By Sara A. Bibel
We’re Sending Our Love Down The Hole
It was supposed to be a tense, emotional story. Four year-old Ethan Snyder had fallen into a large hole on the Snyder farm. His family prayed that the rescue team would be able to get to him in time. His uncle Paul (Roger Howarth) was also trapped with him. I should have been scared that one or both would be seriously injured. (I’ve been watching soaps for too long to believe that anyone will ever die without months of advance notice in the soap press.) Instead, I was giggling. It wasn’t due to bad production values or a campy tone. In fact, this was one time when the new P&G location-heavy worked well. There really was an underground pit and authentic rescue equipment. But all I could think of was the old episode of the Simpsons where Bart scams the non-Guiding Light Springfield into believing that a kid is stuck in a well and Sting writes a song about it, “We’re Sending Our Love Down The Well.” Maybe it was just me. Years of exposure to The Simpsons have made it difficult to take many things seriously. Or maybe it was a scene that was good on paper but didn’t translate to the screen.
Soaps are full of such unintentionally funny moments. What seemed like a great, dramatic story on paper turns out due to acting, directing, or unintentional references to other shows to be almost as hilarious as 30 Rock. I was a part of a few of them on The Young & The Restless. Remember Devon’s (Bryton) close encounter with a lion? Or Brad’s (Don Diamont) Nazi-killing thighs? Neither were supposed to inspire peals of laughter.
Unintentional hilarity can come from daytime’s one-take style, which can result in performances that should have ended up on the cutting room floor being beamed into your living room. But I think the majority of the accidental humor on soaps comes from writers being so deep inside the storylines that they lose perspective. From an emotional standpoint, both of these story beats fulfilled a specific function. Devon was supposed to learn that the Winters were willing to risk their lives to save him. Brad was supposed to finally free himself from the people who had been persecuting his family for years. Yet what the audience saw were a couple of unconvincingly shot, over-the-top action scenes. The underlying intent of the scenes was lost in the cheesy spectacle. Believe it or not, even the most plot-driven storylines are often the results of hours of intense discussion about the characters emotional journeys. Sometimes by the time a show got to us lower level writers we knew there was a good chance it would be a howler. (It was really hard to write naturalistic dialogue about anything to do with the dreaded reliquary.) Other times, it was disconcerting to turn on the TV and discover that the scene you’d labored to make powerful and poignant was actually a candidate for Best Week Ever. I would always try to console myself with the knowledge that if viewers were laughing, then they were entertained. I hope that any ATWT writers reading this will take it the same way. They did nothing wrong. It was all Bart Simpson’s fault.
Maybe You’re The One Who Should Take A Few Days Off, Chris Goutman
In a recent interview, ATWT’s Executive Producer Christopher Goutman said, “I don’t think there is an appetite in this society right now to watch this show five days a week; they don’t have the time or the energy.” In a sense he’s right. Research has shown that the majority of soap viewers do not watch every day. It would not surprise me if it has always been that way, though I’m sure that four days a week has become one. However, I don’t think anybody running a daytime show should have that attitude. It’s defeatist. As difficult as it is to keep your head up in the face of declining ratings, head writers and producer should believe that if they just keep working at it, they’ll finally hit upon the right formula and reengage the audience in the show. Fans mock writers and producers for overhyping upcoming episodes as the greatest stories ever told. But if the people behind a show don’t believe in what they’re doing, then nobody else will. This is the second time Goutman has sounded like he’s given up in an interview. Previously he told viewers not to bother sending fan mail because nobody pays attention to it. I’m not angry or offended. I’m concerned. When he came to ATWT, he and Hogan Sheffer revitalized the show. For years it was the “prestige” soap. Now Goutman sounds burned out and unhappy. Maybe he needs to spend a couple weeks on a relaxing vacation. If that doesn’t reinvigorate him, perhaps it’s time he stepped aside and allowed someone who has a passion for daytime dramas to take over Oakdale.
What Soap Operas Can Learn From The View
The View was last week’s daytime ratings success story. Friday’s episode where John McCain was filleted by Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Barbara Walters got some of its highest numbers ever. For the week, it was tied with for third place among W18-49. It occurs to me that The View does everything that soaps used to do well. On The View, strong women rule. The cast is diverse and multigenerational. Walters is a grande dame like Dorian Lord and Lucinda Walsh. She’s smart. She’s tough. Often dismissed by “serious journalists” despite decades of network broadcast experience, she silences her doubters by kicking butt. Goldberg is funny, thoughtful, and yes, an African American woman who is front and center. Right now, in my opinion, All My Children is the only soap opera that has an African American leading actress. Hasselbeck is the perky, often annoying ingénue. Behar is the sort of “every woman” that used to be a staple of daytime. Think of the original conceptions of Ruth Martin or Nancy Hughes. As for Sherri Shepherd, every soap needs a love-to-hate character. It’s no surprise that women enjoy tuning in to a show that truly represents a large portion of America.
That episode of The View was, like the best soap episodes, surprising. McCain clearly expected to be asked about his marriage and hobbies, not confronted with serious policy questions. Despite Walters’ credentials, he did not prepare the way he would have for an appearance on 60 Minutes. Instead, he got a much tougher grilling than any of the Sunday Morning talk shows have given him. It was must-see television that rapidly spread virally across the internet. I can’t help wondering if The View is regarded as lightweight because, like soaps, it is programming by and for women. Yes, it features a lot of celebrity gossip and fashion. So do most local newscasts. In any case, the women of The View used their frivolous reputation to their advantage. They had prepared thoughtful, intelligent questions and they insisted on getting answers. When is the last time on daytime that women were allowed to use their brains and work together to triumph against a powerful opponent? Based on the ratings, a lot of people enjoyed watching it. A lot of fans wonder why ABC is so enamored with Brian Frons. I think The View’s success has a lot to do with it. It would be nice if he applied the lessons of The View to the soaps that he oversees.