Back to the Future: Soaps Try to Revive 80s Glory

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.

Tristan Rogers

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Return of an icon:  Tristan Rogers as Robert Scorpio on General Hospital

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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!

Black SupercoupleIt’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.

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Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams in the glory years:  Can they rekindle their old magic?

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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.

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    Great article! Your last sentence hit it on the head.

    Just because we get Bob or Sally returning to our show, doesn’t mean they can just stand around and look pretty. The reason everyone wants them to return is because of how they rocked on screen with the stories they were involved in. I miss the days of when characters interacted with each other (speaking of GH at least here.. the one i follow.) Now we just get a few people at a time. It’s just depressing when the show feels so divided. And to even prove a point, I can easily (tivo) through a scene everyday and miss nothing very vital. (Usually tivo through Sonny/Kate scenes.. booorrrring.)

  2. J.B says:

    Speaking as a child of the era when soaps were the decadent, glamorous, romantic and sinful thing to watch and to posses a VCR to view it after work was a godsend, (I’m an 80s baby!) I am so glad that you brought up how shows are now trotting out the actors of the good ole’ days to boost ratings…

    Shows have been successful in driving up the numbers during the crucial times they need it (sweeps anyone?). However, why not just keep them on and not play the numbers game? I too am a fan that wants the characters from yesteryear to come back because that’s what I’m into instead of the craziness that’s being shown. If you want to keep fans, try keeping the talent that was shown the door that you’re trying to bring back! I’m all for new story lines and focus on another generation and such (mob world wars and the teen scene) but I do wish soaps would stick to the formulas that worked back in the 80s which was the romance and these characters that are being resurrected….

  3. Oakdalian says:

    Tristan Rogers’ recent interview with In The Zone was partly disappointing, because he equated the failure of his last stint on GH with displacement by Sonny Corinthos. But why should Robert come back and be THE leading man after all this time? The guy should be at a different point in his life, and the evolution could be interesting. Why can’t Sonny’s airtime be split more equally? Soaps are supposed to be ensemble shows, not one character’s endless monologue. Basic concepts of storytelling that lowly fans know better than the writers have slipped away, so how could returning actors have any more success than lackluster newbies?

  4. Alice says:

    These days I’m actually sorry to hear that some of my favorites are returning. Almost without exception, those that have have been met with disrespect, dull storytelling and then relegation to back-burner status. Stay away….save yourself, would be my advice.

  5. lucy says:

    It’s a dying medium, sorry to say. They keep hiring the same ole people who butcher one show and go to another show because it’s easy. The producers refuse to hire and invest in talented writers and train them in their medium. Daytime just seems like a small little clique and the people in charge want to keep it that way.

    As a longtime soap fan I see a lot of old actors writing for shows but just because you are a good actor does not mean you are a good storyteller. Pam Long was an exception and she left for nighttime. Now actors are becoming producers and I’m not sure that’s a good idea either. People need to pay their dues, learn their craft and learn the history of their shows … ahem, Ellen Wheeler.

    These writing teams need to have cops, social workers, teachers, journalists and people with life experience on them. It’s embarrasing how badly most murders are plotted on soaps. It’s ridiculous to have a storyline like Erica’s fetus. It’s sad how no one can seem to write a long term arc anymore. A nightime episode of ER or Nip Tuc or Law and Order has more originality than a year of most soaps. And finally, minority representation on most soaps except Y&R and Passions is beyond appalling.

  6. Skylar says:

    Patch and Kayla had a successful return, didn’t they? I don’t know for sure as I don’t really watch DAYS, but I was rather impressed with what I did see of the story.

    Honestly I don’t trust Harmon Brown and Esenston to do Jesse and Angie’s story justice in much the same way I wouldn’t trust Guza or Latham to do a similar story justice. The only soap writer I can honestly say is having any sort of success at pleasing fans these days is Carlivati over on OLTL. Every other show has lost its heart.

    But the problem, as you have pointed out, isn’t the actors. Yes, we want our fan favourites back, but we also can accept new characters. I’ve never been more enthralled by a character than I am by Gigi Morasco on OLTL. Likewise, on AMC characters with such potential as Hannah Nichols and Di Henry are wasted over the “favoured four.” It’s the writing that needs to improve before any other veteran actors and/or characters are brought back to any canvas. It takes a certain level of skill to successfully reintroduce a long-absent character to the canvas, and sadly the vast majority of head writers in daytime today don’t hit that threshold of talent.

