Thursday, April 14, 2011

RIP OLTL & AMC: My Tribute to the Soaps

I wasn't thrilled about taking health class in summer school during the summer of 1993, but it was the summer between eighth grade and freshman year for me and I knew my parents were right, I would probably feel a lot more comfortable starting high school in the fall if I had a chance to wander the halls and get a sense of what classes were like there. I took the class with my best friend from junior high, who we'll call Sandra, and two other girls we knew pretty well, but got to know better during summer school, who we'll call Lila and Jackie. Even though I had to get up way too early for a couple of months, the summer of '93 was probably one of my best summers ever. For two or three summers before it, I'd dealt with being bullied and not fitting in. By the summer of '94, Kurt Cobain was dead, I'd started smoking pot and falling for boys with drug problems. But the summer of '93 was innocent. It was about spotting cute boys from the other junior high in class and passing notes about them. And it was the summer I was introduced to something that I would enjoy for the rest of my life.

Our class got out at eleven-ish and afterward Lila invited us over to her house which was near school and also way bigger and cooler than mine. We made ourselves lunch and then Lila and her good friend Jackie, introduced me and my best friend Sandra to two of their favorite shows, All My Children and One Life to Live, and brought us up to speed on all of the characters and their back stories.

In 1993, the character of Kendall Hart had just been introduced and she was being played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. That's right, Buffy. Sarah is one of many actresses and actors who got their start on the soaps. At that point she was totally the most evil daughter in daytime. Of course, as a product of rape, given up for adoption, she had a lot to be resentful about, but did she really have to lock her little sister Bianca in a crypt and try to seduce her mom, Erica Kane's latest husband, Dimitri?

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1993 on One Life to Live, Todd Manning and his frat brothers were on trial for raping Marty Saybrooke. Todd was a horrible, horrible guy, but he also rescued the kids that would turn out to be his niece and nephew, Sarah and CJ from falling down a well. And he had the soap opera version of a Kurt Cobain look, so I couldn't help but be fascinated by him.

It became our summer school tradition, going to Lila's house to eat lunch and watch All My Children and One Life to Live. I enjoyed it so much that I was sad when summer school ended, but Sandra and I kept the tradition alive watching our soaps at one of our houses when we couldn't get over to Lila's. My mom was tickled to find out that I'd discovered two of the three shows (as a nurse, she was also a big General Hospital fan) that she'd been watching on-and-off almost since they first came on the air and had watched often when my brother and I were young and she was working nights and staying home with us during the day.

The stay-at-home mom (or mom that works nights in my mom's case) is of course the stereotypical audience for soaps. It's who they were created for, the shows being designed as vehicles for the soap companies to sponsor and sell their products to women--not for me, the thirteen-going-on-fourteen year-old punk girl, who usually spent her summers with her nose buried in a book--and I still did bury my nose in books, after One Life To Live ended.

Because they knew that they needed the next generation to pick up the soap-loving torch, AMC and OLTL have always (or at least as long as I've watched), brought in fun, younger characters. Sure, Kelly Cramer, Dorian's niece who got kicked out of her boarding school in Paris (and I swear had green or blue streaks in her hair the first summer she was introduced, which endeared her to me, but I can't find pictures to prove it.), was a drama queen and her rebellion and the issues she dealt with a very watered down/surface level version of my own. One Life To Live was no My So-Called Life, but the characters interested me enough to keep watching, and it wasn't just the younger cast members, I adored Erica Kane's exploits and Adam Chandler's grumpy domineering balanced by his twin Stuart on All My Children, and on One Life to Live, I got a kick out of Dorian Cramer's affairs with younger men including her frenemy Viki Lord's son, and I especially adored Asa Buchanan, the Texas tycoon, whose true love was Nevada brothel madam, Renee.

My soap addiction has continued for eighteen years at this point. During high school, I watched both AMC and OLTL in summers and on other breaks from school. Sometimes when I was really into a plot-line, I recorded it and watched it after school. Eventually, due to time restraints, I cut down to mainly watching OLTL and there were periods when I didn't watch at all. I didn't have a TV for all of 1997, but when I got one for Christmas, I started watching OLTL in my dorm room when I didn't have class. I lapsed again in 1999 when I was spending the majority of my time getting wasted at goth clubs, but then I found out that I got SoapNet and that the perfect way to spend a hungover Sunday was to watch a marathon of One Life To Live. Pretty soon, I was back on the horse again, watching OLTL on SoapNet every day after work. (That's the nice thing about soap operas is once you know some of the characters and back story, you can usually dive right in again, as I've done over the years with All My Children when a storyline takes my fancy or when they have a fabulous baby swap crossover like when Kelly's brother Paul stole Babe Chandler from AMC's baby and passed him off as a baby Buchanan.) In my early twenties, when I was working dayshifts at the bar, I used to put One Life To Live on one of the TVs. Usually I didn't get customers until after it ended, and though sometimes the random folks I did get gave me funny looks, one of our beer delivery guys, used to stand around and watch it with me for awhile because his grandmother used to watch "the stories" with him.

