In my last column I lamented the disappointing state of prime-time drama on the broadcast networks, asserting that the quality of dramatic series on basic and pay cable was making it increasingly difficult to be satisfied by traditional network fare. But here’s a pro-broadcast caveat: At present, the quality of the remaining daytime dramas on ABC, NBC and CBS is better than it has been in a very long time.
The early years of this decade were not good for soap operas, with one executive bungle after another continually compromising what not so long ago had been a robust and deeply enriching genre wholly unique to broadcast television. In recent months, however, something remarkable has arisen from the ashes of that widespread destruction. Soaps are kicking it again.
At the center of this creative resurgence is a show that millions of long-time viewers had all but given up for dead, ABC’s “General Hospital,” which during the last ten years had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former grand self. Caught in a death grip by network executives, producers and writers who seemed to care not one whit about the show’s long-term viability, and who collectively chose to make murderous criminals and their supporters the “heroes” of its storylines, “General Hospital” had become a revolting mess. But earlier this year those show-killers were removed and executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati were brought on board to save the show, after the serial on which they had been working -- the late and very-much-lamented “One Life to Live” -- was coldly cancelled.
Seven months later, “General Hospital” is more fun and exciting than it has been since its glory days in the ‘80s, and that’s thanks in large part to Valentini’s smart decision to put less emphasis on the low-rent mob drama that had choked the life out of the show and bring back many much-missed characters from decades past. In a dizzying twist, he also brought over to “General Hospital” a handful of characters from “One Life to Live.” I’ll confess this didn’t strike me as a smart idea at the start, even though I had been a long-time “One Life to Live” watcher. But the results have been unexpectedly entertaining.
If I’m being honest, not all of the storylines on “General Hospital” in recent months have been satisfying. A few, in fact, have been perfectly dreadful. But the show has been remarkable in every other way, giving everyone in its marvelous cast great scenes to play and serving up on an almost daily basis something for viewers from any of the last five decades, not to mention displaced fans of “One Life to Live.” “General Hospital” will mark its 50th anniversary in April -- a milestone that it almost fell short of making. How wonderful that it is doing so as the best drama on daytime television.
Meanwhile, NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” which has also been strengthened by the return of a host of long-absent characters, can currently boast the most engaging romance in daytime drama -- and it’s between two young men. Other soaps had already broken boundaries with love stories about gay characters, but “Days of Our Lives” is taking things even further with the story of star-crossed lovers Will and Sonny. They are currently the couple to root for on the show, which should attract younger viewers who were raised on the inclusive dramatics of MTV’s “The Real World” and many other basic cable series, if it isn’t too late to lure them over to an “old” broadcast serial.
Last, but certainly not least, CBS’ “The Bold and the Beautiful” is currently doing something that most soap operas have always been reluctant to do: killing off a character that has been the fiery backbone of the show for 25 years. First diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, fashion industry titan Stephanie Forrester, played by the indomitable daytime legend Susan Flannery, is finally succumbing to the disease. This is happening not as a series of cheap sweeps stunts but because Flannery has decided to retire. Rather than rage against the dying of the light, Stephanie has done what she can to celebrate her life and exit on her own terms, but she’s now at the point where she must rely on others to keep her comfortable during her final days. As is to be expected, Flannery is giving a powerful, brutally realistic performance right to the end. And as can only happen on a long-running soap opera, every one of Stephanie’s final moments is informed by the millions of moments that have come before.
Flannery’s exit and Stephanie’s passing can’t help but reflect the state of a once-robust genre that has been losing a life or death battle of its own. Sadly, daytime dramas as we have known them continue to be threatened with extinction. But if they have to die, at least those that remain are putting up a formidable fight until the end, while demonstrating to basic cable networks why they ought to be given new life in a new arena. Just imagine the outcome if basic cable could do for daytime storytelling what is has done for prime-time drama.