The Ingmar Bergman special

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OLTL Two Scoops: The Ingmar Bergman special
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The week of September 7, 2009
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Cole was narc'ed out to evil Mayor Lowell by an unsuspecting Dorian, and the suspense and tension mounted at the end of the week as events spiraled out of control.

I'll admit it. I did not watch the Daytime Emmys this year. I knew how it was going to go, and I just couldn't take it. The last Daytime Emmys I remember watching, a couple years ago, had the stars clustered like refugees in the "K-Mart Blue Room," shellshocked, as if awaiting execution by Uzi in some junta police state - no, they couldn't even afford a green room, it had to be cornflower blue, and no one could really sit down. The stage appeared to be refurbished high school bleachers; one got the impression that the guests was forced to walk there from across town and construct it themselves an hour before showtime. I tend to always cast a dubious eye to the doomsayers claiming daytime will be dead in five years - and OLTL's own issues on that front have not escaped my notice, that's a topic for another day - but there's no better yardstick for daytime's decline than the sharp slap in the face every year as these people struggle to mount some awards show, any awards show, to the utter indifference of the network management in question. It's a shame, and shameful at the same time, to watch the genre treated that way, especially the way Guiding Light was reportedly snubbed. I can't imagine how those fans must feel. And even though I can't stand The Bold and The Beautiful, did they have to cut off their Best Show acceptance speech? Was a rerun of Supernatural about to air, perhaps an episode where the Winchester brothers finally kiss? That being said, I was proud of OLTL for its wins, and particularly proud of Susan Haskell, who's still got it even as Marty is relegated to holding John's comb. I do find it a sad commentary that Haskell was twice recognized for essentially playing the same storyline of a woman suffering and being violated, and I think it's unfortunate that the writers always seem to fall back on Marty being victimized, instead of moving her (or Todd) forward in interesting, progressive ways; even now, she is simply an appendage to John and Cole, and should Susan Haskell leave the program due to the All My Children exodus (you can't outrun bad writing, guys), I think it'll be a real waste if all Marty really got to do in her second run on the show was get raped again.

Susan Haskell won both her Emmys for scenes of intense, emotional catharsis. When that kind of material's done right, there's nothing better. Such was the case in sunny Llanview this week, as a score of truths got revealed - Oliver Fish was forced to admit to himself and the world that yes, he is "family," while Blair learned of Téa's secret cross to bear. On a more surface level, the local drug kingpin was revealed to be the most thuddingly obvious suspect, while the love triangle with Greg, Rachel and Shaun was ramped up by a factor of ten, as Rachel came to grips with her own shaky inner core. I promise to explain the title.

As to the "Kish" saga. What can be said about Scott Evans and Tika Sumpter that hasn't already been said by more eloquent people? These actors sell every inch of their storyline, their characters' agony and heartbreak raggedly, lovingly rendered. Through "Kish," Layla has finally become a fully realized character with needs and anxieties of her own, not just Evangeline or Adriana's minor domo. We might cry for Fish, but we stay for Layla too, who thought she'd found Mr. Right but was out of luck again. Their scenes last week and this week were brilliant, and I had no problem with Layla's relatively speedy turnaround on Oliver; Layla has always been by nature a nuturer, forced to support people like her sister and Adriana, to the point where it seems playing that role is a knee-jerk reflex for her. We've seen that Layla's loss of love is still hitting her hard, though, and it was important to play that character beat. I was glad Oliver's foolish night with Stacy was what gave him the seismic shock to look in the mirror; really, what could be worse? Stacy and Kim were barely on the fringe of the canvas this week, evil little gremlins, which is really all they should be; the relative disappearance of their story and the Balsoms' was actually quite refreshing. I may have been a fan of Rex and Gigi's, but even I know a dud when I see it. I didn't miss them at all.

