Soaps and the family tree

Double trouble: Julianne Moore as Frannie and Sabrina

Double trouble: Julianne Moore as Frannie (l) and Sabrina (r) 

As I’ve mentioned here before in previous years, I’m a bit of an ancestry geek.

I researched my tree a few years ago, and while I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for, I did get a much deeper, broader sense of who I was and where I came from — as well as a much fuller appreciation of my parents, not just as my parents, but as people.

I’m an avid fan of many of the TV shows that talk about ancestry, and one is PBS’ Finding Your Roots.

So I was excited to see that Julianne Moore would be featured on this week’s show – Tuesday, February 9. (Check your local PBS station for exact dates and times; the show will also be available on Apple TV’s PBS “station” the next day, for free.)

I’ve loved many of her movies, and her Oscar win is well deserved. (I won’t go into how she should have won it for Far From Heaven. Really, I won’t.)

But of course, to us soap fans, a little of her will always be Frannie and Sabrina from As The World Turns.

I’ve been talking about “the romance of family” as a concept lately.

No, I don’t mean kissing cousins, a la Jonathan and Tammy on GL.

The concept is one that TPTB have failed to understand over the last 20 years or so – that fans want to see the ups and downs of a family, but ultimately want to see a family that loves each other, goes to bat for each other, would kill for one another.

When I was a suicidal gay teenager with a barrier the size of the Berlin Wall between my parents and I, GL and ATWT were a lifeboat for me. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.

I’ve said before that I dreamt that Bob and Kim were my parents, and I did. I wanted to live in the Hughes house, where Gran was always there to share wisdom and support, where friends were always dropping by, where no one was ever alone for the holidays.

I loved the friendships too, like Barbara and Lisa. The scenes with Hank Eliot, and his friendships with Iva, Barbara and Shannon are ones I remember to this day.

But one story in particular resonated with me. It was the story revealing Sabrina’s existence.

The background of that story has been discussed here before, and my friend and fellow soap traveler Lynn Liccardo has also covered it as well.

Reuniting Kim and Bob with their child was a full circle moment in creator Irna Phillips’ last major story, one that closely reflected her own life.

But at 17, I had no idea that was the case. I just knew that this story somehow touched at something I could not then put into words.

The thing that struck me, the thing that truly rang like a bell inside of me, was that these two people (and of course, Frannie too) fought villains and obstacles for their child. They loved her, and they quite literally went to the ends of the earth for her.

(Scenes from that reunion are part of this fan video.)

I say this not to drag you into my own experience, not really. The point is that it’s a universal thing that resonates with many of us. (I suspect that’s why so many LGBT people are soap fans – because we saw that unconditional love from families like the Hughes, the Snyders, and so on.)

And it was the family ties that so often got the ax first! The producers thought it was the over the top loons, the constant spinning roulette wheel of sex partners, or the parade of death and violence that kept viewers glued to their screens.

The thing they thought was outdated and hopelessly archaic? Was the glue holding many of the shows together.

I’ll be watching Julianne this week, but I admit: I’ll be thinking a bit about Frannie, about Kim and Bob, and about all those old Oakdale friends, wondering what they’re up to these days.

Those magic moments

Soap Opera Digest recently did a feature on the fifty most memorable moments in daytime.

Now, I understand that those magazines can’t just sit in the racks and look pretty, so they’ve gotta SELL, and for that, they have to focus on the four surviving shows. Fine, okay.

But Guiding Light really had only one memorable moment? (Three guesses what they listed…..red dress, fountain, SPLASH.) I believe ATWT got a mention (deservedly so) with “Hello, Barbara.”

I know page counts are limited, and there probably isn’t extra room on their still-looks-like-1996 website, so let ME be the one to rectify this oversight, and give you, the reader, a few missing entries for GL, and As The World Turns. 

GUIDING LIGHT 

Alex at the Country Club: As I said in my tribute to the late Beverlee McKinsey, it was a great crossroads of so many things: A culmination of two years of story, in a show that was cooking with gas, with wonderful writing, and McKinsey giving her finest performance as Alexandra, if not her finest ever.  From fierce anger to heartbreaking vulnerability over the course of a few minutes, and you believe every damn word. (You can see it here.)

