Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guilty, soapy pleasures

For the past couple of months I've been totally obsessed with how TV's soap operas were going to negotiate their way through the disaster of the writers' strike. Why, you may well ask. Because one of my guilty little pleasures for many years has been watching the daytime soaps.

It may go back to childhood when my mother listened to a couple of soaps on the radio before I started school and she went back to work. Or it may go back to my years as a TV critic in Ohio when I broke my ankle, had a cast up to my hip in the middle of winter and was stuck in the house with soap operas to entertain me. I wrote a whole series of columns on the soaps and got hooked all over again, especially on The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. My favorite story from that time was mentioning in a column that I just couldn't figure out the convoluted relationship between two characters on As the World Turns. By Monday morning I had a stack of mail on my desk explaining it to me . . . and every version was slightly different.

Over the years soaps have been maligned by critics, denigrated by TV snobs, and treated shabbily by networks and local stations who cut into them at the drop of a hat for "Breaking News" that usually isn't worth the airtime it wastes. With viewing patterns changing and soap ratings falling, I wondered if the writers' strike would be the kiss of death for this form of daytime entertainment.

When the strike began, word was that most soaps had sufficient scripts to carry them into February. Just in case, I hoarded my daily tapes, allowing myself to watch only the occasional hour, staving off the day when they might be forced to air reruns.

And as February neared, viewers I think could begin to see the very clever ways that the shows were trying to grapple with a dwindling supply of words for their characters to utter. Some shows had more than usual musical segments...meaning music played while characters interacted without speaking. This entailed long, meaningful looks, strolling hand in hand, rolling around in bed or anything else that could occupy the screen while music substituted for words. Some shows resorted to many, many flashbacks, weaving old clips into the story which could easily extend one new script into two days worth of shows.

My favorite, though, has been All My Children. Now some of this was, I'm sure, planned even before the writers' strike. The return of beloved characters Angie and Jessie -- never mind that he died onscreeen years ago -- could well have been in the works all along, but it has allowed somewhat conveniently for many, many flashbacks. In addition, they brought back the "real" Greenlee -- Rebecca Budig -- for an amnesia storyline about her old love Ryan, which has -- you guessed it -- allowed for the use of many, many flashbacks. They couldn't have pulled that off with the new actress in the role.

In general All My Children and the three CBS shows I tape have weathered the strike mostly with aplomb. After all, many of these seasoned actors spend their spare time on the New York stage and are used to live performances that require them to roll with the punches when the unexpected happens. They mustered on no matter what material they were handed. Only on rare occasions have I gone, "Huh?" when a storline or character veered wildly off-course.

Thank goodness, though, that the strike ended when it did. Had the strike gone on and necessitated the kind of scheduling disaster that occurred in primetime, it might have been the death knell for the soaps. And as someone who not only loves the genre, but also writes connected books because of an affinity for stories that return to the same world again and again, the loss would have saddened me. Now if network executives could muster up the same amount of respect for these venerable old shows, I'd feel even better about their future.

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