I watch soap operas. I’ve always watched soap operas. If done right, continuing drama is a terrific medium to examine social problems, to tell important stories, to educate. The genre’s progenitor, Irna Phillips, knew this. Agnes Nixon, creator of All My Children and One Life to Live knew this. So did Ted Corday. Ted Corday created Days of Our Lives in 1965.
When powerhouse performer Van Hansis (l) as Luke Snyder was matched with newcomer Jake Silbermann’s Noah Mayer, the two became American daytime television’s first gay supercouple and were central to the storyline of As The World Turns for the shows last several years on the air.
In the often laconic pacing of daily serials, audiences get to know characters on a level more intimate than in episodic storytelling and their emotional investment in those characters intensifies.
The late Christopher Schemering, a journalist devoted to daytime drama, once noted that “as characterizations grow and the narrative stretches out over months and years and becomes more complex and ambiguous, one’s involvement deepens, forcing one to come to terms with the quirks of human nature, the darker sides of fundamentally good people. And thus there is the possibility of the viewer experiencing something new or complex or feeling some way he has never felt before.”
In some areas American continuing dramas have been at the vanguard and in others they have lagged woefully, often laughably, behind the times. Take gay issues, for example. On As The World Turns, when Luke Snyder fell in love with Noah Mayer, the two shared daytime’s first male same sex kiss — in 2007!
Today, with only four continuing dramas left on the networks in America, the important stories being told are few and far between. Serial drama, scared of being axed , is playing it safe, rehashing old school stories, pandering to the most conservative elements possible.
The Old Days
The one show that has shown some cojones is Days of Our Lives which, 45 years into its run, introduced its first gay character, Sonny Kiriakis, and began an exploration of the sexuality of Will Horton. Will’s coming-to-terms-and-subsequently-coming-out story was positively glacial in its pacing, but featured Emmy-winning performances by Chandler Massey as Will, who was often matched note-for-note by Freddie Smith as Sonny and soap veteran Deidre Hall as Will’s maternal grandmother Marlena.
The story of Will Horton (Emmy winner Chandler Massey, left) discovering himself and his love story with Sonny Kiriakis (Freddie Smith) has been achingly slow, but powerful performances by the duo have overshadowed the tepid and hackneyed plotting by the Days of Our Lives writers.
In Nov. 2012, Will and Sonny — now a couple — finally consummated their relationship. Unlike a few years earlier on As The World Turns where Luke and Noah barely kissed and were never seen in bed, it was refreshing to see Will and Sonny actually acting like a couple, tearing their clothes off and showing them in bed — albeit chastely covered — for extended scenes.
But, of course, there’s now a stupid twist. Before Will got together with Sonny, he had a one-off with his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, and —imagine this — she’s pregnant.
Oh. My. God. I just want to kick someone in the teeth.
Now, I will admit that when I was Will’s age, when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I did sleep with a few (a very few) women, but 30 years ago, there’s not a single woman that I knew in college that would not hesitate to have an abortion. In fact, at my relatively conservative university, there were plenty who did. Plenty. I can’t even count how many times we chipped in to fund a friend’s termination. I don’t think we understood condoms at all!
Today, odds are that Gabi is going to keep this baby and it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into the Will and Sonny pairing. And that just pisses me off.
Why? Well, because while I recognize that it’s a soap and that there have to be twists and turns in the drama, I want those turns be something relevant. Something not so stupid. Something that tells the audience that we understand that this is not a plotline from the 1970s. Something that shows the gay community — shows young gay men — that the writers want to tell a story that matters.
I looked forward to Will and Sonny scenes because I had hope. Now, I’m kinda disgusted by the whole stupid business. And that’s really sad, because these are terrific young actors.
American soaps should take a lesson from European soaps, where gay characters have been the norm for years. If you haven’t been watching, like I have, through bit torrents and VPN’s, here’s a few favorite pairings over the last few years, and a few American contemporaries.
AARSON in Emmerdale
The working-class pairing of builder Jackson Walsh (Marc Silcock, left) and mechanic Aaron Livesy (Danny Miller) ended tragically after a train accident left Jackson paralyzed from the neck down on ITV’s rural powerhouse Emmerdale. Aaron later helped Jackson die in a controversial assisted suicide plot.
I loved this story. Village bad boy mechanic Aaron Livesy had a torturous, often brutal coming-out story. He lashed out physically at step-father Paddy and even at Jackson, the young man who he was attracted to. When he finally came to terms with his sexuality, his happiness was short-lived when Jackson’s van was hit by a train at a level crossing and he was paralyzed. Marc Silcock spent the next six months acting using only his head before Jackson begged his mother, magnificently played by Pauline Quirke, and boyfriend Aaron to help him commit suicide.
