moved to a fifth-floor walkup in Hell's Kitchen with three other guys, one of whom slept in the kitchen, next to the sink. Sheffer worked as a billing clerk in a leather-goods sweatshop in the garment district, then in a bank in the Bronx, and finally he got a job as a script analyst in a production company. Meanwhile, he met people in theatre, and he helped found the acting troupe Naked Angels. Everyone was always putting on plays, most of them terrible, so he would go to two or three plays a week, go out drinking until six, and be at work at seven-thirty. "Somehow I didn't die," he says. "It was a fucking good time."

In 1990, though, the script reading dried up, so he drove across the country with a friend and ended up in Los Angeles. "That was when I formed this loathing for the West that I have," he says. "I was in Montana for a week, and it was beautiful. So what? Even in places like Santa Fe you'd go, Wow, this is a really cool part of the world, but I don't want to live here. There are guys on donkeys up in the hills. I don't want to live anyplace with donkeys." Sheffer hated L.A., but he got another job reading scripts and wrote his own stuff on the side. He wrote an action-adventure script called "Fool's Gold," he wrote a kind of James Bond movie set during the American Revolution called "The Black Rose," and he wrote "The Passion of Paul," a drama about a young girl who could heal people and a reporter who thought she was a fraud. He sold several scripts and a TV pilot, but none were made, and finally he got tired of earning a hundred and fifty thousand dollars one year and eleven thousand the next, because when he made money he spent it, and then the next year he'd be back to not answering the phone, in case it was a collection agency. He took a full-time job developing scripts for a friend, Mark Johnson, who at the time had a production deal at DreamWorks. "Pitches all day long," Sheffer says of this job. " 'This is a story of something that actually happened to me. I fell in love last summer.' Jesus Christ. Unless it was with a dinosaur, we don't want to hear it." In general -- creatively, personally, financially -- he was stuck in a tight space.

Then, in March, 2000, Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, the Procter & Gamble executive in charge of daytime programming, and Chris Goutman, the executive producer of AS THE WROLD TURNS, flew to L.A. to attend the Soap Opera Digest Awards and to find new writers. As Dwyer-Dobbin and Goutman saw it, the fact that the show had received only one Emmy nomination that spring was a wake-up call. A friend of a friend of Sheffer's told Dwyer-Dobbin and Goutman about him, and they arranged a meeting.

Four days after the meeting, on a Saturday, Goutman called Sheffer and told him to get on a plane and be in New York on Tuesday morning. Sheffer didn't even have time to stop his mail. He was hired as a writer for a trial period, and eight weeks later Goutman fired the head writer and installed Sheffer in her place.

When the Procter & Gamble executives first approached him, Sheffer had no idea what soap operas were all about -- he'd never even watched one -- so for a couple of weeks before the meeting he followed AS THE WORLD TURNS and P. & G.'s other show, GUIDING LIGHT. "I didn't care for GUIDING LIGHT, " he says. "At the time, it was a combination of Mafia stories and a mystical kingdom -- I just couldn't connect to it at all. Potentates without countries and princesses in distress, and then you'd cut to the B story, which would be two Mafia guys trying to assassinate somebody in a hospital room. AS THE WORLD TURNS was boring as hell, but it had good actors and good characters." AS THE WORLD TURNS was unusual, he discovered, in that it had not recently taken a turn to the supernatural in an attempt to boost ratings; it was practically the only daytime show on the air that hadn't had at least one scene set in Heaven.

The main problem with AS THE WORLD TURNS, Sheffer decided, was that it was brain-meltingly slow. There would be one scene in which a couple of women discussed a baby, and then, after the commercial, there would be the same women discussing the same baby, and so on for five or six nearly identical scenes. This was not a mistake, exactly -- when the show was created, the idea was that the story should be sufficiently slow and repetitive that a housewife running in and out of the room, distracted by children screaming and doorbells ringing and egg timers going off, could still follow what was going on. But now if you were going to watch television you generally sat down and watched television, and Sheffer felt that, in order for a person to be able to watch a whole episode without changing the channel or shooting herself, it just had to get quicker.

