Just a couple of weeks ago, Soapnet ran another "When They Were On Soaps" special, and I tuned in because I was eager to relive Marcia Cross's days on "One Life to Live." For those long-time viewers, you will recall that Marcia played Kate Sanders, who fell in love and almost married Cord Roberts. She later left OLTL to play her best role (in my opinion)--Kimberly Shaw on "Melrose Place." Most recently, she is one of the ultra-popular housewives, Bree, on ABC's runaway hit "Desperate Housewives." The episode that Soapnet ran was Kate's wedding day to Cord when Tina Roberts showed up at the very end, after Kate and Cord were pronounced man and wife. In typical soap fashion (at least back then), Tina was carrying a baby that she claimed belonged to her and Cord, even though she had been presumed dead after plunging down the waterfall in Argentina months and months earlier. As viewers knew, the baby really was Al Roberts, son of Max and Gabrielle, and CJ Roberts (the true son of Tina and Cord) was later discovered as having survived Tina's trip over the waterfall. Complicated? Confusing? Outrageous? Fun? Yup, all those things and more. Boy, do I sure miss the good ol' days!
Having watched that classic OLTL episode from the 80's, I thought to Marcia Cross's other two roles on "Melrose" and "Housewives." Both of those shows were/are wildly popular. "Melrose," in particular was a great watercooler show because of its outrageous and shocking plotlines. Who will ever forget when Cross's character, Kimberly, blew up the entire Melrose Place complex in a fit of insanity? Many will argue that Kimberly was the star of that show and not Heather Locklear's character, Amanda, but I digress from the reason "Melrose" was such a great hit at its peak. "Melrose" was escapism at its best; none of those things really happened to people on a regular basis. It was always fun to see what crazy things would happen to the people of Melrose Place and what new twists the writers would imagine for a new mini-arc storyline. Similarly, "Desperate Housewives" has redefined the nighttime soap because of its clever dialogue, its deliciously clever character development, and its over-the-top plots. Think back to the days of "Dallas" and "Dynasty," two of the top-rated programs in television during their era. Back then, people WANTED to escape from reality and see favorite characters in wild situations that would never be seen in reality. They WANTED to have characters immersed in plotlines that seemed unbelievable. That was all part of the fun, and that is exactly why "Housewives" is a solid hit. The plotlines are witty and clever, they are shocking at times, and they keep the viewers coming back for more because of the great cliffhangers. I assert that OLTL can be like "Housewives" and "Melrose" again with a little tweaking.
I did some research. Back in July of 1992, did you know that OLTL was ranked No. 3 in the Nielsons with a 5.9/21? Compare that to the paltry 2.9/3.0 that it hovers around today, 13 years later. When Megan Gordon died that same year with an entire week devoted to her demise complete with flashbacks and memories of previous OLTL stories, the show reached a 6.5. What has happened to nearly half of its audience? We can feel mighty lucky, because if a nighttime show lost half of its audience, it would be cancelled in the blink of an eye! But what has happened to the audience of daytime? Sure, many put the blame squarely on the shoulders of OJ Simpson and his trial that infiltrated its way onto the television screens during that whole fiasco. But, I believe that a big reason why the audience has left is because the shows have become boring, commonplace, and unexciting. They lack the "wow" factor that makes people talk about them. Only one show in recent memory has had that "wow" factor, and that was "Days of Our Lives" last year during the serial killer storyline. Look at how the ratings for that show spiked. Look at how that show became the media's darling for months on end. Look at how the show attracted new viewers (myself included). But then, the show ruined it completely by making it all a hoax (can anyone else suddenly see Bobby Ewing emerging from the shower on "Dallas" saying it was all just a dream?). Despite the end result, the show did something that no other show has done in a long, long time: create an over-the-top story that was buzzworthy. That is what is desperately needed again on OLTL.
