The most riveting and engrossing drama on broadcast television during the November 2008 sweeps period to date isn’t happening on CBS’ CSI, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Fox’ House or NBC’s Heroes – or anywhere in primetime, for that matter. It is playing out on ABC Daytime’s One Life to Live. This show is sizzling right now, with multiple storylines concluding, colliding and cascading off in wild new directions that will play out for months or years to come. The past, present and future of the show are all in skillful play. From a structural perspective – a critical element of superior serialized drama – this is some of the best soap opera storytelling I have seen in years. It is simply extraordinary in its simultaneous clarity and complexity. (Maybe the writing team on NBC’s increasingly disappointing Heroes should sit down with the gang at OLTL and ask them how it’s done.)
Unfortunately, there has been much unpleasantness at the center of it all, and no joy whatsoever, except for the births of a few puppies. As skilled as they are at story structure and characterization, I sometimes wonder if the writers, producers and network executives who are in charge of this show realize that if OLTL is to endure it must appeal to (rather than repel) women. For example, there have been entirely too many close-ups in recent days of a stillborn baby delivered last week by one of the main characters. I can deal with this tragic story development, because the child is at the center of so much drama involving so many characters, and the story has been extremely well played by the many actors involved. (They’re an amazing group.) But I don’t believe women want to see dead babies in their entertainment. Not ever.
As disturbing and upsetting as the story of Jessica’s baby has been, though, it has often been quite moving -- and it has never been offensive. That distinction goes to the other big OLTL drama of the month – the show’s veteran psychopath Todd Manning having sex with Marty Saybrook, the young woman he savagely attacked 15 years ago in what remains one of the most powerful stories in the history of daytime drama. Todd and two other young men in 1993 executed the brutal gang rape of Marty, then a disturbed young woman. (Todd was, in fact, the ringleader.) Those scenes were more intense than just about anything that had ever been shown on daytime television. The stunning story earned an armload of Emmy Awards, including honors for Susan Haskell, the actress who portrayed Marty then and continues to do so now, and Roger Howarth, the actor who portrayed Todd -- and has since been replaced by Trevor St. John.
Marty has come and gone on the show since 1993, but Todd has remained for most of that time, and while past writing teams have attempted to reform him to some extent – going so far as to have him raped by a madwoman -- he has remained a devious, manipulative, temperamental bully and, overall, an evil, dangerous man. I won’t go into the long and winding details here, but Todd during the last few months had been secretly caring for Marty after she suffered an accident that left her with amnesia. Todd’s original intentions were sinister, but in recent weeks he fell increasingly in love with Marty, all the while neglecting to tell her the truth about their past. Last week, Marty and Todd made love, with Marty unaware that she was with the man who raped her years ago.
As you might expect, a number of viewers are outraged by the insensitivity, inhumanity and overall creeping horror of this scenario. (Check out the heated column on this subject by former JackMyers contributor Marlena Delacroix and the blistering comments that follow it.) Todd raped Marty once again, they claim. It didn’t matter that he appeared to have reformed and was in love with her, or that their lovemaking was gentle and passionate and nothing at all like the violent atrocity Marty was made to endure years earlier. Nor did it matter that Marty consented, they say, because she was suffering amnesia and wasn’t in her right mind.
I have to agree with them. This tale, though well told, has been sickening given the history of these characters. I don’t believe that sex between two adults can be mutually consenting when one of the people involved has no idea what’s really going on, and especially when one of the two is a depraved brute who previously attacked the other. When Todd and Marty got together it may not have seemed like rape, but when Marty later learned the depth of Todd’s deception, her response was clearly that of a woman who had once again been violated in the worst possible way. It all seems horribly exploitative on the part of ABC. I am certain the network fully knew what it was doing, because it ran a PSA for the National Sexual Assault Hotline at the end of the episode in which Todd and Marty “made love.” Further, during the SOAPnet repeat of this episode, as the tension mounted and it became increasingly and alarmingly clear that Todd the Predator and Marty the Victim were going to have sex, a graphic in the lower left corner teased: “Todd’s Worst Crimes. Relive them all on SOAPnet.com.” Is nothing sacred?
ABC has always had a warped handle on the character of Todd. (Remember when ABC parent Disney briefly marketed a doll of this reprehensible rapist?) Sadly, in this instance the network had the opportunity to do something amazing with his long-running storyline, which has spanned two decades, and it would have been so simple. The writers had already established the inner conflict Todd was experiencing in the moments before he had sex with Marty. (He was even having flashbacks to the gang rape.) Rather than take her to bed, he should have broken down, confessed everything to her and taken her rage. There would have been no question at that time that Todd had indeed changed. That would have brought the saga full circle and been enormously satisfying for long-term viewers. It wouldn’t have excused anything Todd had done in the past, but it wouldn’t have been as revolting as the sight of him once again having his way with the woman he previously raped.
I wish ABC had shown more restraint and responsibility in the way it played this story. That said, I will compartmentalize my disgust and continue to enjoy the rest of the show. At present I cannot wait to tune in tomorrow and see what happens next on One Life to Live. But I can certainly understand why many people might throw up their hands and declare that they have had enough.