Procter & Gamble started sending him script outlines, and he read maybe a hundred and fifty of them, but for a long time he didn't understand how they worked -- he couldn't crack the code. He figured out small things. He realized, for instance, that there was something peculiar about soap time, in that it was both much slower than life (an Oakdale day is stretched out over a week or more of real time) and much faster (events piled on top of each other). But he kept saying to himself, "I just don't know what the rule is here. What's the rule?"

Finally, he got it. Soaps weren't about visual atmosphere, like movies. There were only a certain number of sets, and for budgetary reasons each had to be used again and again for all sorts of different scenes, so you couldn't go cutting and jumping around from here to there -- you stayed here. In that sense, soaps had barely evolved from radio. (Every now and then, of course, a show will authorize a bit of extravagance. Last summer, Sheffer felt that the emotional advancement of the plot demanded a near-death experience in quicksand, and his executive producer arranged for the delivery of a colossal vat of porridge.)

Soaps weren't about the quality of the dialogue, either, because they simply moved too fast for that -- you couldn't write a script every couple of days and produce Dostoyevsky. (A movie production will get through between one and three pages per day; a prime-time TV show will shoot between eight and ten; soaps shoot the equivalent of sixty.) And, unlike a movie or a play, a soap wasn't about one or two main characters or situations. Because the show had to sustain itself indefinitely and you couldn't focus on one person forever, the characters would emerge into the foreground and then recede: one year one person would be the center of everything, and the next year it would be somebody else. That meant that when you put together a scene you had to make sure you paid attention to every point of view, because everybody mattered. In the end, Sheffer decided, soaps were all about plot. Endless, frustrating, complicated, gripping plot.

In New York, Sheffer soon discovered that there were rules that weren't apparent until you broke them. He learned, for instance, that it was a curious convention of soaps that nothing of any importance could happen offscreen, because it would not seem real (whereas, in a play or a movie, if a character stumbles onstage bleeding from the head, claiming to have been in a car wreck, the audience generally believes him). "Right after I got here," he says, "some outside force was threatening to take a child away because the parents weren't married. Well, they go and get married and show up at the court hearing and say, 'We're married.' In the writers' room, I said, 'That's stupid. Why don't we not show them getting married and then in Act V, when they come in and announce it, it'll be a surprise?' They said, 'You can't do that: if the audience didn't see it, it didn't happen.' "

Sheffer learned, too, that Procter & Gamble, as personified by Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, had opinions, including opinions of the opinions of the fans, which it garnered from the Internet, phone calls to the network, mail, and CBS's new focus-group facility, in Las Vegas. For instance, the fans had recently made clear their distaste for Simon's spiky haircut (Simon was a new character), and so the haircut had been changed. More generally, Dwyer-Dobbin made it her business to insure that Sheffer stayed away from any story that was too depressing or controversial. "The two things she likes to deny me are death and sex," Sheffer says.

In his first year on the show, Sheffer fought hard to rob eighteen-year-old Jennifer of her virginity, because he thought that the show badly needed a young bitch, and figured that a freshly deflowered Jennifer would fit the part nicely. Dwyer-Dobbin, however, resisted. "Hogan wrote a story line in which he wanted Jennifer to get pregnant," she said last summer, "but she's such a beautiful actress -- do you really want to see her in padding and pregnancy outfits? It just wasn't what we wanted to do. And I don't think in this day and age we would have an abortion on the show. Not right now. We don't need that kind of controversy, because we might lose viewers. 'All My Children' is doing a gay story line right now, and -- how shall I put this? -- the ratings haven't gone up."

AS THE WORLD TURNS and EDGE OF NIGHT, both of which premiered in 1956, were the first half-hour daytime TV serials -- the other ones, like the radio dramas that preceded them, were fifteen minutes. (Since 1975, the show has been an hour long.) The obvious way to deal with the extra time was to add more story, but it was the genius of the show's creator, Irna Phillips, to understand that what the extra minutes allowed her was not more story but less. Instead of moving the plot forward, Phillips wrote long, drawn-out conversations in which almost nothing was said. She wrote in lingering, meaningful looks and tense, significant pauses. She inserted what the cast came to call "strange interludes" -- whole scenes in which a character would stand or sit in a room looking pensive, while the audience heard a tape of his voice expressing his thoughts.

