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Monday, September 1, 2008

When did we say we weren't interested in a long-term relationship?

I've been tossing this one around in my head for a couple of weeks, but an e-mail from the divine "MsT" really got me thinking about it.

One of the joys of the daytime genre (as a viewer or a writer, or both!) is the slowly evolving, gradually simmering interweaving of the stories. That feeling of walking alongside a character you grew up with, as they reveal new aspects of the personality, amidst new challenges for them to overcome in their lives - some of which are really over-the-top (Who among us hasn't been trapped in a Secret Room by her arch-rival?), and some of which we can all relate to (Heartache, A New Baby, beating back a debilitating disease). But whatever they're suffering through or reveling in, we (as viewers) know we're in it for the long haul. For their triumphs and for their failures, we are in this relationship. We are ALL IN. And we knew our soaps felt the same way. They were in it for the long-haul, mapping out a year of story at a time. And we were secure in the knowledge that every scene we watched served a purpose - maybe it wouldn't be clear now, but it would be clear down the line. And we would be rewarded for our careful viewing.

So at what point did we ask for some space? When did they decide that all we wanted were a few flings?

At some point, many soaps rejected that idea of plotting out any storyline longer than 13 weeks (the length of your standard contract cycle). And no, I'm not talking about the Port Charles telenovela experiment (although that might have contributed to it). I'm talking about soaps and Head Writers/Executive Producers deciding they're only going to think a few months in advance, in terms of storylines. I look at GH's Mafia-Villain-of-the-Season, that seems to change once every three months (usually around the end of Sweeps), or ATWT's Psycho-of-the-Season (Eve Coleman! Colonel Mayer! Rick Decker!) and think to myself "This is just a fling - why should I settle in long-term, when I know this is all going to be over in a few months?"

Now that isn't to say stories can't change midstream, or characters can't take off in ways you didn't expect - Alicia Coppola on AW and Trent Dawson on ATWT are prime examples of characters that were created to serve a brief purpose, but developed such fan followings, that they stuck around. And sometimes, story needs to be rewritten to accommodate that. There's nothing wrong with it - happens all the time. But you don't bring Scott Bryce back to the role he created... only to put him in the same merry-go-around with three other actors for a few months and then fire him. And you don't cast a heavy-hitter like Vincent Irizarry on a show to play a nobody... and then rewrite who his character is every few months to suit your storyline purposes. I'll cut Y&R a little slack because of the numerous writer transitions that took place while David Chow was on the canvas - but still, it never would have come to that had he been introduced with a firm, network-approved long story that could be adhered to. Why else cast such a strong actor, unless you have plans for him?

Don't get me wrong. I strongly believe that EP's and HW's need to pay attention to the ratings, and change stories if they're not working. I worked with one head writer who actually had three different game plans in their head for the second arc of a storyline, depending on which coupling the audience liked the most. Now THAT'S long-term planning. Three different laid-out endings to a story based on audience reaction. Brilliant! (Not to mention that all three different endings then launched into brand new organic storylines... which is what soap should be!) You should always have a back-up plan, under the assumption the storyline doesn't play out the way you wanted it to because of actor chemistry/maternity leaves/etc. But that's why you get paid the big bucks - to have a few different plans in place, depending on your ratings, your actors, the storyline potential in each choice. I've also worked with a head writer who summed up a year's worth of story in three sentences. I'll give you one guess how well that "long term planning" worked out for the show.

This isn't to say that all soaps are making it up as they go along. I know of a few head writers who are thinking six/eight/sometimes twelve months in advance with some of their storylines. But I've also heard of head writers who are given the order that they are to write quick, neat, three months stories from above because "that's all the audience has the patience for". And that's when my blood starts to boil. To imply we're all a bunch of lazy, hero vs. villain morons who can't appreciate nuance and clearly have television ADHD doesn't exactly endear me to a soap. In fact, it makes me want to change the channel. Gee - I wonder if that's one of the reasons for falling ratings?

I keep hearing over and over that these shows want long-term viewers, who invest in the future of their shows. But how can they invest in the future - when the shows aren't thinking past thirteen weeks from now? Take away your long-term plans to entertain the viewer... and we might as well take away our long-term plans to keep watching.

(And thanks, Ms. T! You really inspired me on this one!)

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