Transition team

A soap’s most unique feature is its endless ability to revamp its cast. Characters show up in town, wreak havoc, and waltz out again. Older generations have their heyday and then serve as wise elders (or not, as the case may be) for the next generation. Ideally, this is done seamlessly, with supporting roles with an occasional spotlight for the older generation, meaty storylines for the middle set, and a slow integration of the newest cast members.

Of course, at any given time, in all likelihood it is going anything but seamlessly. Many different factors make this a challenging process. Fan resent their favorites being shunted aside. New headwriters eager to introduce “their” characters throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cost cuts force cast bloodlettings. Aging stars throw temper tantrums. A popular new character gets overexposed. And on and on.

There is also the more delicate question of how to use the aging, yet still extremely popular characters, how to make the transition from being the heart of the show to playing a still vital, but more supporting role. Days of the last ten or fifteen years has had anything but a natural progression in terms of the development of its cast, particularly its supercouples—it’s been more like a merry go round. But that’s not the subject of this post.

Instead I just want to talk about the types of stories that make sense for the characters who have been around the block a few times. Doug and Julie and Mickey and Maggie are good examples of major players of the 1970’s who were turned into supporting players in the 80’s, but who still got the occasional storyline. Maggie’s myasthenia gravis (based on Suzanne Rogers real-life experience), and Doug running for mayor are two examples. Both couples were parents of lead characters who had major storylines from the era, Mike, Melissa, and Hope, so they got to play the parental role. More recently, Doug, Julie, Maggie, and the newly recast Mickey show up here and there in family-themed episodes, as meddlers and advice-givers, and a very occasional role in the plot.

I mention these successful examples because I think transitioning romantic leads is probably the trickiest of all, and these are two examples of a generally successful transition (Travesties like the Maggie/Mickey/Bonnie/dog foursome excepted). I must admit it, though, that it tickles me to imagine a message board from 1982, with threads entitled, “Doug and Julie: the REAL supercouple!” or “Bo and Hope are eating my show!”

Aging villains tend to present less of a problem. They can keep hatching their vile plots and torturing succeeding generations of Salemites. Stefano, for example, can play a major role or a minor role as the occasion requires, and having a particular motivation for anything seems to trouble him not at all. Considering that versatility, plus the presence of the Joe Mascolo, who can play either subtle or cartoonish with verve, is it any wonder that headwriters of every stripe have brought him back again and again?

The more human, believable villains, as they age, often get stuck meddling in their children’s lives. (Stefano does too—only in his case he’s extended his meddling to the whole town.) How many times has Kate broken up Lucas and Sami? Too many. It can be disheartening watching once-great titans fiddling with paternity test results and the like. Currently on my DVDs, Victor is so determined to break up Justin (his nephew, but really a surrogate son) and his wife Adrienne that he has sunk to the level of secretly feeding Justin pills that make him impotent. Depressing.

Needless to say, the problem continues. The brief, abruptly dropped DiMera/Kiriakis docks storyline from earlier this year had some great moments with Victor and Phillip as they wrangled over how to handle the problem. Phillip, for all the subpar writing he has received, is a worthy inheritor of the Kiriakis mantle, and I love to see the two men clash. I can’t say the same about Victor being forced to match wits with the inept Shelle, when he was trying to steal Claire away from them.

To paraphrase Norma Desmond, as played by the incomparable Gloria Swanson: “I am big. It’s the soaps that got small.”


15 thoughts on “Transition team

  1. SUCH an interesting topic! I think that your “1982 message board” scenario would not have happened, for a number of reasons:

    1) Today’s writers have no concept of how to gradually introduce new characters to the canvas. Instead, they flood the show with ‘newbies’ all at once, and they give these newbies more airtime than the vets. In contrast, in the past, new characters were introduced slowly and carefully. First, the writers would make sure the viewers were crystal clear on what the new character’s connection to Salem was. Then, they’d slowly introduce the character, with not much airtime at first.

