Thursday, September 2, 2010

The End of "the World"

When Dynasty was cancelled (on May 24th, 1989 - a day that will live in infamy - leaving Alexis and Dex in mid-air following a fall as Adam, Sable and Monica looked on horrified!), I had a welled-up dam full of pent up soap opera fanaticism with no outlet with which to release it. For the entire span of the 1980s, I had been a feverish devotee of Blake, Krystle, Alexis and all of the extended Dynasty and The Colbys cast members. In the wake of those shows’ demise, I had something of a void in my life. (Don’t think I am not aware of how pitiful this sounds! lol)

One day soon after, I was flipping though channels and caught a glimpse of As the World Turns. (I was a waiter at the time and had many afternoons free.) I had never seen the show aside from one childhood memory of Dr. John Dixon (Larry Bryggman) raping his wife Kim (Kathryn Hays) in a rage, over her love for Dan Stewart, and can never forget her broken strand of pearls clattering all over the floor. This incident would result in the birth of their son Andy Dixon and I can still see Hays’ tear-stained face emblazoned in my memory. Bryggman, a memorable villain-turned-semihero, would stay with the show for many years, juggling Broadway work and films before departing in 2004 in the face of a pay cut.

Anyway, on this particular day, Barbara Ryan (Colleen Zenk Pinter) was heading into court for her son Paul’s murder trial. Paul was being tried for the murder of his estranged, heavily criminal father James Stenbeck. I was struck at once by Barbara’s huge, heavily made up eyes and her hair, an almost shoulder-length bob that the actress swung back and forth dramatically at every opportunity. She was distraught the entire time and kept hurling nasty remarks at a crusty and mean-looking onlooker, Greta Aldrin (played by the great Rosemary Murphy!) I found myself becoming more and more interested in this hysterical, but glamorous and beautiful woman (who was pregnant in real life at the time.) Check out the heavy line of blush that was the “in” thing at the time! She swiftly became my new favorite TV personality and I couldn’t wait to see what she would say or do next.

Quickly, I became caught up in the other Oakdale residents’ lives and found myself also being particularly drawn to Lucinda Walsh (played by Elizabeth Hubbard), a powerful, wealthy, extravagant businesswoman who spent most of her days manipulating everyone around her as if they were pawns on her own personal chessboard. At this time, she was married to John Dixon (still on the show and still portrayed by Bryggman.) I was utterly captivated by her and fascinated by her deliberately over-the-top character who made it a habit to enunciate every syllable of a word. For example, where many people might pronounce the name Montgomery as “mungumrey,” she insisted on saying it as “mont-gom-er-y.” This is just one example as she did this with practically every word and name she was delivering. Anyone who ever watched Lucinda in action during her glory days knows what a breathtaking actress Elizabeth Hubbard was. Though she won two Emmys for other, previous, roles, she was nominated eight times as Lucinda, but never took home the trophy for that part. Lucinda and Barbara helped ease me through the loss of my Dynasty vixens, Alexis and Sable.

The show opened with a cheesy, but deliriously delightful, electronic trill that segued into the theme music right on the heels of some heavily dramatic moment. There would be two or three brief snippets of scenes, setting up the day’s plotlines and then as someone had a significant thing to say, this sound would sear through and the globe would go spinning around, eventually landing in O of the title of the show as beams shot out in three directions. I don’t think I ever got over this opening sequence being changed, though it was not the original one from 1956. I’ve had an affinity for fake-looking shots of the Earth ever since I, as a kid, used to watch old Universal-International movies on the local channels. On some level, ATWT provided that same sense of comfort through its opening theme. Click the link below and see just how fun it really was!

Eventually, in a classic case of transference, I became every bit as devoted to As the World Turns as I had been with Dynasty (a show I missed one episode of, out of 218, in all the years it was on!) ATWT was on five days a week, however, and so not only did I get a more frequent fix, but it took up five times more of my life to watch it! I hardly cared about that, though, since this was during the reign of one of daytime TV’s most gifted writers ever, Douglas Marland.

