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Sunday, November 16, 2008

(Twice) Dead Men Tell No Tales: A Days Rant in Three Parts

Okay - first up - yes, this is a Days rant. Soap fans who don't know the show, I apologize.

Second - yeah, I'll admit. This is a slightly personal entry. How can it not be? Anybody who follows my blog or has listened to my BlogTalkRadios knows how I feel about DOOL. So yeah - I'm inserting my own two cents into this one from my soul.


As of this writing, word has leaked that while Days has been picked up for eighteen months, severe cast changes are in the works. The first of those was felt this week: Jay Johnson (Philip) is gone, Drake Hogestyn is rumored (with a strong foundation for that rumor from numerous sources) to have been fired, as well as Blake Berris. And the grapevine is telling everyone this is just the beginning. In order for Days to survive, more cuts will be made in the cast.

And here, I pause for a deep breath... bear with me, this will all come back to Days, I swear.

There are four stories from my childhood that inspired me to seek out a career in daytime drama: 1) The story of Jack/Billy, Kayla's rape, and Jack's redemption through his struggle with ghosts Harper and Duke, and Jennifer's love for him, 2) the Who Shot Jake? mystery on AW that led to the Jake/Paulina romance, 3) Marty's vicious attack and its aftermath on OLTL (as well as her struggle to overcome it), and lastly... and the point I'll eventually get to... 4) Nancy's Curlee's years on Guiding Light, and her incredibly epic Nadine/Bridget pregnancy story that eventually led to the Roger/Hart/Peter story.

Those who know it already, understand what an incredible journey that was. Those who don't? Here it is in a nutshell - a young rebellious teenager gets pregnant and is drowning in shame. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman across town is trying desperately to hold on to her husband, who still has a bond with his ex-wife. Second wife gets pregnant, but miscarries. After a chance meeting, she agrees to house the pregnant teen in her attic (and wear a fake pregnancy stomach)... and then adopt the teen's baby when she gives birth... so she can hold on to her husband. The tension builds for nine months. The teen's family wonders - where is our girl? Will the husband and/or his first wife discover the deception? Will the teen decide to keep her baby once it's born and ruin the second wife's plans? The drama builds until she finally gives birth.

One would think that's the end of the story - but it isn't. Because once all of THOSE secrets are revealed, there's a whole other layer: the man the teen had a one-night stand with? He's the illegitimate son of GL's greatest, most complex villain. (Think James Stenbeck or Stefano DiMera, but much more layered.) Once all of the secrets are revealed with the middle-aged husband and his former and current wives... only THEN does it get out that this baby is also the heir to one of the most dangerous, notorious, powerful men on the canvas. And the story takes on a whole new layer for yet another year as this man attempts to get his hands on his future bloodline for his own nefarious purposes... drawing afore-mentioned illiegitimate son, the teen girl, the love triangle of the man and his two former wives, AND the woman who has (in the meantime) fallen in love with the baby's biological father and will do anything to keep him into this web.

This is an umbrella story that defied all expectations, carried on for years, and was the seed that eventually led to Jim Reilly writing the Susan/Kristen story on DOOL. It's also the reason I will always love Guiding Light...

...and it's the reason why I can't recognize the show that calls itself Guiding Light to this day. It's why it seems like an entirely different show, and as far as I'm concerned, the Guiding Light I fell in love with went off the air years ago.

I only explain all of this because after the news of this weekend regarding Days? I worry the same will hold true with my first love (that still remains on the air, that is) - Days of Our Lives.


The budget is being slashed in Salem. There's less than two years left on its contract. Major characters are being cut. And I'm petrified that when Days finally says its goodbye - be it two years or twelve years from now - it won't be the show I've loved through so many incarnations, and over so many decades.

And the knife cuts even deeper, when it comes to Drake Hogestyn.

Anybody who's kept up with this knows I poured everything I had into the death and funeral of the character of John Black last year. It wasn't until I was practically finished writing his funeral that I learned something had changed behind the scenes, and we were required to bring John Black back to life, brainwashed. Did I agree with this? Not really... but I was only a breakdown writer, and I had to write what I had been given.

John Black's funeral wasn't the greatest funeral ever presented on daytime. In fact, it was pretty standard, in terms of the bar set by other soaps. But it had been so long since Days had tapped into such raw emotion, that I felt those were important episodes for the fans... for the actors involved... and for us writers. Dee Hall, Martha Madison, Kristian Alfonso, Ali Sweeney - they were all allowed to go to a place as actors that they hadn't been allowed to go for many years. And even though I love John Black, and I missed him the second he was gone - I felt we were doing the show a great justice by allowing them to explore deep, unresolved, conflicting emotions that added up to powerful storytelling. It wasn't ground-breaking, but it was real. And Days needed something real.

I know Ken Corday let Drake go, and then he hired him back. Whatever happened between them... whatever tale transpired on that phone call between Ken and Drake... it's between them. I wouldn't dare to surmise how it played out. I just know that everything changed, and that was the beginning of the eventual end for our team at Days of Our Lives. John was brought back from the dead as "Jawn", the strike hit all of us like a two-by-four between the eyes, and three months later, there was a new writing team in place, and chaos was reigning supreme.

