Thursday, October 9, 2008

Great Aunt Myrtle has passed

Fair warning: I'm a melodramatic, sappy kinda guy. Nowhere is that truer than this post. I apologize in advance.

Full disclosure: As a kid, I watched waaaaaaaaaaaaay too many soaps. From birth to age six, my paternal grandmother babysat me by day, and she was an ABC fan. Not just ABC, but I definitely remember a lot of ABC in my home. When other children in the neighborhood might go out to play, my grandmother had me take my afternoon "nap". My nap took place on the sofa of her living room, while she watched her soaps and game shows. My earliest memories of this seem to include One Life to Live...I have this distinct flashbulb memory of Tommy Lee Jones in prison...but that may have been manufactured memory by clips I have since seen.

We got the Buffalo affiliate, and they really didn't start showing One Life till the mid-to-late 70s, when OLTL went to 45 minutes and shared a timeslot with General Hospital. (Do I have that right?). The stalwarts, those afternoons, were All My Children and General Hospital. My memories for that era are hazy...I was pre-school age...but I have very specific scary images of AMC's Tara Martin, upset over some romantic problem with Phillip Brent as I recall, laying down in the snow and almost freezing to death. I have memories of my grandmother RAILING against GH's Audrey Hardy, who had had a baby, and was hiding it from the father. My grandmother was just heated over that deceptive woman. I remember "Howie and Jane" from GH, and I seem to recall the death (head hit on coffee table?) of a young girl (Brooke?), and everybody being sad for a day. My narrative recollection of the shows and their storylines really doesn't set in till later in the 70s.

During this hazy era, I remember AMC fairly well. In my flashbulbs, I remember Erica fighting with her mother. I remember Phoebe calling Mona all kinds of names (for stealing the heart of Phoebe's husband Charles). I remember Kitty and Nick, and then I remember Kitty dying, and then (in what I think might have been a first for soaps?) Kitty's identical twin Kelly coming to town. I remember Margo having a facelift, and pulling some deception on her husband Paul, and Margo having a drug using mess of a daughter named Claudette, and on and on. I bet if I ever read those storylines in written summaries, it would all come back to me.

From this era, when we still had black and white TV (we didn't get our first color TV till about 1976, as I recall, a little Toshiba), I recall Myrtle Lum Fargate. As I recall her, she was initially hired by Phoebe...maybe as a scam mother to Kitty or Kelly? Anyway, what I firmly remember is that she was a character! Loud, boisterous...different from anything else on that show. She was far from young....and she was far from a sweet grandmother. I seem to recall pretty quickly she developed a fondness for Kitty, and was regretting her deceptiveness, and eventually she became a real "mama" to Kitty. I remember being so sad when Kitty died, and glad when Kelly appeared.

My memories of Myrtle come into firmer resolution later in the 70s and early 80s, after Lenny Wlasika (that's Langley Wallingford, to you!) appeared. The astute, educated professor was really a con man. His secret was revealed when ex-"carney" Myrtle spotted him...and remembered their larcenous past.

What fun! Myrtle's blackmail of Langley, getting him to do the right things, seems to have extended for years! Myrtle was a crackling life force, and the screen lit up whenever she got up to her maneuvers.

Now, that life force is gone, at least in corporeal form. Eileen Herlie has passed on.

I am absolutely a lapsed AMC viewer. I really haven't watched AMC with any regularity since at least 1983 or 1985. I have monitored from afar, but for the most part, the show never really recaptured my interest. As my life got busier and busier, my soap addiction narrowed down to healthier and healthier subset (now it is Y&R and--with disdain these days--an occasional B&B), and AMC was never compelling enough to grab me.

Let me digress for a second...but it is relevant. If you are like me, your parents at some point sold the house you grew up in. The house might still be there, but the parents aren't. Still, when you get back to your hometown, maybe you're compelled to drive past the old homestead. I am. Or maybe you lived in a town once, and moved away, but have occasion to drive past your old apartment once in a while. Anyway, if you're like is not a satisfying experience. The exterior changes. The people and surrounds are different. You can't really go inside anymore. The physical place deviates more and more from how you remember it. And one day you realize that the portion of that place that is important to you lives in your mind and memories. The physical place is irrelevant, and in fact kind of interferes with the memories. If you're like me, your emotional attachment is to the way things were...not the way they are.

