Monday, September 2, 2013

Abortion and the soaps

It's blogging for choice day and, while this post doesn't really follow the "why you should vote pro-choice" theme of the day, in honor of the occasion I wanted to post a bit about some soap storylines I've been tracking lately. I became interested in the ways that soaps handle abortion when GH had a very thoughtful story about teenage Lulu Spencer's unplanned pregnancy in the summer of 2006. Unlike the typical plot of most American entertainment programming, in which the woman considering the abortion changes her mind at the last minute, or has a last minute miscarriage or, in the latest round of reproductive comedies, never gives abortion serious consideration, Lulu actually had the abortion in the GH story. And while it was a trying experience for her, and one she remembers with some pain, she suffered no long-lasting negative consequences, no "subtle" form of punishment for her decision. It was really an amazing and moving story, careful to present all "sides" in the issue, but never wavering in its assertion that Lulu had every right to make the choice she did and even asserting that this was a good choice, the right choice. Most of the other characters supported her decision and defended her right to choose and the ones who did not--such as her brother Lucky--had some mitigating circumstance that explained their perspective (Lucky was a messed up drug addict at the time--not exactly a ringing endorsement for the anti-abortion cause).

As I began to research past abortion stories on soaps, I found that many seem to have fallen into the more typical patterns of this kind of storytelling in American media. The earliest such story appeared on Another World in 1964, when Pat Matthews' illegal abortion almost killed her. The first legal abortion was of course Erica Kane's on All My Children in 1973--an event the show notoriously negated in recent years when the fetus Erica thought she had aborted appeared in Pine Valley, fully grown after having been miraculously saved by the unscrupulous doctor who had performed the initial procedure. Needless to say, this "unabortion" had soap fans in a serious uproar, incensed not only at the absurd revision of history but even more so at the political ramifications of undoing this landmark event.

There have been many more soap abortion stories over the years and the process of researching them is a long and challenging one. But I have no doubt that viewers have seen some thoughtful deliberations on the part of characters they care about while watching these stories. Some surely have included subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the evils of abortion, but others, like Lulu's story, have presented much more careful consideration of the matter than we tend to get anywhere else in our popular culture.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

P&G wants you!

Procter & Gamble is conducting two phone polls, through the same number: (1(800) 331-3774). One asks about whether the company should continue to advertise on MTV and BET. This is in response to a number of complaints about the "inappropriate" content of music videos aired on these channels. The other is about the Luke and Noah ("Nuke") same sex romance playing out on P&G's As the World Turns these days. I've called twice now--yesterday P&G thanked me for my opinion and ended the call (you can press 1 for keep going with Nuke, 2 for ending the story). But in today's call I was informed that the information gathered in this poll will not determine story but will provide company executives with useful information. Guess they are anticipating major outcry no matter which direction they go.

The soapy blogosphere is all over this story, so I won't go into more detail here. But the old-fashioned nature of the phone-in poll strikes me as a bit odd--perhaps just a way to appease the protesters, making it look like P&G is addressing the matter as they proceed with a story that seems immensely popular with fans?

Update: Here's Ad Age's take on P&G's polls and their possible outcomes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

If Angela and Brian had sex . . .

Among my all-time favorite TV producers are Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Their Bedford Falls company has generated a number of series whose characters have lived on for me long past their initial runs. There is probably no series on TV I have re-watched more than My So-Called Life, but their other prime time dramas are also faves: thirtysomething's '80s angst, Once & Again's it's-all-just-so-hard multi-generation tales, even the somewhat lackluster Relativity. We've even named our kid Leo in part through the inspiration of the Leos that have populated the Bedford Falls-averse (Michael and Hope's infant son, Relativity's leading man, the hunky younger-man doctor Karen Sammler dates).

Because of my love for all things Zwick/Herskovitzy I was so, so excited when the duo's new series, quarterlife, began its life as an internet-only series. Since then, NBC has picked up the already-produced episodes for broadcast, and I look forward to seeing them on air this February. But we've been keeping up with the online episodes, nonetheless, and I am happy to say that they've finally gotten really good, finally are beginning to live up to their producers' impressive cred.

The online eps of quarterlife range from about 7 to 14 minutes each, but these segments are clearly that--segments of hour-long TV episodes chopped up for twice-weekly internet streaming. It's a clever idea and all--finding a way to distribute a series when the nets decided not to pick it up--but it seems a bit disingenuous to call 44 minute broadcast TV episodes chopped into bits an internet series.

Just aired are the segments that make up what would be the 4th broadcast episode. Written by Devon Gummersall, also the actor who played MSCL's unrequited lover/uber-geek Brian Krakow, "Goodbyes" has all the markings of great prime time drama, and of Bedford Falls drama in particular--parallel plotlines that enrich each other in the similarities and differences of the characters' experiences, subtle dialogue that exposes character, sweet humor laced with awkwardness, Snuffy's music--just lovely and perfect.