The story thing is key here, guys. I'm guessing that some of my regular blog readers may have already clicked away from this entry and others may cringing, thinking, Seriously??? This is Stephanie Kuehnert? The punk chick who writes those gritty, edgy YA novels and usually blogs about bands and real-life issues talking about SOAP OPERAS? WTF! But I'm going to say it, soap operas are as much a part of me-- as both a writer and a person-- as Nirvana songs and Francesca Lia Block books. And all kinds of people watch the soaps. Hell, there is even an Urge Overkill song about Erica Kane that should give All My Children a little indie cred:

But seriously, I've discussed soap operas with that beer delivery dude, my editor, many of my writer friends, and even my tough-as-nails best friend from high school, Katie (whose real name I use because she's in the dedication for Ballads so you know it anyway), who I met while shoplifting, who would dive into the pit at White Zombie/Babes in Toyland shows, who was my combat-boot-wearing, chain-smoking, Rancid-loving partner in crime for many years would come over to my house and see what our bad boy Todd Manning was up to or fun, new-agey Luna, or ooooh Patrick Thornhart with the sexy Irish brogue. We ate that shit up.

No, we weren't into the typical soap guy, the clean-cut, chiseled guy. Even the Todd Manning's and John McBain's and Patrick Thornhart's who had the long hair, scruffy, and brooding thing that we went for were still that watered-down soap version of our reality. But what it comes down to is the story. As I mentioned, at the time that I got into OLTL and AMC, I spent most of my time devouring books. I used to read like 50 a summer or something insane (and wonderful! how I long for that much free time). By eleven, I'd been through all the Judy Blume and other age appropriate books and had started reading Stephen King and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and that kind of stuff. I knew an engrossing story when I saw one and that's what I found on ABC daytime.

Yes, soap operas have their cheesy moments, they exist in their own reality that defies medical convention (Viki on OLTL's twin daughters have two different fathers because while Viki was trying to conceive with her husband Clint, she was also raped by the villianous Mitch Laurence) and normal passage of time does not apply (a single day can last for two weeks, but they always seem to be celebrating holidays when we do and then of course there are rapidly sped up pregnancies and characters ages are conveniently changing to the point that the term SORAS- Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome- was coined to explain the "growth spurts" that children on soaps go through) and every is ramped up to be as melodramatic as possible. Most characters have more marriages than Liz Taylor, people come back from the dead all the time and there are all those rare disorders (Viki on OLTL has D.I.D., the fancy name for multiple personalities, which she passed down to her daughter, Jessica, though in reality the validity of such a diagnosis has been largely questioned and I've never heard of it being genetic). But in my opinion, that is what makes this genre so much fun. I laughed my ass off when Kelly sniped at Blair and Dorian on OLTL that unlike them, she didn't have 17 marriages under their belt and Dorian mused, "I think she's counting the annulments..." and when Tea began a sentence, "When I was dead...."

You can call this stuff cheesy and many of you will, but it has entertained me for eighteen years now and I'm not ashamed because I've also learned a lot as a writer from the soaps. The two characters at that I mentioned at the beginning, Kendall and Todd, were downright devious, evil characters that wormed their way into my heart. Soaps taught me how give villains a human side--and there is at least one character in both of my books that I clap my hands in evil glee when readers tell me, "But I really liked and related to him..." Soaps taught me about writing the character you love to hate. Soaps taught me how to withhold things from the reader/viewer and keep them guessing. Soaps taught me how to use a large cast of characters. Soaps taught me how to build a romance *and* how to destroy it-- but only after the viewers that totally ship a couple get to see them happy for a while. Soaps taught me not to let my characters--or me as a writer--take themselves too seriously and poke fun at their situation from time to time. And believe it or not, soaps also pushed boundaries in the place that was last to see boundaries pushed--daytime TV. Sure, for years, I joked that a soap opera character would never get an abortion, they'd always choose to have the baby or conveniently miscarry, but I was particularly proud of the coming-out stories that both AMC and OLTL did, though OLTL really dropped the ball when they let Kyle & Fish go last year.

Yes, there are things that have frustrated me over the years on soaps. The writing on One Life To Live has been poor for a while. Characters I've loved have been reduced to weak, whiny women or put on the backburner while flat, one dimensional characters that we just hate--don't love to hate--are given way too much screen time. We've been missing the really fun, twisted and often comical villains like Alex Olanov, Carlos Hesser, Mitch Laurence, etc for quite sometime. Viki and Dorian got lost in the shuffle. They took my snake-loving, bad-ass Starr, my tough-as-nails Natalie and Blair, my punky Langston and weakened their characters a bit too much for my liking and generally with men who totally weren't worth their attention and didn't seem realistic--even for a soap--for their character to choose. (I'm particularly thinking of Langston and Ford here.) All of that bugged me, but I kept watching, sometimes ranting that they should let me come and write for them and I'd fix it, but I was ever hopeful that there would be a return to the glory days.