Well, maybe you see where I am going. AMC now is like a house I grew up in, but that I haven't lived in for 25 years. The house is no longer mine. So, I no longer even really want to live there. I've moved on.

I might feel differently if the house--AMC--had much semblance of how it used to be. But most of my touchstones--Ruth (Mary Fickett), Phil, Tara, Chuck, Phoebe, Charles, Linc, Kitty, Kelly, Mona, Erica (she's still there!)...and later Palmer (barely there), Monique, Nina, Cliff, Sybil, Greg, Jenny, Jesse and Angie (back!), Tad (well, I guess he's still there), Marion, Liza--are gone. Indeed, there has been SO much attrition from my era that going back is almost a little like visiting a serves as a palpable reminder of what I once had, and what no longer exists...and so rather than the few remaining veterans capturing me, they serve more as sepulchral reminders of death and loss. Not really fun.

Well, now with the passing of Myrtle, my ancestral home is even more different, less inviting. The crypt of my memories has yet another member.

This sounds like a selfish kind of mourning...and it is. It is all about my personal connection to what AMC used to be, and my sadness to have lost it. I mourn not only Ms. Herlie, and Myrtle, and all the characters of my youth...I also mourn what daytime used to be. When I was a child, I distinctly remember being MOST captivated, of all the stories, by loud drunken Phoebe and wooden stoic Charles and poor hapless Mona. Here you had a trio of sextagenarians in a bona fide (if chaste) love triangle, and it was a rip-snorting blast! Such fun to watch. Ruth Warrick and Eileen Herlie burned up the screen whenever they were on together, sparring, trading insults. It was grand, grand entertainment.

That day shall never come again. These weren't "veterans". They were HIRED as "old people", but played on the front burner! Now, soaps no longer play their vets...and they surely don't hire "old people".

It is our loss.

We shall never enjoy the sublime and unique entertainments of a woman like Eileen Herlie on daytime again.

I have written here, and elsewhere, that Y&R is really the only soap to still own my loyalty. Part of the reason is that that is a home I never left. I have watched pretty continuously since the show's debut. But, in addition, that is a home--a dramatic canvas--that still bears a strong similarity to the canvas I enjoyed 25 years ago. Same actors, same characters, same sets, same music, even some of the same historical threads. With every day that passes, I realize what a gift this continuity is...and that this, too, shall never be again.

I shall miss Eileen Herlie. I wish her great peace in her transition. Yet, in a different sense, I have this gift so beautiful it gives me goosebumps as I type this. Because Myrtle Lum Fargate shall live on for as long as I do. I will always hear that loud, deep, throaty voice and that lilting accent. I shall always remember Kitty and Kelly calling her mama. I shall always delight in her impish manipulation of Lenny/Langley. Those things truly, truly shall endure for me, and make me smile every time I think of them. For this gift, I thank you Ms. Herlie, I thank you Ms. Nixon, I thank you ABC.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Applauding the experiments

It has become quite conventional to deride and complain about ... well ...everything on soaps. For me, though, this past year has also been a time of optimism and hope. The powers in charge are NOT giving up. Indeed, they are doing the opposite. They are still experimenting, and seeking new ways of making soaps viable in the modern era. I think this is laudable. Here, I want to briefly give thanks for some of the many innovations from this year...and the past...that I think we could look at as "glass half full".

Soapnet still broadcasts soaps in primetime

Many have decried the fact that cheap reality shows and old reruns (90210!) and bad TV movies proliferate at the modern Soapnet. Gone are classic soaps (Port Charles doesn't count, and is anyone waking up at 5 am to see Ryan's Hope?). Reduced are weekend marathons.

But here's the thing: From 7 pm - midnight, PRIMETIME, we still see same day soaps. These are timeslots that help soaps flourish in many other countries in the world. Soapnet has remained committed to them.

