“One Life,” Many Issues
Wednesday, January 30, 2008 5:40 PM| By Scotty Gore
(SoapOperaNetwork.com) — A look back at how “One Life to Live” handled social issues in the past.
Hello all. Hope life is treating everyone well. I am now off and running with my student teaching at my local middle school. Thus far it has been it has been rather interesting. I’m finally starting to learn all the students’ names, which is a big help. Student teaching can be tons of fun, but it is also very labor intensive. I have lesson plans to write, assignments to grade, and chapters to review for tomorrow’s social studies classes. So, due to my somewhat overwhelming workload at the moment, I have decided to go a slightly different route with this edition of the column. Since it’s been awhile since we’ve done this, I felt that it would be an appropriate time to do it again. And so now it’s time for “A Blast From the Past!”
This go around we are powering up “One Life to Live” time machine and transporting ourselves back nearly thirty three years to a time when disco, large hair, and bellbottoms were considered cool and groovy. That’s right, we’re going back in time to 1975 to revisit an article highlighting “OLTL’s” emphasis on topical issues ranging from drug abuse to sexually transmitted disease and the Vietnam War.
It was on March 23, 1975 when this article, entitled “There’s a schism in the world of the Grand Old Soap Opera: Life can be beautiful/relevant” appeared in the New York Times. Written by Anthony Astrachan, this article focused on how soap’s were changing their format in order to tackle many relevant issues. I have chosen to only include excerpts of the article which feature “OLTL,” due to the fact that since is a column centered around that soap and not “As the World Turns,” “Another World,” or “All My Children,” which were also discussed in the article.
Cathy Craig was a teen-ager who experimented with drugs and was cured of her incipient habit at Odyssey House. She went on to become a reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Llanview Banner, and wrote a nationally syndicated article telling nice people what to do when they get venereal disease. She turned some of her newspaper experiences into a best-selling book of short stories that won feminist praise. She has borne a child without a husband but is enthusiastic about being a “single parent” rather than an “unmarried mother.” On a national television talk show, she looked meaningfully down at her bulging belly and asked the interviewer, Melba Tolliver, to call her “Ms.”
Cathy Craig is not a real-life feminist but a character in a soap opera, ABC’s “One Life to Live.” It’s recipe for dramatic entertainment includes a large dose of realism, ranging from real-life drug treatment centers like Odyssey House to real-life television personalities like Melba Tolliver. It makes quite a contrast with the classical canon of daytime television drama embodied in CBS’s “As the World Turns.”
… The contrast between the two programs shows what James Thurber once alled “Soapland,” like American society as a whole, is torn between the need to keep up with changing realities and the desire to stick to tried-and-true formulas that have never expressed reality – to tell it like it isn’t. The search for relevance has led daytime drama to deal with social issues like drugs, venereal disease and the Vietnam war, to take feminist positions on questions like abortion and women working, and to bring blacks and ethnics into the WASP population of Soapland.
…”One Life to Live,” which seems the most consistently innovative soap opera, has a recurring feminist story line in the adventures of Cathy Craig. Dorrie Kavanaugh, who plays Cathy, feels that the program has not gone far enough, even though she regards it as the best on the air from the feminist viewpoint. She says the best script she has been given was her childbirth sequence, alone in a snowbound resort cottage with a male newspaper colleague. When he sees her in pain, he says, “Be a brave girl.” Between deep contractions, she replies indignantly, “Don’t call me a girl! I’m a woman.”
Miss Kavanaugh is only half pleased that Cathy could go to bed with another male character, Joe Riley, without being in love with him. “Before, we couldn’t say ‘Yes,’ now we can’t say ‘No,’” she commented. “That has nothing to do with human liberation. I play a character as though she’s liberated, but she’s 28, she lives with her parents, she went to bed with a man once in her life and got pregnant – is that so liberated?”
…Racial attitudes are also changing, a dozen years after the peak of the civil rights movement. Many programs have one or two black characters to put the networks’ employment of actors in compliance with the Federal law. “One Life to Live” has gone one step further by making its black characters really important in the story line. Ed Hall, a black police lieutenant, has been written out temporarily because the actor who played him, Al Freeman Jr., went to Hollywood. He will be replaced. Ellen Holly, who plays his wife, likes the Ed Hall role because it calls for a black that comes on like Carey Grant instead of the macho gangsters – like Superfly – who have become models for black children. Miss Holly has been described as a mixture of three racial strains, and there was no doubt that she could pass for white when the story called for it. In the process of deciding to admit she was black, she had romantic involvements that required her to kiss first a white man and then a black, making a Southern red-neck equally indignant about both when he wrote in to protest. Usually, daytime drama shows only two or three blacks in an all-white world, and their problems tend to be classified as human rather than racial. The amount of realism remains a matter of dispute.
