Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What the New York Times Totally Flubbed in Its Review of Prospect Park's "All My Children" and "One Life to Live"

When Chelsea Handler takes her digs at daytime soap operas on her late-night E! talk show, I chuckle politely and call it satire. Although it's not the most original comic concept (and out of context, pretty much any TV show can be made to look like a complete joke), ha ha ha anyway.

But when a publication like the New York Times, one with the reputation of being "the paper of record," jumps on that bandwagon and starts taking predictable swings at such an easy target, offering no fresh insight or depth of analysis, it's just lazy criticism. So let me set the paper of record straight regarding Neil Genzlinger's review of Prospect Park's online versions of All My Children and One Life to Live that ran on May 4. (The revived daytime soaps premiered on April 29.) It was full of the kind of specious reasoning and uninformed points of view that gives reviews and the people who write them bad names.

A few of its most egregious declarations:

"At least, that's how it looked to this potential viewer, one of the vast millions who never watched the original shows because they had jobs." (People who watched AMC and OLTL on ABC didn't have jobs? How condescending, to them and to working girls past and present, like Carol Burnett, Aretha Franklin, Julia Roberts, Chandra Wilson, Sherri Shepherd and Elizabeth Taylor, all self-proclaimed soap fans, as well as to the frequently and gainfully employed Oscar nominee James Franco, who personally requested a role on General Hospital.)

"Unless you're into camp, why put in the time it would take to decipher these shows when there are much, much better ones beckoning?" (The soaps-are-campy argument is a creaky one, and you could easily sub the word "camp" for "country" and make the same argument against Nashville, or "hospital drama" when similarly slamming Grey's Anatomy, or "historical period pieces" to dismiss Downton Abbey and The Borgias. Doesn't loving any show and sticking with it require an affinity for its premise or some specific quality it possesses?)

"The acting ranges from mediocre to outright bad, especially on All My Chidlren. Any scene involving a couple over the age of 50 has the treacly gloss of a Viagra commercial. Any young characters are played by actors far too old for the roles." (Oh sure, Daytime Emmy winner Debbi Morgan, who has been acting in prime time and in film since the '70s, is "mediocre to outright bad," and those twenty-to-thirtysomething Glee kids sure do look like actual high schoolers.)

I support the right of informed TV critics who watch without prejudice to carp about anything on the air. It's a matter of taste, and the daytime soap is pretty much an acquired one. Many of us who obsess over them learned to love them as tykes, watching them at our mother's (or grandmother's) feet. Without my long history of daytime-soap viewing, I'm not sure I would care about them today. But I don't think that's groundbreaking news. I'm certain many longtime viewers feel the same way.

I'm accustomed to being ridiculed for my unhip taste in television, so I can handle Genzlinger's condescending attitude toward my stories and by association, their viewers. But to spend the bulk of his review criticizing the shows for being too insider seems unfair and not a little disingenuous. Revenge has been on the air for only two seasons, and anyone tuning in for the first time with last Sunday's episode would be utterly confused. Why does everyone have an ex to grind with someone, and what the hell is "the Falcon"? Is arcane content, as Genzlinger suggests, really more acceptable when it requires only a few seasons worth of catching up (on DVD) as opposed to a few decades (on YouTube or any of those soap sites dedicated to such things)?

I've been watching Revenge religiously from the beginning, and I'm still a little confused, so newbies must be positively perplexed. That's how it goes with serialized storytelling. If you want to know what's going on, either you do your homework before joining in, or you just watch patiently and attentively and try to catch up.

It would have made absolutely no sense for Prospect Park to have pretended that the characters on AMC and OLTL had no back story -- including the"older gentleman" on AMC and "the woman he's apparently known for a long time," the iconic Adam Chandler (played by multiple-Daytime Emmy winner David Canary) and the nearly equally legendary Brooke English (portrayed by fellow Emmy honoree Julia Barr) to those who have been paying attention for the 30-plus years they've been around. Should the show have pretended they were just born yesterday? Or should they have explained the nature of their relationship and their long, twisted history in the opening scene?

Serialized dramas are always beginning in the middle of the action and then back tracking to explain things. Such was the case with Lost, and Desperate Housewives after it skipped ahead five years. Revenge did it in its first season, too, by beginning with a murder and then going back in time to retell the incidents of the previous summer.

