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.”