Now it's only eleven months later... and everything that was undone - every moment we worked so hard to make real and powerful and heartfelt - was all a waste of time. Because John Black is leaving the show AGAIN, and Days' credibility slides just a little lower. As far as I'm concerned, he should have stayed dead. Would it have upset Jarlena fans? Absolutely. But they would have gotten their stronger, more determined, more three-dimensional Marlena... and instead they got a year of backstage tug-of-wars, only to end up in exactly the same place they were in last year. And I ask: what is better? To have John exit in a story that tugged every heart-string? Or to have Jawn exit in another way a year later? In the end, there's no more John Black either way. And fans have been through a roller-coaster ride in a year (a year that should have been spent rebuilding this once-great show) for absolutely nothing. Their emotions have been toyed with, and they're almost unanimously exhausted. And I don't blame them.


I look at Guiding Light... or The Show Formerly Known As Guiding Light... and I think to myself "Self? At no point did any of the major mistakes in story written with the intention to end up where the show is now. Nobody wants to see this show canceled." And yet, clearly nobody at Days watches Guiding Light, because they're heading down the same road. Maybe not with the new production model, or the new cameras, or with all the location shooting. But in terms of firing the people we *WANT* to see in favor of the much cheaper newer characters nobody's spent the time developing.

I watch shows making the same exact mistakes other shows are making, and I wonder if anybody is even paying attention to what else is going on out there in genre. Are they paying attention to what's working and what isn't, or are they just plowing ahead with what they think is right, and inevitably doomed to repeat the same mistakes? Are they so blind they think they won't befall the same fate as so many shows before them? That they're unique... and special.... and can tread the same ground so many other have passed over and fallen on, without suffering the same fate?

A week ago, I felt a little better about the industry. Not much - but slightly better. But now I hear this news, and all I can think is that Days will never have the final year it was meant to have - where the newer (i.e. cheaper) characters taking a back seat to give the people we care about, getting front-burner, powerful, intricate stories that give fans some kind of closure. Instead, they'll limp into cancellation, the way I see Guiding Light limping into cancellation. And it horrifies me.

I am not a savior, and I'm certainly no Claire Labine or Agnes Nixon or Douglas Marland. But even I can see how used and taken for granted the fans of these shows are... and even though I've dealt with my own budget issues while writing for these shows, I also know that in the end, you can take your Melanies and your Dans and your Rafes and you can sacrifice them (maybe not happily, but definitely necessarily and essentially) for the characters your fans care about. The characters that will somehow bring back your audience if you use them correctly.

Instead, they seem to be fading into oblivion. Like the Julia Barrs and Michael Zaslow's before them - carelessly tossed aside without an exit worthy of their strength and power on the screen - they just wither away.

And with them, go the viewers. And with the viewers... goes the genre.

"Damn the man, save the empire", while a silly quote from an absurd movie, held some weight in my eyes when it came to daytime. No more. The empire is heading towards the darkness, no matter what we, as fans, have to say about it. There is no more writing towards the light. There is only making due with whatever we have until somebody eventually has had enough and pulls the plug.

It's a sad day for DOOL fans. But it's a far worse day for fans of the genre.

Welcome to the new empire. The one that's crumbling.

I wish those of us whose hearts break with yours could do more than just write blogs that let you know we feel your pain. But sadly, the empire has turned its back on all of us. It isn't "The Man" who ended up damned... it's those that kept "The Man" employed - the viewers. The fans. The ones who care.

For whatever I contributed to this over the last decade - you have my apologies. I know I tried to do right, even when inevitably, I was part of the problem. And somehow, this is the sad legacy we left you with. One that has no meaning at all. In the end, we may lose our paychecks, and our careers. But you've lost part of your extended family, and are left with a void that makes you wonder why you even bothered to invest your time in a show that had such little respect for the people who kept it alive for so long.

And that emptiness we've all left you with? It's the greatest crime of all.


Matthew C said...

Will you still post on myspace too? i only use myspace!

bl said...

I had been wondering what stories you loved in the past, Tom. It is kind of interesting how other than the GL one all involved rape (Roger's rapist past non-withstanding.)

Since I'm a history junkie of GL of that era, I think there was a mistake in what you wrote, as Nadine was never pregnant. She was faking a pregnancy with a pillow and had planned to "miscarry", but once she found Bridget in her situation, her plans changed. What I appreciated about GL of that era was that it was an umbrella story without a huge catastrophe that tied everyone together. What was crazy is that the story we saw wasn't what was planned at all due to Leonard Staab's (Hart) having a hand-gliding accident, so they re-wrote the material using a short term recast and sent Hart out of town. Dinah was to have come back much earlier as well, and that was altered due to the shifts in this story. The story had a mirror quality on top of everything else, which was also appreciated. So even if one (like me) hadn't been watching years earlier situations from the past influenced the present.

In my shoes, I feel so frustrated seeing viewers ache over the loss of their show or faith in it producing something heartfelt. I wish there was a way for the people who make these decisions could *feel* or even comprehend the other side of the equation.

Those of us who watch are treated like second class citizens at times. Our feelings dismissed for the elusive new viewer, when the irony is they are not only pushing away the older viewers, but the Gen X group whom the advertisers like. To me soaps used to be comforting, but now embracing the madness is the only way survive.