After his death, Aaron was charged with murder and after he got off, he began a period of self-harm, where he continually cut himself. After therapy, he found happiness with gay rugby player Ed Roberts and followed him to France.
It was a storyline that didn’t hold back and it was anchored by the astonishing Danny Miller as Aaron. Today, Ali and Ruby, lesbians with children, have taken up residence in the most interesting village in Yorkshire.
Multicultural Clash in the Square
Sparks flew on the BBC’s venerable EastEnders when Christian Clarke (John Partridge, right) met Syed Masood (Marc Elliott, left). The volatile pair got a happy ending and left Albert Square together in Nov. 2012
When Christian Clarke introduced himself to Syed Masood for the first time on EastEnders, he stuck out his hand and said, “Christian.” Syed took it, shook, and replied, “Muslim.” It was the perfect launch of their story which saw Christian chase Syed and Syed continue to be unable to reconcile his strong Muslim faith with his homosexuality and his intense attraction to Christian.
The pair broke up, got back together, broke up again, fought, loved, made up, and ultimately involved everyone in both of their families in their personal dramas. The Masood family initially disowned Syed as a traitor to the faith, then they reconciled, but refused to recognize Christian, then finally accepted the pair and even hosted a civil partnership ceremony for the duo.
Syed, ever fighting against his instincts, lied, stole, made terrible choices, but you always found yourself rooting for this particular underdog. The BBC did do the same thing that I’m pissed off at NBC for; they made Syed father a child, and while it made me roll my eyes, there was a cultural divide that they were mining and it wasn’t quite as ham-fisted as what they are doing with Will.
After a final break-up, Christian and Syed made up yet again at the eleventh hour and the dynamic couple left Walford together, bringing a close to a story that one could not even imagine seeing on American television.
The Chester Suburbs: The Gayest Part of England
Hollyoaks is the Channel 4 soap that is geared toward younger audiences but is a guilty pleasure for many in the U.K., who watch it in an omnibus edition on the weekends. Hollyoaks is often fearless in its storytelling and tackles issues that would never pass muster in the States.
James Sutton (l) and Guy Burnet played the tortured pairing of John Paul and Craig on Channel 4’s Hollyoaks. After a sunset ending, Sutton returns to the Chester suburb — alone, we surmise — to reprise his role in Dec. 2012.
Take John Paul McQueen and Craig Dean. John Paul was introduced as a student questioning his sexuality when he meets Craig Dean, a long-term and previously heterosexual character. The two strike up a close friendship which, for John Paul, turns quickly into something else. While John Paul was on a linear track, Craig was tortured by his feelings for John Paul and continually swore off of him.
Both straight in real life, Sutton and Burnet took very different tacks when approaching their characters. Sutton felt completely comfortable playing John Paul as gay while Burnet said he was initially against having Craig be attracted to a man. As the characterization progressed, Burnet felt that he wanted to provoke a reaction — it didn’t matter to him whether you loved or hated Craig, but he wanted to push your buttons.
And he did. Burnet’s angst as Craig was palpable and as an audience member, you could feel him fighting and not understanding these feelings he was having for someone he considered a close mate. When he finally accepted that he loved John Paul — but adamantly refused to be labeled as gay or bisexual — the two agreed to go to Ireland together so Craig could continue his studies at Trinity College. When Craig couldn’t bring himself to hold John Paul’s hand in public, in the airport, John Paul had a change of heart and left Craig to return to Hollyoaks village.
John-Paul McQueen (James Sutton, right) began an affair with young priest Kieron (Jake Hendriks) after his ill-fated romance with Craig Dean on the UK sudser Hollyoaks.
With Craig out of the picture, John Paul began a relationship with Father Kieron Hobbs, an even more scandalous pairing. John Paul supported Kieron as he left the Church and embarked on a life among the “out and proud.” Of course, this was short-lived, too, as Kieron was killed by John Paul’s pyscho half-brother — no one yet knew he was related to the McQueens — except Kieron! — yes, another twist.
Complicating things for John Paul was the return of Craig Dean, intent on finally claiming John Paul. Guy Burnet returned to the show for a month to reprise his role so that the beloved (albeit conflicted) supercouple could ride off into the sunset — on a train — together, after Craig was finally able to kiss John Paul in public.
