When Cliché Stories Go Startlingly … Right!

By Patrick Erwin

Soap fans and critics alike complain loudly when we encounter the overused soap plotline. We can see most of them coming from a mile away!

We know, for example, that one woman, plus two men, multiplied by a short period of time = “Who’s the daddy” story. It seems like a good third of all soap characters have discovered heretofore unknown children, and some lucky lottery winners (Guiding Light‘s Reva, One Life To Live‘s Viki, All My Children‘s Erica and As the World Turns‘  John Dixon) have found more than one along the way!

And yet, every once in a while, even the oldest cliché in the book really works as a story. Recently a  few shows have put a new shine on old chestnuts, with entertaining results.

Back from the Dead: Jesse, AMC. Characters coming back from the dead is one of the oldest soap clichés, and one that often doesn’t work. AMC tried to revive the formerly-dead Maria, then Dixie, with far less success. And I couldn’t imagine a character less likely to be revived than Jesse, who had been “dead” for more than 20 years.  We saw die on screen!  And yet, despite all those potential negatives, this story just worked beautifully  for several reasons. One, of course, was the great performances by Darnell Williams and Debbi Morgan. The writing was also beautiful and historically accurate (and as Marlena has theorized, was perhaps guided by the hand of Agnes Nixon herself). But perhaps most importantly, fans embraced Jesse (and Angie) and loved and accepted this idea in a way I don’t remember seeing recently on any soap.

The Evil Twin: Jeffrey, The Young and the Restless. In Ted Shackleford’s original go-around as William Bardwell, he made only a minor impact on Genoa City, and the biggest impact Will made was his exit. When CBS and Y&R decided to bring Shackleford back, the writers used the old evil-twin trick and brought on the character of Jeffrey. Talk about night and day! Shackleford is clearly having a blast playing Jeffrey, and has shown a mischievous and evil side we never  saw in Will Bardwell (or in Gary Ewing)! The character of Jeff is a great foil for Judith Chapman’s Gloria, and often gives the over-the-top Gloria much needed humanity. Shackleford was hysterically funny in his recent performances, when Jeffrey was fighting over the Abbott mansion with Gloria, Jack, and Sharon. This is one evil twin who is far more interesting than the original!

Paternity Puzzles: Jared, Charlie, Rex and Shane, OLTL. One of the guiltiest clichés in Storyland is when paternity of a given character is in doubt. It’s one of the easiest plots for lazy writers to co-opt and graft onto a story. OLTL has had a paternity-palooza, hiding the true identities of Jared and Shane’s fathers, and creating a connection between Charlie and Rex (that may or may not be real). I’ve liked these storyline twists and turns. They’re clever ideas that bring Charlie (and Brian Kerwin) into the action in Llanview. The story gave Charlie and Jared, two newbies, a connection that made sense. And more than anything, it’s given Llanview an infusion of entertaining, fun male characters who aren’t the Dukes of Darkness (John, Todd, and Antonio).

I may be a traditionalist, but I’m hardly encouraging shows to embrace clichés. (We have a much poorer version of paternity blues to look forward to on GL, with the Bill/Ava/Lizzie mess.) But when interesting characters and good writing meet, even the oldest plots in the book can seem fresh and exciting


  1. I am of the idea that nearly every story has been told before, so what is relevant is HOW you tell it. If it’s employed with awareness and masterfully carried out, I like to consider it a topos rather than a cliché. With the added bonus of elevating it to new heights, and infusing it with fresh meanings.

  2. When shows try to bring back beloved characters, they try too hard to make sense of WHY they are gone so long — sick, in hiding, etc. That is the part I hate the most. It is like pounding a square peg into a round hole. They try to come up with a valid reason, that just sounds stupid and unbelievable, which adds to the distruction of the character — Dixie, a case in point.

    If you can’t get away with the Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower thing, then just come up with a quick throw-away line — “I was being held hostage by some arboringinies in Ubangi” and BE DONE WITH IT! The audience can suspend belief in order to have their beloved character back.


  3. I am not a fan of Ted Shackleford’s return at all, I find him creepy BUT what I am shocked to be enjoying is the return of the actor that played John Abbott. I find myself laughing out loud at his antics. I really expected to HATE this plot twist and return but I’m pretty much loving it!

  4. How about psycho ex-girlfriend coming back into formerly dead hero’s life to stalk his wife? DAYS put a new twist on this old cliche by having the magnificent Tamara Braun in the thankless role of Crazy Chick, and having her kidnap the wrong woman! The logic makes no sense, but the performances of all the actors in this storyline make it seem fresh and new.

  5. Matthew J Cormier says:

    like it or not cliched storylines will always be a part of the soap opera–it’s simply a function of the genre.. but i like the examples you pointed out, all of which are examples of what a good writer and patience on the part of the network can do to elevate a story to a new level.

    btw, i am one of the few that enjoyed the return of Maria on “AMC”—it was beautifully acted by Julia Barr, Eva La Rue and John Callahan.. my only gripe is that was really the last time we ever saw Brooke in any sort of story and it kind of sucked to have Brooke sacrificed at the alter of Maria.

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