We want stories about well developed, complex, nuanced, flawed characters, both male and female, and we want to watch them grow and transition over time. That’s the freedom the serial nature of soap operas allows that is denied to most other forms of entertainment. Yet it’s being done so much better in primetime, or other genre under far greater limitations.
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It looks like THE GOOD, BAD AND THE FUGLY has a new name. It’s called IF IT WERE EASY, I COULD BE A HEAD WRITER. I hear soap fans complaining about the writing all the time, and when I talk to writers, or I hear what they say in interviews, their answer to those complaints generally falls under the “It’s not easy” category. It’s a challenge to accommodate the divergent wishes of a soap audience comprised of conflicting fan bases with opposing agendas. It’s difficult to tell stories for characters in committed pairings that are fresh and exciting. It requires effort to maintain diversity. It’s a Herculean task to stretch the limits of the audience’s moral imperatives, and not offend. Guess what? It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were easy, anyone could do it. Turning the plummeting fortunes of the soap industry around will require bold initiatives and creative strategies so head writers must stop making excuses. No one expects that it will be easy. There are those of us who write columns, participate in podcasts, write letters to the writers and the executives, and we post on message boards, all in an effort to draw a road map to success for those in charge. Most of us fully understand we will not get a fairy tale in which our favorites are going to live happily ever after.
We realize there will be ups and downs and drama, but when we continue to tell everyone who will listen that we want strong women who aren’t defined entirely by their attachment to some guy on the canvas, we will not continue to accept our favorite women to be written as needy and demoralized when one of the lame leading men on the show dumps them. Make no mistake, it’s not sufficient to write the women to simply come to their senses and finally dump the guys if the woman is the one in tears as she walks away while the guy barely skips a beat before moving on to the next “love of his life.” We want stories about well developed, complex, nuanced, flawed characters, both male and female, and we want to watch them grow and transition over time. That’s the freedom the serial nature of soap operas allows that is denied to most other forms of entertainment. Yet it’s being done so much better in primetime, or other genre under far greater limitations.
Am I the only one who thinks ONE LIFE TO LIVE would be substantially more interesting if characters were allowed to be bad? Right now the only people who are allowed to be really bad are the cartoon villains, Mitch and Allison, Ford (and Langston, but only by association), Todd who is whacked, and Teen Jessica, who is both a teenager and whacked. I suppose more recently I should also include the exiting Schuyler who is in the process of being thrown under a bus as part of his exit story, primarily in an attempt to make Rex look better. The grand strategy of destroying one character when efforts to elevate another have failed continues. In general, these so-called "bad" characters are the only ones who get to have any fun. Everybody else is either victimized by them, or victimized by their own circumstances. Some of the not so bad characters will do bad things, but they do them for good reasons. They’re trying to protect someone, or do the right thing in some other way. Even Dorian is now butting out of Langston’s business because to interfere would be "bad". Since when is Dorian not allowed to be bad? Is there some artificial limitation on badness that I don’t get? Is it like, “ok, we’ve had you drug an alcoholic, pour alcohol down his throat and almost kill him, fake being gay to get elected mayor, then talk that same grief stricken alcoholic into trying to kill somebody so now you must be sanitized”?
Why does Blair have to be Tea’s new champion and Kelly’s new punching bag? Todd seems to be vying for father of the year awards, but he gets to be sort of bad some of the time. He creates nasty headlines, only to be shot down by noble Kelly. He says nasty things to Natalie and Blair and sometimes even to Viki, Tea or Marty. Layla, one of the toughest chicks on the show, is pouting about Jessica’s relentless pursuit of Cristian. When did Layla stop standing up for herself? I don’t care that Jessica is brain damaged, somebody needs to slap the fire out of that petulant, pouty, prima donna, and Layla is just the woman to do it! The writers, or the powers that be, seem so protective and so concerned about damaging the characters but the end result creates a canvas of characters that do nothing but react. No one makes anything happen except the wicked.
In contrast, I watched THE GOOD WIFE last week and it was so soapy and exquisite. This is a fabulous show, loaded with the kind of female characters I’ve been hearing soap viewers clamor for. It’s entirely different than I expected it to be. The promos building up to the premier indicated it was about a woman whose husband, the states attorney, was caught up in a sex for political favors scandal that led to him being imprisoned. I was expecting a Hilary Clinton, stand by your man kind of story; however, it’s been anything but. In fact, the show has barely touched the surface of Alicia’s (the lead character, portrayed by Julianna Margulies) relationship with her husband, Peter (portrayed by Chris Noth). In fact if you visit the official website for the show, Peter isn’t even a significant enough character to merit a listing in the cast/character bios. THE GOOD WIFE is actually a legal drama and the focus each week typically involves a case the firm is trying, but within that context the characters have been intricately developed and each week a new layer is revealed.
