Depressions and Soaps Don’t Mix

Thinking Fans Comment Update: renee argues, “Soaps have tackled so many great social issues and done them well, but those in charge of soaps today are suspect and will not handle the topic (of  joblessness) with respect” … DSO816 hopefully suggests, “I believe the dramas currently on air can craft timely stories of some characters’ layoffs, but it would have to be balanced, and believable” … while Steve charges, “If they really cared about focusing on the economy, they would try to go back to the escapism that viewers really want to see” … and more. See Comments below.

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monopolyBy Marlena De Lacroix

After I got out of grad school three years ago, I spent the most miserable year of my life looking for a job. Through fifteen interviews (the teaching job I was looking for was very specific), endlessly rewritten resumes and countless rejections, there was only one thing that kept me sane: soap operas.

When I was aching and depressed about my job search, at least I knew I could sit down every day and escape into my favorite shows.  Even though at the time they were not so great (Higley was writing One Life To Live, B&E All My Children and LML The Young and the Restless), the soaps were gthere every day to make me feel safe, to give me something concrete to look forward to.

The last thing I want to see on a soap is moi!   And certainly not me looking for a job or me even knowing there’s a cold cruel depression outside of my warm, warm afternoon TV set.

The far away antics of my fave characters — Dorian, Viki, Big Steph, Ric Lansing, snappy Jack and crazy Gloria — kept me occupied, and, for a while, kept my mind off my troubles. The LAST thing I wanted to see on these shows was anyone who was emulating my life looking for a job.

Now a website called Media Channel quotes Craig Tomashoff, TV Guide’s executive editor, reporting that soaps will be the first drama shows on television to tell stories based in the current economic nightmare — as real as the real world gets these days. But, but, I protest! I don’t watch  soaps for the real world!  I watch soaps to escape the real world!  Especially now!

Having our favorites characters suddenly been made poor, update their resumes and feel the heartbreak of a bad interview is the DUMBEST THING I ever heard!  It might work in a few comic situations, as they have begun to set up with the 

“Reps from ABC affirmed recession-related plots, like company slowdowns and job-hunting issues would crop up on all three of its daytime dramas, General Hospital, All My Children and One Life to Live.”  — Media Channel

Cordtlandts losing their dough on AMC.  But can you imagine AMC‘s Erica Kane shopping at Target?  I should say not! Likewise, I don’t want to see The Bold and the Beautiful‘s Forrester family move into a trailer park! All of these characters have always been and are rich for a reason:  Darlings,  soaps are about fantasy!  (I’m not against poor characters–what I’m against is the new Depression being superimposed on our favorite characters–rich or poor!)

And yes, even in the most “real” situations — social issue stories about rape, kids with leukemia or kids who are paralyzed — soaps are usually far away from our everyday circumstances.  Soap tragedies bring out the commonalities in our feelings.  But as much as I despise  OLTL‘s Todd, I’d much rather see him in a leather jacket than in a soup kitchen!Jeanne Cooper

In the past, the coming down of “rich” characters was played to test character, not to mirror reality.  Remember when B&B‘s Stephanie was a bag woman?  Vicki waitressOLTL‘s Viki,  AMC‘s Erica, and  Y&R‘‘s Katherine have all stepped out of their wealthy lives BRIEFLY to become waitresses. Even Y&R‘s industry titan Victor has gone on the road incognito as a regular guy.  These stories were done one time only for variety.  I don’t want to see General Hospital‘s Tracy scavenging for food, and Luke making and drinking moonshine!

Which reminds me: remember during the second short reign of GH‘s legendary Gloria Monty, when she had the “brilliant” idea of bringing on a working class family called the Eckharts. Tony Geary played their son (Luke’s cousin) Bill.  Well, Mrs. Eckhart was Italian (played by West Side Story‘s original Maria, Carol Lawrence) and they’d have these dinner scenes in which they sat around eating spaghetti and yelling at each other.

The story (which was a bomb) made me itch.  As someone who grew up in working class Queens, I spent my half-Italian childhood being yelled at by my parents and yelling back at them while eating spaghetti.  The last thing I want to see on a soap is moi!   And certainly not me looking for a job or me even knowing there’s a cold cruel depression outside of my warm, warm afternoon TV set.

Comments

  1. Hi Marlena!

    I agree with you in the big scheme of things l that I don’t want to see despair and darkness on my screen. I was laid off in December and God knows if I want to see tales of economic despair, I’d watch the news!

