Audacious list (4 of 10): Not pruning the tree

I hope no one out there thinks I’ve invented all of the ideas I’m talking about. I’m a very good thief. (Which is one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to write for a soap opera!)

I have seen this idea discussed in several places, but I believe I owe credit to Michael Logan for this idea. Mr. Logan is a respected journalist and one of the first people to cover soaps on a regular basis. I think we see a lot more celebrity profiles and the like from Michael nowadays, but he’s made many wise observations over the years, particularly when he was on the staff at Soap Opera Digest.

And this one is his. Basically, in a nutshell, it’s this: Soaps for many years became very, very bad about having characters take their natural courses – which sometimes led off the canvas. In many cases, soaps kept actors on longer than the story needed them to be there.

Personally, I like the analogy of pruning the tree. When a tree starts to grow, it’s a beautiful thing. But at some point, you have to prune the tree to shape it a little. Tending to the tree in this way will make its trunk much stronger, will give strength to the existing branches, and will encourage new sprouts and growths.

When soaps were 15 minutes or a half an hour, they had much smaller casts. You always had your basic pillars of the show (the tree trunks). Whether it was Bert and Bill on GL, or Steve and Audrey on GH, you had the characters at the center. There was usually the town vixen or outside irritant (Lisa on ATWT being a prime example), and perhaps a few children or siblings of the central characters. Every year or two, a new character might be brought on to make trouble. It might be a new lawyer, or doctor, or some crazy neighbor. Those characters tended to make trouble for a while, and then they were gone. Usually, it was like being an understudy for a Broadway show. You didn’t end up sticking around forever unless someone else left the show or died. Dramatically, those roles had a specific shelf life, which usually worked for the show. (This, of course, was when bad guys got what they deserved and good prevailed.)

I don’t think that the expansion of the shows to an hour was an issue per se. But it certainly gave the shows more of a need for content. And most shows did a great job for many years getting the balance right.

But I think some shows were guilty of not pruning the tree in two important ways. They were reluctant to shift characters off canvas, even for a time, even if it was clear the character needed a rest or a change of venue. This was especially true if the characters were popular. And the shows often confused “popular” with “viable storytelling”. Also, in many case where shows had villains and other characters meant to be short-term catalysts, too many of the shows ended up twisting plot or character to make those energy-filled characters stick around. (Which, ironically, zaps them of their catalytic energy in most cases.)

Now, I’m not suggesting every show start killing off every bad character or irritant. Then they’d be killing off everyone in the cast, left and right. (We have that show, anyway. We call it “General Hospital.”)

A recent example of the second point would be the character of Jonathan on AMC. Jonathan killed a major character and was well on his way out the door. The actor (Jeff Branson) is undeniably talented, but there was no way that Jonathan should have been kept around. AMC thought otherwise and twisted the story around to make Jonathan be sympathetic to the audience. The character never really seemed to hit the heights of popularity that the show hoped for him, and was finally written off this year.

Many of the shows have been guilty of point #1. And this is where Michael’s comment comes in. As much as I love many characters, some of them had outlived their usefulness from a dramatic point of view.  Have you ever seen what happens when someone doesn’t clip their shrubs for a long time? They get tremendously overgrown, and then you have to basically hack at them, sometimes down to the branch. It looks horrendous, and you wonder if it will every grow back. (And sometimes, those shrubs die.)

I think a lot of shows kept on a few too many people for a long time. And don’t get me wrong, I love, love, LOVE my veterans. But sometimes, characters need to take a break. And I think when shows don’t make a decision wisely to cut down their casts or rotate them out every few years, then they reach a point that, either creatively or financially, they are forced to hack those bushes down to the branches (*ahem* GL in 2005 *ahem*).

I admit: I know jack all about contracts (SAG or otherwise). I wish that somehow, there could be more of a repertory company in daytime. For some of the recurring characters? Sign them all to 26 week contracts. Play everyone in one section of the year – part one or part two – and have ten days or so of overlap so everyone is seen in the Thanksgiving and Christmas shows. Everybody wins – the actor has a definitive salary and times when s/he works (with time off to do other stuff) – the show gets 4 actors for the price of two, and the viewer gets to see their favorites.

(And just as I stole Michael’s concept, if anyone wants to steal THIS one from me? Go right ahead!)