I have a lot of old episodes, or parts of episodes, on tape. Just to feed into my nostalgia, I went back to dust some of them off and took a peek at some of these episodes, and I was completely hooked again. Yes, the acting was cheesy at times and the production values were about half of what they are today, but the stories were so far-out and so over-the-top that I loved watching them! Seeing half the Llanview canvas down in Eterna wearing second-rate costumes and searching for the lost gold of Llanview that Victor Lord hid somewhere was the most fun I've had in a great while. What about Viki going to Heaven and seeing all of her old friends, characters who were killed off and gone from the show for some time? What about Clint's time travel back to the Wild Wild West? What about Mary Lynn Dennison shooting her mother in the back accidentally because she thought she was shooting a mob man who was about to kill them all? What about that previously mentioned decent over the waterfalls in Argentina? Or Bo and Sarah Gordon skiing down a hill in Mendorra while Sara was still in her wedding dress? Or Alex trying to drown Cassie at Loon Lake when Bo took Cassie for a quiet camping trip? Those were great memories! And the ratings all suggested that a lot of other people thought so, too.
So when did things change? Oh, around the time of the Billy Douglas/homophobia story, the trend became one for plots to become more reality-based and issue-oriented. We had Megan's death from lupus, the Billy Douglas storyline, Marty's rape, Viki's DID...and when "General Hospital" won a gazillion Emmys after the B.J. heart-transplant storyline, all of those crazy storylines were erased from the screens of all daytime shows. And ever since, we've seen the struggle to gain viewers and keep our attention. Why? Writers can only write so many reality-grounded stories and still manage to keep our attention on a daily basis.
What am I suggesting? Am I saying that we need to have vampires show up in Llanview like they did in "Port Charles?" Of course not. PC was a wildly entertaining show in its own right, and the vampires made sense there. Bringing them to Llanview would just destroy the credibility of this classy Agnes Nixon creation. What I am suggesting is a return to the old days when characters were placed in life and death situations that were a little more outrageous than we are used to seeing. The closest thing I have seen to that return was Todd's imprisonment by Margaret. I enjoyed the story a lot more towards the end of it, and I liked it then for the reasons I'm talking about. First of all, people loved it and hated it, the sign of a good story in my opinion. It also kept people tuning in every day in the hopes that Todd/Blair would be rescued. Now, if that story had been tweaked a little bit and tightened up, I think that would have been the story to kick off a new OLTL that harkens back to the days of old. And by the way, I love old characters from the past (Cord, Clint, Cassie, Tina, Gabrielle), but writers often think that if they bring back these older characters, viewers will suddenly be interested in the show again. The problem with that belief is that writers are taking characters who were involved in fantastic, outrageous storylines and are now being placed in stories and an environment that is boring and unlike what we remember seeing them in. As a result, the character becomes just as uninteresting as the rest of the show. The CHARACTER isn't the key; it's the STORY.
Right now, we have the peak of the Paul Cramer murder mystery. The biggest stakes are that Nora is marrying the killer. A decent enough twist but hardly one that is going to be buzzworthy or will force viewers to keep coming back day after day. Quite frankly, so what? We all know she won't stay married to him, and we all know that Nora isn't going to be killed. So, where are the stakes in this story? Similarly, Asa kept Blair from her family and then bolted town. Now, Blair is worried about Margaret's reappearance. We all know Asa will come back (especially since Phil Carey resigned with the show), and we all know that the show is too smart to have Margaret show her face until 9 months down the road when a little Manning is ready to enter the world. So again, where are the stakes, and most importantly, the excitement?
In all of my wonderful interactions with you readers, I often have the chance to hear great ideas and storyline suggestions from you. I've asked one faithful reader, Jeremy Dowdy, to share with you his "Dream Story" that I think fits perfectly with what I'm suggesting here....a story with that "buzz" factor, one that is definitely over-the-top and that would jump start multiple different stories and characters. See if you agree.
Jeremy is a 28 year-old English senior at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Off and on, he has been a fan of OLTL since the day he watched in horror as this young woman (a.k.a Tina Lord Roberts) helplessly fell over the Iguaza Falls. Ever since that day, he was hooked on the lives of the residents of Llanview, Pennsylvania. He has given some thought as to what his favorite storyline would be and, honestly, it's a toss up. He liked Eterna (the rich characters of Michael and Alicia Grande, Leo and Christine Cromwell, Roger and Carrie Gordon) because it included everyone on the canvas! He remembers Gabrielle trying to be friends with Tina in order to find out things about Niki Smith so she could relay the information to Michael Grande, Michael Grande bringing Leo and Christine to town in order to claim that Christine was Viki's daughter, Sarah Gordon having the hots for Cord Roberts, but not sure what to do about it because she wondered if he was her "brother." That storyline was perfect and affected so many people in so many ways. The other story that would be his favorite would be The Crown Jewels of Mendorra. Tina searching for the jewels everywhere she went because it involved Elizabeth Sanders, Jamie Sanders, Cord Roberts, Ursula Blackwell. To him, the Paul Rauch era had SO MANY intriguing stories! Brenda kidnapping Garrick, Clint traveling back in time, Gabrielle smothering Steve, the introduction of Carlo Hesser, Steve dying from an exploding wedding cake, Mary Lynn killing Lee Halpern, her mother. Neil kidnapping Mary Lynn and holding her prisoner in the tower while Wade found her, Tina dressing as a nun in order to find her baby. Choosing just one is hard for him. He finds the vision that Paul Rauch and Peggy O'Shea had as Executive Producer and Head Writer was incredible! They turned soap opera into "escape opera" with the stories that completely changed the face of every other soap!