    2) This is a touchy topic, but… if you look at pictures of Doug and Julie and Mickey/Maggie in the late 70’s, and you look at pictures of J&M, Bope and S&K today, the men and women today look younger. Now, this has to be combined with the fact that in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was a definite shift in morals in society, where TV could show scenes that were much more explicit. So basically, what you had in the early 80’s was a combination of a crop of beautiful young actors and actresses (DH, WN, KA, PR, MBE, SN, PP, CS) and the producers’ desire to show the viewers much more of these actors and actresses, if you know what I mean. I think that combination sadly left some of the then-vets out in the cold.

    3) To make it clear, the above paragraph has nothing AT ALL to do with this summer’s “elevator” scenes. The way that these young actors and actresses were showcased was through exquisitely written stories that led the viewers to care deeply for them. This was combined with the talents of the actors and actresses. The cream just naturally rose to the top, and the ones who became stars are still stars today.

    4) With today’s newbies, imo only Ari Zucker and James Scott would have been able to make it in the climate of the early 80’s. I think they have the acting talent and “it” factor to draw in viewers and engage the audience. (And let’s not kid ourselves, they look great, too!) But I’m not sure any of the other young actors today would rise to the top in a carefully crafted transition (which of course we don’t have). Martha Madison and JKJ would be next on my list, but after that… I can’t think of anyone.

    So the bottom line is, a lack of talent today both in the writing and acting departments is the cause of the current transition woes. The sad part is, I don’t think we’ll be able to see a ‘well-managed transition’ on Days ever again.

  2. I just want to clarify what I wrote in #2 above – my point is that fans didn’t ‘revolt’ as they are today in part because (and again I hope this doesn’t come out wrong), Mickey/Maggie and Doug/Julie were not viable romantic leads then in the same way that the ‘vets’ are today. One example that comes to mind is in 2001 or 2002 – Marlena had a conversation with Belle about whether Belle and Shawn were going to sleep together. At the end of that show, Belle left for her date with Shawn and J&M shared some passionate kisses in the bedroom. That could really never have worked in the early 80’s – it was one or the other, the parents or the kids. Today, where viewers expect (and want!) the vets to still be featured in romantic roles, the kids seem to be interfering rather than filling a gap in that area.

  3. You make some really interesting points, Ellie. I think that the point you make that the timeframe of being a romantic lead has been extended is probably a bigger point than it may appear on the surface.

    It seems to me that over the years, and I think it absolutely has to do with poor writing, we’ve gotten to the point where we have these huge legacy characters played by hugely popular stars, and then a bunch of characters who are either new or mediocre or both. The gap between those two sets has become overwhelming. Someone will come along with potential like James Scott, and the show has no idea how to properly integrate him. They’ll see that fans like him, and in their eagerness to capitalize on that they try one crazy thing after another until the character is all but unrecognizable.

    Less dramatic but equally damaging is Days reluctance to do anything with characters’ work lives—or anything that isn’t romantic. The problem with Sami’s transition from scheming teen to leading lady may be mostly AS’s acting ability, but it’s partly that we have no idea who Sami is. She’s about to be a mother for the fourth time and she has no identity other than “former troublemaker” and whoever she happens to be in love with.

    I’m watching early Jack and Jen right now, and Jen was a fairly generic teenager up until she was paired with Jack. But even though I can see that the show is gearing up for a romance between the two of them, they are also taking the time to “age” Jennifer and give her her own identity through her ambition to be a reporter. I’m not convinced that Missy Reeves is a much better actress than Ali Sweeney, but the writing is helping her out much, much more.

    It’s undoubtedly true that characters were introduced better back in 1983, so maybe you’re right that my message board scenario wouldn’t happen. I just ordered my DVDs from late 1983 and 1984, so I’ll get to see part of Sheri Anderson’s revamping happen firsthand. (I wasn’t able to find DVD’s pre-November 1983, so I won’t see all of it.) But I do know that I tuned out in 1983 and tuned back in in 1986, and the cast of characters with frontburner storylines was completely different. Except Marlena! 🙂

  4. When I first read this blog, I thought you were gently trying to prepare all of us to accept the fact that Steve and Kayla couldn’t have a decent storyline anymore — that they have to transition to propping other story lines. That certainly seems to be the way things are going on Days right now. And it probably is best to accept reality with patience and resignation.

