Anachronism: Why are so many shows bad at mining the past?

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

There’s been a few recent stories about HBO’s Vinyl, and the fact that HBO recently fired its creator and will install a new showrunner.

I thought the show was dreadful for a number of reasons, but primarily because it mines a lot of territory that Martin Scorcese already covered in many of his movies, and for which he has nothing particularly new to say.

(I’m also biased, because I’d love to create a show covering some of that era in music – but yeah, I’ll let you know when I sell that treatment.)

Vinyl fell victim to one common trap, the “Let’s Make It Really Super Obvious What Era We’re In!”  The premise of the show, and its era, were hammered home again and again.

Yeah, I get it — recreated performances of classic, existing music performances will be a part of this show, but nothing about these scenes, ones that were supposed to be “setting the mood,” felt at all organic. It all felt incredibly posed, and underlined for our benefit.

A few lines of dialogue are one thing, but for me, part of my willingness to buy into a show is how well they navigate that tricky territory.

This is particularly true, it seems, of shows based in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a really interesting Amazon series called Good Girls Revolt, based on a book about women journalists, and the pilot was interesting (Nora Ephron is a character in the show).

But it was guilty of the same sort of over-the-top-hey-look-it’s-the-60s business in trying to set the tone.

Yes, we know it’s 1969. We don’t need it hammered home with every line of dialogue. Yes. Vietnam War. Yes, Nixon. Those references end up feeling so forced (and so unnatural).

Granted, it was the pilot, and pilots are not known for emerging fully formed out of the womb, so to speak.

But I think there’s so many interesting things that can be done and said with a period piece, and the fact that it is a period piece doesn’t mean that the audience needs a little bouncing red ball to follow along. We’re pretty smart, after all.

M*A*S*H, for example, allowed the writers to use a previous war (Korea) to talk about Vietnam.

It’s certainly spoken to cultural trends. CNN’s The Seventies’ piece on TV touched on the trend of deeply traditional shows like The Waltons and Little House on The Prairie in the midst of the 1970s, a chaotic decade that saw a lot of change.

In terms of more current or recent shows……

Downton Abbey may have had some softer edges and some sympathies for upper-class British society, but it also had some interesting things to say about class divisions and socioeconomics, a topic we almost never see discussed (even badly) in any US television show.

Call The Midwife is another fascinating show to me, and despite its time period, it’s provided an often unflinching look at the lives of women – their short list of choices, and the ways in which they were limited in society.  It also often brings faith into the conversation (the main midwifery practice, after all, is run by nuns).

Perhaps I was spoiled by Mad Men, a show that managed to hit the right notes so often, a show that was often far more allegorical than literal, and had stronger stories and narratives as a result.

Rule number one, though, was a hard one for Vinyl to learn: if you’ve got to drop anvils on your audience’s head to convince them where they are and what they’re watching? You’ve already lost half the battle.

Lady Parts and Otalia

As I mentioned in my last post, the video blog Lady Parts – created and hosted by Liron Cohen and her wife, former Soap Opera Weekly editor Mimi Torchin – has a new episode with former Guiding Light head writer Jill Lorie Hurst. You can see it below.

It’s a fantastic chat, well worth a watch, and I don’t want to comment or editorialize on it (it can speak for itself) but I will say this…..

I’m a big fan of Jill Lorie Hurst. When I made the trip to NYC in 2008, and “the bloggers” got to cover GL, we met a lot of people. A LOT of people.

And Jill stood out for me among the crowd, because of her authenticity. The optimism, the generosity, the attempt at fairness (and here, forgiveness) and looking at the glass half full that you see in this interview? That’s all real, and all Jill.

She may have been “co-head writer” but it’s not hard to understand that the humanity that increasingly surfaced in the show in its last year or so came from Jill’s pen, and from her view of the world as a person. Otalia may have been the most vivid representation of that, but you could see it, feel it and sense it in many other corners of Springfield (and Peapack).

POSTSCRIPTS:

  • In the vlog, Liron mentions an article about lesbian characters who have been killed on our TV screens; I found one link here. Astonishing (and devastating)  to see in its entirety.
  • Another great interview surfacing this week is Michael Logan’s chat with the legendary Jane Elliot. Check it out here.

