The critic Vivian Mercier wrote of Waiting for Godot that Samuel Beckett “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.”
Perhaps Beckett would like to come write for Days?
There are always times, on a soap, when the plots have to slow down, when things get delayed for another plot to catch up, when you’re waiting for sweeps or sweeps just ended. And yet you gotta put something on the screen. How do you stretch out nothing?
James E. Reilly, when he was writing for Days, liked to set up untenable situations—the secret that can’t be kept, the marriage that’s a terrible mistake—situations that you don’t think can possibly last for long. But you would be wrong. JER stretched out plots indefinitely. The lines repeated verbatim day after day, the unnecessary flashbacks to an earlier nothing moment, the maddening false reveals. (As annoying as Sami’s secret-keeping is now, there has not been even one false reveal, and only one timely interruption—Celeste at the church. Cast your mind back if you will, to Mimi keeping Claire’s paternity secret, and thank God for small favors.)
At the other end of the spectrum of quality we have Days circa December 1986, which I am currently watching for my ongoing S&K analysis. The big Stockholm adventure has just wrapped up, and Steve and Kayla just had their first kiss. The Adrienne storyline is percolating but not yet a focus. Steve and Kayla spend the entire month of December doing nothing much but going on a few dates, sharing a few kisses, and getting in a few fights. They have the same conversation a few times over. And yet it’s a joy to watch, because we’re watching two well-rounded characters falling in love and trying to figure out if their relationship could actually work. (If only Chick could get a little of this!)
Fast forward to Days today. We’ve been stuck, by and large, since the middle of February. Shawn and Belle on the island. Steve in the loony bin. EJ running around being sinister but not really doing anything. The police paralyzed. Last entry I talked about my conspiracy theory about why this might be, but that’s not relevant here. Instead let’s take a look at how Hogan Sheffer and his team are handling the nothingness.
With Belle and Shawn, I believe he is attempting to give them a story like the one Steve and Kayla had in December ’86. (I’m not going to compare them to Steve and Kayla because that’s not fair.) They aren’t doing much, but they talk a lot. They talk about their feelings, they talk about sex, but they aren’t a couple, yet. And it took me awhile to get over my irritation with Belle’s born-again virgin speech, but since then their dialogue has been decent. If only these two characters were better-established, if only these two had a real source of conflict (other than third parties), if only I could get the feeling from these two that they’ve been longing for each other for ten years. I’m feeling something, a little something, but I wish it were more. Because these pauses in a developing relationship can be so much fun on a soap.
(Because it can’t be said enough, the show has it backwards. The couple they need to be giving space and breathing room to is Nick and Chelsea, not Shawn and Belle. Rachel Melvin and Blake Berris would be outstanding if the show would slow down and let them simply interact for a bit.)
The other thing we’ve been seeing lately, which I applaud, is the mini-storyline. This is something that unfolds over the course of a few days or a week, and it can either leave you mostly back where you started or add a fillip of extra zing to the larger storyline. (1986 again: Steve stealing Kim’s evidence is an example of the former type, Steve smuggling the emeralds an example of the latter.) We’ve seen Kayla and Max go off to Italy to see Stefano, we’ve seen Steve escaping from the hospital twice, we’ve seen EJ and Phillip installing Billie’s security system at Bo and Hope’s house. Some of these have seemed to go nowhere, though they may pay off later, and some seem to be groundwork for a larger storyline. Either way, all of them have been engaging and interesting while they’re happening, involving different members of the cast and good dialogue.
Pausing in a storyline is necessary, even desirable, on a soap. Sometimes it builds necessary suspense: the secret kept, the evil plotted. Sometimes it’s necessary for character motivation: the longing has to build before the kiss, the desperation has to build before the bad choice is made. And sometimes it just gives your characters/actors room to breathe, to develop and explore their relationship.
But you have to know when to pause, for how long, and how to use those pauses to good effect, so the audience remains glued to their seats. And I’m sure I need hardly say you certainly can’t make the mistake that Days has made the past few months, which is slowing down all the stories at the same time. Mini-storylines alone, as fun as they are, just won’t cut it.
So in the words of Samuel Beckett:
We’re waiting for … something to happen on Days.