Oakdale post-mortem (Part Two)

Here’s part two of the discussion I had with writer and media analyst Sam Ford, who is co-editor of the upcoming book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era. (You can read Part One here.)

1000 WORLDS: As a fan, what do you think the biggest missteps have been over the last several years? The biggest successes?

SAM FORD: I’ve remained watching. That’s not because I’m a glutton for punishment. Sometimes, it’s been painful. But let’s emphasize that As the World Turns has gotten many things right along the way. I grew up on Marland ATWT and became fascinated with the immense history of the show. My interest waned during the rocky post-Marland years, and high school and college distracted me right as Goutman came to the show and, later, when Hogan was really innovating.

Much of what Hogan Sheffer did freshened up the show and made great use of certain characters that had been neglected. He’s a bit to soaps what Vince Russo was to the WWE, in that he freshened up and played with the genre in fun ways but often through doing new things rather than capturing some of the essence of the genre.  In Hogan’s case, he had great, fun stories but wasn’t often able to capture the quiet drama, the “mundane” stories of everyday drama that ATWT is particularly attuned to tell.

The Hugheses weren’t the poster-children of the Sheffer era of ATWT. The beginning of Passanante’s run at the creative helm led to the baby switch storyline that I think was excellently done, bringing in the Hugheses and the Stewarts and the Snyders and the Montgomerys and the Ryans/Munsons and Dusty while simultaneously introducing a great new character in Gwen, giving her a tie to Carly, etc. It was a transgenerational story that impacted most of the characters on the canvas and stretched on for months.

That doesn’t mean it was perfectly executed by any means, but it was very well done. In the past few years, the show brought back Scott Bryce, at least for a while. It has elevated Trent Dawson’s excellent work as Henry Coleman and rewarded both Dawson’s excellent work and his naturally grown fan base. It introduced and remained committed to Van Hansis’ Luke Snyder as a legacy character who it has followed from coming out to first love and beyond. It has introduced some great actors into soaps in the past few years, from Jesse Soffer to Eric Sheffer Stevens.

And, most of all, it has remained more committed to continuously employing a whole community of veteran soap opera actors than any other show, from doing all it could to keep Helen Wagner on air to keeping the unique Eileen Fulton on air to finding ways to keep Don Hastings, Kathryn Hays, Marie Masters, Colleen Zenk, Elizabeth Hubbard, Kathleen Widdoes, and others in the mix and, occasionally, even featuring them (in lead stories).

I won’t rehash the mistakes in great detail, since we’ve lamented them many times, and I certainly don’t think blame can be assigned to any one person in most cases. But ATWT did little to take real advantage of all the history it retained and didn’t properly use many of the excellent cast members named above.

They often seemed to view the history of the show as albatross rather than inspiration, a symptom of the revolving door mentality of soap opera creative talent, who often move from show to show. They publicly exclaimed reservations about staying committed to what soaps have been powerful at, from questioning whether people would watch a show daily any longer to moving to short-form stories with a beginning, middle, and end that are the antithesis of the long-form stories such as Ellen giving her son up for adoption or Adam Hughes really being Hal’s child that ATWT was so good at.

They lacked a consistent vision that they remained dedicated to, as moments of creative upswing were rarely sustained. They remained focused on the same few characters more often than not instead of taking advantage of arguably the best ensemble cast in daytime. They dedicated little time to exploring the lives and opinions of supporting characters and often programmed people into specific storylines so that we didn’t see what Emma thought about Holden if she was dealing with Meg, or we saw Craig with sister Katie regularly for two months and then didn’t see them in a scene together for six months afterward.

Most jarring on the mistakes front, though, was this belief that actors from ATWT‘s own history were less valuable or relevant than those from other shows. ATWT was the number one soap opera for two decades. The Doug Marland years of that show compare creatively to the best years of any other program. And the viewers of ATWT–a CBS soap, an East Coast soap–might view characters and actors from their own show as bigger stars than big names from another network.

Instead, we saw stunt casting that brought in Stuart Damon, Sarah Brown, Judi Evans, Lynn Herring, Brian Gaskill, Billy Warlock, and Laurence Lau for runs in which each took up a good portion of screen time. I mean this as no disrespect to the actors, considering their careers, but it was jarring to have them come in and take a lot of screen time away from show regulars, especially when some veteran actors on the show already were not getting featured enough as it was.