Dark disappointments – and Big Purple Dreams

Otalia, the supercouple.

Otalia, the supercouple.

As I mentioned a few days ago, it’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since the end of Guiding Light.

It’s been fifteen years since Bianca Montgomery came out on All My Children, and almost ten years since As The World Turns‘ Luke Synder came out.

We live in a county that celebrated marriage equality last year, and daytime was out there in front with LGBT characters  (well, until last year, mostly L and G) stretching back into the 1980s. Granted, their appearances were spotty and inconsistent, but we did surface and lead a full life on daytime pretty early in the game.

And yet, daytime diversity, especially on the LGBT front has been – well, decimated.

Harsh? Nah, I don’t think so.

We have the back burnering of General Hospital’s Lucas and Brad – which started before the departure of Ron Carlivati last year, and has continued save for an occasional appearance on-screen in the weeks and months since.

And of course, we have the brutal murder of Will Horton, arguably one of the most well-known characters on DAYS. The Will/Sonny pairing, once a cornerstone of the show and a popular pairing with many viewers, was ripped to shreds.

Paul, the third wheel of that story, is rarely seen outside of his relationship with Papa John.  (There were rumors that another LGBT story was coming to DAYS, but considering recent writing changes, that story is a big question mark now.)

(NOTE: After my initial misgivings, I do find B&B’s Maya and Rick story to be a solid one, and one of the strongest on what is still a messy, repetitive show to me. The Avant family is great, and they’ve played a number of beats nicely about Maya’s transition, and how acceptance is hard earned and a process that takes years.)

Despite a push for diversity (and with B&B being one daytime exception), we are still in an era where, to paraphrase the late Vito Russo’s graphic language, “the fag must die at the end.”  It was true of movies, the topic Russo wrote so wonderfully about, and it seems to sadly still be true in a number of corners of the TV universe.

It’s been true on many TV shows, with very rare exceptions. Shonda Rhimes can’t carry it all, and while she does have a number of LGBT characters across her shows, several of them have been curiously disconnected — or have taken a step back from the demonstrating-affection phase of the relationships — in the last year or so (Calzona on Grey’s Anatomy and Cyrus on Scandal, to name a few).

Cyrus seems to have maybe, possibly scored with a hunky ex-Secret Service agent, but it was more implied than actually spelled out. Artistic choice, or reluctance to call it what it is because of viewers or advertisers? His “husband,” such as that sham marriage is, is rarely seen.

We saw the love (demented as it was) between Cyrus and James, but since James was killed, the character hasn’t shown much of his sexuality onscreen. I know Shonda Rhimes is committed to diversity — and that Rhimes does not play — but I also wonder what battles are being fought behind the scenes (especially when ABC just changed leadership).

More recently, viewers of several CW shows have expressed their deep disappointment at the handling of LGBT-related storylines there. I admit I’m not familiar with many of the CW’s programs, but this blog post has some compelling data about how many LGBT characters – particularly young female characters – have been murdered or died onscreen.

It’s very disappointing, and I’m wondering why it’s happening, especially in the wake of marriage equality. Is it a corporate decision, as so many decisions are?

Rumors swirled around the DAYS debacle. It was letters from old grandmas watching that forced them to be fired! It was Dena Higley’s fault! (Well, isn’t everything? Another day, another post for THAT topic.)

And of course, struggles with diversity are much broader than LGBT characters. I tried to cover this earlier this year, riffing off of an earlier article by writer Aaron Foley., but in trying to cover the scope, I was probably not eloquent enough about it. (Then again, I’m a cisgendered dude who lives in a big puffy cloud of privilege, so there’s that.)

This article was in the New York Times a few weeks back, and is a great snapshot of what performers face when they are not, as the article states, straight white dudes.

All this was a bit of a long story to get back to the point I wanted to make with my opening paragraph: of all the love stories told on daytime thus far, I’ve still found the most magical and emotionally satisfying one to be GL’s story of Otalia.