    It’s going to be an interesting 2008, that’s for sure.

    Patrick says: Skylar, I completey agree with you: writing is the fundamental cornerstone, whether shows are bringing back old favorites or integrating new ones. I think most writers hope that the actor will bring the magic all on their own.

    I think Patch and Kayla have had a somewhat successful return, in that their characters haven’t been destroyed and have retained much of their original essence (unlike many other returnees). But they’re on the back burner, so I don’t know how measurable a success that is.

  7. barbara says:

    Why don’t soaps just pull out the old scripts that told fanstastic stories, change the character names to reflect the currect similar characters, and reenact those stories? Why hire bad writers who are going to bring the characters to bad places that the writers who return have to then fix???

    Wouldn’t it be so much better if Angie and Jessie just redid their original story line that was superb, than have to act through the deplorable dialogue and storylines of the current writing teams and possible scabs? Just give them their old scripts to act out! Wouldn’t it be a hoot to see Colby Chandler turn into Liza and there be another Jenny/Greg/Liza/Tad/Marion grouping, of course AMC would have to get actors as equally as talented.

  8. BL says:

    Bringing actors back to a show can be a double edged sword for the soaps, for a lot of reasons. Many times I end up disappointed after people return, because it doesn’t live up to the hype. This is what happened with the GH returns for the most part, the exception being Robin, but I didn’t see that return as just a ratings stunt.

    Newer viewers may have little or no concept of the character being brought back to a soap. The returnee may get a lot of screen time putting people that the viewer knows on the back burner. If the story is poor, and a show starts focusing on someone you don’t even know, you may tune out, start to use the fast forward button or end up resenting them.

    When someone returns or is a new character for that matter, the story needs to tie in strongly with people already on the canvas. If it doesn’t unless a newer viewer is blown away by the story or the acting, they may instantly tune out because they are bored/uninterested. That is something Days did right with the return of Patch and Kayla. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of viewers didn’t even know who they were, but due to the connections watched their scenes.

    For the people who already like the returnee, there are other issues. Is the character that is brought back written honoring the past in a good story? If someone just specifically comes back to a show, because they like an actor there are additional issues. For example, outside of the the individual that came back, is there anything else interesting on the show? Does the show have the same kind of problems it did when you turned it off in the past? If not, is it really worth investing the time and energy to watch, so they are curious enough to watch a day or two, but turn it off again. That’s especially an issue if the reason(s) you came back is being ignored.

    In the case of Robert Scorpio and Tristan Rogers returning to GH, there were things that doomed it. First off, the show is very different than when he left in the early 90s. GH isn’t the land of the WSB anymore and the majority of the lead characters weren’t even in Port Charles back then. While we got great scenes with Robert and Robin initially, there was barely anything with Mac. The plot with Luke/Robert going after Holly and being trailed by the kids with Anna appearing was just fluff. Even if it had interaction between different generations, it just wasn’t a good story and the characters were out of whack.

    So basically when a show revives a character(s), they have to weigh the desires of the viewers who came to watch for that person and those who don’t know or care about them. If you shift focus too much either way, you could end up alienating those you are trying to attract. So in essence you need a good reason to bring someone back and a good story because if you don’t the audience has been failed.

    Soaps these days are all about trying to convince people to watch and money. That’s sad, they should try to make each show as entertaining as possible. If the material is appealing they wouldn’t have to resort to tricks to get us to view them each day.

    The lack of use of veteran performers in daytime is one of my main complaints with the industry, but bringing people in and giving them bad story is not the way to fix it. Enjoying the work of a particular actor/actress or liking a character doesn’t mean you’re blind to the faults of poor plot or characterizations. And sadly at times watching a favorite in a bad situation can be nearly as disheartening as the alternative. I’ve been through both situations, and neither is much fun.

  9. Terry Nova says:

    LOVE your blog, thanks for entertaining me
    Hope there will be more posts soon
    regards, terry
    ps – sorry im not that good in writing in english because I came from europe – but i understand a lot

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