“One Life to Live” also tries for a greater degree of realism in having an important set of characters that are both blue-collar and ethnic, whereas most soap operas merely drop in an occasional Italian or Jewish name to add what is thought to be a desirable touch of the exotic. “One Life” also had a Jewish- Christian marriage (until the Jewish husband “died”) with one-liners about Christmas and Hanukkah.
The blue-collar couple on this program also provide something else that is a rarity in the old- fashioned kind of soap-opera humor. It tends toward slapstick, as in a scene in which they test a waterbed when they set out to buy furniture for their new home. But even the middle-class WASPs in “One Life” are capable of wit by Soapland standards. Joe Riley is painting the carriage house that he and Victoria Lord Riley Burke Riley are remodeling. When Viki applauds his work, Joe says, “Michelangelo, eat your heart out!” She deadpans, “I thought he only did ceilings.”
“One Life to Live” and “All My Children” were both created by a woman who cheerfully takes credit for much of daytime drama’s new willingness to face social issues – Agnes Eckhardt Nixon.
…Mrs. Nixon likes to introduce into the soaps not only such relevant issues but scenes and people from real life. One of her favorites was the Odyssey House sequence in which Cathy Craig went for her drug cure on “One Life to Live.” Doris Quinlan, the producer of “One Life,” still speaks proudly of that story. The show spent five days on location at the real Odyssey House in 1970. The cameras shot Cathy with the black and Puerto Rican youths there, and the writers spread the footage over a summer’s worth of episodes intended to deliver the message to young people home from school or college. Actors on the show speak of the excitement in the fan mail of that period, and the ratings went up slightly. (Ratings have actually gone down when other soaps showed less realistic drug sequences.) Amy Levitt, who then played Cathy, says the management thought the Odyssey House youngsters interfered with the entertainment values of the show. She resented what she regarded as a diversion of the story from the ghetto kids to a blue-eyed blond hero with whom Cathy was made to fall in love. Miss Quinlan says, however, the sequence lasted its natural life, ending at the same time as the summer and the Odyssey House footage.
A venereal-disease sequence followed some time later. Dr. Larry Wolek spoke on the subject at Llanview High, which made it only natural for Cathy, his step niece, to write an article on the subject for The Banner. Mrs. Nixon wrote the “article” herself from research with William D. Schwartz of the Communicable Disease Center of the U.S. Public Health Service in Atlanta. Mrs. Nixon says that more than six thousand people wrote to ABC for copies of the article – an enormous response, especially considering the fact that “One Life” subordinated the V.D. theme to the continuing, disease-free romances that are the living matter of all soap operas.
Moving back to the present, I have to give “OLTL” an A+ for its use of history and past characters and cast members. Since last summer, Tuc Watkins (David Vickers), Tonja Walker (Alex Olanov), John Loprieno (Cord Roberts), Dan Gauthier (Kevin Buchanan), Nathan Fillion (Joey Buchanan), James DePaiva (Max Holden), Christine Jones (Pamela Stuart), Ann Hamilton (Aunt Corrine Balsom), Tari Signor (Margaret Cochran), and Barbara Garrick (Allison Perkins), have all returned for short
guest stints in Llanview. Now if we could only get these people back either recurring or on contract: Thom Christopher, Michael Storm, Laura Koffman, Wortham Krimmer, and Andrea Evans. Do you realize that it has been ten years since the character of Tina Roberts has been seen on “OLTL?” I say it’s way past time that we bring Viki’s baby sister back home to Llanview.
And, saving the best for last, it’s time to take a quick look at some of the plotlines coming up on “OLTL” a couple of weeks down the road. On the run with two nuns, a psychopath finds what she’s looking for at a dead man’s grave. One new couple have a difficult time focusing on their jobs. A pair of newly independent souls attend a ball together. An overzealous individual is anxious to get his/her hands on someone else’s secret. And someone is in for the shock of his or her life.
Well, that’s all for this edition of the column. I wish I had more time to write an in-depth analysis of the current state of my favorite soap, but alas I’m afraid I just don’t have the time at the moment. But there’s always next time. Since we won’t meet again until February’s most cherished holiday, I hope everyone finds love this Valentine’s Day. And if any of you ladies are single, I’m in the book. I’ll be awaiting your calls. Hahaha Take care everyone, and I’ll see you again on February 15th.
And until next time remember, we only have “One Life to Live” …..
Pictured: My View of Llanview courtesy Matt Smith/Soap Opera Network