    But as someone who used to work in the job search and recruiting arena, I think it would be an interesting story (if done right) to see a veteran character lose their job, and go through the process of finding a new one.

    Interviews can be a Machiavellian chess game, and you meet some real characters and doozies along the way! Throw in all of the things you’re supposed to know – and all of the tools we have today to find a job – and I think it could be fun.

    More to the point, I think it would draw people in who are in the same boat. It would just like the ways shows handle social issues – and just like social issues, it may be an inspiration to viewers. It could give people who were emotionally crushed by their job loss a boost and some ideas on what to do next.

    And it would be a VERY inventive way to grab new viewers – especially those who were laid off and are newly free in the daytime to watch shows!

    Marlena says: Honey, I thought of you as I wrote this piece and certainly no one I know is more qualified to speak on this subject out of their own professional experiences. The kind of job search stories you suggest probably would have a chance of working fifteen to twenty years ago when soap plot pacing wasn’t as quick as today and there was ample time to do important stories like this. How can anyone do a prolonged job search story now? Also, twenty years ago, this kind of story would have been written with the kind of intelligence and sophistication they require. Today’s soaps are rarely written by informed intellectuals. All of soap writing today is about blowing up things in time for sweeps, and producing plot climaxes every other week. (Very regrettably!)

    Have you seen this week’s soap ratings? Miniscule numbers! Yikes! I don’t think soaps that are barely surviving are gonna risk what they have on employment search and interview stories! Tragically, devising any new kind of new story is a risk now!

  2. renee says:

    Marlena, 3/4′s of me disagrees with you. Soaps have tackled so many great social issues, that were a reflection of society, and done them well, and they have been an education for many. Let us not forget that television is a powerful medium that has exposed our societal ills and moved us to better ground.

    Unfortunately, the other 1/4 of me knows the integrity of those in charge of soaps today is suspect and thus they will not handle the topic with any respect. On AMC the Cortlands are now penniless. I can see the comic relief being assigned to Opal when it is not funny at all. Sigh. There are people commiting murder/suicide out of despondancy. Madoff swindling thousands. Banks taking bailouts while figuring out how to still not be accountable. I don’t know anyone laughing.

    Now I do know a line they could take. Show the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s the tack I’m taking. So I’m down. I’m not out. Not yet.

    Nope, don’t trust soaps right now. But their numbers are down because they’re writing bs and disrespecting the audience. Give me a pen. Even I could do better.

    Marlena says: Renee, let me be unmodern and call you “a tonic.” I’m a great fan of comedy on soaps when it works, and I hate to see wonderful performers like Jill Larson bomb out when they are given material that is terribly unfunny. I’m sure dear that you would make a great comic writer because you make me laugh every time you write.

  3. Hi Marlena!

    I have a slightly different take on this issues. I enjoy reality based storylines that reflect the cultural class issues. Some of our beloved families on daytimes have struggled with money issues. The Bradys on DAYS, the Snyders on ATWT, all have had to confront financial struggles in the past. It could be refreshing to see characters actually address the budgeting concerns that are obvious to viewers (paging Springpack). I think it could be inspiring and compelling to watch some of our beloved characters have to scale back and make changes.

    However, if it’s all about, “Let’s watch Stacey the Stripper go to a job interview,” or “We’ll show Reese the Lesbian face humiliation in the unemployment line,” then count me out. I agree with you that it seems quite unlikely that ABC would give the this subject matter the time and dignity it deserves.

  4. n69n says:

    I see your point … but at the same time, it was very comforting to me today to hear ROXY mention the economy! I feel a lot of shame and embarrassment over being let go from my job; that acknowledgement (really just a funny throw away line…ROXY: “Leave it to The Buchananans not to know the economy is in a regression!”), gave me a little relief.

    Marlena says: Nornie, I caught that line yesterday too! I bet it was an Ilene Kristen original! Hasn’t she been fabulous to die for recently, especially talking to Rex’s anonymous “father” in the hosptial bed? I (me, Marlena) can’t even figure out who it is! If it does turn out to be Mitch, as I have been hoping, I will absolutely go crazy to see scenes with Ilene and Roscoe Born!

  5. Steve says:

    I think it’s ridiculous. The ABC soaps don’t care about realism. On OLTL, you can seduce your brain damaged rape victim and try to steal your daughter’s baby and get off without even a slap on the wrist, and if you try to commit suicide, then suddenly you become the injured party. And let’s not even get into AMC or GH, that would take up the entire page. How realistic is it to live in a world where you have to search to find someone who isn’t white? Or to find a woman who is not obsessed with a man? Or to find men who do not shoot women in the head or take advantage of them or bully and harass them in the name of love?