Marland was a rare thing among soap opera writers in that he found ways to involve a massive array of characters into their own and each other’s storylines. When ATWT began in 1956 as the first half hour serial (a distinction it shared with The Edge of Night, which premiered later the same day), the show didn’t have more story to tell than its fifteen minute-long counterparts, it just reflected upon the plotlines more, with the characters ruminating amongst each other and going about their lives, taking time to reveal the characters’ traits, beliefs and morals. Marland took his approach from this and turned the by now sprawling canvas of Oakdale into a place where every character had an opinion on the developments of other characters and had them interacting frequently, never forgetting the primary, longstanding residents of the town. Many times, one character’s story would intersect in a key way with another (apparently disconnected) one, making the show rewarding to view. Most other writers tended to (and many still do) keep characters rather segmented from each other because it is far easier (and cheaper) to tell separate stories in segregated chunks rather than to involve everyone. Based in New York, ATWT had a wealth of Broadway-level acting talent from which to fill out its cast.
I fell hard for the man (Scott Holmes) playing Bob’s son Tom Hughes. Initially, a cute, but kind of doughy kind of guy, he eventually underwent a self-imposed workout regimen and emerged into a chiseled, salt and pepper daddy type with a vague George Clooney quality! He brought an amazing amount of sensitivity to his role of the town’s primary lawyer, most especially when his character’s wife on the show was savagely raped by a couple of lowlifes who’d caught her in an alley after a liquor store robbery. The twelfth actor to play the role, he has been on the series steadily since 1987.
Everybody knows I’m a sucker for all the old bats and so I was also drawn to the rest of the slate of veteran actors who were still working on the show following a long tenure. Marland was a master at utilizing everyone from the smallest child to the oldest senior citizen in spinning his stories. Bob Hughes (played by Don Hastings from 1960 on) had been the town’s most esteemed doctor and social pillar for a long time by then and his ex-wife, the legendary Lisa (portrayed by Eileen Fulton) had also been kicking around for close to thirty years on the serial by this time, having signed on in 1960 as well. Bob’s current wife Kim (Hays) had been on since 1972 and her rival Susan (Marie Masters) began in 1968 (though she was off the show from ’79 to ’86.) Barbara (Pinter) had joined the show in '78. At this point, Ellen Stewart (Patricia Bruder) was also still around, having been portrayed by the same actress since 1960, obviously a key year for the show! Longest running of all, though, was Bob’s mother Nancy Hughes (Helen Wagner), who had been on the show from the first moment in 1956 and had even said the very first line ever uttered, “Good morning, dear.”

Wagner is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having portrayed the same TV character for the longest stretch of time (1956-2010!) Just think about that, with but a few periods here and there due to storyline changes or disputes, Helen Wagner played Nancy Hughes for 54 years. Just as impressive, though, are Hastings and Fulton’s terms of service. This year, they hit the 50-year mark. Fulton has left the show briefly a time or two, but Hastings has been Dr. Bob Hughes for half a century!! Remember that this show airs five hours a week year round. No, he hasn’t been on every episode, but no one has.

Back to Helen Wagner, she was not a “pretty” woman, but my grandmother used to tell me that “age is a great equalizer” and, just as it was true of her, it was true of Wagner. (Will it be true of me?! LOL) As she grew older, she took on a glow and a bright appearance that gave her an attractiveness greater than what she had enjoyed as a younger woman. She was always made up prettily and dressed in nice clothing. As Nancy Hughes, Wagner dispensed support and advise to nearly everyone, but her goodness was not limited to her time spent in character.

She reminded me very much of my own grandmother and I once wrote to her to tell her about the similarities and in return I got an unbelievably thoughtful, lengthy, handwritten letter from her. Writing her again to thank her and give her more information (she had asked a few questions of me), I was stunned to receive yet another handwritten letter, this one just as nice and warm as the first and with such consideration in it for me and appreciation of my faithfulness to the show. Beyond that, she expressed significant interest in ME. In The Underworld, that makes her an honorary goddess!

And I was faithful. I became a daily re-capper on an old AOL message board site and became a champion of some of the long-term actors on the show. I wrote a lengthy post each day on that site (which was read by some of the writers and a few of the cast, a couple of whom exchanged e-mails with me) and also wrote to the actors themselves and to the writers and to the various soap rags, getting my letters in print on a few occasions. Like many fans of soap operas, I just became very heavily invested in the characters and storylines and didn’t like it when things happened which didn’t fit with the history of the show (which, by now, I had researched!) or with the characters as we fans knew them. As an example of the shift that happened when youth storylines took over daytime, just look at this cast photo on the cover of TV Guide. The number one soap on the air was half-populated with "geezers!"

