What daytime should steal from primetime

One obvious trend in daytime that emerged in the late 70s and early 80s was the habit of stealing storyline ideas from prime time television. As shows expanded (to an hour) and tried different themes and characters, daytime borrowed some stories from nighttime and tried them on for size. Viewers were less likely to see a character pouring coffee and talking in hushed whispers about marital discord, and more likely to see a character throwing a drink a la Sue Ellen Ewing and causing a scene. (Is that you, Reva Shayne?)

Daytime shows introduced characters and families that capitalized on the prime-time soap boom. The Buchanans on OLTL and the Lewises on GL seem to owe at least a partial debt to “Dallas”, while Alexandra Spaulding was daytime’s answer to Alexis Carrington on “Dynasty” (and a far superior version, too).

But the problem is, it’s now 2008 instead of 1978. And yet, we still have shows that seem to think we are dying to see rich, aging socialites, billionaire businessmen and over-the-top campy romance and catfights. That may have resonated in those 1980s Reagan years, but it’s about as fitting now as a bad toupee.

However, stealing from primetime isn’t entirely a bad idea. I wanted to talk here about a few shows that are doing some soap basics – love, romance, family, passion – better than daytime is doing it for itself these days. I’m not suggesting TPTB stop stealing other’s ideas – I just want them to start stealing the right ones!

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: Okay, Gabrielle may be DH’s version of Erica Kane. But in general, the women on the show are people you can relate to. I know a Susan, a Bree, and a Lynette. No matter where the stories go, the show has been really good about keeping the focus on the relationship between these women. I also love that this show has been EXCELLENT at showcasing older actors and extended family members, especially Mrs. McCluskey. Karen McCluskey is the kind of character every show USED to have but no longer does – the voice of reason/bullshit detector/voice of the audience.

GREY’S ANATOMY: This show can be wildly uneven. But I love the characters of Meredith and Cristina. Meredith is perhaps one of the most unlikeable characters ever. She’s also a damn good surgeon, and she and Cristina unrepentantly “screw boys like whores on tequila.” (Mer’s words, not mine.) Cristina is also a driven surgeon who suffers no fools, puts on no facades and admittedly doesn’t “speak girl.”

Whatever you may think of their romances, let it be said: (1) They have had amazing romances, and if they broke up with a man, it wasn’t because they “couldn’t have it all,” but instead because of conflicts that emerged between the characters. Or in Meredith’s case, her own demons. (2) They get to be ferociously competitive, driven professionals. (Of course, there’s still a bit of sexism at play – these scenes are often criticized as being unrealistic or antifeminist. Get a room full of driven men together who drink and sleep around and we call it “Entourage.”)

I also like how “Grey’s” has made itself accessible to younger viewers without alienating older ones. Older characters don’t disappear. One of the most interesting stories was Meredith’s mother Ellis and her tormented love affair with Richard Webber. And the show has just launched into a lesbian storyline (maybe) with Callie and Erica – after teasing it all season.

UGLY BETTY: UB is the show that the network could lift from nighttime and play in daytime almost intact. It’s the one closest to the balance of what used to make daytime a special place to be – family, romance, humor, and a little bitchiness and camp thrown in on the side. What sounds like random and disparate elements on paper – Betty’s life and family, Mode office politics, the villainy of Marc, Amanda and Miranda Priestly Wilhelmina Slater – all gel together beautifully. The pacing (remember pacing?) is balanced and keeps us entertained.

Vanessa Williams is great (who knew she could act AND had a fantastic sense of humor?) and keeps me in stitches. And the Meade family has some of that great Gothic family drama that I loved with the Quartermaines and Spauldings, especially Judith Light’s Claire Meade, a hilarious but heartbreaking matriarch who spent years inside of a bottle (and who once complained about having to ride in a cab and “smell of….people.”) Most of all, there’s Betty, who is a real world girl – imperfect inside and out, but with a good heart and a boundless capacity for kindness and love. 

BROTHERS & SISTERS: B&S is yet another ABC primetime show (all of the shows I’ve mentioned, ironically, are on ABC) and it has some intriguing storyline elements regarding business, politics, and romances. But the core of this show is family, and B&S does it better than anyone since Maeve and Johnny opened Ryan’s Bar. All of the interfamilial relationships on the show – a mother, five children, the late father’s mistress and her wild-child daughter – have been really well developed in a way soaps used to do but don’t anymore.

I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with the details, but I will say this – there have been no shortcuts in building characters. Pick a character out of a hat – Nora, Kitty, Justin – and they each have such specific and well-defined relationships with everyone in the family. And of course, it’s all bookended by Sally Field as Nora – the matriarch of the show. 

I hope anyone who happens to read this walks away with one important point: While I may be referring to great actors in my summaries, what make all of these shows special is story, story, story.

3 thoughts on “What daytime should steal from primetime

  1. You said it, Patrick! Remember in the early 90’s when 90210 was a hit, and ALL the soaps tried to emulate that by bringing in a bunch of “hip” kids ? The only soap that did a decent job was GH, as we got Brenda, Jagger, Karen and Ol’Jason out of that. I really thought the success of Desperate Wives would positively affect the soaps, and we would see a new era of feisty witty over-40 women. Not so much. Instead we get poor knock offs of The Sopranos and The Hills.

  2. Hello Patrick! Wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your blog.

    This entry really struck me–you put your finger on something I completely agree with and hadn’t realized before. I particularly agree with the comments pertaining to Mrs. McCluskey, Claire Meade, and Brothers & Sisters (the best “family” ensemble I’ve seen in ages).

    RESPONSE: Thanks!

  3. I completely agree with your post. I think this is one of the primary reasons why soaps have a hard time gaining new viewers. I think Cady McClain made a similar argument in part of her blog entry that you posted. Popular culture changes. If you look at soaps from the 1980’s they fit in with that time period. Now soaps seem to have a hard time coming up with a modern identity. For the most part with today’s viewing audience, people like characters who they can identify with on some level.

    If people can’t identify with the characters themselves, then they have to identify with the situations that the characters find themselves in or the overarching themes presented within a story. This argument that soaps are out of date extends beyond storylines and includes the way women as a whole are written on daytime soaps. One of the reasons why I stopped watching soaps was because I felt like I was watching a cross between a 1950’s and 1980’s melodrama. Soaps seem to be stuck on rewind without any clue from the higher ups on how to write stories and create characters that appeal to this decade’s sensibilites.

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