The really indispensable thing about this storyline has been the total commitment to it from Evans, Sumpter, and Brett Claywell. On other soaps or in past gay storylines, you often get a sense of displacement or at least awkwardness from some players in the GLBT storylines, either because one actor is not actually gay, or because the writing is hamfisted, cynical, and plot-oriented, on sanitized autopilot. Who can forget all the manly men of Pine Valley standing around nodding their heads a couple years ago as "Zarf" admitted to a roomful of people that he wanted to be a woman, but alas, he had male genitalia? That storyline made a mockery of positive transgender representation and lesbian issues on a number of levels, but what really struck me when I saw that particular scene was that it was a totally hollow social construct, a sterile, lifeless narrative invention. In real life, no matter how tolerant they may be, guys like JR or Jamie would have been downright confused or uncomfortable; instead, everyone seemed to take to the social issue of the day like ducks to water, and therefore there was no conflict, and no convincing human drama, because everyone had been scripted to be cool with it or to be the one-note villain, and thus, the actors were simply going through the motions of another Xeroxed 'social issue' tale, where there is accepting or evil, and one transitory social issue that takes its bow and flees the scene. With the Kish/Layla/Cris story, no one is phoning it in, no one is out to lunch, character reactions are nuanced, and the writing is genuine and heartfelt for each person, not simply the 'issue' in question, nor is it grandstanding or mouthing platitudes. With an out gay actor like Scott Evans, you get the sense that he keenly understands Oliver's identity struggles and his contortions to try and fit conventional or patriarchal standards of masculinity, while Brett Claywell has managed to tap into Kyle's tortured passion for Oliver the same way he would any female scene partner. Layla's struggle as a neurotic single girl has been thoroughly dramatized, and even Cristian has had his voice. No one is standing around while Oliver pontificates, just nodding their head and mentally hitting the Snooze button; instead, Layla and Cris become his advocates, rather than an audience. There's investment from every corner, and that's what makes "Kish" work for me.

Then there's the matter of Carlotta Vega's "makeover." I'm not going to editorialize much or politicize the thorny issue surrounding the recast of this role with Saundra Santiago, but I know I have to say something and I hope you'll bear with me. As most of you probably know, Patricia Mauceri, the original Carlotta, left the show after an alleged disagreement with the creative team over her scenes this week, regarding Carlotta's acceptance of homosexuality. I dearly loved Patricia Mauceri in this role, and have since the beginning. Like Viki, Carlotta was like a mom to me when I watched as a young teen, so tough and decent and kind. When Carlotta cried for Antonio, fresh out of Statesville, I cried for her. That being said, I saw absolutely nothing in the "controversial" scenes in question to warrant the complaints levied against them by the actress - I feel Carlotta has always been a busybody who jumps to conclusions and comes up with harebrained theories as to why her sons aren't lucky in love, and I thought the scene with the book on coming out to parents was just another such moment. Furthermore, Carlotta has always been presented as a character whose proud faith has never kept her from being open and loving in the truest spirit of her religion's teachings, just as in the past, she's defended other minorities or "social outcasts" like Eli Traeger, the young HIV-positive boy she adopted despite the local prejudices against him, or Marcie during her college strife. Carlotta is a woman of faith but also of tolerance, and I saw nothing out of character about her mistaken embrace of Cristian's "coming out." It was a silly scene, and it needn't have resulted in this; one gets the sense that all parties overreacted badly, but Mauceri made her choice. I will deeply miss Patricia Mauceri in the role, but I remember Saundra Santiago as an equally strong actress on other shows and in her brief turn as Antonio's biological mother Isabella in the miserable Santi chronicles of 2004 (anyone who could make her scenes work back then deserved a medal), and I felt she acquitted herself wonderfully as our new Carlotta. So welcome, Saundra Santiago, and please know, I loved you on Miami Vice. GL, well, you were okay.

Seems like everyone in Llanview has secrets these days, though. Take Téa. It turns out she married benign surfer dude Ross Rayburn from the "Somewhere In The South Pacific" storyline of 2002 - a plodding, dismal affair I remember as involving beautiful people wandering around a thinly disguised vacation resort and doing generally nothing for about three months until Todd schtupped Téa and left, in that order. I couldn't understand why Téa didn't want hunky Ross then, and I don't now. Well, actually, I do, I was just judging her by a sane standard; the truth is, Ross wasn't as exciting, or dangerous, or dysfunctional as Todd, who keyed into all Téa's deep, dark, twisted-sister issues. Today, of course, it's the reverse; we're supposed to believe that that fairly nice small-time crook from 2002 is actually a Very Dangerous Man putting on a nice guy act for Blair, and suddenly the new Ross, played by Michael Lowry, is presented to us as yet another potentially disposable character who may take the throne of "Worse Than Todd, No Seriously, Guys, See How Good Todd Is Instead?" Sorry, I don't buy it. The ex-con Ross of '02 may have had a past, but he was decent to Téa and had many reservations about working for Todd. Unlike Todd, he also did not try to kill her with a hand grenade, which is personally where I would end the date, but that's just me. The point is, I fear they will throw another promising supporting player under the bus, a sacrifical lamb at the altar of Todd's increasingly confused character, similar to the gross, almost dada-ist character assassination of Rebecca Lewis in the KAD murders storyline. As it happens, Ross has beaucoup chemistry with Blair, and I would like to see if the character can develop a foundation to build from; perhaps he can pull Blair away from her juvenile pursuits. I have to say that Téa's secret, and Ross and Blair's sparkling chemistry and scheming machinations are the only things making this storyline worthwhile for me. While Blair embarrasses herself, Téa's character is strong in other areas of the show (more on that later), but comes apart when it's time for schmoopy, underwritten romance with Todd. Meanwhile, poor Trevor St. John is basically stuck playing Jack or Holden Snyder from As The World Turns, standing around clueless, saying things like "What are you doing, Carly?" or "Who were you talking to, Lily?" In the show's headlong flight away from anything approaching relevance, honesty, and responsibility about this character they've ruined, OLTL has instead turned Todd into a Snyder man, perpetually confused and lovestruck, wearing sensible slacks, ineffectual and just wanting a happy marriage while their wife plays them for a fool. That is not Todd, and this story is a buzzkill for everyone involved, except Blair and Ross, who are surprisingly hot. For a show that was very solid this week and most of the summer, in my opinion one of the few largely good soaps on air despite its problems, it's a shame that this story is such a dud, and Todd is still in the narrative wilderness.