Nola Faces The Music: Another wonderful culmination of a long story, played like theater, with no interruptions until well after the :15 mark. Kelly read Nola the riot act, and John Wesley Shipp roared with rage, but it was Lisa Brown’s work that made us both hate and feel sorry for Nola in the same scene.

Jonathan Confronts Reva: We’ve all heard about Reva in the red dress, or Reva’s car splashing into the Florida Keys. And of course there’s the whole Reva/Annie story, which was consistently entertaining….until Annie tried to kill Reva, at which point things got weird. But these scenes are some of the best of GL’s later years. Tom Pelphrey reenergized Kim Zimmer, and it shows on-screen.

The Blackout: A textbook example on how to take your show, shake it up and keep things interesting, without tearing it apart and pissing off fans.

Goodbye, My Friend: The Thing That We All Want To Pretend Never Happened, But Even In Its Never-Happenedness Is Still An Amazing Moment. This particular segment, especially, is heartbreaking.

AS THE WORLD TURNS 

John and Lucinda In The Bathtub: What shows have forgotten to do lately – follow the lead when organic sparks fly between characters. I don’t think J&L were supposed to be the end game, but their pairing was a huge surprise and entertaining as hell. And one of a few smart moves made at the end was to reconnect these two.

Kim is Stalked: A beautiful use of history and John Wesley Shipp’s image as Golden Boy Kelly (from GL) is turned on its ear.

Bob Sleeps With Susan: Three grownups make a mess of their lives, and we know all of them. Not a car bomb, DNA switch or international spy syndicate to be seen anywhere.

Sadly, AW’s best scenes are somewhat trickier to find, although there’s plenty of good stuff from the late 80s, when Harding Lemay was part of the show’s reboot. I’d love to hear from AW fans in the comments about those most memorable moments, and share a link if you know of one!

Maybe those moments don’t have the grandiosity of the turbo-charged action-saturated shows like DAYS and GH, but they stick out in the minds of many of us faithful viewers.

Sadly, these stories, and this history, is already slipping away when it comes to the printed page.

Groundhog Day: DAYS from the cheap seats

Tune in tomorrow? What, to watch someone else die?

Tune in tomorrow? What, to watch someone else die?

Days Of Our Lives has had a lot of press lately. The Necktie murders, the return of popular vets, the refocus of the show.

It’s all new! (I’ve heard that a lot.) It’s great! (Possibly.) It’s been refocused! (I’ll give you that one.)

Of course, the last few months have been the latest version of The Plan To Save DAYS ™.

But how anyone thinks this is “fresh” or “new” is beyond me. Watching DAYS these days is like living in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

The real Groundhog Day may be tomorrow, but on DAYS, it feels like every day is Groundhog Day.

DAYS has done any number of serial killer storylines, enough to make the Necktie Killer story seem like a really tired retread.

Stefano is dead – yet again. I know there may be some mitigating circumstances to this one (Joe Mascolo’s health), but still, can there be any mystery in this at this time?

But perhaps the biggest retread is that we are again talking about John’s parents.

Does anyone still give a hoot about this?

Seriously. This completely beggars belief. One retcon would be acceptable. How many times have we been told who he was? (Four? Five?)

There was just a HUGE story during the last Plan to Save DAYS ™ that gave us the definitive story – John was the result of a Brady/DiMera pairing.

And now suddenly he’s not? So….for what reason, exactly? Is he going to be related to A Martinez? Are the DAYS writers just spinning a giant wheel to see what name pops up?

This should be a surprise to no one. Aside from the youth stories, the show is mostly a retread. And some of it is working. Seeing Steve and Kayla is great, and Belle/Philip/Shawn is at least somewhat interesting.

But the other stories are just repeats of stories DAYS has done in the last few years. Of course a show can and will repeat some stories (pregnancy puzzles, infidelity) but most shows don’t copy so heavily from their own past.

Even the Steve/Kayla story has Ava redux, and as much as I love Tamara Braun, this is a repeat of a story that didn’t work the FIRST time (Emmy notwithstanding).

