What soaps and HGTV have in common

Years ago, I wrote a bit of a parody that joked about the similarities between soap operas and porn movies. They’re all done on a budget! There’s disco music in the background! The same actors seem to be in all of them! Okay, it sounded funnier to me at the time. You get the idea.

More recently, I’ve drawn another parallel between soaps and a specific type of reality programming. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, readers, and that rabbit hole has HGTV.

HGTV is, of course, the Home and Garden TV channel. There’s not much in the way of Garden these days, but the network’s shows are all about homes. Home selling, home buying and, especially in the post-recession era, home renovation and “flipping.”

I enjoy HGTV, full stop. Yes, I know the “reality” shows there are not 100 percent organically real. But after watching the news – or living it – for a few hours, it’s a great way to unplug my brain for 30 minutes here and there.

And yet…..

After watching consistently for a few months, I noticed that HGTV’s audience is a very curious mix.

It’s a channel where a lot of the shows, and the “reveal” at the end of the shows, are aspirational. This is what you can have in your life. Just remodel and things will be wonderful. 

These shows seem to be aimed, as all shows these days must be, at young women 18-49, the key demographic. There’s also a number of shows that feature people of color, and another segment of HGTV shows with LGBT participants.

Women, people of color, LGBT people.

Oh, yeah, where have I heard this before? That’s also the main audience for soap operas.

And of course, those are audiences that don’t always dovetail with each other. Consider HGTV’s programming.

The channel has a pretty substantial gay following, but there are few visible gay hosts. David Bromstad is the only one regularly appearing on the channel now.

In the last few years, HGTV decided that couples were the way to go. And if you’re a Southern couple? Even better.

The king and queen of HGTV are Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper. The Gaineses love rustic country chic and shiplap (look it up); Chip is the clownish dad, while Joanna is the design queen.

They are safe for mass consumption – family values, churchgoing folks with evangelical ties.

And they’ve become a bit of a template for HGTV.  Ben and Erin Napier of Home Town? Same idea, but in Laurel, Mississippi.

I’m not here to diminish their faith or beliefs – indeed, I want to write more about faith and serialized drama down the line – but it remains a curious choice to my eyes for HGTV.

Even the couples that don’t have an overt religious connection are still, well, couples. Couples like Midwestern transplants Eric and Lindsay Bennett, who lead sunny Palm Springs based Desert Flippers.

They’re often Southern couples, like the Napiers and Gaineses, like Dave and Kourtney Wilson, of Masters of Flip, and Ken and Anita Corsini of Flip or Flop Atlanta.

And yes, I know the Wilsons are Canadian, but they are in Nashville flipping homes, which seems to be a popular setting for these shows.

Listed Sisters features twin sisters flipping in Nashville, a show which no doubt follows the template of Kitchen Cousins and of course, the Scott Brothers, who are perpetually on HGTV during the day (and now seemingly in a million commercials as well).

And I’m not dragging down family-centered shows, either. The most charming one, in my humble opinion, is Good Bones, which just ended its second season.  That show has a mother and daughter team running a real estate company and flipping firm.

Mina and Karen, the mother and daughter duo, are charming, funny and quirky, and the other family members working on projects are, too.

Good Bones works on smaller budgets and smaller houses in “transitional” neighborhoods. Mind you, HGTV is still a corporate entity and an aspirational channel. but Good Bones has shown some realness in the midst of the shiny white subway tiles.

What you’ll notice about most of the people I just mentioned? Well, almost all of them, really? That list is primarily white, straight folks.

HGTV does indeed show episodes with people of color, and LGBT people, but primarily as the single episode participants, the ones looking for a house on House Hunters, or buying one of the flips.

There was a pilot for an HGTV show that debuted a few months ago with a handsome, married gay couple at the helm, called Down To The Studs. It was well done, and got a huge response on social media.

Can PJ and Thomas land a spot on HGTV’s lineup?

But will HGTV pick this show up? Would Middle America watch a show with a gay couple flipping houses? Or a black couple flipping and restoring homes?

This is a question soaps have had to struggle with for years.  A diverse canvas for storytelling makes a story more rich, more textured. It can lead to fresh takes on an old idea – Empire being a great example of that.

But it’s hard to tie stories together when you have such disparate audiences.  Many soaps still seem to put their characters of color and their LGBT characters on an island, so to speak.

No doubt, there’s a segment of the audience for both soaps and renovation shows that resist seeing unfamiliar faces unlike their own on their screens.

Corporate influences rule the day these days, and so, too, does the current tone of conversations in the Trump era about those of us who are “other.”

For HGTV, they appear to be genuinely trying to juggle their diverse fan base with their programming, and probably feel like they’ve been inclusive, since they feature LGBT buyers and renters, as well as the occasional short-run show with an LGBT host, like the lottery house show hosted by David Bromstad.

But I’d venture that the biggest chunk of attention for HGTV in the last year has come from Tarek el Moussa and his ex-wife, Christina.