There were bumps in the road, sure. There was the lack of a real, honest to goodness romantic kiss, a fact we can’t ignore. There was a bit of a bump in the story close to the end of the show’s run, with Frank and the baby (a twist that TPTB perhaps thought was necessary due to Jessica Leccia’s real life pregnancy).

But beyond all that, there was magic, more magic that I can remember from a soap couple in years (and certainly more than I’ve experience since). The exploration of the relationship, acted beautifully by Crystal Chappell and Leccia, and written with so much beauty and aching humanity by Jill Lorie Hurst, was a wonder to see. (For an earlier post about it, click here.)

It is no exaggeration to say that Otalia was much of the reason the show walked proudly into the final days of its run, versus hobbling in shame to the finish line.

So many of our writers, daytime, nighttime or otherwise, have forgotten to give us a few seconds to catch our breath, to show us the relationship instead of telling us it exists. Here, it all happened in a lush slow burn.

It may have perhaps been a reluctance on the part of TPTB to have characters say the word “lesbian,” but that lack of naming and labeling was part of its magic and beauty. Natalia and Olivia fell in love. We saw it, and we knew it before even they did. Those big purple dreams were magical, and any show worth its production budget should watch those scenes as a template for their own bibles.

Quick postscript: This rose colored view of Otalia doesn’t sweep away some of the problematic things that happened along the way. I know a lot of viewers (me included) took the lack of a kiss very personally.

My point: all the LGBT stories have been problematic, in some way. All other things being equal, I still think this story was so magical. Then again, it had a defined ending, which many other couplings didn’t really get, either because the story was cut short or the show itself was. (I don’t know what we’d call the ending of Will and Sonny, other than a mess.)

An Otalia Programming Note: If you want to see Jill Lorie Hurst talking about Otalia (and other stuff – not sure from just the teaser!) check out the Lady Parts vlog that will go live on April 7th.

The vlog was launched by Liron Cohen and her wife, former Soap Opera Weekly editor Mimi Torchin. Looks like they’ve been talking (in previous episodes) about a lot of interesting issues. It all looks (in my humble opinion) really interesting and well worth a look!

Turning the page: the soap press

Could it be....a GL cover?

Could it be….a GL cover?

Many soap fans have had a contradictory relationship with soap magazines.

On the one hand, they were, for many years, the ONLY place we could read about our shows, or the performers who appeared on those shows.

On the other hand….well, how do I say this nicely? They didn’t aim very high. It was mostly recaps and, if you were lucky, an occasional interview. Many interviews came right out of the publicist’s playbook. Yes, I love my character. Yes, we are all one big happy family! Yes, yes, yes…..

I’m thinking about this and writing about this because Soap Opera Digest (SOD), the grande dame of the magazines, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

It’s the one with the longest history, perhaps, but its main history, let’s face it, has been as a promotional program guide for soaps.

It has, over its long life, featured criticism, but aside from some Carolyn Hinsey’s former column, and a few other earlier voices (Michael Logan, if I remember correctly), that criticism has mostly been whispered, not shouted.

Why do I say this?

I could have told you in 1996 – twenty years ago – that Days of Our Lives, General Hospital and The Young and The Restless would be three of the last soaps standing.

That’s because SOD, for most of the last 25 years, has had a laser focus on promoting those three shows.

It was so ridiculous in the mid-and-late 1990s that I often referred to SOD as Days of Our Lives Digest. Some variation of a handful of characters (Bo, Hope, Billie, Sami, Austin, Carrie, John and/or Marlena) were on the cover almost every single week.

There were rumors of a Digest/DAYS squabble, and a time where DAYS called a turf war with Digest precisely because it wouldn’t feature those stars all the time.

This rumor reared its head again a few years back, when the word was that a certain Y&R leading performer would not talk to Digest unless they were guaranteed a cover.  (Which explained the omnipresence of said performer on Digest covers around that time.)

This dovetails quite closely with the time period I’ve talked about before with P&G, and how the P&G shows started to falter.

Granted, Guiding Light, Another World, and As The World Turns never had that sort of sparkling promotional spotlight that the above shows had.