AS THE WORLD TURNS became famous for being excruciatingly slow. Whole weeks would pass when absolutely nothing happened. Nothing happening became refined into a new art. At first, it's true, writers didn't understand that nothing happening on television was different from nothing happening on the radio -- you couldn't, for instance, as you could in radio, have a man sit down in a barber's chair on Monday and extend his shave through Thursday afternoon. But, still, Irna Phillips's law of soaps was, as her protegee Agnes Nixon put it, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait." The audience loved it. For decades, with the exception of a brief slump in the early seventies, AS THE WORLD TURNS was the top-rated show in daytime. THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW ran an ongoing parody called AS THE STOMACH TURNS.

Behind all the now classic soap techniques -- the amnesia plot, the cliff-hanging tag line at the end of an episode, the pregnant pause, the long, slow closeup preceding a fadeout -- was Irna Phillips. Soap opera, like psychoanalysis, traces its origins, through generations of training and the passing on of wisdom, to a great founder, and Phillips is that founder. At the end of the twenties, Phillips was a dissatisfied schoolteacher in Dayton, Ohio. She travelled to Chicago in 1930 to become an actress, but instead she was hired to write "Painted Dreams," the first radio serial for women, and she was so good at it that by the end of the thirties she had four serials going at once. She never married; soaps were her life. She was famously a tyrant. She refused to call her actors by their real names -- she always referred to them by the names of their characters. If Procter & Gamble interfered with her authorial prerogative (forbidding, for instance, the marriage of an adulterous couple, lest adultery be rewarded), she became enraged and killed off characters in revenge. Sick of one longtime romance, she had the couple marry and then had the man file for annulment a few days later on the ground of sexual impotence.

Irna Phillips begat Ted Corday, William Bell, and Agnes Nixon. Ted Corday directed AS THE WORLD TURNS under Phillips in the fifties, and then, in 1965, created DAYS OF OUR LIVES. William Bell wrote for AS THE WORLD TURNS and created THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, in 1973, and, later, THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Nixon trained under Phillips in the forties at a radio show called THE WOMAN IN WHITE and wrote television scripts for her at AS THE WORLD TURNS in the fifties. She broke off to create ONE LIFE TO LIVE (1968), ALL MY CHILDREN (1970), and LOVING (1983).

These days, several generations removed from the founder, many soap writers come from the theatre. It's a well-paid job (ordinary writers earn in the low-to-mid six figures), and steady work, because once you've proved yourself competent, no matter how many times you're fired (and you will be fired often -- daytime-writing contracts, like late-night-comedy contracts, but unlike prime-time contracts, come up for renewal every thirteen weeks), the chances are you'll be hired again soon, by another show, because the business is reluctant to take a risk on an outsider. Outsiders tend to overwrite, or they get writer's block, or they get frustrated with the story assigned to their day and start stealing plot from someone else's day, or they try to write in a distinctive voice and mess up the tone.

A good soap writer will take it as a compliment if a head writer says he can't tell which of the two of them wrote a scene. A good soap writer will turn out a ninety-page script every week, fifty weeks a year. A great soap writer, of course, scoffs at a script a week. One early legend, Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews, who started out as a reporter at the Chicago Daily News, began writing for radio in the late twenties or early thirties, and for many years he turned out about five scripts a day, seven days a week. He typed from noon to midnight, smoking five packs of cigarettes and drinking forty cups of coffee. His record was thirty-two thousand words in twenty hours.