Most perfect, however, was the story told in this episode about the growing romance between Dylan and Eric. I've liked both of these characters all along, but "Goodbyes" moved them up a notch for me into the pantheon of great Ed and Marshall couples or, better still, Ed and Marshall maybe-couples and sort-of-couples, for romance in the Bedford Falls-averse is always fraught and painful. In particular, the story of Dylan and Eric in this episode fulfills my fantasy of seeing what would happen if MSCL's Angela and Brian were to finally, actually, and really get together, a possibility only briefly hinted at in the final moments of that series. Dylan has always been an Angela-esque character and, in "Goodbyes" Eric proves himself to be the sensitive, if slightly bumbling, man that Brian always seemed he could become. Their scenes in bed make this particularly clear, but I also see it in some brief moments of this "episode":

Dylan and Eric coming inside with their bikes is sweetly reminiscent of Angela and Brian's bike straddled talks. And the moment when Dylan walks upstairs evokes for me the shot of Angela walking upstairs in the MSCL credit sequence (and taken from the pilot episode):

Too much of the early quarterlife episodes dealt with Jed and Danny's frustrated efforts to become filmmakers-- a plot way reminiscent of Michael and Elliott's story on thirtysomething, an arc I love in that show but that reads as old and boring when it features Jed and Danny. Now, however, thanks perhaps to the intervention of Brian Krakow himself, quarterlife may be becoming more My So-Called Life than thirtysomething. I always knew that Angela and Brian were destined for each other--or at least for a really awkward attempt at destiny.

Farrah, the 1970s, and me

I'm a bad blogger, or delinquent at the very least. Just wrote a little something about Farrah and the 1970s for the Duke University Press blog (publishers of my book on sex and 1970s TV). So read it over there--and maybe, maybe more here soon from me.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Giving blogging a whirl

So I've decided to give blogging a try. Not sure exactly why, as I've been resistant to its time-suck capacity for a long time. I think I may be a wee bit frustrated by the media scholar blogosphere, at least that of it that I have discovered. It's pretty boy-centric, and really, really serious. I spend plenty of my time doing scholarly writing. If I'm going to blog I'd like to have a little more fun with it. I'm also perpetually frustrated by more popular writing about media, especially TV, so I hope that my scholars' perspective will offer something different. That said, I'm hoping that this blog will combine some of my favorite elements of other blogs I enjoy. I'm quite the lurky fan of Dr. Crazy's Reassigned Time and hope to achieve her blend of the personal, the political, and the professional. I admire lots of the academic feminist blogosphere, and am happy to track the few feminist media scholars' blogs written by women (if there are more of you out there, please let me know!). I do love lots of non-academic but still sharply critical media writing to be found online, especially sharp soap opera criticism, which is abundant these days in the increasingly disappointing world of US daytime soaps (this is way pre-writers' strike, so don't blame the scabs). I guess we'll see where this blog takes me. I hope to keep posts kinda brief and to write about things I am reading and watching and thinking about. This may at times deal with ideas I'm struggling with in my teaching or my research, but it may also deal with the hairstyles of the General Hospital actresses. Take these for example (screen caps from the great Serial Drama):

The blondification of these gorgeous brunettes is a crime. Stop the highlighting!

Also on the soap front is this exciting new promo for
Guiding Light's new shooting style (also to be used on P&G's other soap As the World Turns):

This cheaper production mode is looking mighty good here. In a time of great threat to the soaps' survival (not just the writers' strike but declining ratings all around), there are some fascinating instances of creativity and innovation at work. I don't think that the soaps are bound for extinction, as some have predicted, but change is definitely afoot. With so much of it for worse, I'm hoping that P&G's experiment in borrowing reality TV-style shooting is as promising as it appears here.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Trials of ebay

Over the weekend I stayed up way past my bedtime to bid during the final minutes of several ebay auctions. What was I bidding on? Full year runs of Soap Opera Digest magazine from the late 1970s. Did I win these auctions? Hell, no, as they quickly became too rich for my blood--the last going for $102.

A single seller is offering up her lifelong collection of SODs, year by year, as she prepares to move. You may think this sort of thing would sell for a few bucks, but their rarity makes them quite valuable to those in the know. The winners of my failed auctions seem to run TV collectible businesses and so surely know the market for such things. Most old soap mags sell on ebay in single issues, and most are from the 1990s on. I'm sure these folks will be able to sell off the collection they are acquiring, probably issue by issue, making back their money and then some.

But my desire for these yellowing stacks of industry propaganda comes from a different place. Lots of TV ephemera is hard to come by, but little of it is as difficult to track down as the soap press. Very few libraries retain their holdings beyond a couple of years, and some libraries (ahem, Milwaukee Public Library System) don't have any soap publications, past or present. As a graduate student, I was blessed by the South Central Wisconsin Public Library system's collection of SODs from the '70s on (when the mag began), all handily stored in Madison's Central Public Library. I spent many delighted hours there devouring these magazines, which offered me story details, the occasional feature story of interest, and lots of letters to the editor full of great audience info. Made my dissertation, and the subsequent book, much better.

Now, as I begin to work on another book project exclusively focused on soap history, I very much want access to those old SODs again. One problem: the Madison Public Library THREW THEM OUT. I found out about this last year and so my indignation has (barely) abated, but I can easily get worked up about it again. Please note: this is one of a HANDFUL of libraries in the country that have any run of SODs beyond the past few years. According to Worldcat, only the Popular Culture collection at Bowling Green has a full run (not even the Library of Congress keeps them, though they do have Daytime TV, a now-defunct pub of the same genre that was also quite helpful to me in past research).

When I saw that this ebay user was selling off a nearly complete collection of SODs I had fantasies of owning the whole lot, of turning myself into the archive no one else cares to maintain. Alas, the financial investment seems too great and so I will likely trek to Bowling Green for a few fleeting days with these texts.

I do admit that the huge challenge of doing this sort of work is pretty appealing to me--brings out my youthful ambition to be a private detective, a la children's lit heroine Trixie Belden (Nancy Drew was too wimpy for my tastes), or an intrepid spy, a la Harriet the Spy, also a favorite read of my past. While I do believe strongly that our libraries do a disservice when they neglect to archive popular publications or, for chrissakes, THROW THEM OUT, the persistence required to actually track these things down is part of the fun of researching denigrated cultural products like soaps.