We cannot fault the network for the fact that soaps have proven, in the main, unprofitable. It is to their credit that they are being flexible, adapting the brand to bring eyeballs to the network (and stay solvent). Indeed, if they succeed, their promotions may bring eyeballs back to the "mothership", the daytime brand. I do not understand all this Soapnet anger. It seems people WANT the network to be unprofitable.

Night Shift

I haven't been a regular GH viewer since the mid 1980s. But here I struggling to stay awake every Tuesday at 11 pm. Night Shift is a revelation. Emotional stories, intergenerational canvas, veterans, guest stars with high relevance to a daytime audience (Kathleen Noone!). Is it perfect? No. But it is a much more watchable GH than the "love in wartime" carnage on in the daytime.

I personally think Night Shift is one of the paths to the future. Our soaps won't survive...not daily...not in daytime. If we can hold on to their core, shrink them down, make them less frequent, get them in primetime (when the audience is home)...some remnants may survive. Bravo to Lisa Hesser, Sri Rao and team for showing us that it can be done.

Promotion off network and out of the daypart

Sudden Impact, Y&R's August umbrella story, had boffo ratings. The story was good enough (and killed off characters/stories the viewers hated), but the promotion is what did it! CBS spent serious coin to run primetime ads on E! and their own network. I saw banner ads for the show everywhere. (In the same time frame, ATWT bought "Perez Hilton" ad space for a day). It worked! Hype, well placed, backed up by an exciting worked.

Thus, I'm kind of sad that CBS hasn't kept at it a little while, to rebuild the brand.

It is a marked contrast to the failure of the 'Out of the Ashes' promotion during LML's Y&R era. That failed, I think, because it relied heavily on print (e.g., TV Guide), and was not backed up with a story most viewers wanted to see. Indeed, numbers were LOWER during that story.
Bravo too to ABC, for including soap stars in the Fall network promos, and for planning an expensive promotion aimed at luring back lapsed viewers.

Indeed, even CBS and NBC announced that they would be placing soap stars on primetime attract lapsed eyeballs. Bravo! Maybe they finally realize that investing back into the soap brand might have some benefits.

Peapack, NJ and the new production model at GL

Let's face it...Canadian TV Guide has all but told us this: GL is in its' final months. But, rather than view that as failure, I think GL got 12 months more than it would have otherwise.
They are going down TRYING. They cheapened the production costs (and some of it looks pretty dang good). They tried to build a new audience. Sadly, it is a failure (GL experienced the largest and most consistent declines during 2008...something the last-ranked show could scarcely afford to do). But I view it akin to someone dying in a motor vehicle crash donating their organs to science. The show was dying, so they used it to explore/experiment with new ways of making soaps.

The experiment was doomed to should have been done with a NEW soap. You can't dress a 70 year old lady in a teenage tart's clothes and hope that people will find her young and sexy. She is STILL 70! But they tried! They bought a year! They refined a production model! Hopefully, when CBS cancels the show, they will use what they learned to make a new soap, for new audiences, using the best of GL's waning days.

A three-day work week

EP Chris Goutman says the audience doesn't have patience for "this" show more than 3 days a week. I think he is right. I think most people don't have time for a 5-day a week daytime habit.
I think Night Shift is the model. (Wasn't Peyton Place on 2-3 days a week in primetime?). I think CBS should explore Chris' model. Take the current ATWT down to 3 days a week. Use the other two days to do all or some of the following:

- classic reruns
- classic reruns packaged as weekly clip shows ("Let's look at the best of Lucinda's marriage to John Dixon")
- Night-Shift style spinoffs that run, in the daypart, once a week. This latter would be a way to explore building the new brand. The spinoff could be truly continuing, or it could be more 13-week telenovela style. If the latter, it means that new ATWT "spinoffs" could be explored, once a week, every 13 weeks or so. Using the ATWT crew and sets (that is working less due to the reduced ATWT main schedule), it ensures that a fairly low incremental-cost product is produced, and few lose their jobs.
Change is not the enemy. Experimentation proves that you're not willing to let the genre go.