Another big whopper that came out this week was, of course, Cole being narc'ed out to evil Mayor Lowell by an unsuspecting Dorian. I have to say, I've liked this undercover arc from start to finish; they could've done some things differently, but I thought Brandon Buddy acquitted himself well, and the Russian dude playing Sergei is really something. The suspense and tension mounted at the end of the week as events spiraled out of control to a finish we could see coming, with the home invasion at La Boulaie, but it still held inherent, compulsively watchable drama, at least for me. And with Starr's also neutered character kept to a minimum, despite a refreshing scene with Shaun, it held together, even adding a wonderful positive, non-traditional representation of a gay cop, as Fish stormed the mayor's office with John. That said, there's one big problem with this story, and that's Lowell as the bad guy. It's just plain too obvious, and I can't take him all that seriously even as he abuses his son and Justin struggles to squeeze out just a single tear. Lowell has always been little more than a broad sketch of a character, a meddling bureaucrat similar to something you would see in a summer action movie, out to make the good guys' lives harder. To make this scheming, rubber-faced cipher into a drug kingpin to top it all off seems overkill to me, especially when they could've surely found someone more insidious and surprising; if not Carlo Hesser, then what about Mitch or some other blast from the past? It's the one somewhat false note here, but I'm still enjoying the careful linkage between this storyline and the developing mayoral race with Lowell, Viki, and Dorian; Viki's airtime and story have ramped up, and she's got a real purpose, as does poor Charlie. I can't wait to see where that angle goes.

Police drama aside, the biggest secrets this week are the deeper, internal ones, like Fish's struggle, and of course, Rachel Gannon's. I can't say enough good things about the surprises the show gave me with Rachel and Dr. Greg this week. Daphnee Duplaix has been letter-perfect from Day One, and this week, the show finally put it all together with the love triangle of Rachel and the Evans men. I'd been skeptical of this storyline in the past, fearing it would "ghetto-ize" minority characters, and I still feel they could do more with, perhaps, Rachel and Schuyler, but the material was so strong these last few weeks and on Thursday and Friday that I have nothing but applause for it. First of all, let me address tertiary issues. There's Téa, who, freed from the confines of soppy, hearts-and-flowers Toddland, blossomed again as the vicious, win-or-die pirahna. As she snatched her hand away from Matthew and closed in for the kill on her former friend and roommate, Téa was once again that astonishing, shocking character she had been in the early months of her return, someone you couldn't believe could be so cruel or so driven or so, well, crazy, but who you couldn't stop watching, because she was so damn good at what she did. I can only hope a legitimate Elijah/Téa pairing is on the horizon. Also praiseworthy is Sean Ringgold, whose heartfelt speech to Rachel on Wednesday was incredibly touching and more than a little sad. This note to Shaun's character works because he is not blindly angry with his brother like you would see on soaps with cruder versions of this classic storyline, where the "good brother" howls that his bro is "evil!" and drives the lady into the other man's arms. Instead, Shaun told Rachel simply that his brother didn't mean harm, but couldn't help but be the player, and you got the impression that Shaun had lost to Greg before, and sadly resigned himself to it. This week's scenes was the most real and true moments Shaun has had on the show, and it made me really invest in him for the first time.