It's been nearly two years since the final ABC episode of AMC aired, and the show lost most of its cast, so it would have been tricky to replay the final finale moments from five years earlier (on AMC's time scale) and what happened immediately afterwards. It would not have been such a bad approach (after all, GH has done a pretty decent job with its recent Dante/Lulu flashbacks featuring the new actress playing Lulu), but I suspect that suspense is part of the plan. The show wants to make sure you're dying to know what the hell happened after what happened five years ago (J.R., or whoever, pulling the trigger at Adam and Brooke's party), even if it means banging you over the head with references to it.

I can't say much about AMC overall as I am outside of the U.S. (and therefore can't access the shows on Hulu and can only download from Argentina's iTunes store) and was only able to watch the first new episode on YouTube, but OLTL pretty much explained everything within the first week. A new viewer who was paying attention and wasn't just out to write a negative review certainly would have understood why everyone hated the character Genzlinger referred to as "some surly guy with a scar on his cheek" (Todd Manning, also legendary) by the end of the first week's four new episodes. The Friday re-cap show, which I suspect eventually will be jettisoned, filled in more blanks.

Perhaps Prospect Park undermined itself by spinning the online versions more as reboots than as continuations, the latter of which is pretty much what they are. Most of the new actors are playing aged characters from the ABC versions, so I don't understand why the New York Times reviewer -- who admittedly doesn't know much about daytime soaps and must hate the genre to deem the campy, self-conscious acting and convoluted storylines of a prime-time serial like Revenge "much, much better" -- seems to think they should be starting from the beginning, lest new viewers be confused. What is this, the Bible?

Also, it's easier to create the illusion of higher quality when you have the big budget to do so. How would most of the acting on Revenge hold up if it were transferred to the far cheaper sets of OLTL's Llanview? I think a large part of why the storylines in prime time -- which are often no less ridiculous than those in daytime -- seem more plausible and the bad acting doesn't appear to be quite as dreadful is that prime time's glossier trappings can distract us from holes in story. This is as much an issue for any of the remaining four daytime soaps on network TV as it is for the new AMC and OLTL.

As for the Times' evaluation of soap viewership, it's so 1999 to suggest that at any time this century the audience has been locked in to having to watch them during the daytime hours in which they air. That argument may have been true in the pre-TiVo age, but it's completely irrelevant today.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not taking issue with the Times review because I think the shows are perfect. I don't. The pacing is off on OLTL, and I worry that the scenes we're getting are more episodic vignettes than the seeds of engrossing long-term umbrella story. I also agree that the Victor Lord Jr.-is-alive reveal fell a little flat, but remember Victoria Grayson's resurrection from the dead on Revenge? That wasn't treated with much less of a shrug. One of the defining characteristics of daytime drama is that for all of the overacting the stars are accused of doing, often the characters respond to the outlandish out-of-the-real-world hands they're dealt (returns from the dead, frequent life-in-jeopardy moments, the supernatural) with much less OMFG! shock than the average person would in real life. We'd be in therapy for decades. A week later, our soap superhumans are back to life as usual.

I would defend anyone's right to criticize daytime soaps. I don't think supporting the genre means we all have to sing the praises of the shows all the time. But as a veteran magazine editor, I'm appalled that the Times would run a review of the online versions of AMC and OLTL written by a writer who obviously knows nothing about daytime drama, can't identify Adam Chandler and Todd Manning by name, and has never even bothered to watch any of either show's previous episodes. (If the goal of the Times was to offer an unbiased critique of soaps by a newcomer to the genre, the task should have been assigned to an unbiased writer who didn't already consider the shows beneath him.) It's a lot like letting a jazz music critic who's never heard a David Bowie song and secretly considers rock & roll to be crass review Bowie's current album.

No decent editor with any respect for rock & roll (and Bowie) would ever do that. By now, hasn't daytime drama, a genre that's been around in some form for more than eight decades, earned the same level of respect? I wouldn't be surprised if Chelsea Handler, bless her critical heart, never misses an episode of the shows she loves to hate on. Criticism is always smarter -- and funnier -- when it's informed.
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