Oakdale: History repeating itself

As a certified soapaholic, I like to read about the history of a show, or see old clips on YouTube that fill in the gaps for me. It’s fun to see then vs. now.

It struck me as I’ve been going through some of the history of As The World Turns that the action in 1979 isn’t much different than 2009: It’s very action-based and plot-based.

atwt87There are some interesting parallels. One of the biggest couples in ’79 was the already-demented James Stenbeck and Barbara. James played mind games with Barbara and was always trying to take their son, Paul, away from her. Sound familiar? It should; Paul has repeated that history with wife Meg and daughter Eliza.

The tone of many of the stories is so strikingly similar to today, and perhaps for the same reason. In 1979, all the shows were trying to adapt to a renewed focus on youth. General Hospital, under the leadership of Gloria Monty and Douglas Marland, had launched Luke and Laura. In 2009, ATWT is also trying to engage a younger audience and stay relevant.

Unfortunately, too much plot usually means that after the story is done, there isn’t much of interest to keep your focus there. Things don’t seem to be happening IN the lives of Oakdale residents as it seems to be happening TO them.

Since the days of Perils of Pauline, a character facing a trauma or a challenge has been part of the soap experience, and I get that. But it seems like we keep seeing the same thing at ATWT, particularly if the writers want to shake up a veteran character – or are at a loss as to what to write for the characters.

Case in point: Luke and Noah. They’re an incredibly popular couple, to be sure, and I cannot commend the creative team at ATWT enough for weaving these guys into the 220px-astheworldturns2007canvas.

But what do we know about these two? We know that they love each other, and we saw how they initially crossed paths and fell in love. But I don’t think we’ve seen much of their inner lives since.

Most of what we’ve seen are things happening externally TO them. Noah’s father. Ameera. The whole recent boring murder drug story (a story so boring, I don’t remember who died). And now this kidnapping thing.

At the end of these things, they’re together (which is great), but mostly unchanged. Even the fact that they made love (which went down a few months ago, in January) doesn’t seem to have affected them much.

The sad thing is, ATWT was at one point planting the seeds for “Nuke” that would have bloomed into really compelling story. Luke is a very outgoing character who’s got his mother’s big heart – and his biological father’s cunning. Noah is shy and quiet, and has been coming to terms – quietly – with who he is.

It would have been very real, and very real-to-life, to see Noah want to live a life out of the spotlight while Luke edged towards a more dynamic, public role. There are so many questions and issues that young couples – and young gay couples – have to think about in the context of the society they live in. So much of the lives of Gen Y is about their identity, and how they define what that is.

If Luke wants to be an activist and wear his sexuality on his sleeve, while Noah wants to exist under the surface…..that’s a year or two of conflict right there! Conflict that comes out of who they are, not what happens to them.

And that’s really, in a nutshell, what’s happening across the board at ATWT. The best stories on soaps (like GL’s Otalia story) don’t tell us what’s happening, they show us (and let us interpret it on our own). But we haven’t seen a lot on ATWT that lets us get to the heart of who a character is.

There are some compelling characters (Jack, Carly, Janet, Craig, Parker and Liberty) where we are getting to see who they are, and how messy their interactions are with each other, and those are among my favorite scenes right now for that reason.

I will say this: The writers at ATWT have a challenging job. They have the biggest slate of veterans who have been with the show for over 20 years of ANY soap. They have some iconic characters that people have VERY specific ideas about, and they have to be very careful not to reinvent those characters or change them. (I’ve bitched loudly and repeatedly about how ATWT has been guilty of reinventing characters when they’ve recast them.)

But plot is not enough. We want to know why what’s happening to a character is happening, and how it will affect them. And not just front-burner characters, but supporting characters and veterans, too. We don’t just want to see Kim at WOAK, working with Katie and Brad. We’d like to see a glimpse as to why she’s there. Is it fulfilling for her? Has she thought about retiring?

Those little scenes might seem like little sketches, unimportant to the bigger picture. But the more shades and colors we see in a character, the more intrigued we are about who they are AND what they do. And if the details are intriguing and imaginative? There’s no need to impose plot and action onto the characters, because the story will tell itself.

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3 thoughts on “Oakdale: History repeating itself

  1. I can’t really comment on specifics here. After a 3 year “break” I’ve just started watching ATWT. (With news that the show has been renewed only for another year, I decided to start watching again, to show my support in a way.) Right now I’m trying to get used to the recasts, but I have noticed that the show seems very plot heavy.

    I think most shows could benefit from your suggestions of “little scenes” and more character-based storytelling.

  2. ATWT does have so many great veteran actors/characters, who deserve to have rich, exciting storylines. Jane Wyman as Angela Channing began ruling “Falcon Crest” when she was 64, so why can’t today’s soaps feature older characters with juicy storylines of their own??? Lisa, Lucinda and Barbara should be battling it out for control of Oakdale. Just an idea. Crazy perhaps, but with such talented actresses at their disposal, ATWT’s writers should be using them all the time in some way, shape or form. I know I would.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I wish someone over at ATWT would READ this, as I feel the same way. Soaps can still be interesting and vital as entertainment because they do something that regular episodic television can’t-take a lot of time to get inside the heart and mind of a character. Luke and Noah are a perfect case in point-there’s really nothing like them on American tv, they are truly ground-breaking. Yet they have barely scratched the surface of the quieter, more compelling issues that Luke and Noah would face in their relationship and their lives in Oakdale. For example, I want to see how Luke learns to strike a balance with his somewhat strident, black and white views and the the realities of the world. I truly want to see Noah- character who is desperate for a home and family, find a place to truly belong. There are SO many compelling stories to tell, and yet the writers never seem to want to take the time to get into to anyone’s inner life. Ironically, that’s what that the fans truly long for. The quiet stuff, the magic that soaps do best.

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