Now, as to Rachel and Greg, and the title of this week's column. For me, Téa's showdown with Rachel, and Rachel's subsequent meltdown, were a staggering summation of everything they had carefully, quietly built with Rachel under the radar since her return, layering onto her history, not unlike Nora's tearful speech about her lack of trust in Bo after his neglect since their divorce right before her wedding to Clint. With both women, these were character nuances that were inherent in their prior history, but also skillfully written for in the here and now. Looking at Rachel's history, it's shocking that so few soaps seem to handle characters like her with the same raw candor and honesty that OLTL did this week. Rachel's long been one of my favorite characters. She was a young woman who once had everything going for her, lost it all, and had to rebuild with a totally new career - not the jetsetting, driven, cosmopolitan lifestyle she had hoped for - with a totally new outlook, and a hyper-disciplined personality to keep her demons at bay. She went from barhopping, college parties and record labels to Zen, 12-step, and daily affirmation. This is a story we see with people in real life everyday, but one soaps rarely have interest in telling. During Ellen Bethea's (the original and most recent Rachel) sporadic appearances since Rachel's release from prison, we were shown a two-dimensional character by necessity; her Rachel was only allowed to be a brief guest star, so they stuck to core traits - the decent, kind, strong, loving, sensible daughter and relative. But as audience members, we knew that there had to be more to the scarred Rachel who had gone to the gutter for drugs and murdered Georgie Phillips than that serene facade. With Duplaix on contract, we're now getting to see that deeper conflict play out. Rachel admitted to Greg that she went from home to work to home everyday, caring for other people, in a sexless, passionless life that was spiritually rewarding but little else. She's been keeping herself locked down, living in monastic misery, for fear of what would happen if she strayed outside the lines of her carefully defined, disciplined path, and who can blame Rachel for living this way after what she's been through? It's a struggle many addicts or ex-cons face. Soaps just don't write about it.

Hence, the title. I'm not so crazy as to compare OLTL to the work of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, but I couldn't help but be reminded of his stories of tortured, internalized women as I watched Rachel unspool her deep, dark insides for Greg with brutal, harsh honesty. The great Bergman would never have watched daytime, but I think if he'd happened to skip past it, he might have at least been amused by this story. Because few other characters on daytime today are allowed to be as honest about their facades as Greg and Rachel; when he said he'd wanted to know the real her, and Rachel asked "why? I don't," it was shocking yet understandable. It's easier for Rachel to cling to her strength and her watchwords than to try and reconcile herself to who she was, and to the dangerous outside world again, lest she be swallowed up. Likewise, it would've been easy for Greg (and the writers) to keep himself inside his smug, self-satisfied shell of cool player, but they didn't take the easy route with him either, and that's what finally sold Terrell Tilford and Greg to me. When Greg shamefacedly admitted to Rachel that "it was a game," that was a bolt of honesty which you don't often see from similar "suave males" on soaps. Usually, in contemporary soap stories like this, the player breaks the girl's resistance down, gets them into bed, and saves the words of love and comfort for later, losing nothing of their own strength. Instead, Greg looked like a big overgrown kid when he got more than he bargained for at the courthouse, and seemed bashful, awkward, and apologetic as he calmed Rachel down; he didn't really know what he was doing, because it was usually just about the chase for him, and dealing with deeper issues, his own or others', is not his strong suit. You see this kind of bluster from real men in regular life all the time, but rarely on daytime are they stripped down to reveal the manchild behind the facade. Greg was dissected by the writing, just the same way that Rachel the "good girl" was, and that's what has turned me into a huge fan of a storyline I once feared would be throwaway and underwritten. All of a sudden I think it's become one of the best written stories on the show, and more importantly, a truly serious attempt at writing a story for characters of color, together or separate. Too few black characters are treated with respect or real story weight on daytime today, even on former bastions like Y&R. Greg and Rachel have just defied that downward trend. These characters, as now presented, are shown as real people who deal with the more complicated personality facets that we see in real life, but daytime doesn't often like to touch, much less with "the black storyline," and I can't commend OLTL enough for having the courage to play these characters issues and all. I don't know how others view this, IMO, refreshingly honest take on Rachel and "Greg the player," and I encourage people to tell me what they thought of these character turns, especially in relation to Greg and Rachel as players, or addicts, or as characters of color; those are viewpoints I can't offer. Can you tell I was into this story this week? No one's more surprised than me to be gushing like this, but I felt OLTL really went deep and serious with these people, and I feel it needs to be called attention to and commended. So all in all, a very good week in Llanview, and a great way to cap things off before Labor Day. Enjoy your holiday, drop me your thoughts, and see you in two weeks! Peace, y'all.

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