    But I also think Elle is right. There’s still life in these veteran couples. They seem much younger to me than Doug and Julie and Maggie and Mickey seemed in the late 80’s. And look at Alice. Until I started watching my DVDs, I had forgotten how cute she was as a sort of elderly superhero fighting for justice and passing out doughnuts. It could be that I love Steve and Kayla so much that they still seem sexy and interesting to me and capable of carrying a compelling storyline. They certainly could have when they were first re-introduced. By now, I’m afraid, so much damage has been done to the characters and so much time has been wasted with them on the back burner, it may be too late.

    I’m not sure if I agree with you about villains aging better. Certainly, there’s no reason a villain can’t be aged. But it gets a little ridiculous after a while. I know the ISA and the Salem police are models of incompetency, but after all the evil done by Victor and Stephano, shouldn’t they be able to pin something on them? After all these years?

    I do hate the way they introduce and use characters these days and I hate the story lines they develop for them. But there were some pretty useless story lines even in the glory days. Think of Melissa. I missed her big on the run story with Pete, but after that, they just thrust her into whatever was going on. She was a dancer, an aide to Jack, a sometime volunteer at the Community Center, a singer, etc., etc. They didn’t know what to do with her.

    So it’s a twofold problem. They are wasting the talents of the veterans and failing to create compelling new characters.

  5. Ha! Well, you’re right that the inability of the Salem PD to catch anyone is pretty bad. I was thinking more from a writing perspective, that it’s easier to come up with story ideas for villains than for older romantic leads.

    I know many, many people would disagree with me, but I actually don’t think that the super six (John, Marlena, Bo, Hope, Steve, Kayla) should be the heart of the show anymore. I want them to be where Mickey, Maggie, Doug, and Julie were in the late 70’s—they had some stories related to being couples and some stories related to being parents (or other supporting roles). Julie’s son, David Banning, that she had given up for adoption came back, Maggie was an alcoholic—these are still meaty stories, but there was less emphasis on the romantic mixing and matching.

    I would love to see these types of stories going on for the big six, while they slowly developed the younger set and gave them identities outside of their romantic pairing. And then I’d like to see some slow, well-developed love stories. And as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like a pony.

    And yeah, I never forget that Days had some major clunkers back in the day. Poor Melissa.

  6. I keep writing about this I guess to purge it from my soul so that it stops nagging me, but it seems to me that the budding Stephanie/Philip relationship offers a stellar opportunity to give S & K a supporting role storyline that would still offer some great moments for them as actors and characters.

    Beyond the old enmity between the Johnsons and Victor Kiriakis, does anyone–including Bo–know that Victor and Lawrence Alamain were partners during the time that Steve was “killed” and that he knew about Lawrence’s role in that event? If not, why not bring John Aniston into the mix for a few months and let this become the first big obstacle story for Stephanie and Philip?

    Imagine–they’re getting close. Their families are watching the pairing warily, the old grudges nagging gently at them while they try to put it aside for the sake of their children. Then, Philip overhears Victor speaking to someone about the event in the past, and he realizes that before Stefano was involved, his own father was instrumental in having Steve “disappeared” all those years ago. Victor stole Stephanie’s father from her all those years.

    Now Philip knows something that Stephanie would want to know—has a right to know–but to tell it is to betray his father on several levels. His deciding against telling what he knows is perfectly understandable and well within his character, but to Stephanie, it would constitute a pretty major betrayal and give them something difficult to overcome, resulting in weeks of smoldering at each other as they attempt to work past their trust issues.