Further, we saw familiar faces recast with Roger Howarth, Cady McLain, Marie Wilson, Austin Peck, Jon Lindstrom, Mary Beth Evans, Randolph Mantooth, Noelle Beck, and a variety of others, and new characters heavily featured, such as Julie Pinson’s Janet. Some of these actors/characters ended up fitting into Oakdale very well. But, in my mind, they were all symptoms of creatives and executives coming from another network and tradition and believing actors from other shows were bigger stars than many on ATWT at the time or from ATWT‘s past.

Coming in Part 3, the final chapter: The legacy of Oakdale.

3 thoughts on “Oakdale post-mortem (Part Two)

  1. I was sitting at home doing some work last night, and I saw a promo for the U.S. Tennis Open. After some research, ATWT will be pre-empted on Sept. 6(Jerry Lewis Telethon) and Sept. 10(U.S. Open). These last nine episodes are going to be ridiculous.
    Now, I am going to borrow an idea from one of your audacious list to disagree with Mr Ford. None of the regular or recurring characters are moving vertically or horizontally, so short-term characters are needed to force the action on the regular cast. These troublemakers stir the pot, get punished for their crimes and then make for room for the next group of short-term characters. It seem the producers don’t want to deviate from the status quo which makes the regular characters appear stale and complacent.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jenius. I am not at all arguing for not having short-term characters. I think that would be a bad idea. The problem I have is the number of short-term characters who were brought in for a big splash, took up vital airtime from regulars who actually aren’t featured very often, and then leave without much–if any–repercussions on the main cast. Ralph Manzo at least was used to move a few things forward; I’ll give them that. His last appearance launched the Brad’s death storyline; his more recent appearance helped wrap up several loose threads.

    But let’s look at the others on the list: Sarah Brown was brought on to cause problems for Jack and Carly, but they ended up back together. The one real and lasting impact–the adoption of J.J.–was negated by sending him off to boarding school and pretending he never even existed. Judi Evans served as an excuse to get Holden and Lily apart once again, but once Holden got home, it was clear they didn’t have any use for the character except in a vacuum, so her impact was negligible beyond a short-term plot device. Lynn Herring’s Audrey killed James Stenbeck and helped get Henry and Barbara together, but much of the storytelling was disjointed and nonsensical, and the fact that Audrey is rarely referenced during Henry and Barbara’s romance are signs that her impact provided little beyond a plot device as well. Brian Gaskill’s role? No real impact on the characters once the threat was gone. Billy Warlock’s airtime during the final two months, in my mind, provided very little other than to take away airtime from wrapping up the plots of key characters. And Elizabeth Hubbard said much of what is needed to be said about Laurence Lau’s run as Brian Wheatley in a recent interview–bad idea of a storyline, saved by a good actor, to some degree.

    And let’s think about two others I forgot all about: Kin Shriner as Keith Morrissey and Wally Kurth as Sam Hutchins. Both are from General Hospital/Port Charles as well. And…well…I’d love for someone to tell me the meaningful long-term impact these short term characters had on Oakdale’s denizens.

    But to get back to your original point, Jenius, there is absolutely need for characters to come in and out of Oakdale. The history of ATWT is full of that done well. And despite my gripes about some of the characters above, we can look at the role Reid played as a new character on canvas for several months–and the emotional connection to him–to see how powerful these outside characters can be. Or we can look at the reaction to Noah so soon after he debuted–plot device that he was to give Luke a boyfriend. In these last couple of years, I would have most loved to have seen a few key faces from the past play the plot devices–Iva, Lyla, Penny, Ellen, Andy, etc.–in these final days. I could only imagine the stories that could get moving again if one of them came back to town for a few days and was used properly. Just look at how John Dixon has played superman across multiple plots in his short time back…and bravo to ATWT for bringing back such an important character in the show’s final days…

    Um….what Sam said! Eloquent as usual, Mr. Ford.

  3. Sam Ford always has an amazing take on not only ATWT, but the entire genre.

    I read your research paper on product placement specific to AS THE WORLD TURNS and found it chock-full of interesting information and trivia I’d spent years wondering about!

    The further away we get from the last days of ATWT, the more I realize that it appears everything (within reason) was done to end the show in a satisfying way. For the people who complain that Penny or Ellen wasn’t brought home, really – what was their last storyline? Maybe those actors cost too much or weren’t willing to trek out to Brooklyn in June for a few lines.

    They did wrap up every current canvas character’s storyline the best they could, and that last episode — man, I cry every time the globe magically starts spinning when Bob turns out the lights. I thought the final show was an instant classic.

    Michael – Sam asked me to post this in reply: “Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And, from my perspective, there was little that could have been better than seeing John Dixon back for those last several episodes…”

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