As the World Turns: The Dark Side

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!

Comments

  1. bakedghoti says:

    I disagree with this article in terms of Barbara being a villainess! Babs is one of the most interesting characters on ATWT, and Sheffer wrote her brilliantly. Colleen Zenk Pinter seemed like she acted her heart out when Barbara was burned. Barbara was capable of all these criminally psychotic acts, but she still managed to be sympathetic. CZP could switch Barbara from good (heartbreakingly comforting Jen when her boyfriend died) to evil (gloating to Craig when his son/Jen’s boyfriend died) at the drop of the hat. Talk about range! Barbara was simply riveting. She was a dark character, but a dark character done right.

  2. DS0816 says:

    Thoughful article, Patrick, but it’s just another example of people who don’t know how to run a soap. I think of Doug Marland’s rules — he’s been dead now 15 years — and how the rule book has been totally thrown out as hack after hack attempts to flush any given soap right down the toilet. Analyze these characters, one by one if you would like, but it’s all the same — it shows a lack of respect for the genre by behind-the-scenes people who, I am convinced, don’t really have any interest for the genre.

  3. Carl says:

    If Barbara had any sympathetic moments, CZP would be the only reason why. Sheffer made her into a campy cartoon to prop up his pets like Hunt Block.

    Patrick says: Carl, I agree that Sheffer took Barbara a bit too far out on the ledge when he was writing ATWT. And I also agree, it was Colleen Zenk Pinter’s
    performances that kept Barbara from falling off that ledge.

  4. Esther says:

    Bakedghoti, in one breath you say Babs isn’t a villainess and in the next you talk about her “capable of all these criminally psychotic acts.” Who does that but a villainess? :) Seriously, Babs has multiple sides to her, depending on which writer is abusing, I mean writing her at the moment. Babs used to be strictly a heroine. But then one day, a writer (wasn’t it Doug?) got an idea to make her step across to the dark side. I believe it was after she lost Brian to Shannon — she became manipulative. Then another made her do those criminal acts you spoke of.

    This brings up the problem of consistancy that Patrick speaks of. And ATWT used to be terrific at it and now is one of the worst offenders.

    Take Craig — he was a hero when he left! Not even an anti-hero anymore but the guy EVERYONE in town loved! The writers needed a bad guy, but weren’t allowed to make up new characters — only return old ones. So what happens? Suddenly Craig is a louse. Now if they had bothered to think for two seconds, they could have accomplished this without ruining everything we knew about Craig. So Craig was bitter cause he cheated on Sierra? As if! If they wanted him bitter (for Hunt’s version), all they had to do was have Sierra cheat on HIM (she had before) and that could have turned him bitter and yet stayed true to who Craig was (never a cheater!).

    Ditto Dusty. Dusty was hero, good boy. You need a thug, then fine. The first story should have been what happened to Dusty off screen to turn him thug-like. Then you have your thug and the audience doesn’t feel betrayed (I made this point often to friends about Dinah’s return as Wendy Moniz on GL–her first story should have explained why the sweet girl turned into such a bit*h). Why writers of soaps can’t figure this out is beyond me.

    As for ATWT’s current decent into darkness, it’s turned me off and I’ve been watching since the days of Craig and Betsy (oh right, and Steve, lol). I can’t take it anymore. I’m so glad a great character like Dusty (and when I say great, I’m of course picturing Brian Bloom still in the role) had to be killed for a two week storyline with no emotional payoff. Well done, folks! Boy was the spell-binding entertainment! Sheesh. So Brian Bloom can be recast but the great Grayson McCough is not replaceable? Give me a break.

    Great article, Patrick. I’ll stop here. I could rail on for days on this subject. ;)

    Patrick says: Thanks for your comments, Esther. You made some marvelous observations, especially re: Dusty and GL’s Dinah. We want story onscreen — why these characters’ history is played out offscreen is beyond me!

  5. Carl says:

    Yikes. I watched ATWT for the first time since my Christmas break today, and that’s my first impression: yikes. I know we have scabs writing and all, but that stilted dialogue between Chris and Bob Hughes? That may be the worst written exchange I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. *shudders*

    I don’t mind darkness, but I do agree it needs to be balanced with lighter fare. Apparently ATWT hasn’t been doing that, and it’s a shame. But, Lord, when you can’t write realistic dialogue between a father and son, there is something horrifyingly wrong.

    Cast purges like ATWT’s are one reason why I can’t bring myself to watch soaps regularly anymore. I am tired of investing myself into characters only to have them depart. I loved ATWT this past summer, but I told myself at the time that it was really just a moment in time. Sadly, that came true and the moment seems to have passed.

  6. Oakdalian says:

    Now that the dark plotting has led to underage gun use, I wonder what Marlena will have to say about it!

  7. Georgette says:

    Excellent observations. Let’s not forget the death of Emily and Paul’s baby last year, Meg losing Paul’s baby during a violent fight between Paul and Craig this year, just this past Friday, Carly was in the process of being raped by Sam and Sam was shot to death, Faith’s eating disorder, the kidnapping of JJ…..all doom and gloom. I can’t wait for the Brad and Katie or Henry and Vienna scenes, but you are right, there are no shades of grey.

    Patrick says: Georgette, thanks for refreshing my memory! I had totally forgotten about Faith’s troubles, for one. That’s a perfect example of what I mean — when the rest of the stories are so sad, watching that happen seems almost unbearable.

  8. Georgette says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the comment! Sadly, there is more to add now. Were you stunned to see Parker holding the gun that shot Sam? I did not see that coming at all. Odd timing considering Marlena’s column on kids with guns. Now there seems to be nothing more to this story than another “whodunit”, just after wrapping up the Dusty story, which of course ended in the death of Evan Walsh. Two deaths in one week! I wonder where the second bullet will lead us…..but honestly I am not all that invested in it. ATWT has great chracters, rich history and its all being wasted. Are the GH writers moonlighting at ATWT or something?

  9. Tom says:

    For a long time Barbara had lost all shades of gray. I really thought she was irredeemable (I feel much the same way about Emily right now). For me the turnaround for her with bringing back the nuances to her came in the development of her relationship with Gwen after Jennifer died.

    As for the darkness, yes, you’re right on the mark. I watch some of the actors smile in the opening credits and wonder when was the last time they smiled on the show.

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