There was little to no need for any concern with Marland writing the show because he had a tremendous respect for the program and for the actors on it. One (of many) of his major attention-getters was having the saintly Bob Hughes become temporarily distracted by Susan Stewart, one of Kim’s archenemies for many years. They had one night of love that kicked off a year’s worth of drama and despair. Sadly, Marland had surgery in 1993 and died during it, leaving a horrendous hole in the world of daytime drama.

The show coasted for a short while on his existing storyline, but ran into trouble before long. That was when I became the most vocal about the direction of the series. What really mucked things up was O.J. Simpson. Yes, you heard me. In January of 1995, his lengthy and squalid murder trial was aired every afternoon, knocking most soaps off the air and causing a considerable loss in viewers and a change in the patterns of fans, some of whom found out that they, in fact, could survive without watching.
The show, along with almost every other one on the air, kept developing far-fetched storylines in order to regain viewers. Dead people were (repeatedly!) brought back to life, children created out of nowhere, characters acted out of turn, realism diminished… These were things ATWT had mostly (but not always) avoided previously. In 1999, after a decade of loyal viewing, I gave up the show cold turkey and later watched from the sidelines (via online recaps and occasionally holiday or otherwise notable episodes) as it continued to slide towards something foreign to what it had once been. Every once in a while, I’d see promos for a storyline that looked intriguing and I’d check in for a while, but was never again hooked full time. I would often try to catch Christmas episodes, but many times they’d be full of people I neither knew, nor cared about.

I did catch some of the eye-opening gay storyline that took place in the last couple of years. Luke Snyder, the teen son of key character Lily Snyder, was revealed to be homosexual and entered into a romance with Noah, a guy about the same age. What would creator Irna Phillips have thought about seeing Luke and Noah partaking in shirtless make-out scenes?! It wasn’t the first time the show had featured progressive storylines of this nature. The series has the distinction of having had the first gay male regular character when an associate of Barbara’s, Hank Elliott, was revealed to be homosexual in the 1980s. It was a chaste scenario compared to the more recent one and he was off the show before too long, but he did have a partner, Charles, with AIDS. ATWT prominently featured an annual AIDS charity ball for many years, bringing much awareness to the disease at a time when it was extremely controversial (and affording all the characters a reason to get dolled up to the nines!) Some cynics may cite the gay romance (which the show never did abandon despite some degree of grousing and which led to several other gay characters being added to the canvas along the way) as hastening the show's demise, but it's doubtful.

Daytime TV, in general, never recovered from the O.J. debacle and the advent of cable/satellite opened up so many competitive options for people that they could never fully regain their footing. Consider that in 1963-64, 15,400,000 households tuned in to ATWT every day on average! The Young and the Restless, which has had a stranglehold on the #1 spot for more than thirty years, has never had more than 8,600,000. Cut to today and Y&R has 3,800,000 households watching while ATWT has 1,900,000. Talk about the wheels coming off a genre!

And, as you can imagine, these low numbers have finally led to the cancellation of As the World Turns. On September 17th, the World will stop turning for good. Fans hoped that the show’s matriarch might be able to close the run (of close to 14,000 episodes!) with a “Good evening, dear” or something similar as a bookend to the first episode, but, sadly, Miss Wagner died May 1st of this year at the age of 91!! On Monday, August 30th, her character Nancy Hughes was found dead in her apartment by her son Bob and on Tuesday the 31st, a tribute episode included clips of the beloved character. In true millennium fashion, the funeral was not shown, her children Penny and Don and grandchildren Frannie, Sabrina, Andy, Lien and others were not shown or even mentioned in passing. It was a so-so way to send her off, though we can be grateful that she did rate being featured at all under the circumstances.

I’ve decided to watch the remaining two and a half weeks of episodes (with my hand on the fast-forward button for parts that don’t interest me) and see it to its end. Barbara has remained a front-burner character and somehow Colleen Zenk Pinter looks better today that she did twenty-one years ago when I first saw her (despite having beaten a case of tongue cancer!) and thankfully she never gave in to that hellacious trend of puffing up her lips (her top one being slim by TV standards.) To the writers’ and producers’ credit, they have managed to bring on a few characters who had previously departed. Bryggman, as Dr. John Dixon, who’d left the series in 2004 after refusing to take a pay cut, is back for this short stretch. Even Julianne Moore, who’d been given her start on the show and won a Daytime Emmy for her trouble, came on for a few moments not long ago in order to pay tribute to her roots there, the occasion being Kim and Bob’s 25th wedding anniversary.
When the serial ends it run, a true era for soap operas will be over, for As the World Turns was the final show to be owned by Proctor & Gamble, a “soap” company (P&G does partially sponsor The Young and the Restless, however.) It is being replaced by an “information” series called The Talk because, you know, there aren’t enough talk/reality/opinion shows out there and we need more. (At least it was spared the fate of Guiding Light, television’s longest ever running serial, which was dumped in order to bring the world a revamped version of Let’s Make a Deal hosted by Wayne Brady, a program that takes tackiness to levels practically unheard of!) But what can you say? If the viewers aren’t there, the shows can’t continue and unfortunately one thing or another led to the slow, but steady, demise of this and many other shows before it.

