Pretty vacant

by Michael
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OLTL Two Scoops: Pretty vacant
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The week of June 28, 2010
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One Life to Live is experiencing a midlife crisis this summer, stuffing itself into hotpants and a half-shirt even though it's pushing fifty.

Full disclosure up front: Like executives in daytime, I am ageist. Oh, absolutely. I wouldn't want anyone out there to think otherwise, to think I'm declaring myself exempt from our youth-obsessed Western culture. Not at all. I'm terrified of getting older, of turning thirty, forty, fifty, you name it. I begin to dread my birthday. College students I meet through friends or at films have begun saying things to me like "our generation" in reference to themselves, not me, and I find myself straining to resist the urge to go home and hang myself with a coiled length of Twizzler before Teen People declares me eligible for carbon-dating.

Yes -- I like being "Young." I am clearly not quite secure enough in myself just yet in order to be ready to be "Old." But I realize that now I am old from a variety of relative, subjective perspectives. Nothing to be done about it. We all grow up. Unfortunately, OLTL is experiencing a midlife crisis this summer, stuffing itself into hotpants and a half-shirt even though it's pushing fifty. That's why this week's column is going to be a little different, a little off-kilter, a little unbalanced -- just like the current show. The teen dreams of Llanview, Pennsylvania, dominated this week, their lives, their loves, their trials and tribulations, and the sensory overload of beautiful young people, many of them new, many of them two-dimensional, doesn't appear to be letting up any time soon.

You can perhaps make the case that American daytime was permanently traumatized by the O.J. Simpson trial coverage in the '90s, and the rise of cable networks; fearful for the future, they decided they had to compete with anything and everything that was hot, as opposed to solidifying and strengthening the niche they'd cultivated for decades. For years, daytime has been unwilling to acknowledge or accept that young viewers, what few there still are, have never watched to watch their peer groups, who they see every day in school -- daytime became a thriving industry because audiences young and old wanted to watch Adults doing Adult Things. When Days of our Lives made the cover of Time magazine, it did so with Doug and Susan Seaforth Hayes, a star couple well over the legal drinking age. And Another World's legendary triangle of Steve, Alice, and Rachel featured characters who, while ostensibly young, would've been either put out to pasture (George Reinholt's Steve Frame could never be confused with Lenny Platt's Nate, no matter how old Platt really is) or dismissed as "too ethnic" (the young Robin Strasser, as well as Susan Lucci, in the late '60s and early '70s, were ignored by Anglo blonde-obsessed casting directors early on) in today's daytime climate. Douglass Watson would never have become a household name, and Michael Zaslow would never have stood a chance. On OLTL, as with all of ABC Daytime, more and more peculiar, fascinating, talented young actors are being dismissed and marginalized out of turn in favor of something more baseline and generically non-threatening.

Take this week's OLTL, and the buffed-out Nate "Q." Salinger, the most handsome, suave, and sophisticated hunk I think the show has ever tried to pass off as "poor, underprivileged youth." He's not exactly Cristian #1 Yorlin Madeira, is he? But he is very handsome, and he looks about 25, and I guess someone at the show decided that was preferable to actually showcasing real teenagers we'd met before, or Bo and Nora's boy. So Matthew becomes a scheming little villain and Nate turns up at the Llanview country club, poured into cabana boy duds and looming over all the other actual teenagers, looking like Donkey Kong trying to wear a medium tuxedo, even though one of his biceps is about the size of Danielle. But I could get past all this if I actually knew very much, or had reason to care, about Nate as creepy gangster "Bull" holds a gun on him. Instead, I'm just staring at his chest. But his chest isn't enough to keep his major-league storyline from being incredibly boring.

Why should I care if Nate and Danielle are together, or whether Nate's mother, Jessica Leccia (who looks excited to be filming on actual sets), keeps her house? And for that matter, why should I care about the Ford family's off-screen criminal empire, in Ohio, around which this entire summer teen epic spins? I don't like Robert Ford, I don't care about him, I don't know anyone else who does -- again, the only thing he's got going for him is his abs. I don't care if the character is supposed to turn over a new leaf, because Roger Howarth he is not. They hinted at pathos in his scenes with Langston, but I'd rather see Langston married to Todd than legitimately paired with Ford. He's just gross. But we're not supposed to notice, because he is young and that's all that matters.

As for Ford's brother James, Prince of Thieves, he's cute and I will admit to liking his rapport with Starr -- though their material is very lame "Teen Adventure 101" pablum, this is the only storyline in years that has allowed Kristen Alderson to play any kind of bitchy, strong edge to her character, as the youngsters bicker back and forth on their escalating crime spree, and Starr throws her Manning weight around to get what they need. It's a pity, however, that their storyline is continuing the fine tradition of everyone using Viki's cabin except Viki herself, and features so many clichéd elements, tired old scenes that have been played out since Luke and Laura vs. the Left-Handed Boy, and terrible dialogue howlers such as "I stole that money so I'd never have to steal another car again!" Followed, of course, by James stealing Starr's graduation present at the auto dealership. As soon as he said, "I'm stealing your car," I found myself yelling at the television, "That's your answer to everything!" James is kind of a mouth-breather; he has the same exact vocal inflection and speech pattern as Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights, and he is not the second coming of Jonathan Jackson, but he does at least have a decent spark with Starr and potential to grow, as well as a proclivity for wearing very brief shorts at bedtime. And again, that's all I'm supposed to notice.