    Meanwhile, it sets off Steve and Kayla, who can only see that Victor stole something from them they’ll never get back, and that his son lied to protect him, and they’ll be tempted to put pressure on Stephanie to reconsider her feelings for him. It could put some strain on their relationship with their daughter if she decides to forgive Philip and deal with Victor in her own way.

    It could also involve Bo, if he knew about this a long time ago but never told Kayla. Or even if he didn’t know and now has to deal with his already fractious relationship with his father. And how about if they flirt with a Victor/Caroline friendship a little more–it could strain that friendship greatly.

    A story like this is organic, very much in character and would have a fairly big repercussions for more than just one or two characters.

    ::sigh:: Why do I torment myself? Why?!?

  7. Yes, Paula, why? It sounds like a great storyline to me. Think you could take over as head writer?

    I tend to agree with you, Mary, that the big six shouldn’t be in major coupling and uncoupling story lines. I don’t like having couples broken up and re-coupled with others just to create a story. And having them on the run would be silly. Someone that age out sleeping on a mountaintop…the arthritis would be crippling. But there are still stories to tell about sustaining relationships through difficult times.

  8. MP, that’s a very good point about the show’s having no idea how to integrate the new characters. I think that’s a reflection on the writing, really. It’s interesting, in reading interviews with the actors on the show now, so many of them say the same thing, which is that their characters aren’t defined for them when they first join the show. I think you’re right, that when the show realizes they have a potentially successful character on their hands, they sort of freeze and don’t know what the next step should be.

    That’s also a very interesting point about the characters’ work lives. I think I’d extend that to say their personalities, their family life, and just a general “who they are”. If it weren’t for Chloe’s history, for example, I’d have no idea at all who she is. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be using that history much, though. I think (as you’re saying), we need to see these characters alone. What are they thinking? What do they do in their spare time? There are several ways for writers to show this, and the writers of the past few years have really employed none of them.

    I disagree though that the vets should not be the focus of the show. I say this because at this point, Days has so many viewers who are devoted to any number of the ‘vets’. In addition to that, I don’t think many of the newbies are talented at all. I’d love to see the show refocus on the vets, while giving the younger cast members smaller yet strong stories which would let their talent (if any) come through.

    And yes, lol, love her or hate her, Marlena has always been a constant! Till very soon. 😦

  9. Paula, I love your idea! I love how it brings out the Johnson/Kiriakis conflict in a specific, concrete way.

    Feel free to disagree with me about the vets being the focus, Ellie. I know many people do! Out of the younger set, I think James Scott, Ari Zucker, Rachel Melvin, Blake Berris, and Jay Kenneth Johnson are the best actors. I think Ali Sweeney doesn’t have much of a range, but she has charisma and cast chemistry, and with better writing I think she could be good. I like Shelley Hennig as well, and I think I see potential. But the rest … eh.

    The arthritis would be crippling. Hee!

  10. Thanks MP… lol I guess I disagree with you about Ali too! I don’t see any charisma or cast chemistry. In fact, I’ve seen lots of posts like, “Do Ali and ___ get along in real life?”, because of lack of chemistry in her scenes. I do think she does ‘scheming’ well (which is what you’re saying, that she has a limited range), but I don’t think she does “emotional” well, and that’s kind of necessary on a soap. I disagree that with good writing she could be good, because I think she had good writing in the 90’s, and imo she was awful then too. :p

  11. Hee—well, I admit it’s all theoretical because both the writing and the acting for Sami has been terrible lately. I know nothing about the 90’s, so I’m going only on what I saw of her between when I tuned in this time (when she and Nicole were fighting over Austin) and before this current incarnation. I remember taking an instant liking to her in spite of the silly things Sami was doing, and even after she was redeemed there were moments that kept me in her corner. But you might be right about her ability to convey dramatic emotion, period. I can’t think of a scene were she was able to effectively convey intense sorrow, fear, or anger. That was something Martha Madison was always very good at, though I had issues with her cast chemistry as well.

