By Patrick Erwin
The death of the soap opera may have been widely exaggerated — they’re still alive and kicking. But it’s no secret that the patient is ailing. Ratings for many of the shows are anemic, and they’ve continued to shrink.
While many of us Thinking Soap Fans have ideas on how to make our shows more vibrant and healthy, most of The Powers That Be have, in the last few years, tended to stick to one of two approaches. One is the over-the-top, I can’t-believe-they-did-that story (clones, demonic possession, pregnant hermaphrodites, and so on). I’m not a fan of this kind of story– the damage done to the show is almost never worth the brief bump in ratings.
The second trend is one I call “back to the future.” Most of the shows have gone back to characters and/or stories that were popular in the 1980s. In a business that’s often lacking logic, it makes complete sense as to why shows would make this choice: soaps in the 1980s had big fan bases and even bigger ratings.
Many of the shows have tried this trend in the last few years, with varying degrees of success. Days of Our Lives is an example of a show that continues to look back to its most popular 80s umbrella story, the DiMera family. Led by indestructible Stefano DiMera (a.k.a. “The Phoenix), they’ve been trying to destroy the Brady family forever. Unfortunately, after so many twists, turns, and faked deaths, the characters have lost their oomph and the story is providing diminished returns.
Return of an icon: Tristan Rogers as Robert Scorpio on General Hospital
It looked like General Hospital would have some success in 2005 and 2006 when it announced it was bringing back several characters (Noah Drake, Holly Sutton, Robert and Anna Scorpio) that had been off-screen for several years. The fans had been demanding their returns for decades. Initially, fans were happy to see their favorites and the ratings went up. But any meaningful attention to the characters and their history soon faded. The show barelyused Holly, and former strong, iconic characters like Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers) just kind of hung around Port Charles doing little of importance. A brief romance was started between Anna and Noah (who — duh! — temporarily impersonated rock star Eli) but mostly Noah was used as a prop to introduce the new character of his son Patrick. Ultimately the GH audience felt angry and ripped off by the return of the 80s favorites they had longed to see. GH had brought them back all right — as a shadow show.
Even when the backward glance is not a success, shows tend to go back to the well again out of a lack of imagination or fresh ideas. Guiding Light has hashed and rehashed the Spaulding family so many times that all of the wonderful gothic nuances those characters ever had are completely gone. The only Spaulding with any remaining mystery and intrigue, besides the lovelorn (and recurring) Alexandra, is India, and she’s only seen every few years, if at all. The machinations over Spaulding Enterprises are a complete bore; nearly everyone in town (including high-school graduate Harley and town lunatic Dinah) has been a Spaulding CEO!
It’s great that fans appreciate these actors and their creations, and it makes sense for producers to want to turn back time. But as we go into the second month of the writer’s strike, it’s important to remember that writing is an integral part of the formula. Without a talented writer who knows the character and the show’s history, even the best actor is unable to make that magic happen the second or third time around. Cady McClain’s recent failed return stints as Dixie on All My Children and as Rosanna on As The World Turns were just the most recent examples of a fan favorite stranded by bad or inconsistent story.
Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams in the glory years: Can they rekindle their old magic?
I’m trying to keep positive about the future of our much-loved shows (it’s my New Year’s Resolution). And I love seeing great story that’s based on history, so I hope shows continue to do it — I just want them to do it right! I’ll be watching to see if all the magic-making elements come together for Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams when AMC brings back Angie and Jesse later this month. In the 80s, their creator and headwriter Agnes Nixon wrote strong, heartfelt stories for these characters.
Can current AMC headwriters, the reknowned gimmick-meisters James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten (or their scab stand-ins) suddenly write Nixon-ian stories full of humanity and heart? It’s going to take a lot more than return casting to bring AMC — and all the soaps — to their 80s glory.