They are the hosts of Flip or Flop – the original version – and their marriage publicly imploded, in a messy, ugly way, with accusations of bad behavior and the couple’s photo plastered all over the tabloids.

And yet….it’s all money in the bank. It was a massive windfall of publicity for HGTV.

So far? The messy, estranged couple with lots of drama is preferable to showing an LGBT couple or a couple or family of color as, shall we say, heads of household. So far. Will it change?



The Baroness

I’ve been doing a deep dive on YouTube this summer (no, I didn’t originally know there were so many Quint and Nola clips on there…..boy, I sure do now).

A clip popped up in my feed, and I watched it for the first time in years.

Can it really have been 25 years since Beverlee McKinsey’s final appearance as Alexandra on Guiding Light?

The scene between Beverlee and Vincent Irizarry is just heartbreaking.

An interesting footnote in the YouTube comments: When McKinsey began as Alex in 1984, her first lines were with Maeve Kinkead (Vanessa) – which I believe IS true, since they were both part of the masquerade ball scenes – and her final scene here was also with Kinkead.

You Got That?

It’s been a while since we’ve seen this face on a Digest cover. For a while, his face was as frequent as the latest Plan To Save DAYS ™.

The storyline summary is a single page towards the beginning, and nothing too surprising. There’s a nice interview with Eric Braeden, though.

This was a welcome cover, Digest, but let’s not try to put him on every week again like before, mmmkay?

Eight Summer Questions

I’ve been meaning to post about so much that’s happening – Ron Carlivati’s material starts at DAYS! Sally Sussman Morina/Kay Alden/Mal Young happenings at Y&R! I still have a lot to say, and a long thinkpiece I’ve been working on for a while.

So I decided to pay homage with this post to my friend Marlena Delacroix. She’s known, of course, for her question posts, both from her Critical Condition column in Soap Opera Weekly and also at her eponymous website.

Marlena, her husband Moose and their dog Nigel have been enjoying a summer retreat at their country cottage. So while Marlena’s enjoying the summer sun, here’s my questions to the soap universe….

(1) So did DAYS really, truly let Vincent Irizarry go? And did they let him go without any meaningful scenes with Judi Evans? I know Judi’s Adrienne was already involved with Lucas and Justin. But still…..the magic of Beth and Lujack was right there, a resource for a show struggling to regain its footing. Why did they ignore it?

(2) I’ve always liked Linsey Godfrey. Truly. I’ve enjoyed her as Caroline on B&B, and thought she played both heroine and bitch equally well. But am I imagining that there’s been an INSANE amount of print coverage over her departure and subsequent return? It seemed like she had a few pages in Digest every time I cracked it open.

(3) I know that Morgan Fairchild is a soap veteran, but am I the only one having a hard time accepting her as Anjelica? Her work has been fine, and she’s very funny, but I see her and see Morgan Fairchild, not Anjelica. I know DAYS wanted a “name,” but I wish they’d have gone in a different direction.

(4) Did DAYS bring on one son for Steve (Tripp) only to let another one (Joey) go? Will Joey exit the canvas alive? More specifically, for the departed Dena Higley: Why on earth did you make one of your new, young male characters, especially one tied to a core family, a killer (Joey) and make the son of another (Chase) a rapist?

(5) Who knew a piano recital could be so exciting? I was surprised, but the whole thing turned out to be a very effective mini-umbrella story for Y&R.  It was a little gothic, a little suspenseful, and very Bill Bell, if you ask me. The question here is: who was responsible for that idea – the ones who just “retired,” or the new EP-combo-head writer?

(6) Am I an awful human being for clapping when Sam shot Sonny and then kicked him into a pit on General Hospital? And, uh, does anyone have a GIF of that sequence?

(7) I’ve been reading a lot about legendary NYC personality Rollerena lately, and after seeing a series of photos of her, I had to ask: Is it just me, or does she look a bit like Kim Hughes’ long lost sister? Or cousin?  (Hey, if it worked for Frannie and Sabrina it could work here, too.) Seriously, the resemblance is probably minor, and mostly in the fact that both have very angular facial features, but Kim was who immediately popped into mind.

Rollerena and Kim Hughes: a family resemblance?

(8) Can it possibly be 8 years this week that Guiding Light filmed its last scenes? That seems so totally impossible. YouTube knows me so well; it keeps kicking up old GL scenes for me to watch.

If you’ve got a question to pose to the greater soap universe, feel free to post it in the comments!

Product placement: making us sick?

Remember when we got a little irked when Margo Hughes talked about touching up her hair with Nice ‘n Easy?

Or when Dinah Marler craved a package of Pringles? Remember?

We didn’t know how good we had it, kids.

General Hospital recently told a story that involved a real company doing real product placement.

And like much of what Sonny Corinthos does, it was questionable at best and perhaps misleading.

Arstechnica summarizes the nitty gritty details here. 

I found some of the comments amusing (among them, “Luke would have NEVER let this happen”) but this trend is disconcerting.

In general, it raises my anxiety that, in the Trump era, we don’t know who’s behind the messages we’re getting in media or what their goals are.