This should be no surprise, considering that Dena Higley, a writer with several previous tenures at DAYS, is at least partly responsible for the current story.

What’s different this time? Perhaps that DAYS is trying to make us the Saddest Viewers ever.

After all, it’s truly been more like Days Of Our Deaths lately.

The death toll has been astonishing: Paige, Daniel, Serena, Aiden, Bo, and Will.

Oh yes, Will.

I almost understood the other choices. I was sad for the loss of Aiden, but if they were clearing the decks, fine. But why Will? He had roots in every corner of Salem.

Was the backlash against the LGBT stories that strong? Was the recast playing Will that unpopular? Whatever the reason, KILLING the character seemed like a bad idea at best, a brutal slap in the face to fans at worst.

Every show is fighting for survival. I get it. But blowing up the foundations for a quick ratings bump isn’t going to help sustain any show. Wheeling Justin, Adrienne and Eve in, only to wheel them back offstage almost as quickly as they arrived, isn’t a good move.

We can only take so much of the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t shell game that DAYS has played on viewers in the last decade.

Hiring the same hacks that blew up the last show they were on is not new, or refocused, or edgy. It should have surprised no one when the chainsaws came out.

And for the love of Alice Horton, DAYS, stop killing all your characters. We’re all one call away from the suicide hotline! Give us SOME reason to watch other than corpses and forensics. We can get that on Criminal Minds.

Diversity on daytime: the struggle is real

 

Do not adjust your TV screen. We've meant to make it mostly white, with color relegated to the sidelines.

Do not adjust your TV screen….We the networks have worked to make it mostly white, with color relegated to the sidelines.

NOTE: Sorry I’ve been so incommunicado, folks. My new job is kicking my ass, and stealing all my free time!

Thanks to a mention on We Love Soaps, I found an article about soaps and diversity that ran last March in The Atlantic.

The author, Aaron Foley, is an African-American writer who’s also written extensively about Detroit, including his new book, How To Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass. 

The whole topic of diversity, and the ways we tell stories, the images IN those stories, is something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while.

There’s been some other think pieces, blog mentions and Tweets by TV critics like Emily Nussbaum, Linda Holmes and Maureen Ryan, all thoughtfully examining diversity.

(Great thoughts from the above critics, though we’ve also had tone-deaf, truly bizarre columns on TV diversity from Alessandra Stanley and Nellie Andreeva.)

Daytime is such a bizarroland when it comes to diversity. As Foley’s piece explains, a lot of shows had promising characters and really wove those stories into the fabric of the show. That’s the great strength of soaps, in any case: the ability to slowly tell a story, slowly introduce a character and examine their life in miniature.

But the heyday for many black characters — ones who were truly front burner and not just the Problem Of The Week kind of story — was in the 80s and early 90s.

We had Angie and Jesse at All My Children, Jessica Griffin at As The World Turns, Hamp and Gilly at Guiding Light, and Quinn at Another World, to name a few.

It wasn’t perfection at that time, to be sure. A production staff of mostly white producers, white writers and white network suits didn’t always know how to sketch out these characters. If they did succeed, they were often defined by their jobs, as Quinn and Gilly often were.

Sometimes, a cultural signpost might give writers an idea for a story. When the late Natalie Cole released the tribute album to her father’s body of music, GL suddenly decided that Gilly, who had previously been depicted solely as a capable TV producer, was a songstress singing Cole-style music.

She may have been a businesswoman by day, chanteuse by night, but when it came to romance, Gilly (and actress Amelia Marshall) still couldn’t have a romance with a character she had combustible chemistry with: Alan-Michael Spaulding (played by the very excellent, and very white, Rick Hearst).

The roots were there, but as we know, the daytime storyscape started changing in the mid-to-late 90s, and as the money started drying up, so did many other things. Diversity. Risky storylines. Anything that was new, or different.

And the portrayal of characters of color have been hit-or-miss since then.

Yes, I’ve expressed concerns about the transgender story’s structure and execution, but Karla Mosley’s turn as Maya on B&B has been an utter revelation, in all its twists and turns, and should net Mosley a Lead Actress win at this year’s Emmys, if any justice exists.