ABC had a fierce promotional machine, one forged in the white heat of the Luke and Laura phenomenon at GH.  Y&R had a broad audience, and DAYS had a serious fanbase that eclipsed their actual ratings performance (and often still does).

But I can say as someone who bought Digest nearly every week for thirty years that, at least in those early days, GL and ATWT (and to a lesser degree, AW) were in rotation for covers.

The chicken or egg question is whether GL started to slip, started to be moved to mornings, etc. because it stopped getting covers…or whether the move to the print magazine back burner was because GL’s star was falling.

I tend to think the magazines had a big impact on the fortunes of the shows. How could they not?

It’s telling that, outside of a show anniversary, one of GL’s last full-page covers was for the notorious clone storyline.

Even the esteemed Weekly had DAYS’ Patch and Kayla as their first cover. They knew what would catch the eyeballs at the checkout line.

Weekly was, for much of its life, head and shoulders above Digest in talking about all the shows, between the features and Marlena DeLacroix’s “Critical Condition.”

I miss Weekly’s editorial voice, and its array of stories, though I’ve encountered a small but vocal group in online communities that believes Weekly was too generous with spoilers, and damaged the shows as a result.

But even it fell in its later years into a narrower focus, and eventually became redundant to sister publication Digest.

It’s a reminder to me that, for all of the work online by bloggers and sites like We Love Soaps and Daytime Confidential (where many people get their news now),  there’s still a core, measurable audience — of the audience that still watches — who was probably captivated by those early stories, their attentions captured by what the magazines promoted to them.

And it was THAT combination of story, and subsequent advertising, masquerading as magazine content – that’s kept them watching.

For a genre essentially created by and for advertising, we sometimes forget to make that connection.

Check out more of this blog here!

STILL The Worst April Fools Day Joke Ever

The printed confirmation of the news no one wanted to hear.

The printed confirmation – in the New York Times – of the news no one wanted to hear.

Hard to believe that today marks seven years since the cancellation of Guiding Light was announced.

It still seems like such odd timing — the show was on an upswing, to be sure — and it was the beginning of the collapse of the soap industry in New York.

I said many things about this when it happened, and while I may reblog some of those items in the next weeks, I won’t rehash them here.

But seven years out, I’m surprised and disappointed that more hasn’t been done to capitalize on the raw resources, if you will, of GL.

I get that a return to a daily program is deader than dead, and the Prospect Park fiasco probably scared investors away from thinking about even a few episodes a week.

But I’m surprised that there wasn’t more done to use the actors or the show’s history.

I suggested years ago that a channel like The Hallmark Channel could have developed a movie with GL characters.

If we can’t have them visiting our home every day, a two hour movie (or better yet, a series of them) would have been so doable — the kind of movie that could please fans and yet still entertain someone who’d never seen the show before.

I wish the late Paul Rauch had been successful at trying to relaunch the Light.

There’s certainly a lot of interest, and we see with amazing limited run streaming shows that a serialized story can be done over a set number of episodes and, one imagines, a sustainable budget.

But no one’s quite come up with the numbers of how it will work, or who will pay the bill to launch the shows. We’ve seen several announcements with no follow-up. The magic equation, the one that gives the cast and crew a paycheck yet makes the big kahunas some profit – or adds value to their media properties – has yet to be found.

Sadly, because most of us are over 40, we’re seen as an unattractive advertising audience. That’s clear whenever you turn on most daytime shows these days, which look more and more like a CW vampire show instead of a multigenerational soap.

I’d love to be able to blame Procter & Gamble for these missed opportunities, and Lord knows, I think they were capable of effing up a one car funeral procession at the end, but I really don’t think they’re the villian here.

It looks like what we have is YouTube, and online discussions about our favorite stories, which believe me, from what I see, is as lively and as feisty as they ever were while the shows were alive.

Still, I remember that April 1 day, standing in front of my then-partner’s office, waiting for him to meet me when I read an email on my phone, sharing the bad news.

Life goes on. My partner is now my husband. The cast and crew have moved on to other jobs, other pathways.