And when it comes to daytime, our shows are discounted and disregarded already. Yes, everyone has to make a profit these days. But stories should help people, not just treat them as human ATM’s, targeted only for their marketing value.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to stop by the store and score a canister of Pringles. Can’t stop at just one, you know.

30 years of Designing Women

The women of “Designing Women.” (Internet photo) 

Okay, I know, I know – Designing Women isn’t a soap opera.

And technically, it’s been thirty ONE years since it landed on our screens in 1986. But I’m giving GetTV a pass on that one, because they’re bringing Designing Women back to our TV sets. Thirty years is a great hook – and a great Twitter hashtag too!

I’ve always loved this show, and while it changed over the years, and lost some of its charm – and a few of its finest characters – towards the end of its run, it still stands as a solid piece of work for me.

One thing I truly loved about the show is how carefully defined each character was, and how story emerged from those details. As with the best of soap opera, a well defined character meant the story would often write itself.

As with Maude and All In The Family, the more I watch them, the more timeless they feel. The wallpaper might be out of fashion, and the situation of the episode may seem quaint. But the issues that people are fighting about are the same.

Suzanne was, of course, a predecessor to Karen Walker, but one with a beating heart under all the bravado.

Mary Jo was, as Dash Goff once said, “part calico choir girl………..and part satin dance hall doll.”  

Charlene was everything you saw at the surface – a loving, generous friend, with a quirky stream of consciousness emerging from her brain 24/7.

And Julia was, in every sense, a grand lady – a combination of beauty and brains, with high standards – and no problem letting the people who didn’t meet those standards know about those failures!

Designing Women had Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry at the helm, with Linda writing all the episodes during the first few seasons. The consistency in the writing showed in the quality.

I always sort of felt there was a kinship between DW in that era and Guiding Light, which had Pam Long, another writer with roots in the South who wrote about Southern characters, and understood the balancing act – and the conflicts – between old worlds and new ones, always a fertile ground for soaps to cover.

It was no surprise that GL’s Kim Zimmer made a memorable appearance on DW as Mavis, Charlene’s cousin, in a 1989 episode, shortly before Zimmer left GL. It seemed almost tailor-made for Zimmer’s talents.

The way they were….. (Internet photo)

I loved Julia’s epic reads, though I know some people found them a bit wearisome. But I truly loved how she could, as the old Irish saying goes, tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they’d look forward to the journey.

Fans – myself included – remember some of the more iconic scenes – the “night the lights went out in Georgia” speech, an AIDS episode – based largely on Thomason’s own mother struggling with AIDS – as well as Charlene’s WWII fantasy and wedding, and the arrival of Charlene’s baby.

But one of the most moving ones, for me, was an episode called “How Great Thou Art.”

Charlene feels a call to the ministry, and approaches her very conservative church leadership about this call. (You’ll recognize Patrick Tovatt, Cal from As The World Turns, as the minister.)

Meanwhile, Julia is asked to sing at her church, and fears performing the song How Great Thou Art because of her worries about hitting the high note.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s a very moving one. Much of the power of it comes from the characters (and of course the performers).  The Designing Women Online website, a wonderful resource for any fan, has a wonderful writeup about this episode. 

Their words say it splendidly – that the show “created and told an emotionally explosive story with no gimmicks or dramatic scenes — simply two women struggling with their faith.” 

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna for thinking there’s an enormous amount of drama in these true-to-life situations, drama that need not involve a chimera (whatever the hell THAT is), or a virus that makes you hit people on the side of the head with a giant rock.

This is high stakes for the characters involved, and for at least one of them, it doesn’t end with a happy ending. That doesn’t make the drama any less meaningful or involving.

And it also makes me wonder why faith was always generic and rare on soaps. It was seldom used, trotted out only at holidays and for weddings, funerals and deathbed prayers.  (There’s probably a whole separate post coming on that one.)

I’ll be checking out the GetTV episodes – even if I do have all the DVD’s already. GetTV, by the way, has a really great library – I’ve especially enjoyed some of the 60s and 70s talk shows they’ve got in their library.

Check out the GetTV site to see where it plays near you.

ALSO: Check out this blog post about the return of DW by writer Will McKinley. He’s an expert on classic movies and classic stars. He’s also quite knowledgable about soap operas, too. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Another dose of Agnes

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for mentioning this clip to me – it’s a recent post by Michael Fairman,  a well-known soap journalist.

This is, shall we say, the expanded remix of what Fairman produced as a memorial tribute for Agnes Nixon at this year’s Daytime Emmys.

It’s quite moving to see so many people get so emotional about Agnes and, really, about the passing of an era.

It’s a lovely clip. It gets a bit syrupy at the end – how very daytime! – but much of the clip has some very moving emotions and reactions, real and authentic words from many of the people who loved Agnes Nixon and owed her a debt of gratitude.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Fairman years ago, on that trip where Guiding Light invited a number of bloggers to see the new production model and somehow decided to invite me. Really nice work, Michael.