STENDAN vs. STUG
Hollyoaks’ newest pairing of American Doug Carter (P.J. Brennan) and former bad boy Ste Hay (Kieron Richardson) is actually part of a love triangle that includes Ste’s former lover, Brendan, devilishly played by Emmett J. Scanlan.
John Paul McQueen and Craig Dean — known to fans by the portmanteau McDean — may have been the best-loved gay pairing in Hollyoaks, but they certainly haven’t been the last.
When young rogue Ste Hay came out, he was drawn to Brendan Brady, a nefarious older club owner. The two embarked on what may be television’s first same-sex domestic violence storyline with Brendan beating up Ste to keep him compliant.
When Ste finally left Brendan, he started a business with American expat Doug Carter and subsequently fell in love with him. Doug offered Ste stability — or as much stability as you can expect from an adorable ex-drug dealer — and the two married in 2012 in a ceremony marred by, you guessed it, over-the-top tragedy!
Through it all, a palpable attraction between Ste and Brendan remains and their storylines have continued to intersect because of it. Fan bases for both couples have developed, using the portmanteaus Stug and Stendan, which may signal continued screen time for all three popular actors who, by the way, are not the only gay characters on the show.
The KISH of Death in Llanview
Brett Claywell and Scott Evans as Kyle Lewis and Oliver Fish on One Life to Live. Claywell’s intense Kyle balanced the “Aw, Shucks” genuineness of Evans’ Fish, creating an example of actors’ better attention to detail than their writers.
Of course, popularity of characters or excellent storytelling doesn’t mean you’ll be around for long. Especially if you’re on an American soap.
One Life to Live, known for years for relatively insane plot twists, sought to capitalize on the ground already broken by As The World Turns by introducing a gay storyline, this time with hospital resident Kyle Lewis and cop Oliver Fish.
Oliver’s backstory, including a college relationship with Kyle, is revealed as he comes out publicly. When the two finally sleep together, OLTL took it a step farther than the prudish ATWT and actually showed the two in bed together.
Featuring decent if not great writing and played with layered nuance by Evans and Claywell, Kish, as the couple was known, quickly became a fan favorite. Of course, that didn’t stop OLTL from introducing the now ubiquitous “gay man has sex with a woman and woman gets pregnant” sub-plot. At the end of the day, the writers wrapped up the ridiculousness of the plot and as a shock to both actors and their fans, abruptly let them go and the duo went off to that part of Llanview where there were no TV cameras.
Executive Producer Frank Valentini said Kish caused the show’s low ratings, but everyone knew different. All daytime ratings were tanking and they no longer were looking for chances to take. When Claywell and Evans’ departed, OLTL hit new ratings lows. A year and a half later, the show ended.
The Nuke Option?
Eric Sheffer Stevens (l) joined As The World Turns in its last year on the air as Dr. Reid Oliver. His pairing with Van Hansis’ Luke divided audiences between those who wanted to see the electric pairing of Stevens and Hansis and those wanting a happy ending for Luke and his former love, Noah, played by Jake Silbermann. Reid Oliver’s death was central to the plot of the show’s finale, though it did not satisfy many viewers.
When the powers that be brought in acerbic, pompous and handsome super neurosurgeon Dr. Reid Oliver ten months before the end of As The World Turns, everyone was shocked by Eric Sheffer Stevens’ immediate chemistry with Van Hansis and the character brought in to cure Luke’s longtime love Noah of his blindness — it’s a soap, remember — ended up electrifying and dividing viewers to become the central plot capstone of the show’s 54 year run.
Like Guy Burnet’s intense portrayal of Craig Dean in Hollyoaks, you couldn’t turn away from Stevens when he was on screen. He might not have been pushing the buttons that you wanted pushed, but, by God, he was pushing buttons.
Reid died — another train accident! — and his heart was donated to save Chris Hughes leaving Luke heart-broken and Noah to head to California alone, which did little to satisfy the Nuke (Noah and Luke) or the Lure (Luke and Reid) fanbases, but it served, I think, the show’s long and complex history well. Head writer Jean Passanante remarked that if the show hadn’t already been cancelled, Reid, Luke and Noah may well have become American television’s first front-burner gay love triangle.
Looking back, I have to say I loved the last year of As The World Turns, as it was my soap for many years. And while there were utterly and completely ridiculous derailments along the way — Ameera, anyone? — none of the gay guys ever knocked up anyone. And that’s a helluva lot better than what we’ve got now.
[Update: A year and a half later, Days of our Lives surprised the hell out of me. Good on them. See I Do…]