By Patrick Erwin
A few weeks back, when I watched the scenes surrounding the death of Dusty Donovan on As the World Turns, I was overwhelmed — not because of Dusty’s death, or because of a performance or a line of dialogue. I was completely overwhelmed at how utterly dark ATWT is — and has been for some time now.
I mean, look around Oakdale. There’s prostitute Emily, former porn actress and drug addict Alison, overdose victim Lily, and a manipulative Chris Hughes. There’s an emotionally desperate mother (Sofie) and an extremely creepy adult (Sam) spending way too much time with Carly and her kids. And that’s before we even begin to contemplate the quadrangle of darkness that is Craig, Meg, Rosanna and Paul (soon to end, with the unfortunate departures of Cady McClain, who plays Rosanna, and Scott Bryce, who plays Craig).
Now, I’m not suggesting that ATWT launch a new storyline arc by having the entire cast gather at Bob and Kim’s, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.” Clearly, exploring the dark side of humanity is part of what soaps are all about. (They didn’t call it The Perils of Pauline for nothing!) ATWT explored these themes and these traits brilliantly with the tormented, conflicted John Dixon for many years. Oakdale has been home to mega-villains like James Stenbeck, as well as psychopaths like Douglas Cummings, and those stories have had us on the edge of our seats.
My main complaint is that ATWT seems to have come to the conclusion that misery loves company, and has piled it on high — relentlessly. Balance on ATWT (and frankly, on many other shows) is sorely missing. There’re very few characters who have had even a sliver of joy in their lives recently, and perhaps not so coincidentally, those characters are romantic couples: Brad and Katie, Luke and Noah, and Henry and Vienna.
It’s even more curious to me that in the last several years, ATWT has, more than many other shows, changed longtime characters to make it happen. A few of these character makeovers seemed to work for the show. Barbara Ryan had, over the years, been drawn with shades of gray; she was a heroine who had her moments of being a bitch (or at the very least, a challenge and a handful for her friends, family, and lovers). In 2000, then-head writer Hogan Sheffer had Barbara break up with frequent husband Hal, and Sheffer sent the character of Barbara into a descent that included kidnapping Rose, Carly and Emily. At that point, all shades of gray were gone and Barbara was a villainess. She’s vacillated back and forth between good and bad since (trying to buy Hallie for Will and Gwen was not one of her finer moments).
Other characters have had massive makeovers with less success. One of ATWT‘s biggest misfires was in 2005, when Adam Munson, a young man we watched grow up and knew to be a sweet kid, returned to the canvas after his father’s death — and was revealed to be a jealous, homicidal rapist. It was a storyline twist out of absolutely nowhere, and it ruined a character who was a part of Oakdale’s past, present, and future. It seemed just as tacked on and senseless when Alison Stewart returned to Oakdale last year with a past as a porn star and a pesky drug addiction.
What has disappointed me most is how the show has handled Craig Montgomery. Craig was never anyone’s idea of a Boy Scout, but when Scott Bryce reclaimed the role last year, a lot of us were hoping we’d see flickers of light. (I shared my confusion several columns ago as to why ATWT wasn’t capitalizing on this possibility.) Despite some heinous acts (nearly drugging Meg to make her miscarry, for one), Bryce made viewers understand that Craig was a damaged, wounded soul who was driven by a need for love. But even a great, talented actor like Bryce can only do so much; when the story is one-dimensional and so dark and gloomy, it’s a challenge to make it more three-dimensional. Bryce eloquently described the pain of and the professional acting problems involved in having to play such an illogical storyline material in a brilliant interview on line at TVGuide.com earlier this week.
I understand that storylines with dark themes and dark overtones are compelling. And they certainly sell; the dark themes and stories on General Hospital may have fans in a constant state of debate. As Marlena observed in a column she wrote last year, no matter how much many fans say they hate what they see on GH, they keep talking about it and keep watching it. And ATWT has risen as high as third place in the ratings recently, so the audience is clearly responding to the show’s fast-paced stories. I’m not suggesting they stop doing what works; I just wish that they’d tone the misery down, or at least not make it so widespread across all of Oakdale.
ATWT is losing a huge chunk of its cast this spring, and a great many front-burner characters (the aforementioned Dusty, Craig, Rosanna, Sam, Will and Gwen). I hope that the powers that be take a look at the canvas and add a few more shades of gray. I’m willing to be patient with an old favorite, but as Agnes Nixon said, they need to make us laugh, make us cry and make us wait — not make us reach for an antidepressant!