At the beginning of this week, I was thrilled to learn that Roger Howarth, the actor that originally played Todd Manning would be back, thinking that he would breathe new life into the show. And then, today, killing my Rock The Drop buzz and the momentum I was gaining on my revisions of the bartender book, the announcement came that ABC is canceling All My Children and One Life To Live in favor of the generic type of reality program about cooking or some shit. Seriously, as my mother, who I called as soon as heard the news, put it, "Aren't there entire cable channels devoted to that stuff?" Yeah, there are. So here comes the rant....

Brian Frons at ABC is a fucking moron. He's just destroyed something that linked generations of women (and some men, too, as proven by the beer delivery guy). My mother and I bond over One Life to Life. She still thinks those Buchanan boys are handsome and loves when I catch her up on their antics. The new shows may cost less to produce, but they will have no audience, especially since presumably the same audience they are trying to appeal to is the audience they just turned your back on. I'm sickened and saddened to see storytelling replaced by faux reality and pseudo self-help programming. They are wasting the talents of many fine actors. Look at who came out of these shows. Nathan Fillion, Tommy Lee Jones, Dixie Carter, Judith Light, Marcia Cross and Ryan Phillippe got their start on One Life To Live. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amanda Seyfried, Kelly Ripa, and Josh Duhamel were on All My Children and I'm sure there are others too. (Thanks, Jen, I took your lists.) It was also a stupid move on ABC's part because the only reason I discovered some of their primetime shows was because they advertised during OLTL. And I'm honestly so angry at ABC right now that when OLTL goes off the air in January, I will probably stop tuning into their network altogether. Grey's Anatomy has sucked lately anyway.

But I just want to say that my love of the soaps will live on in the bartender book. I took a lot of what I learned from soaps to write that book, though of course I dialed down the melodrama a bit. The ex-husband of one of my main characters, Ivy, and father of the main character, Zoe, is a soap star and I had a blast making up characters and shows for him to star on, putting him in a coma and such. Like me, Ivy watches One Life to Live while she works dayshifts at the bar and grew up addicted to her "stories." I've also paid homage in my character names. Rex, the soap star, is named for Rex Balsom on OLTL. One of my characters, a guy I love to hate, has the last name Manning, after Todd from OLTL. Natalie, one of the bartenders, is a red-head like her name sake Natalie Buchanan from OLTL. I've got two customers that balance each other, the grumpy Adam The Grouch and the sweet Mr. Stuart, in tribute to Adam and Stuart Chandler from AMC, though Mr. Stuart's briefly mentioned wife is Renee after Asa Buchanan's true love on OLTL. I also have Bar customers, Johnny Mac and a John The Cop (who is spoken of, but we never actually meet) both for John McBain. The owner of The Bar in my book has the last name Davidson, for Ben Davidson, my favorite of Viki's husband on OLTL who also owned a bar. And I'm sure there are some other minor references that I'm forgetting. But I may just have to include AMC and OLTL in the dedication or acknowledgments for providing me with over 18 years of joy and teaching me about stroytelling.

And now, I'm going to take part in what has become a key part of my routine, watching OLTL while work out and eat dinner before going to work. I don't know what's going to fill that void. That was the real magic of soap operas: you had a story that you could tune into 5 days a week, every week. With the exception of major holidays, it was always there, always new, sometimes flawed, sure, but for the most part purely entertaining. I really am sad to see it come to an end.


Unknown said...

This genius move by ABC execs is a confession of their lack of creativity and utter incompetence. Canceling and replacing American Institutions is a wiser move than capitalizing on the Unique Marketing Vehicles that already exist?

Brian Fronz only cares about keeping his job. He had to do something because Soaps were continuing to decline on his watch. He was clueless how to market an American Institution that has a deep and loyal fan base like no other programming has. He did not know how to re-energize it, rebrand it and expand it. He did not know how to restore Soaps into the Unique Marketing Vehicles in which they were originally intended to be. AMC and OLTL were canceled due to his lack of vision and grossly poor judgment. FRONS NEEDS TO BE CANCELED!

Unknown said...

If OLTL is not saved, you may consider the Soap Opera officially dead. GH and DOOL will go next, undoubtedly. Then YR and BB will be the last to go – likely at the same time. Brian Frons will have single-handedly eradicated an American institution – for reasons that are just NOT GOOD ENOUGH. How foolish? How sad? Robin Strasser described his genius maneuver as: “…a cavalier and utterly irresponsible decision.” Amen . . . SAVE OLTL !

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Hear, hear, M!!! I agree with everything you've said. Frons does need to be canceled and I hate to see this one man trying to bring down an institution of storytelling.