  12. I agree with all about the potential with a new generation of Kiriakis/Johnson tension, though there is little evidence that the current writers know how to milk such history. It is really a shame, too, since history provides such great fodder for transitions. A perfect example is Victor’s two-fold life goals: 1) to hand over his business dealings to an heir ruthless enough to keep the empire running well, so that he can finally 2) win the hand of his lifetime love, Caroline. Victor may be weak of body, but inwardly he is still the top don, one who won’t really bow out until he finds a worthy successor. The hinted rivalry of Phillip and Brady offers hope for such a transition, but I have little faith in the current writers to execute it well.
    It is interesting in looking back at old clips to see what a great villain Victor was in the ’80s. He was really so much better than Stefano (IMO), who was too hung up on the supernatural. Victor was all about money and power: the ultimate Days badass. Always cool, in complete control. As Steve once said, a man who could order somebody killed “without moving a mustache hair.” I am in the middle of watching the Jack/Steve/Kayla saga and found it interesting that, after Kayla leaves Jack (after the rape), he immediately calls up Victor for help in threatening Steve. Everybody in town knew exactly whom to call to get dirty work done. Yet Victor was always too smooth to get caught.
    I can see great potential in Victor trying to train his son (or grandson) to take over the business in a manner befitting his legacy. He tried many times before, but Justin, Isabella, and Bo all lacked the necessary element of ruthlessness. It would be interesting to see how Victor tried to do things differently this time around, and how that would shape the new generation.
    Alas, I’m sure none of that will come to pass.

  13. I always preferred Victor to Stefano too, Melaraus. I just watched his return from 1988 (with the Benjy storyline), and I found him boring and cartoonish. I liked Hogan’s version of Stefano because I thought he humanized him. I liked the way they introduced the EJ/Tony rivalry over who was Stefano’s rightful heir, though that all went out the window somehow.

    Anyway, I too like the idea of Victor playing a similar role, worried about his legacy and trying to decide who would be worthy to carry on the family business. I think it would be great soap all around. If they had Phillip vying to be the next Victor at the same time he is falling for Stephanie, introducing all kins of good internal conflict for Phillip (and everyone), I think that would be even better.

    Sigh. Paula’s question is a good one: why do we torment ourselves?

  14. I’m late to the party, but wanted to chime in. I actually agree that, in a perfect world, the “big six” should not be the focus of the show anymore. They should be and should have transitioned into more supporting roles as parents, friends, with the occassional storyline of their own or greater participation in another storyline. In my hypothetical perfect world, S&K would have had the proper return, proper exploration of Steve’s missing years, and then the transition to a different role.

    That’s not to say I don’t think the big six can be important players and frontline characters, only that for a soap to survive, it must develop new generations and that, necessarily, requires the more established characters to transition to different roles.

    The problem I see right now is that Days has never developed a solid second and third generation for the vets to pass the torch too. That’s a result of bad writing, bad casting, and bad decisions down the line. Those of us that developed strong attachments to the big six won’t easily accept their transition. But, I do believe it would be accepted if done properly (as was done in the 70’s and 80’s) AND there were compelling stories among the second and third generations that captured our affections.

    However, because no compelling successors have really developed, we’d rather stick with favorites we know and love. There is no new romance that captures our attention and interest, in part because of writing and acting, and in part because we’ve been burned so many times we refuse to become invested anymore. We already have that investment in the big six so we have no choice but to care about them. So, if we want stories we care about, we want more of the vets.

    If TPTB were smart (which I think we know they aren’t), they’d recognize this problem and use the big six to help build that second and third generation (like Paula’s idea). But, they seem to believe that isolating the generations is the key to success — which may be a large part of the reason they are failing.

  15. It’s a sad fact that the bond of trust between the fans and TPTB is broken. Without that trust, it’s harder to invest in a new character or a new storyline even if it is done perfectly—which it generally isn’t, of course.

    I like the idea of having the super six given spotlight roles that also featured key figures in the younger generations. Some fans would bitch that the storyline for their couple is “really” about so-and-so, but I honestly think many of them would go along for the ride if it was done well.

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