Douglas Marland: May 5, 1935 – March 6, 1993
By Patrick Erwin
It’s been fifteen years since Douglas Marland’s death. That seems impossible to me, but then again, maybe that’s because I still see aspects of his work and his characters on screen every day.
Certainly, his body of work has had a big impact on me. I was eagerly watching his work before I even knew who he was. When I watched Another World and The Doctors during those sick days and snow days, Doug was writing those shows. When my sisters became big fans of General Hospital and I watched to see what the fuss was about, Doug was working his magic on that show. It made sense that when I started to watch Guiding Light, Doug was already there.
One of the things that always strikes me about Doug’s work is how timeless and durable his characters are. It’s been thirty years since he wrote General Hospital, but many of the characters he introduced or helped shape as they came onto the canvas — the Spencers and Quartermaines — are still part of that show.
During his two years at Guiding Light, he energized the show and gave us a host of unforgettable characters. He helped us say goodbye to Roger Thorpe (for a while, anyway) by unforgettably tossing him off a cliff, and gave us the formidable Ross Marler and his heartbreaking love story with the mentally unstable Carrie Marler. Many
Two of Nola’s Hollywood fantasies: Now, Voyager (above) and Dracula
of us were glued to our television sets to see the scheming, dreaming Nola Reardon. Nola, like all of us, was capable of great manipulation and malevolence as well as deep affection, love, and trust. We watched her play Kelly for a fool and become the woman we loved to loathe. Then we watched the brick wall come down to display her vulnerabilities. Nola shared her dreams and Hollywood-style fantasies with us, and with Doug’s masterful writing, the audience saw a different side of her and began to root for her. Then, in one of the most lyrical love stories I’ve ever seen, we watched her and Quinton Chamberlain fall in love.
I think it’s fitting that Doug’s best work was at As The World Turns. He had eight glorious years at ATWT as head storyteller. He did update the canvas at ATWT when he came on board, introducing the Snyders (still there today) and Doug Cummings. But at ATWT, I think the real proof of Doug’s creative genius was how magnificently he wrote for the characters that were already on canvas. While most head writers have “pets” or only tell a story through a handful of characters, Doug wrote for many characters. We saw characters of all ages and demographics in Oakdale. Bob and Kim were frontburner for much of Marland’s reign, beginning with Kim’s chilling role in the Doug Cummings story. They weren’t the only ones who were busy; the then-fifty-something John Dixon was front and center in romance (with Susan, Emma, and Lucinda, to name just three) as well as scheming. We saw Chris and Nancy’s 50th anniversary, then watched Nancy deal with the loss of Chris and the chance to fall in love again with Mac. Later, we watched as Mac and his new family dealt with Alzheimer’s. Doug also took characters who had been on the show for a few years at that time — like Lucinda and Lily — and gave them focus and purpose. Lucinda’s seemingly schizophrenic actions towards Sierra and Lily became understandable when we learned about Lily’s adoption and the fact that Iva was her mother.
More importantly — and this is so, so important and a lesson today’s scribes could learn — Doug didn’t ignore the show’s history. Instead, he used it as a springboard for more story. When he learned about the backstory of Kim’s and Bob’s illicit affair during Bob’s marriage to Jennifer, and Kim’s miscarriage, he wrote the Sabrina Fullerton story, where Bob and Kim learn that their child, a daughter, is alive. (Those scenes, shot in Italy, still to this day send a shiver up my spine!) That history would come to the forefront again a few years later, when Kim’s old nemesis Susan Stewart ended up doing the unthinkable — having an affair with Bob. A remembrance of an early relationship of Lisa’s — her marriage to John Eldridge– led to the introduction of Scott Eldridge, which shook Lisa’s life and her relationship with Tom.
Doug wrote several issue-oriented storylines during his time as head writer, but he
wrote them with a gentle touch, and avoided the lecturing, After School Special approach. From Hank Eliot, the first openly gay character, to Nancy’s second husband Dan McCluskey, the retired cop with Alzheimer’s, we saw a lot of faces and people that we simply weren’t seeing anywhere else. Doug explored varying opinions on euthanasia by having Margo pull the plug on her dying father-in-law Casey as he lay dying from Guillain-Barre disease. Watching the aftermath of Margo’s decision, and how each character reacted, was riveting.
Perhaps the best example of Doug’s firm-yet-subtle approach was the courtship and marriage of Duncan and Jessica. These were two beloved, long-term characters in Oakdale, like any other couple, except that Jessica was African-American. Doug showed the citizens of Oakdale reacting to the coupling with varying degrees of acceptance — or in some cases, discomfort. We saw Lisa, a beloved character who in some ways represented the audience, object to the romance at first. Even Lisa was surprised at her own reactions, buried under the surface. Doug’s writing was always able to show the potential for good and bad in any character.
I don’t mean to suggest that Doug was perfect — his shows had lulls and valleys in the action from time to time, as any serialized show does. And if I had to pick out a valid criticism of his work from over the years, it would be that he wrote for characters so much there were too many of them in play at one time. This made for an awfully crowded canvas at times, with as many as 40 characters or more! But as busy as his canvases would be, you seldom saw a handful of characters monopolizing the action; Doug wrote for a wide range of characters across all generations. You could still do that in those soap days.
It’s been 15 years since Doug’s death, and it’s hard for me, sometimes, to explain to someone who hasn’t seen his work why I loved it, and why I remember it so warmly.
It’s a very different soap world today, in every possible way. And to new daytime fans
who have only heard Doug mentioned by name, or have seen brief snippets of his
work on YouTube, it may seem like we are contemplating his work through the
pleasant haze of our misty watercolor memories.
But Doug’s work — and more importantly, how he approached his work — is still a sterling approach for soap writers today. Soap opera writing is no easy task; it’s a delicate balance of fantasy and reality, of comfort and confrontation, of lurid behavior and loving embraces. For even the most talented of scribes, it’s a massive challenge to make viewers (and sponsors) happy. These days, the genre is competitive like it has never been before. Every show is fighting tooth and nail for every ratings point, and the casts and the budgets are significantly scaled down.
But in my humble opinion, Doug’s approach to telling a story is timeless. The ideas are simple: pay attention to history, develop strong and rich characters that your audience can see themselves in and relate to, and let those characters tell a strong, compelling story. Those are classic ideas, still applicable to any show in this genre. And that, to me, makes Doug’s work, and the man himself, just as relevant and important today.
Thursday, Marlena recalls the Doug Marland she knew as a friend for many years.