We’ve got to give All My Children and ABC Daytime credit for one thing: They’ve managed in the last few weeks to make us watch the show again after the on and off decade-long disaster authored by former headwriter Megan McTavish. What a double wallop of intense drama the show provided with Greenlee and Spike’s car accident, which led to the revelation that Spike is deaf, plus Spike’s mother simultaneously giving birth to Spike’s little half-brother Ian. Has any soap opera created so much turmoil all at once, especially for Kendall, the mother both of Spike and little Ian? The whole show almost came to a stop for the last few weeks to focus on the reactions of the characters most intimately involved in the story: Kendall, Spike’s biological father Ryan, his step-parents Zack and Annie, Greenlee, and of course Grandma Erica (yes, I called her that).
A whopper of an attention grabber? No argument there. Especially since AMC has dared to radically slow down the pace of all the scenes in this story and get repetitive with them, somewhat in the manner of soaps in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The whole story is so stylized, with shadings of the emotions surrounding double trauma being ever so slowly explored. So melodramatic! On the episodes of highest drama, such as the car crash and that of Spike’s birth, the lighting has been changed to stark, sparse contrasting lights and darks, the kind you see in an Off-Broadway play with little scenery and characters named Vladimir and Estragon.
And therein, for moi, lies the problem. I know lots of you love the intense high drama and profoundly dramatic acting in this story, but I find the whole exercise too stagy and over the top. For example, on one episode, the show went completely off the theatrical deep end. Kendall, Ryan, Zack, Annie and Grandma each looked into the camera and, in turn, did five-minute monologues about what the Spike/Ian tragedies meant to them. This is a daytime soap opera, not drama school! In fact, this story is so full of BIG PATHOS it practically gives Marlena a huge tension headache daily.
Even so, I have to salute ABC. They are doing something entirely different in an era when no one tries anything new on soaps anymore. They had the daring to do the family-oriented social issue Spike/Ian story in the middle of the summer, traditionally a time when soaps do frothy teen stories or fast-paced action-adventure tales. To further spotlight the Spike/Ian story, they pretty much cleared the decks of other storylines on many episodes. That’s really radical! And they’ve missed AMC’s traditional element of humor.
So, I’m left with questions. Whose idea was this story originally? The show’s interim writers after McTavish or the show’s brand new writers, James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten? I am not a fan of the latter duo. Remember the vampire stories on Port Charles? And the Reva clone story on Guiding Light, in my judgment the worst story in daytime history? It disturbs me greatly that in a little more than a decade of very mediocre headwriting on various soaps (PC, Loving, The City, GL) and staff writing on others, these sometime shlockmeisters have made it up the ladder to the most prestigious job of daytime writing, AMC. This is the house the great intelligent and humanistic writer Agnes Nixon built!
Although I have no inside info as to Agnes’ current involvement in the soap (she’s 80, but reportedly still comes to writers’ meetings), I detect a note of her influence in this story. From the many interviews I did with her over the years, I know that motherhood has been always been central to her thinking about her show. The Spike/Ian story is really a story about motherhood and how a woman reacts with endless guts and love when her children are threatened. Is this very stylized story about deafness and premature birth only a gimmick plot or will it ultimately dig deeper and thus hit home with serious emotional power and win Emmys just as so many of Agnes’ prestigious social issue stories did? (Ground-breaking stories on child prostitution, wife-beating, AIDS, etc.) There’s a lot more of this story to go. If an Emmy-worthy success is indeed theirs, then Brown and Esensten will have pulled off the biggest image change since Ronald Reagan went from B-list actor to respected President of the United States.
And then there’s the acting in the story to consider. Thorsten Kaye (Zach) finally has an AMC plot that doesn’t seem too silly for his top-notch theater-trained talents and thus visibly bores him. The character of mother Kendall, whose life is being ripped apart by having two baby sons in crisis at the same time, is an actor’s dream, real Emmy fodder. Alicia Minshew has grown exponentionally in the role of Kendall and is doing a very good job in this difficult story. But can I respectfully say this? To reach the level of tear-your-heart-out pathos this story is striving for, one needs the kind of actress capable of, well, tearing your heart out. The late Susan Hayward? A very young Judith Chapman? Judith Light in her One Life to Live days? Oh yes, I’d love see Light in this story, and so would you!
By Marlena De Lacroix
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