    I think this is a way to cut costs. Sets, clothes, whatever, they can be slashed in the name of realism. They can also fire more people and say, “Hey, at least we’re tightening our belts!”

    If they really cared about focusing on the economy, they would try to go back to escapism which viewers want to see. not the sick sleaze which now clogs up too much of their soaps. Remember when the Quartermaines lost their money and then Lila’s recipe made them a new fortune? What would we have now? Crazed bankers and feds storm Port Charles and after killing Bobbie, Monica, and Edward, are eviscerated by Spinelli’s amazing hacking skills, causing Jason and Sonny to pocket all the money and make sure their various offspring live happily ever after in mobland?

    Marlena says: Steve, so glad you and I are of the same mindset when comes to the values and moral standards of ABC Daytime! Your last scenario about the crazed bankers storming Port Charles is so ridiculous (and fabulous) that I’m sure Guza has Spinelli hacking into your computer right now to steal not just this, but the rest of it too.

  6. A Different Take says:

    Continuing drama at its best reflects the world within a heightened reality to make drama possible. And some of the best continuing dramas have told excellent stories with a multicultural, cross-class cast, mirroring the reality of most communities across the country. Think of the Agnes Nixon OLTL — telling stories about real-world social issues with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast that featured the rich Lords and the struggling Woleks.

    I do want the soaps to tell these stories. More than that, I want them to tell those stories WELL. What I fear is that soaps delving into the current economic crisis will tell hackneyed, poorly-written stories that will depress me — not because the economic crisis is inherently depressing, but because the stories will just be so BAD and poorly conceived that they will continue the genre’s rush to extinction.

    If the writers are smart (ha!), they will touch upon the current crisis in ways that make sense. Most rich characters would continue to be rich, although maybe some on the cusp of wealth will find that they have less disposable income for quick jaunts to Paris (think, say, of Willie Slater on Ugly Betty). Some characters will have protracted job searches that we don’t see as the primary story but, rather, as the set-up for a young adult character moving back home with the parents (setting up story of various sorts). Maybe a character could have a medical drama set up by the character’s inability to get timely preventive care because of the lack of insurance.

    In other words, the economic crisis could occasionally be the focus of a story here or there, but in the hands of smart writers who write for thinking fans, the crisis could become part of the setting of the soap, much like the town itself — a part of the back drop, the set of circumstances in which meaningful story takes place.

    Alas, however, I fear you are right in your response to the previous commenter: “Today’s soaps are rarely written by informed intellectuals.” I just think that the way for Thinking Fans to approach the topic is not by reacting to the use of economic crisis in plots as inherently problematic but, rather, anticipating the lousy handling of the economic crisis by today’s crop of hacks.

    In the hands of, say, Claire Labine or Agnes Nixon, however, what magic might result…!

    Marlena says: Do I know you? You write beautifully!

  7. DS0816 says:

    Dear Connie/Marlena,

    What’s always been unique in soaps — aside from content — is that, for any stories given to a number of characters, there’s all sorts of tastes than can be satisfied with the viewers who trust in a given serial to take them on a worthwhile journey.

    I believe the dramas currently on air — eight between ABC, CBS, and NBC — can craft timely storylines of some characters’ layoffs. It would have to be balanced. And believable. For example, I think it would be interesting were the cosmetics biz of “The Young and the Restless’” Jabot to suffer alarming sales declines — while “Guiding Light’s” Lewis Oil just keeps chugging and chugging and chugging along.

    Losing track with some soaps’ characters’ status, I’d suggest another reality: For anyone in publishing, let’s see their business on the verge of folding … or, in fact, close shop. (I’m thinking “One Life to Live” and Llanview’s newspaper — a la Colorado’s recently dearly-departed “Rocky Mountain News.”) And then let’s see the same soap show us a character, in a business that sells and serves liquor, finding himself holding his own. (Again, with “OLTL,” I’m thinking of Rex and his club.)

    A number of characters in professions that would seem recession proof, should have differing experiences: Indefinite layoffs with “some” of the staff at General Hospital (on the same-named program). How about cutbacks in the budget — and the potential safety hazards that would ensue — in the “As the World Turns” Oakdale Police Department?

