"One Life to Live": Not Daytime's Best Soap Yet (Part 2)

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As I said in an earlier post, the bravura scripts of One Life to Live new head writer Ron Carlivati have made OLTL the soap to watch for thinking soap fans who enjoy sophisticated writing. Whether it’s because so many other soaps are abysmal right now, or because we’re all so desperate for a soap to love, some journalists have jumped to deem OLTL “Best Soap.” I’ve always made it a practice to watch a soap for a year before conferring such an accolade. Carlivati has been official head writer for only three months!

 

 
Though I deeply admire much of what Carlivati already has done (OK, almost all!), OLTL still has at least two serious pre-existing structural problems, which the writer must correct before anyone hands him that Emmy. Will he have the clout and creativity to fix them? Will ABC Daytime even let him?
 
Let’s start with the absence of African-Americans as frontburner characters. This is simply wrong! In 2006, The Powers That Be insanely put longtime star Timothy Stickney (R.J. Gannon), one of most powerful actors in soap history, on recurring status. Earlier this year, the vibrant and intelligent frontburner heroine Evangeline was put into a coma because actress Renee Elise Goldsberry couldn’t come to contract terms with the show.
 
The only African-American contract presence on the show has been limited to two extremely weak characters, Vincent (Tobias Truvillion) and Leyla (Tika Sumpter), who have been written as talk-to supporting players. Aside from a relatively uncomplicated romance and being the victims of racist Tate, they have been given little in the way of major story lines of their own.
 
Marginalizing African-American characters is a tragic soap-wide trend. But OLTL is the soap created by the very progressive Agnes Nixon in 1968 and its trademark has always been racial diversity. Among the show’s major story lines early on was the story of Carla Gray (Ellen Holly) and her problems as a fair-skinned black woman passing for white in a white society. Although there had been African-Americans characters on soaps before, Carla was a major black leading lady given a full life and a big story (publicized repeatedly at the time by The New York Times). 
 
Over the next decade and more, Carla and her family were main players on OLTL, played by such distinguished black actors as Emmy winning Al Freeman Jr. (police lieutenant Ed Hall) and Laurence Fishburne, who grew up on the show as Ed and Carla’s son/stepson, Josh.
 
OLTL has always had a frontburner black presence until R.J. Gannon disappeared in 2006. Yes, the missing R.J. has finally made a few spot appearances lately, but that’s not enough. Llanview won’t be Llanview again until it has frontburner black characters, not talk-to tokens like Vincent and Leyla or the innumerable African-American day players who, as on others soaps, are relegated to playing social workers, waitresses, cops, nurses, etc.
 
It’s despicable that all the hard-fought breakthroughs in interracial casting made in the 1960s and ’70s are being erased by the absence of major black characters on many soaps now!
 
Another problem: Male diva characters Todd Manning (Trevor St. John) and John McBain (Michael Eason) literally suck the air out of the show right now. If you don’t like either (or both), you've got a real reason not to watch the show.
 
What I mean by “diva” characters are those with their own huge (sometimes cult) followings who always must have frontburner storylines. (Erica Kane on All My Children is the prime example.) It’s wise always to have one diva, Erica, on AMC, but the fact that OLTL currently has two divas doesn’t add up to twice as much wisdom. In fact, it’s twice as suffocating. That head writer Carlivati put Todd and John on the road together for two weeks in the pursuit of Marcie shows he’s aware of this problem.
 
Diva characters usually have a deeply idiosyncratic psychological problem that becomes a conundrum, like Michael’s inability to maintain female relationships, and Todd being endlessly redeemed as a former rapist over the last 15 years. (He's now a family man and the writers are always trying to give him sympathy by making him a victim of a female rapist; their son was mistakenly adopted by someone else.)
 
I’m sick of both Todd and John and their ever-dysfunctional dilemmas. The big problem with diva characters is that they essentially never change, never really grow up. They play the same old stories over and over and over again. (That’s my long-held belief. Agnes Nixon once wrote a column challenging my contention that Erica has never grown up, but we’ll have to leave it for another day.)
  
Will Carlivati have the insight to set Todd and John on new life paths? To really change them, and solve their psychological problems, to do the hard work real people do in real life to really grow up? And even if he does, will ABC Daytime let Carlivati, who really is a serious dramatist, change these characters and let them grow? They have huge followings, and therefore they are money in the bank for a network. And a sure thing is what networks that air soaps need desperately right now. But will Carlivati have the integrity to alter John and Todd and let them grow and change as real people do?  
 
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