Alicia’s struggle to rebuild her life and her career while simultaneously trying to maintain some normalcy for her children amidst the rubble of her marriage is at the heart of the stories, but THE GOOD WIFE is packed with remarkably strong women, who take charge of their lives and shake things up. All of these women are complex, and nuanced, and capable of being noble one minute and absolutely, unequivocally wicked or heartless the next. For example, Alicia had a hot and heavy encounter with her boss, Will (portrayed by Josh Charles) in his office, but she broke off the steamy kiss and walked away. She went all the way to her car in the parking garage, but, after some hesitation, returned — her intentions unclear. When she didn’t find Will in his office she assumed he left, and she went home and went directly to her husband’s bedroom (he’s been sleeping in another room because he cheated on her and she hasn’t forgiven him) and crawled on top of him and had raunchy sex just because she was horny. She unapologetically used the man for sex, because she could! She didn’t feel guilty about it and the next night when her husband implied he would enjoy a repeat performance, she just told him good night and didn’t feel obligated to return the favor. In these moments, Alicia, the long suffering, overburdened, wronged spouse and self sacrificing mother was wicked, selfish, powerful, in control, and moderately cruel! And Peter deserved it. And I loved it!
How does that translate to ONE LIFE TO LIVE? Certainly there are different challenges, and probably different forms of network interference in the writing via whimsical casting and mandates that I doubt are as prevalent on a show whose producers I assume have more autonomy. Those are just excuses. We need women like Alicia who are not wholly noble, wholly slutty, wholly wicked, or wholly vulnerable, but instead are some varying combinations of all these characteristics and more in different measures depending on her circumstances at the time. Wouldn’t ONE LIFE TO LIVE be improved if the characters were not so stagnate and fixed upon some capricious and arbitrary scale of character traits ranging from heroic to villainous, pure to slutty, powerful to vulnerable? If they shifted and transitioned along a continuing spectrum?
Blair, and now apparently Langston, are the only characters allowed to be uninhibited in their sexuality. Yet even these characters inevitably fall in love with whomever they are having sex. Why? Strong secure women do not wear their hearts in their vaginas. Perhaps they are not promiscuous, but like men, there are women who are perfectly capable of enjoying sex, and not falling hopelessly in love. Where did the term “friends with benefits” come from if both parties weren’t equally satisfied with the terms, and willing to remain friends? What would have been so wrong with Blair and John or Blair and Eli, having sex, enjoying it, laughing afterwards, and then Blair telling the guy to put his pants on and go home? Why did Blair have to be hurt and demoralized because John wanted to pursue a relationship with Marty? Why couldn’t Blair just have the attitude “It was fun while it lasted”? Why is it necessary for Langston to fall for the manwhore Ford? Why can’t she just say “Damn! That was good!” and be done with him, and go back to Markko who she loves? Langston would be a cheater, and that could create drama in her relationship with Markko moving forward, but instead she’s a cheater, and she’s going to wind up crushed and broken because Ford is a vapid playboy who doesn’t care about her. Who decided this is what viewers want female characters to be?
Jessica, when not suffering from mental illness, is boring. I hoped beyond hope that the integrated Jessica would be far more Tesslike. Or better yet, I would have loved for Tess to emerge as the dominant personality. Bree Williamson on more than one occasion has told fans that she enjoys playing her alters more than she enjoys Jessica, and I cannot blame her. I know I certainly prefer the alters. Oddly enough, it seems each time Jessica suffers some kind of relapse or new mental illness it is accompanied by a new love interest. Every other character on the show appears to transition seamlessly from one love interest to another without a trip to St. Ann’s. I suspect the reason Jessica is not afforded that same latitude is because she has to be so very good, so her alters (or brain damage, whichever the case may be) are simply her ticket to be bad while preserving Jessica as the pure and perfect heroine. Unfortunately, if the pure and perfect heroine is so boring she can’t be sustained for any length of time, or written for in such a way that she is interesting, where’s the benefit in maintaining and preserving her purity and perfection?