(Edited 1/31/2016 to add: Nope. no justice; Mosley wasn’t even included in the pre-noms. WTF, people?) 

But the remaining characters of color on our shows? Well, Foley’s article says it best. There isn’t much to speak of at this point.

And not to minimize that very fine analysis, but when we’re talking about daytime, the lack of diversity goes beyond characters of color.

Daytime regressed from its wonderfully pro-feminist stances in the 1980s and 90s – stories that recognized every kind of woman – to weird baby-rabies stories. The idea that in the 21st century, so many female characters would be defined by a man and a baby is just inconceivable.

Even worse is the atmosphere where female characters almost always fall for the antihero-slash-psychopath (hello, Luke and Sonny) or the rapist, or the bad guy, and it’s presented as a “supercouple” fighting all the odds.

Sure, people make mistakes; sure, a human, flawed man is more interesting than Mr. Perfect. But many shows raise up moral cesspools as the star attraction. The idea that Sonny Corinthos is back at GH’s center is confounding to me.

The very idea that the fabulous Cady McClain, one of the smartest, most talented daytimers ever, was forced to play a story on Y&R that amounted to a reboot of the Glenn-Close-in-a-bathtub scene from Fatal Attraction is truly mindblowing (and a waste of her considerable talents).

For all the recent firsts on LGBT stories, we still have not had an adult, multilayered, complicated LGBT character (perhaps the aforementioned Maya is close to being the exception).

DAYS’ Will and Sonny may have been a fan favorite, but that story was a safe one, still playing the same steps of young men coming out to their families,  as did ATWT’s Luke and Noah/Reid before them, and without that challenge as a story catalyst, the plot fell apart (and ended controversially with Will’s murder – another post topic for another day).

More to the point of what several of the critics listed above mentioned is this: Regardless of the lens you’ve viewing the show through, we really don’t see much diversity on screen at ANY perspective.

I may be showing an age bias here, but I can’t tell any of the CW shows apart. All the characters look alike, act alike, speak in the same way. There’s a serious sameness.

And though I love Scandal, and have great respect for everything Shonda Rhimes has done and the many excellent stories she tells, even her shows have a sameness to them. The characters talk alike, and see life with many of the same sensibilities.

And it’s not up to Rhimes, or any one creator, to carry the burden for all shows. But there are many things we simply don’t see on scripted TV: poverty, rural settings, depictions of faith, and blue collar life, to name but a few ideas.

We only see many of the things I just listed on reality TV, as points of derision, with the participants made into jokes (Honey Boo Boo and family) or caught in a bizarre cultural crossfire (Duck Dynasty).

I suspect the answer for that is the corporate structure of all our media platforms, and thus primarily economic – which contains obvious pieces of racism, sexism and homophobia, but also goes much deeper.

Network TV is in a freefall, and rather than widen their offerings to attract a wider audience, many programmers have gone with only the tried-and-true.

We have gruesome procedurals for the older crowd, the law-and-order crowd, the Mean World There-Is-Something-Under-Your-Kitchen-Sink-That-Will-Kill-You crowd.

And we have supernatural demons, zombies, and Pretty Young Things for the 18-to-34 crowd, fighting life and death — with perfect hair and skin tone, of course.

We almost never see anything we haven’t seen before. We almost never see anything (Downton Abbey being one of a few exceptions) from other English-speaking countries – nothing that doesn’t reinforce our own worldview constantly.

Related rant: I think it is BIZARRE IN THE EXTREME that we have another English-speaking country right above us, and yet we almost NEVER see Canadian programs, and seldom collaborate on the production of a show. 

Just as, to me, it’s beyond bizarre that we have BBC America as a channel offered to many US markets/platforms, and yet for big chunks of time their main show is and was….Star Trek: The Next Generation? Huh? 

You’d think that the runaway success of Empire would have encouraged more risk-taking, but it’s only encouraged a number of Empire copies.