Writers who come from the theatre quickly learn how different soaps are from plays. No soap writer can long survive who thinks about soaps in terms of other sorts of fiction. Soaps are not stories so much as story -- something you eat when you feel like it. "It's as if you wrote a novel and you said, 'Well, let's see, they'll read Chapter 1, Chapter 4, Chapter 12, a little bit of Chapter 13, and then they'll go fix lunch," Michael Malone, a novelist who for a few years was the head writer on "One Life to Live," says. It makes emotional sense that soaps play in the daytime and art plays at night: art is dinner and soaps are breakfast. A movie or a play, like a dinner, can be charged, singular, and memorable; episodes of a soap, like breakfasts, are comforting and, in their number and regularity, undifferentiated. Soaps offer stories to feed on because the people you know don't provide enough of them. Soap characters are part of fans' ordinary lives, not their fantasy lives.

In their first few decades, soaps were an extraordinary success. During the early nineteen-forties, half of all women at home listened to soaps during the day, and there were more than seventy of them on the air. The audience was loyal, even though, in the early years, not only were there dozens of commercials but product placement was actually worked into the scripts. (One example: "I am happy to meet you, Mrs. Nelson, and where in the world did you get that perfectly stunning orchid clip? Why, it gleams like virgin gold, and just look at those gorgeous colors -- exactly like a rainbow and sunset coming together in a resplendent display of almost unimaginable beauty.") As late as 1977, fifty million people watched at least one soap opera a week. At its height, according to William Bell, AS THE WORLD TURNS had a sixty-four share, which means that sixty-four per cent of all the people watching television at the time it aired were watching the show. (The top-rated show now, "Friends," has a twenty-two share.) These days, the soap audience is twenty million, and the rumor circulates that daytime is dying.

Last summer, Procter & Gamble, seeking, as always, ways to improve ratings, made some changes in the writers' room. It decided that it employed too many male writers who weren't giving the show the emotional depth its viewers expected, so male writers were fired and replaced with female ones. Suddenly, Sheffer found that his job became a lot harder. "With the men, no one challenged me," he says. "The women, they fight and they're contentious and obsessive. I always tell 'em I want to get a T-shirt that says, 'Take the fucking note, period.' "

At one meeting in July, there were several upcoming events to be taken into account. The actress who played Katie was getting married in early September and planned to honeymoon in Europe. The actors who played Simon and Holden had both scheduled knee operations for the fall. The most complicated item on the day's agenda, though, was the gunfight in Malta. Several weeks before, Damian, Holden, and Luke had perished off the coast of Lake Michigan in an exploding boat. It was Damian's second death, Holden's and Luke's first. Luke was Lily's son by Damian; Holden and Lily were teen-age sweethearts, though their romance was unconventional, since Lily's biological mother, Iva, was the adopted daughter of Holden's mother, Emma, making Holden Lily's uncle. As it turned out, Holden and Luke had not died, and Lily and Simon had tracked them down to a small restaurant in the Maltese hills named Caffe dell'Arte.

At the end of the last scene, Simon was lying bleeding in a corner after being stabbed by Dante; Lily and Holden were being restrained by Dante's thugs; Luke was bound, gagged, and covered with a large sack; and Lucinda had a gun pointed at Dante's head. Any number of problems had already presented themselves. For instance, at some point it would be revealed that Luke was not Luke but a midget in disguise (hence the sack), but when to reveal this? There was also the question of lights. Everyone agreed that it would be exciting if at some crucial point in the scene the lights went out, but when? Hal proposed it should be after Lucinda shot Dante.

"But what reason would the lights have for going out after he's dead?" Sheffer wondered. "None I can think of."

There was a pause, during which everyone tried hard to think of a reason that darkness should suddenly descend upon a Maltese outdoor cafe in the middle of the afternoon.

"She's gotta shoot him in Act I," Sheffer said, suddenly decisive. "She's gotta shoot the shit out of him and blow him over the railing."

"So Lucinda shoots the gun," Carolyn said. "Damian does what? Damian leaves?"

"Good question. Well, first of all, everyone has to run to the rail and realize that Dante is down there with bullets in his head and he's definitely dead." ("Dead" is an ambiguous term in soaps: there's dead, there's definitely dead, and then, rarely, there's dead-dead-dead-dead, an exotic state that must be indicated by extremely violent means such as the shooting of many bullets at close range into a corpse already in a casket, or an on-camera suttee.)

