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.