Since daytime is literally on its ninth life — we are waiting to hear the fate of Days of our Lives as I write this — it’s disappointing but unsurprising that most of the diversity in ANY form has been gutted from the remaining shows.

Let’s not even pretend that GH and DAYS didn’t slash airtime for all their gay characters in response to ratings panic. DAYS‘ Will is dead, Sonny is offscreen and Paul is dying on the vine. On GH, Brad and Lucas are MIA.

And it might be too late for daytime. These 1966 plots in a 2016 bag aren’t going to cure the collective anemia that’s endemic in most daytime shows.

That’s why I’m so excited about shows like Transparent, which sees its world through a particular, uncompromising view, and why streaming might be the best hope for well-rounded, diverse storytelling.

We still want to tell each other stories, but it can’t always be the same story, the same myth about the same people. There are more stories to be told, and more listeners who want to hear.

Postscripts and followups

Who doesn't love a good hat?

Who doesn’t love a good hat?

Just wanted to make a quick post to say that I really appreciate the comments people have shared with me on my Beverlee McKinsey tribute from earlier this month.

I’ve always been so in awe of her work, but I’ve been amazed in the last year or so how many people are still mentioning her and her work on GL and AW.

The PS here is that I also wanted to give a mention to Marj Dusay. My adoration of McKinsey’s flawless work isn’t in any way diminishing Dusay’s work as Alexandra.

I’m a big fan of Marj’s body of work, as well (in so many roles – her soap roles alone are amazing) and I thought she really “got” Alex in her initial stints on the show.

In later years, the character went off the rails in subsequent returns, but that was more about some really dumb writing choices for the character.

Marj’s Alex became comic at times, tapping into Marj’s improv beginnings, but where else can you go when everything about the character is contradicted in a storyline?

Alexandra keeping Alan’s son Gus from him after the very cornerstone of her introduction was about Brandon being kept from her? Oh, HELL, no.

There were some things at the end (Alexandra and Cyrus) that humanized her again, and at last she got to go off with Fletcher, around the world.

As for Dusay, she was also one of the GL actors I met during my trip to NYC in 2008, and I’ll always remember spending a crisp, sunny winter afternoon listening to Marj tell me some wonderful stories, as if I was an old friend. It was GLORIOUS.

Hank Eliot and Oakdale

I hadn’t thought about Hank Eliot for years. He was part of the first gay storyline on As The World Turns (indeed, the first openly gay man on ANY soap).

I was reminded (as I often am) by a mention on We Love Soaps.

Oh, my. This was even better than I remembered in my memory! And the scene at the end gets me, in the Snyder kitchen. I really miss those people.

I remember Hank (Brian Starcher) coming out to Barbara and Shannon as well. (I wish I could see THOSE scenes!)

The beginning of the story was wonderful. There was some very realistic reactions from Paul and Andy.

It got weird at some point, with Hank’s path somehow crossing James Stenbeck, if I recall.

Hank’s arc on ATWT was one that defines the word “abrupt ending.” It was all very CLICK BOOM BYE. He was gone, quick as a flash, and almost never mentioned again….after nearly 18 months of us seeing him onscreen nearly every day.

Here’s a link to an interview with the late Douglas Marland and his writing team about this story.

The Miseducation of Julius Avant

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That’s one of the subtitles I could come up with for yesterday’s amazing Bold and the Beautiful episode.

Maybe Maya’s Hope?

My initial reservations about the initial rollout of the Maya story have been documented here, but B&B has done a great job since the “reveal” of Maya’s status as a transgender woman.

Yesterday’s scenes, focusing on  Maya (Karla Mosley) and her parents Julian  (Obba Babatundé) and Vivienne (Anna Maria Horsford), were quite stunning.  My eyes were puffy after watching that episode!

If B&B submits those scenes to the Emmy committee, they’ll undoubtedly win several awards.

And I’m so happy for Karla Mosley. I could see that she had something special when she appeared on Guiding Light during its final days, and I’m glad B&B has given her a chance to strut her stuff, first with Maya-as-a-bitch, and then with this surprising turn of events, which gives Mosley many more shades to play.

Meanwhile, all the characters attending the wedding are all like: 

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