Sunday, January 25, 2009

Truth in the Bunker/A Farewell of Sorts

This is really two posts in one.

1. The Bunker

Some of you have surely seen the hilarious (I mean, for me, LITERALLY tear-inducing) viral video Soaps in The Bunker. At a site called, lots of users have apparently been taking a popular German clip (Hitler confronting the reality of his defeat during his final hours in Berlin) and imposing subtitles over it to reflect...whatever. A user named Chris Dunn has done this with soaps...specifically, the inability for the Daytime Emmys to find a network home, which leads to a greater disappointment about the state of the genre. If you haven't seen it, I embedded it at bottom. (If you need any of the "inside" jokes explained, check out this link).

Like all good satire, the best of this video is that has an insider's knowledge, and skewers much (the networks for not showing the Emmys--especially ABC's Brian Frons; columnists Michael Logan and Carolyn Hinsey, bloggers, and the creative state of daytime itself). So, there is a line, during Hitler's final reflections, that tries to be a little serious. It says:

What am I talking about? We brought this on ourselves. We forgot the cardinal rule of daytime. A little hope. A little romance. And a big fat bulge in the hero's pants. Bold and the Beautiful does the same story twelve years running. Did they think no one would notice? All My Kids does a tornado. A tornado! What do they think it is? 1985! They are killing us!

The piece is especially effective because of the use of the quiet tone of the end, and the overlay of this killer nostalgic irony.

Maybe all isn't lost. ... When I turn on my television, just seeing John and Marlena makes me know everything will be alright. Everything will be alright.
In succinct form, the video identifies the chief causes of decline: Redundancy and lack of originality, emphasis on sensations and events rather than real storytelling, overemphasis on prurient interests, and disregard for history and veterans. (Goodbye, John and Marlena)

I have argued repeatedly in this blog that the ratings status of daytime would have happened no matter what--that we're at the mercy of demographic changes and changes in viewing trends. What is happening to daytime is, in many ways, nothing but a microcosm of what is happening to all of the last generation of media. I also believe that at least some of what has happened to soaps creatively has been a reaction to (and perhaps a secondary cause of) this viewership loss. We're seeing the consequences of budget cuts on screen. We're seeing desperation moves (ultimately futile) to stem the demographic tide.

I still stand by that. But there is no denying that daytime is -- creatively -- at a low ebb. We now measure great "moments" on shows, rather than great shows. There are likely differences of opinion about this last statement. Which makes the video--after the tears and stomach pains from the laughing have passed--so effective. I am left, in the end, with the quietness of the end of the Hitler scene. Hope is a delusion. Where we are now is the final chapter of a myriad of earlier strategic missteps. I hope that endnote is wrong.

2. Casiello rejoins the creative side

Congratulations are due to Tom Casiello, who announced that he will begin a trial period as a breakdown writer for The Young and the Restless. I am among the legions of his readers who ardently hope that this is an excellent fit, that he meshes well with his bosses, and enjoys a good long run in the position.

At the same time, it means that Tom will have to leave the blogosphere (he has announced, more or less, that he is doing so). Way back, on his myspace blog (now deleted), he mentioned that there needed to be a firewall of sorts between the creative and fandom sides.

Tom (along with Sara Bibel) has occupied a unique niche in daytime writing. He has been an insider-outsider bridge. He went into daytime writing as a fan, and he has remained one. But he has done a careful job, during these fourteen months of unemployment, at studying the genre and the form. We have explored Douglas Marland's bible with him. He did detailed fan focus groups of every show still on the air (lost, I fear, to Myspace). He explained things to the viewers (e.g., limited use of sets). With his departure from the scene, we lose that soap scholar with an inside view.

The internet message boards have been, strangely, filled with mixed opinions about Tom's move. Those who have enjoyed him and his blogs are congratulatory. Grinches (my word), on the other hand, argue that he has become a cause celebre solely because he "spoke to the fans", and so the joy at his promotion are more about his accessibility to fans than his writing skill. Others emphasize that the breakdown writer has limited creative control over a show (and nowhere is that likely truer than a Bell soap), so his impact is unlikely to be felt.

I think this misses the point! Tom has humanized the soap writer. He has offered glimpses through the keyhole (or maybe, through the keyboard). The fact that fans lapped up his blog (tens of thousands of hits, he told us) shows that he filled an unmet need. The shows and the soap press have pretty systematically refused to try to address the deep fan hunger for "meta" content. They don't realize that part of the fun of soap fandom is a peculiar version of "fantasy football". Tom, however, understood it.

Daytime's refusal to acknowledge fandom as co-owners of the creative product is quite in contrast to primetime, I think. Some of the real buzz shows (Heroes, Friday Night Lights, Lost, Gossip Girl, etc) have writers and producers who regularly speak to the fans. They do so directly (e.g., ComicCon) and indirectly (through regular and frequently interviews with folks like Michael Ausiello). Marceline at SON emphasizes that these writers are simply treating the audience as customers, and the customers reward them with loyalty. Presumably, though, this dialogue also opens up a two-way street. Fans feel heard! And, sometimes, shows can improve in response.

This interactive model of creative-fan interactions is definitely in counterpart to the "auteur theory". Bill Bell, for example, was ostensibly legendary in not really listening to fan feedback or network notes. (There were exceptions. As Sara Bibel has told us, when ratings began to plummet after Y&R's Katherine Chancellor appeared to dally with lesbianism, the story was instantly ended. And, when there was a huge negative fan reaction to a baby's death on Days of Our Lives, Bill Bell reportedly vowed never to do it again...although he finally reluctantly did it with Lauren's faux-child Dylan on Y&R in the early 90s). And that worked. Bill Bell was left unimpeded, and so the viewers just needed to go along for the ride on his creative vision. And what an enjoyable ride it usually was.

But most of daytime is not like that now. For the most part, daytime has lost sight of what the customer wants. I take this less from the plummeting ratings (because I think that has more macro-structural causes), but from the universally negative theme in fan internet boards, letters to the soap mags, and critical opinions.

So, it is kind of ironic that Tom is going to the best show on daytime -- and, arguably, only one of two shows that are still auteur-driven. His fourteen months of study, his "open mike" to the fans...the very things that could potentially have made him a kind of "Damon Lindelof of daytime"...are the very things that Y&R probably needs to avoid.

It is GH or ATWT or GL or AMC or DOOL that need to listen to an educated writer with his finger on the pulse of fandom. Sadly, most of those shows don't employ breakdown writers anymore.

So, I salute Tom and thank him for the gifts he has shared with us these past 14 months. I wish him great luck, satisfaction and longevity at Y&R. I hope this trial turns into a long deal. I suspect he'll still take his lessons of the last year and build them into his outlines. Maybe, in some small way, even on his strongly written show, he'll be able to inject his obvious love for the fans in small ways. This is a good passage, but I will surely miss him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

greatest video ever.