Audacious List (8 of 10): Nothing matters in a vacuum

Just when you thought it was safe to read this blog – the list is baaaaaaaaaaaack…………It’s the list I’ve published of the CREATIVE issues that all the soaps seem to face.

I’ve struggled with how to put this next item on The List into words for a few months. It’s an observation that’s multilayered about a creative tool that is often influenced by multiple factors.

In the big scheme of things, it boils down to this:

  • We care about a character because someone else cares about the character, or is affected by them. (“Care” doesn’t always mean “love” – it means we are avidly watching what they’re doing.)
  • We care about the story because the characters we care about are impacted by what happens. The plot is usually the smallest part of the pie.

What’s been happening for several years is that many events, plot twists and storylines are taking place in a vacuum. By that, I mean that what we’re watching is affecting fewer characters – or none at all.

I don’t want to be the Stuck In The Past guy, but one thing I loved about many of the shows in the 1970s and 1980s was the way supporting characters and character actors were featured.

Writers and producers seemed to understand that, as in any film or theatrical production, a supporting character could make an enormous impact. Think of Iris on Another World. Iris wasn’t winning any contests for Miss Congeniality, but when we saw her interact with her maid Vivien, we occasionally saw the mask drop.

We were reminded that even when she was being a total beyotch, Iris was human. And the more we saw of friends, family and supporting characters (like Vivian), the more we saw who the main characters were through their eyes.

Because of several factors – a desire to move stories faster, a reluctance to feature veterans and “talk-to” characters, and the incredible shrinking budgets at all the show – many of those characters are gone.

Today, the shows are filled to the brim with characters we barely know played by actors we’re still getting used to. Many shows have handed the keys to the kingdom over to a character or a couple who still has that “new character smell” and has few connections, if any, in town.

In classic soap storytelling, an event would happen (good ingenue gets together with bad guy) and the show might take months to play out the reactions of all of her friends and family. On As The World Turns or One Live to Live, that might happen in a matter of days.

As I mentioned before, I think there are SO many factors that make this happen. At this stage of the game, money has to be at the top of the list.

But there are other creative reasons, as well. I think one is that we have fewer veterans at the shows. And we have fewer veteran performers who want to be a “talk-to”, or at least take their turn as a supporting actor. We don’t have characters that are moving into those roles and being the concerned neighbor and friend.

We also don’t have very many unlikeable, pain-in-the-ass characters. We don’t have a disapproving society matron like AMC’s Phoebe Tyler, who used to cluck her dismay at two young people living together “without benefit of clergy.”

I think most of the shows (and perhaps some of the actors playing them) feel that making a character grumpy, ornery or difficult will take away from that character’s ability to be coupled (and perhaps supercoupled). 

The shows also seem to go to extremes, sketching only saints and demons. Instead of a loving parent who disapproves of a child’s choices – something that could create drama for years – we have characters like Noah Mayer on As The World Turns, who had a homicidal dad who made trouble for him for what seemed like about a minute.

One of the few stories I really loved this year (for the whole two months that it lasted) was the Casey and Emily pairing on As The World Turns. That story had an awesome convergence of factors to it.

  • The performers (Billy Magnusson and Kelley Menighan Hensley) were appealing, talented actors who had chemistry.
  • We’ve known Casey and Emily since they were born.
  • It drew on the Stewart/Hughes family history.
  • There was a scandalous element – that Emily was sleeping with a man who was (a) much younger and (b) the son of another man she’d slept with.

But most importantly, it significantly affected three characters – Tom, Margo and Susan – that we have known and cared about FOR YEARS. What looked almost ridiculous on paper SANG onscreen, because we cared.

Conversely, I could name dozens of stories where everything is happening in a vacuum.

Let’s talk about Melanie and Nick on Days of Our Lives. Nick has a connection to the Hortons, but it hasn’t been emphasized too strongly, and Melanie has a newly discovered connection to Max, a character who is still somewhat new to the canvas.

These two have taken over the show and have done a number of things (including a sad turn to the dark side for Nick) that I’ve had a hard time caring about. Why? Well, it’s happened in a vacuum. The one person who we care about and who would care about Nick’s actions – Chelsea – has rarely seen or talked to Nick in recent months. And Melanie has hogged airtime despite the fact that we hardly know her and her actions affect virtually no one in Salem.

The shows need to make what happens matter. They need to remember history isn’t an albatross, but rather something that will put today’s events into context and make it matter to us. And to make it matter to us, it has to matter to the people in our fictional universes. Otherwise, we’re as disconnected from it as if we were watching the news.

