By Patrick Erwin
I’ve been writing about soaps for a while, but I am a relatively new daily fan of One Life To Live. Yes, as Marlena has observed, some of us soap viewers are boarding the OLTL lifeboat, and I, for one, have bought my ticket!
I watched OLTL a bit here and there (especially during the first Malone years), but I am really drawn to the quality of the show now. What could I possibly say about OLTL that has not been said before — about the writing, the characters, the pacing? Nothing, that’s what. So instead of trying to recap OLTL, I decided I’d try to tell you why I’m loving OLTL so much … by talking about Guiding Light.
Huh, you say? Work with me here.
With apologies to The Golden Girls‘ Sophia Petrillo, I say: picture it — Springfield, 1990. The show was slated for some major changes. Pam Long was running into network interference, and she and GL parted ways. At the same time, several of GL‘s biggest stars were leaving: Kim Zimmer, Grant Aleksander, Beth Chamberlain and Michael O’Leary, to name a few. (This was back when big front burner stars leaving GL was called “a big deal”. Now, when that happens, we just call it “Tuesday.”)
Okay, maybe the show wasn’t in danger of imploding — it had a strong cast (Maeve Kinkead, Maureen Garrett, Michael Zaslow, and the divine Beverlee McKinsey, to name but a few). It also had the steady hand of a great producer (Robert Calhoun, who also did great work on As The World Turns, and who, sadly, recently passed away). But new writers plus a loss of some very big names did indeed present GL with an uncertain future.
And yet, over the next several years, GL would experience a renaissance similar to OLTL‘s revitalization. It was at this time that GL created some of its best episodes ever. And, like OLTL and current headwriter Ron Carlivati, much of the success of those changes could be laid at the feet of the writing team — mainly, Nancy Curlee, Stephen Demorest and James Reilly (yes, THAT James Reilly).
What did GL do that made it, for a time, so much stronger? Well, the writers looked at the canvas long and hard. They added a number of characters all at the same time — always a tricky proposition — but they did so across the canvas, adding a bratty ingenue (Bridget) to one story, a love interest for Frank (Eleni) to another part of the canvas, and an illegitimate son for the wounded, mercurial Roger Thorpe. By pairing the newbies with existing characters, we got to familiarize ourserlves with who they were AND we also got to see new aspects of the people we already knew and loved.
OLTL and Carlivati have made similar efforts with similar results. Other shows today seem to flood the screen with so many new characters that you can watch entire scenes and not know who the hell anyone is, but many of OLTL‘s newer characters have been paired with familiar faces. Charlie and Gigi were introduced through Viki, and both soon became fan favorites. The show did something unexpected but brilliant with the character of Jared, Charlie’s son — he initially was played in a different part of the canvas, then his tie to Charlie was revealed. (And to up the ante, a connection between Charlie and Rex was teased as well.)
Another strength that the two writing regimes have shared is an ability to pick up the threads (no matter how messy) of the previous writing team. Part of the magic of that time on GL was how so many of the loose ends of the Roger/Mindy affair and of several other stories were repositioned and tied together, eventually culminating in the magnificent scenes with Alexandra tearing into Roger at the Springfield Country Club. Those scenes impacted several other characters — Ross, Holly, Billy, and Vanessa, to name but a few. Umbrella stories like the Springfield blackout (Reilly’s brainchild) also brought the cast together and spun story into new and exciting directions.
Carlivati’s OLTL has also used history and loose ends to inform his writing — including the bold move of killing off Asa, and the subsequent drama of Asa’s illegitimate son (who we now know is David Vickers). The culmination of THAT story has affected so many people in Llanview I could hardly list them all. David is now squarely in the Buchanan mix, while Natalie standing by Jared’s side makes her the outsider again and reignited her initial feud with sister Jessica (whose alter Tess is back in town).
Perhaps the smartest thing both teams did was to move their star players front and center. Beverlee McKinsey was one of the finest actress who ever appeared on GL, but for several years after the death of Alexandra’s son Lujack, she was a supporting player. Her initial romance with Roger was somewhat out of character. But the subsequent betrayal and dissolution of that marriage, as well as her discovery of son Nick McHenry, catapulted McKinsey back to the front burner. She may have been too regal and manipulative to be the “heart” of the show, but Alex once again was a big part of GL. (The Alex/Nick/Mindy story was, ironically, shades of McKinsey’s Another World storyline with Mac/Rachel/Iris.)
At OLTL, Carlivati listened to viewers and critics and wisely put Viki — who indeed IS the heart and soul of OLTL — back where she belonged — front and center. He also gave her a great new love interest in Charlie Banks. Charlie brings out a sense of fun and joy in Viki we haven’t seen since she was with Ben. OLTL is also one of the few shows that is playing other vets as well, with the Clint/Nora romance. Jerry ver Dorn and Hillary Smith seem wonderfully matched.
Now, as much as I’m loving OLTL, it’s not perfect. I still see too much focus on what I call “The Dukes of Darkness” — Todd and John. There are some mismatched couples (I don’t get Bo/Lindsay, and agree with Marlena about the character of Lindsey being out of gas). And I’m a bit worried about OLTL‘s tendency to have its present resemble its past a little TOO closely. (The 40th anniversary stories sound fun, but some of them are rather blatant copies of past OLTL triumphs.) Of course, GL wasn’t perfect either. It was toward the end of that period (and after producer Jill Farren Phelps joined GL) when the show felt the one-two punch of losing McKinsey and making the boneheaded decision to kill off Maureen Bauer.
But whether it’s 1990 or 2008, the ingredients for making compelling shows we’d want to watch five days a week are pretty much the same. Tell us a story about people we love played by actors we admire. Season lightly with new characters and new flavors to keep the actors, and us, on our toes. Let the past inform (but not overwhelm) the present. And create characters — and then honor those characters, who they are, and what they do (or more importantly, would NOT do). Those steps are making OLTL soar these days — and ALL the other shows should take notice. Many of them, including GL, can hardly afford not to.