Maybe YouTube is enough, enough to make sure it doesn’t disappear from memory. But I’m always that person, I guess, wishing there was more that could be done, seeing where the glass was half full.

NOTE: More GL things coming up here in the next short while.

Soaps and sexual assault

Who wants to send DAYS helpful info about sexual  assaults? They need it.

Who wants to send DAYS helpful info about sexual assaults? They need it.

I had another post ready to go (coming soon), but I had to say something after reading that DAYS had Chase attack and rape Ciara Brady this past week.

I’ll confess that I haven’t seen much of DAYS since the anniversary episodes, but this sequence of events has made me think about sexual assault and soaps.

And I wonder how much seeing those assaults play out on these shows has affected how people perceive these assaults, and the victims of these assaults.

I think soaps have a lot to answer for in terms of how they’ve depicted attackers, and shows must own up to some of the messages they’ve sent over the years.

Rape as a storyline was, in my old eyes, used sparingly in the past, and when it made sense. There was rarely ambivalence in the telling of that story; the attacker was bad, and he’d have to be punished.

If there was any ambivalence played out at all, it was in the depictions of marital rape like Guiding Light’s Roger and Holly. Which played into a compelling narrative of: Who owns your own body in a marriage?

But at roughly the same time as Roger and Holly’s story played out in Springfield, the famous Luke and Laura story played out on General Hospital.

The one where Luke, who raped Laura, was later said to have “seduced” her. That is, when she fell in love with him.

Yes, that story was re-examined, even by GH itself, and yes, Luke eventually faced his actions.

But it still doesn’t take away from the precedent that was set. Rapists, it seemed, could be redeemed.

Some, like Luke, One Life to Live’s Todd and DAYS‘ EJ Dimera, could go on to have consensual sex or even relationships and marriages with their victims.

Others, like Lawrence and Jack on DAYS and Franco on GH, would go on to play romantic figures with other female characters – formerly smart women whose intelligence was decimated by such a decision.

Longtime readers know that I’m not a fan of darkness for darkness’ sake, or as a device just to goose ratings.

This new DAYS storyline, involving two of the show’s newest characters, seems to exist only to help define their currently shapeless beings. Which is an AWFUL reason to play out a story about assault.

It also adds insult to injury re: the show’s decimation of the Aiden Jennings character. Dad’s a psycho and the son’s a rapist! It truly feels as if the show is written Mad Libs style, by picking suggestions from slips of paper in a giant barrel.

I have a friend who is an amazing writer (I worked with her, briefly) and she’s shared the aftermath of sexual assault – her aftermath, her journey – with the world at large. She still faces those effects today.

She’s dealt with many feelings, some complicated, and indeed, she says she wonders about his life. But she wasn’t ‘healed’ by the next sweeps period. She’s moved forward, but her story remains part of who she is.

This is what I wish fiction, daytime, nighttime, film, would, and should, do a much better job of showing. In daytime, the frequency of episodes is a wonderful format to more adequately show impact and recovery over a long period of time.

I love serial drama, but we have to own up to the fact that, quite frankly, a fair number of our shows have broadcast shitty, awful stories about sexual assault, or the men involved in perpetrating those attacks.

These questionable stories add fuel to the fire of inane, insane arguments questioning the victim’s reliability.  (This onscreen event, and this post, come in the same week that singer Kesha lost her legal plea to break away professionally from her attacker.)

True, there have been many excellent stories over the years, showing the seconds and minutes after an attack, showing the immediate recovery of a victim. But after she’s “recovered,” the event is rarely revisited. (GH’s Laura and ATWT‘s Margo are two exceptions that come to mind.)

Maybe I’m judging the DAYS story too soon, but given the rest of the canvas, I have no hopes that this will be a nuanced examination of a young woman’s struggle to feel safe and empowered.

I think it’s just another brick in the wall, adding to the unrelenting misery porn that DAYS has become, the town filled with murders, attacks and rapes, with stranglers and psychotic women.

And this is our most romantic show?

EDITED TO ADD: Yup, didn’t even take into consideration the Ava/Steve ugliness.

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.