But apparently, this year it's not enough to simply have one tired "teens on the run" storyline -- instead, we have to have two at the same time. Delightful. Yes, in an entirely expected turn of events, Hannah has managed to snow the already-dim Cole into running off with her to her grandfather's cabin in Studio Delaware. We know Hannah is unwell and up to no good because every personal keepsake she has at home or school is actually a horribly Photoshopped prop (go back and look at the "photo" with Grandpa -- gah!), leading me to suspect she is in fact an incognito alien from Vexor 7. Sure enough, she's able to seduce Cole into a makeout session, and an unfortunate meta moment ensues as the audience subconsciously compares Cole's physique to that of James, Prince of Thieves.

Because that's what the show has come down to now -- youth, a bunch of people we don't really know worried about a lot of other people we don't really know, and abs. I feel as though this show has absolutely no time for me or anyone who was watching as early as yesterday -- its primary concern seems to be hooking fickle young viewers, around the median age of 11, on the show as quickly as possible and keeping them there through the summer months in the faint hope of securing them permanently. That trick again, Wile E. Coyote? But that never works! Yet OLTL is blazing through multiple huge teen storylines at once with a concentration and a single-minded focus I can't remember seeing it ever do before, and its message to us or any of the veteran characters seems to be, "Don't call us, we'll call you." And that's a bad message to send the week As The World Turns finished filming.

In the spirit of this trying week, I will discuss the scant adult storylines with the same amount of attention span the show afforded them: Very little.

Viki, Charlie, Dorian, and David: Senior High Why, America? I've asked it before and I still don't understand. Dorian sneered and mugged her way through scenes as Robin Strasser struggled to find a slightly more complex motivation than "Want Charlie," and these fine actors all muddled through and made good comic mincemeat out of the proceedings, but it's like they're playing out leftover Llanview High stories that were considered not good enough for Starr and Danielle. Will we ever see this legendary Civic Center, or will it go the way of the Banner?

His Name Was Bennett Thompson? I don't buy the end of that Kelly/Reed subplot -- I think it's a red herring. No creepy guy with floppy hair and a too-vague European accent tosses off lines like "for a minute there I thought you were listening to Mr. Paranoia and suspecting me!" and goes away for good. It was still deathly boring, however, up to and including the scene in which Reed finally, blessedly smashed that awful vase, which looks like some sort of Georgia O'Keefe nightmare turned inside-out. Who is Bennett Thompson? Hopefully someone who can fix Kelly's hair, because ohhhh, mahhhh Gahhhh.

I Guess It Is A Tumah Interesting dichotomy in the Téa Beaches story -- Florencia Lozano is playing it straight as a dying woman in love with a difficult man, while Trevor St. John is still playing Todd as the callous sociopath he became two or three years ago. Mix them together in emotional and/or romantic scenes where they talk about building a loving family or preserving their relationship and you get Wacky Times! Incidentally, that Todd/Kelly kiss was awful. I understand Todd did it, in-story, to get her to stop questioning him about his "secret pain," but it was such a blatant, random "chemistry test" that I just felt disgusted watching it.

Summer Lovin' And Also, A Suitcase The teen overload has finally made it happen -- Gigi and Rex are now...kind of tolerable again. It helps that they're barely on, playing supporting roles, and are not time-traveling, wearing bad wigs, or posing as Native American. I'll admit it, they were a cute couple at the picnic at the Llantano Mountain quarry, which in location work, finally lives up to the "beauty" Cristian and Jen Rappaport always claimed the shoddy old quarry set had almost ten years ago. And I actually like Layla and Gigi together -- I think they make much more sense as friends than Layla and Adriana, actually, who I never felt treated Layla well. I can see why Layla fears the wrath of her mother, a.k.a. "Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince," but it's about time someone cut Mrs. Williamson down to size for never valuing her younger daughter.

Couples living together and befriending other couples, low-key stuff building relationships -- this is what OLTL should be focused on as they rebuild the show after rocky times. Unfortunately, I don't see a new foundation being built these days, just a desperate dash for short-term youth gains. Summer months always bring in youth stories, we know and expect that as viewers, but rarely do they seem to ostracize all else in favor of huge, multiple teen-driven arcs. Can we really say Nate, Danielle, Starr, James, Cole, and Hannah warrant their massive airtime these last few weeks, or that the Ohio Mob Connection is all that interesting?

I believe in building new viewers for daytime, and for OLTL, but not at the expense of the foundation of loyal young and old viewers who watch for the full, rich program and its history and families. And once again, ABC Daytime is forgetting that young people watch for what they don't see in everyday life -- grown-ups leading grown-up lives. For peer dramas, they have primetime, 90210, Gossip Girl. I hope balance returns to the show soon, and I don't have to be so perfunctory with the adult storylines in the future, but that's the way this week shook out. Even Jessica and Natalie barely had a thing to do. I'll see you in two weeks, and until then, remember, start listing your age as 21 or below, because that's the only way you'll ever get a major story on a soap opera.


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