"Simon jumps to who he assumes is Luke," Sheffer continued.

"Maybe Holden does that," Susan suggested, thinking of the father angle.

"But doesn't he have his hands tied behind his back and a mask over his head?" Sheffer asked.

"Oh, yeah."

"The fucking lights go out."

"The lights go out," Susan continued. "Holden's screaming, 'What happened?,' Simon's crawling to Luke, yelling to Lily to get the lights, Lucinda is trying to get the bead on Damian, then the lights come back on and Lily immediately rushes to her son . . ."

"And pulls the hood off and it's the laughing midget. We're just going to have to go with it. Is it believable?"

"I believe it," Carolyn said helpfully.

"You know, we've got people running around Malta looking for the heir to the great shipping empire. I think we crossed that line a long time ago."

"They've suspended their disbelief, definitely," Carolyn said.

"If not their brains entirely," Sheffer said, and turned to Susan. "So, is it a day?"

"It's a day."

At six o'clock one Monday evening in February, Sheffer sat on a stool in a bar in Hell's Kitchen and contemplated his life. He lit a cigarette, inhaled once, and put it down in an ashtray. He stared at the counter and pushed his whiskey an inch to the left. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was exhausted. He had spent the first half of the day on the phone giving instructions to his writers, and the second half putting in several anxiety-producing hours writing his thrust for the week -- an activity he would recommence after dinner. The next day, there would be the hours-long writers' meeting at the studio; the day after that he would meet with the executive producer about long-term story lines -- he had already laid out the broad plot through November sweeps week. Working on a soap opera was certainly absorbing. Weeks would pass when all he thought about was Oakdale. "It's like remembering a place you've never been, and the memories can be really textural," he said. "Like what it would smell like in somebody's house. It's always in my head. I can't help it."

For a man whose job is making misery, Sheffer has a good life. He loves his work. He makes good money. (He won't specify the current figure, but he made just under a million a year in his first contract.) He travels everywhere by car service. ("I can't stand cabs," he explains. "I'm a very big guy and cabs get smaller every year. It's to the point now where I have to undress and Crisco my ass to get into the fuckin' things.") His apartment in the West Forties is a den of horror, but that is the fault of his repellent domestic habits, not the real estate.

And, in the end, if the size of taxis and his waistband and the state of his living room are matters largely outside Sheffer's control, there is always Oakdale, where his whim is law, and where the slightest flickers of his mood -- as he runs out of cigarettes, or hears the bark of a dog in the street -- reverberate in its fragile institutions like the tremors of a quake. Sheffer does not abuse his power, however. There must always be sorrow and cruelty in Oakdale, it is true, but there is also justice. Craig -- despicable but innocent -- will be released from jail. Young Luke will be saved. And Sheffer will see to it that, just a few weeks hence, in an obscure Swiss spa run by a sinister doctor wearing red-lensed sunglasses, Barbara Ryan will have her revenge.


  1. Dear God in Heaven!

    As a Y&R viewer with no Sheffer is AMAZING to see how his formula of sardonic, plot driven, fast paced, men-abusing-women has followed him.

    Y&R needs a MADD, or at least a MAB, to deny him sex and death again.

    What a joy to read!

  2. Hogan's ideas are better suited for movies or episodic primtime television, not daily daytime soap operas. Another Y&R Co-Head Writer, Scott Hamner, is very much in the same vein. Together with Maria Arena Bell's inexperience and lack of vision, they create a product that is some type of anti-soap, and something I believe is totally unwatchable. It's funny how many of the problems, like overly misogynistic storylines, weak female characters, horrendous pacing issues, and other things have followed Sheffer from soap to soap.

    Sadly, no one in daytime realizes that if writers get fired repeatedly, there's something wrong there and a reason why they probably shouldn't be hired at another soap. As for Y&R, the show Sheffer is currently employed at, I find it to be a colossal mess with no substance or emotional resonance. It's quite sad.