I do not invest myself in programs like this any more. I don’t, as they say, put all my eggs in one basket. In fact, since 1996 I have not watched any scripted television series but for a very small handful of exceptions. That was the year that I finally had my fill of watching primetime shows and getting into them only to have them yanked off the air with no closure. As of this writing, I regularly watch ONE scripted TV series and that is Modern Family. Prior to that I watched the Starz original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (which is on hiatus due to its star’s bout with cancer!) and one season apiece of Lost and Ugly Betty. That constitutes my complete history of regular, non-reality television viewing since 1996! Now, granted, I have occasionally tuned in to watch a particular guest star (read: Faye Dunaway) on a show, but those instances have been fewer than ten in fourteen years. And, like the viewers who gave up on soaps, I don’t miss it at all! I think it mostly boils down to habit. I have found (many) other ways to pass my time.

As the World Turns lasted 54 years, a remarkable feat for any scripted television program, especially considering the vast changes that have occurred in the medium since it’s debut. It is legendary as well for being on the air and interrupted by Walter Cronkite the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It inspired a running parody on the highly successful The Carol Burnett Show. The connective tissue it offered to and for many people goes on and on. One of my friends was plopped down on his blanket in front of the set the day Cronkite broke in with his terrible news. Another friend of mine was named Lisa after Eileen Fulton’s wildly popular character (as many baby girls were!) I recall one black period of my life in which I was close to suicide, having endured a soul-crushing personal trauma, but I knew that if I did myself in, I wouldn’t be able to find out what was going to happen on the next episode! That’s one of the powers of television that you don’t hear of every day, but I swear to you it’s true! Farewell to one of the icons of daytime television...


Rob said...

This is very nice. The only soap I really ever watched was Knots Landing, but I get how you feel...the world's sorta different now, soaps are dying, the Big Three networks are'nt so big anymore-hell, no one reads newspapers or magazines anymore! A very touching tribute.
PS-Poseidon's not updating for me regularly (meaning it's not moving to the top of my sidebar as you post) is it just my site that's experiencing this?

normadesmond said...

i never did a daytime serial, except "dark shadows"...i also never watched "dallas", "dynasty" or "knots landing". why they haven't taken my license away from me, i'll never know.

of course, i have watched some other things, like "the sopranos" and (currently) "true blood". i did suffer thru "queer as folk" usually muttering, why am i watching this crap?

Michelle Braverman said...

Just found this post by accident. I started watching ATWT (as we called it) in the late 70s when my son was a toddler. I was so hooked that when I saw one of the actors in the park in New York City I cried out, "Dr. Keith! Dr. Keith!". When someone was run over on Friday I could barely wait till Monday to see whether he died.

After going back to work, I only caught the Friday episodes (my day off), knowing if I videotaped all of them I would never have time to sleep. That was okay as the characters seemed to speak in catch-up sentences.

When I "retired" in 2003 I resumed being a faithful watcher until that last fateful episode when the World stopped turning. It was like saying goodbye to family, and I really mourned. I have never watched ATWT's replacement, "The Talk" nor will I ever.

I wrote my own tribute to ATWT that appeared in Woman's Day magazine online. Here's the site if you'd like to read it:

Kelly Wittmann said...

I have been reading your blog for years, but just happened to stumble upon this post by chance while doing a google search. Your tribute to ATWT was lovely. Douglas Marland was a huge influence on me as a writer, teaching me so much about pacing, dialogue, and character development. I hoard and cherish the Marland episodes on Youtube. No, it was never the same without him, and the long decline of ATWT was really more heartbreaking than the the end itself.

Poseidon3 said...

Kelly, thanks for your comments (and for reading other posts on this blog over the years!) It's great to know that someone else was able to appreciate the work of Marland, much less incorporate some of his enriching techniques and qualities into their own work. Thanks!!