    Making the news just this past week is that some billionaires are no longer billionaires (see “Billionaires No More,” at Forbes.com). And I believe I heard that Warren Buffet has lost, say, $25 billion of his own fortune. I’d love to know — but am not dismissing the plausibility — of how and why “AMC’s” Palmer and Opal are now … penniless (an extreme term). I think it would be great if “GL’s” Alan found himself in financial dire straits — with his corporation’s stock plummeting to the point of causing him a loss in stockholders, a diminished brand, and even personal, troubling health symptoms — because it would make for good drama to see the impact on Alan.

    All in all, I would not suggest letting today’s economic crisis become too prominent in the soaps’ storylines; but if I was to see one show do this, I guess that would be more than what we should ask for from a daytime drama. Yes, all entertainment — in music, movies, theater, and television — is considered not just entertainment but escapism … from our thoughts, from our lives. But having a little reality shared between a fictional figure and oneself … well, that is another way of remaining connected.

    Marlena says: Wow, what a marvelous letter! So well argued, with ideas so maturely and articulately considered, you convinced even moi. (DSO, have you considered grad school in journalism?) Would that these stories could actually be done with the grace and intelligence displayed here.

    But, as I told Patrick, I just don’t think the current soap world where survival is the only goal has the daring or leverage in ratings to try out these ideas. But who knows, maybe more than one soap (AMC) will be gallant enough to try them. By the way, Warren Buffett and Agnes are close friends going back to the time when one of his companies owned ABC. He’s done walk-ons on the show. Wonder if this has influenced the creation of the Cortlandt story…

  8. Matthew J. Cormier says:

    i must disagree, Marlena. I think that soaps doing anything to reflect our society more is a step in the right direction. Personally i think a lot of good story can come out of a recession storyline. Both comedic and dramatic stories. Imagine the rich Cortland family having to eat at an all you can eat buffet! Oh the comedy gold that would ensue! Or imagine if Adam Chandler has to sell off his estate to pay the bills! Or God help us, an Erica Kane estate sale!

  9. Purple Haze says:

    I think introducing a “recession/Ponzi scheme” theme could be very intriguing. The only ABC soap I continue to watch (and even that is falling off) is “General Hospital” and I would love to see someone who epitomizes wealth and power, such as Jax, lose it all. Would Carly still stay with him? Would she run back to Sonny (since mob stuff is recession proof)? Carly could have lost all the money she raised for brain injuries in children since charities have been the victim of Bernie Madoff.

    Another possible victim of a Ponzi scheme fraud could be Nicholas since he seems to be very hands-off when it comes to his fortune. Imagine the prince having to borrow money from his manservant Alfred!

    At any rate, I would prefer see people losing money rather than losing their lives or being impaired by gunshots, so I know this type of storyline will never flourish on “General Mobstipal.”

    Marlena says: Purp, I’m loving this, it is fanatastic! Especially the line about the GH mob being recession-proof LOL. Jax losing his money would be quite interesting. I bet you Ingo would love to do a storyline like this instead the same old romance-in and romance-out. About Nicholas — I agree, he doesn’t really seem even aware that he was in the dough. If he lost it, he seems like he’d get over it all with a shrug. How the women in both of their lives would react to the loss of a fortune indeed would be MOST interesting. Ten to one, Guza personally couldn’t care less about writing a story like this. Unless there is added detail like Carly gets a gun.

  10. E.D. says:

    I like realism on the soaps. I read an article quoting the English actor who plays E.J. on DOOL saying that he thought English soaps were more character driven because characters had to face the everyday realities that came with being middle or working class. I think he is absolutely correct. I get tired of seeing all these super rich families. I would like to see characters constrained by lack of money. Why can’t a marriage be prevented by financial difficulties rather than a sudden brain tumor? Maybe AMC’s Reese remains blind because she can’t afford proper treatment?You only have to watch soaps from other countries to know that dealing with social realities and melodrama can go hand in hand.

  11. Leona says:

    People will say what they will about Gloria Monty, but I will always remember something she would constantly say as to why her show was so successful. She said that you have to have love, hope, joy, and humor.

    I’m not sure what this has to do with your column, Marlena, but it popped into my mind and I wanted to share.

    Marlena says: Leona, mon amie, perhaps it’s on your mind because those four elements are exactly what soaps DON’T have today — love, hope, joy and humor. I might not have liked the Ekarts, but Gloria Monty was always a genius.

  12. n69n says:

    I thought it was cool that BO asked REX about SHANE’s insurance … and that REX had a plausible answer.

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