Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who to praise? Who to blame? Daytime soaps and the mystery of the head writer

My perusal of soap discourse online these days tells me that soap viewers spend a lot of time discussing the shows' head writers. When shows go bad, the head writer is to blame. When they're good, the head writer is praised. Hence the consistent Guza-bashing, Higley-mocking, and Carlivati-worshiping that fills the soapy internets of late. My sense is that head writers have not always been attributed with this degree of power. The best example of this I can think of is the Gloria Monty tenure at GH. A number of different writers served under Monty's command, but everyone always attributed the show's ups and downs to Monty. Today, we seem to hear much less about EPs in daytime than we do HWs.

Soaps are of course quite different from prime time TV in that, in prime time, the primary creative force behind most shows is a hybrid writer-producer--a Joss Whedon, a Shonda Rhimes, an Alan Ball. Creators are executive producers are head writers in prime time. In daytime these are two distinct roles, at least they are most of the time. The primary exceptions I can think of are the Bell shows, where Bill Bell was HW and EP for Y&R and Bradley Bell still fills both roles for B&B. If I am remembering correctly, this was the formula tried for Lynn Marie Latham at Y&R, as well, and, while I don't watch the show, many seem to think Latham's tenure there was a disaster. Since so few soaps follow this model, I've got to think that the intense production models these programs follow necessitates this sort of split in duties.

I've always had a kernel of skepticism for fans' effusiveness of praise and/or vitriol for the head writers of soaps. I can't help but think that the forces shaping the creation of these shows are too complex for their success or failure to be attributed to a sole cog in the machine. But I think I may be starting to believe that the HWs really are the source of all good and all evil in soapland. The significance of the role has become especially clear to me with the new season of GH: Night Shift, which is being written (and produced) by non-GH folks (in contrast to season 1 of the show, which was helmed by GH HW Bob Guza and EP Jill Farren Phelps). I've already made clear my despair at season 1 and my hopefulness about season 2. That hopefulness continues to gather steam three episodes in.

GH: NS is being written by a newcomer to soaps, Sri Rao. Rao is a difficult figure to suss out. The guy doesn't even have a Wikipedia page! But his production company has a way-cool website that presents Rao and the company as "indie" creators of TV. My preliminary digging tells me that Rao positions himself as a writer-director-EP, that he has written a play, made an indie film, and created teen series for The N (as far as I can tell, this series has never aired). He's also a self-proclaimed GH fan (since age 8, he declares--and given his early 30s-seeming age I think this dates the beginnings of his GH viewing to the same period as mine). He's also a Wharton School of Business grad. (I dated one of those once upon a time and, trust me, not what you'd expect of a soap writer.) In all, he seems like a young, cool, smart guy who, unexpectedly, also knows about and loves soaps, GH especially.

While NS is not perfect (I'm with most other critiques I've read on the "no, just wrong"-ness of the new Leo Julian and his pairing with the lovely Saira Batra), I'm enjoying it immensely more than I do GH these days. Robert Scorpio's return and brain-tumor induced confusion that made him run around acting as if it were the 1980s were about as perfect as I'd want them to be. (My favorite was the tossed-off crack to Jagger: "Where'd you get your training? DVX?") And I was all choked up at Robin's reactions to everything. Funny, touching, nods to GH history all over the place--what a soap-wonderful treat. This show is so vastly different from the Guza-written daytime GH that it seems to me to be the alternate life the show might have had, had it veered differently in, oh, the late '90s or early 2000s or so, when I think so much started to go south.

In any case, I'm encouraged that the ABC Disney/Soapnet brass had the good sense to hire Rao and I will continue to harbor my secret fantasies of him taking over GH proper. That said, no doubt head writing a 5 day a week daytime show is way different than a 13-week season of of a p-t spin-off. But perhaps someone like Rao is the fresh perspective daytime--and GH in particular--so desperately needs.

1 comment:

tvfan said...

Very interesting, Elana. What happened to the Wharton Guy? Were your viewing habits too incompatible?