So, without hesitation, here is Jeremy's originally-created "Dream Story:"
Viki needs to hear from a source at the Banner about this story centering around this "creature" that's lost in the jungle in Buenos Aries. Viki is intrigued and begins to dig deeper into the story. All clues lead to Tina, and Viki remembers the first time that Tina was living in the jungle. She treks down to BA to bring her sister home, ONLY to find out that it is Gabrielle! It turns out that Gabrielle was never really dead from the strangler. Stephen Haver had given Gabrielle a serum to cause her body to shut down in order to get back at the Buchanans for ruining his teaching career years ago in Texas. The plane carrying Gabrielle crashed when the pilot got scared when he realized that the "dead body" was moving around. Viki finds "Tina" living in a cave and shines a light in her face only to find out that it is Gabrielle who explains that her father's ranch was seized by the government since Dante was a drug lord around BA. Gabrielle then comes with Viki back to Llanview and reunites with Bo only to find out that he has moved on to Paige and Nora. She then begins to have nightmares about holding a small child. She soon finds out that she has completely blocked out of her mind the fact that she had given birth to a child, a daughter: it is Bo's child!
Gabrielle further enlists Viki to help her find her daughter. Since Gabrielle tried to kill Viki's daughter, Megan, 15 years ago, Viki is a little hesitant but agrees to help because of Bo. Gabrielle's nightmares lead them to a castle in Austria where they encounter the child in a stroller. And the nanny of that child? None other than Tina Lord Roberts. In this story, Gabrielle is the voice of reason, explaining to Tina that Tina once used Gabrielle's son, Al, to pass of as her own child to stop Cord from marrying Kate Sanders. Tina is slightly confused and believes that Bo is Patrick London and Viki is Niki Smith. This also brings in Cord. Cord flies to Austria at Bo's request in order to bring Tina back to Llanview where she gets psychiatric help from -- none other than -- Paige Miller. Paige, unable to deal with all the drama, programs Tina to kill Viki so that Clint will return to town and Bo will be more vulnerable. Tina is programmed upon hearing Fur Elise to go into her trance which sets this plot into motion to kill Viki. Paige realizes that Tina would get off easily since Paige would testify that she was mentally unbalanced. During their "therapy" sessions, Paige constantly plants the command to kill Viki. To celebrate Gabrielle returning from the dead, Bo rents out the Palace and has a masquerade ball. Paige uses this ball as the venue to kill Viki. As FUR ELISE plays in the background with all of the guests dancing, Tina rigs the bookshelf made of iron metal to fall on Viki as she dances.
As you can see, Jeremy is filled with enormous creativity. Is that story over-the-top? Absolutely! Would that be a story that connects current history with the past? You betcha! Would that be a story people tune in to see because of the intrigue and excitement. I would venture to say it would. My point is that in order to save OLTL and other shows from cancellation, the writers should look to the past for ideas of what worked well and what did not. It's time to move into another era of daytime drama, and those ratings from the past don't lie. A LOT of viewers apparently liked what they saw, and it doesn't matter that those numbers reflect a time period of 15-20 years ago. The important thing to remember is that viewers want to ESCAPE. They want to have FUN. And they want to ENJOY their shows. If all of those elements are there, everything else will fall into place.
Thank you for indulging me in an especially long column this week. I didn't have time to finish "The Killing Club" quite yet (my reading time has been spent correcting dozens of sophomore research papers at the moment), so my review will come in the next column. If you have comments for Jeremy about his storyline ideas, feel free to email him at BrymStoneAngel@aol.com.
Enjoy your week,