I like Jessica when she’s edgy. I loved her when she was going toe-to-toe with Natalie after Tess held Natalie and Jared in the secret room. I enjoy the sibling relationship between the twins, but after all that has transpired between them, their relationship should always be slightly contentious more or less, but it so rarely is. Now the writers appear to be trying to restore that conflict, but teen Jessica is simply inadequate to the task and it’s incredibly imbalanced. Natalie can’t push back with equal force. Brody can’t press too hard. Layla has to treat her like a recalcitrant child. Cristian can’t hurt her feelings by fully rejecting her. Teen Jessica has basically been given carte blanche to do as she pleases without anyone having the freedom to respond normally. Conflict between grown women who are equally strong and equally committed to their position is a glorious thing to behold on soaps. But this isn’t it. Unfortunately, because she must always be so above reproach, Jessica has grown to be interesting only when insane, and as that has been done repeatedly, it’s become boring as well.
The Natalie/John/Marty triangle would be far more interesting to me if the characters were not bending over backwards to do the right thing. In the first place, triangles are so passé. It’s weak and predictable story telling. There is plenty of conflict in a John/Marty story, or a John/Natalie story that eliminates the need for the interloper dynamic and all three characters involved in this triangle are weakened, even while the characters’ do-right motivations are being preserved. Natalie still is the interloper. John is still emotionally cheating on Marty. Marty still is insecure and needy. None of these three characters is emerging stronger and better for this story. I think the story would be much better if all the good intentions were thrown out the window. What if Marty really did get pregnant intentionally and/or Natalie really was scheming to break up John and Marty? I could honestly care less who John McBain ends up with but I would have loved a story where John loves Marty, but because of her history with the rape, wall slamming sex is out of the question and their love life isn’t very satisfying. Marty knows it, and that’s where her insecurity lies. So she gets pregnant to hang on to him. Natalie doesn’t want John, or want to interfere in his relationship with Marty, but she’s in pain over losing Jared and wants to escape that pain, and wall slamming sex with John is just what the doctor ordered because there is a golden penis after all. Afterward, Natalie leaves satisfied, while John sleeps and John wonders what just happened.
I love Natalie, she is absolutely bar none my favorite character, but I never loved her because she was a Mary Sue. I don’t care if everyone would have thought she was a skank, she would have been powerful, in control, and she’d get what she wanted and needed and damn the consequences. I’ve loathed Marty for a very long time, but just the hint of bitchiness she’s displayed toward Natalie lately has upped her “hmmmmm factor” substantially for me and I would love to see more. Marty should use Todd to get Natalie out of the picture and let him take the fall for the consequences, and she should get away with it. John’s not really all that great of a detective, so clever Marty could pull it off for years. If we don’t want Marty to be truly and genuinely a wicked schemer, it could be explained that her most recent head injury damaged her medulla oblongata, resulting in anger control issues that can be treated with medication. Worked for Jessica. Furthermore, the biggest obstacle to a John and Natalie reunion should not be Marty or her pregnancy. This story would be exponentially improved if Natalie wasn’t so forgetful and forgiving. I can accept that part of her never stopped loving John, and I can buy that part of him has always loved her and they just buried those feelings and moved on. What I can’t buy is that they, especially Natalie, have forgotten the reasons they chose to do so or that those reasons no longer matter. If that is not going to be addressed, it’s a fatal flaw in the story for this viewer because ignoring that aspect of the story weakens Natalie’s character, and worse, subordinates her character to that of John. Women don’t admire that in women.
Now obviously all the females can’t be slutty and/or scheming and manipulative all the time. But most, if not all, can be that way sometime to some extent. An admitted male chauvinist’s requirements of “the good wife” are: a lady in the parlor, an economist in the kitchen, and a whore in the bedroom. He also admitted that his own wife is a whore in the parlor, a lady in the kitchen and an economist in the bedroom. Funny though that may be, it’s proof that all female characters have the capacity to be ladies, economists and whores, among other things, and the secret to success is recognizing the time and place to elevate each aspect of their character to serve the story and to develop the character, so make them all progressively wicked and fun as needed. And at this juncture, what exactly are these characters’ nobility being preserved for? Cancellation? If they don’t start writing more interesting stories that grab and hold your attention, there’s no future for which anything must be preserved. Now is the time for BOLD measures. The writers can’t take a character too far, short of having them commit rape (oh wait – that’s been done) or pedophilia or incest, that you can’t pull them back from the precipice. If they are taken beyond the limit? So what? Move them to the backburner and air them out for awhile and then introduce them into a new story and try something else. I can think of many characters currently who haven’t committed horrible acts who would benefit from that treatment as well. It may not be as simple or easy as I’m making it seem, but if it were easy I could be head writer.
For those of you interested in seeing THE GOOD WIFE, I highly recommend it and enclose the link to the official website: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_good_wife/#start
In this column I used THE GOOD WIFE predominantly to address what I consider flawed writing for the female characters on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. In my next column, I will review the STARZ original series, SPARTACUS, and compare and contrast the male leads to those on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. I hope you’ll check back.
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