5 thoughts on “Audacious List (8 of 10): Nothing matters in a vacuum

  1. Just a couple random thoughts after reading:

    It really blows that the shows are spending money on more “front-burner” characters when they could cut back on several of those and bring back some actors who I always regarded as the “talk-to” types. Patricia Bruder from ATWT was an excellent supporting character (yes, I know Ellen Stewart used to be front-burner in the ’60s and ’70s); so were Gil Rogers and the late Audrey Peters on GL.

    I know that there are actors on daytime who don’t want to be the “talk-to” characters, because they probably regard it as an insult to their time or their character (i.e., “I used to be part of a supercouple and now I sit in the diner/coffeehouse/bar/hotel and just *listen* to people!”). But as my drama teacher used to point out, it takes a creative person to take even the smallest role and make it seem big. (It worked for me when I was doing character roles in various plays. I never wanted to be the lead — that was no fun! 😉 )

    Thanks Matt! I think you’re right, some actors probably don’t want to be back-burnered. What I think has been lost in daytime in recent years is the rotation of story. Instead of rotating the focus, the shows are focusing on a few actors and playing them to death.

  2. Matt and Patrick- Just a quick reminder that Audrey Peters is still very much alive, only her GL character Sarah Shayne is “late”!

    Thanks Kenneth! I knew that, but sorry I missed it in editing.

  3. I agree with you completely on this!

    I’m glad you mentioned Nick and Melanie on DAYS. I remember on the episode Nick was revealed to be the murderer there was a scene where he menacingly walked towards Melanie, knife in hand, as if he were going to stab her and I literally thought, “Am I supposed to care?” Not the reaction they were going for I’m sure, lol.

    And let’s not forget this was all part of the Who Killed Trent? story which should have been called Who is Trent Again and Why Should We Care If He’s Dead? Talk about a dud, Trent was a newbie who had only flimsy connections to a couple of other characters, and though played by the wonderful Roscoe Borne, was a completely uninteresting character who didn’t even muster Love To Hate feelings in me. And the big reveal was ridiculous (suddenly psycho Nick? uhm no) and disappointing (now Nick, one of the few likeable newbie characters w/ lots of storyline potential is officially ruined.)

    Sorry for the babbling, but my beloved DAYS has gotten me muttering Who Cares? more than any other show right now (don’t even get me started on the Sami/EJ/Nicole w/ Chloe/Lucas/Rafe/Brady on the side mess – who am I supposed to be rooting for??)

  4. When stories aren’t connected, if we don’t have an emotional stake in the characters we may not care regardless of the writing or the acting. For whatever reason and money is not a good enough excuse, situations don’t ripple as they once did. Many times something dire happens and then only characters directly in their story appear or even mention the situation. I was shocked in a good way for example when GL had Daisy visiting Bill while he was in a coma, as Bill is her uncle.

    I agree with you that they got rid of supporting players and it sucks. These performers don’t have a loud fan base in comparison to the “stars” so they were seen as more expendable even if they may be well liked by many of the viewers. (Think of GL’s Maureen Bauer back in the 90s.) I think actors are scared to take over this role as they perhaps could be dumped if they happened to be on the back burner at the wrong time or for too long.

    The lack of story-cycling on many shows has made it worse. Story-cycling isn’t shifting the lead role among three or so performers. Sometimes a person would be lead in their own story for part of the year and then provide commentary to others the rest of the time.

    Colorful characters are disappearing too, though I see that as a separate issue. They do provide different insight into the “leads”…people like GL’s Vera, Lionel, Levy or Wanda gave another point of view. GH’s Spinelli is one of the few colorful characters left in daytime.

    With Nick’s decent into madness on Days, the reaction that got to me the most was Maggie’s as even though they didn’t play much with Nick and Maggie–we saw her pain over letting her family down.

  5. Kenneth and Patrick: My apologies, I could have sworn that I had read an obit for Audrey Peters several years ago. I knew Sarah Shayne had passed away on GL; I’m sure I got the two mixed up! 🙂

    I know it probably wouldn’t fly (but what the heck, GL has nothing to lose), but wouldn’t it be fun if they brought Sarah back as a ghost a la Alan Quartermaine? That would certainly be an interesting twist (and I KNOW I would watch those scenes with Sarah and Reva — or whoever they chose to be the one to see her)!

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