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Entertainment Weekly 5/28/2004

Say what you will about Reilly, but the show got attention.

Soap mastermind James E. Reilly resuscitates Days of Our Lives with a serial-killer story line that has some viewers seeing red.

The streets of Salem, USA--the friendly midwestern city at the heart of the NBC soap opera Days Of Our Lives--began running with blood on Sept. 29, 2003. That's when a figure in a black hood fatally shot mild-mannered police commander Abraham Carver (James Reynolds) on his front doorstep. Over the next seven months, Salemites lived under a cloud of fear as nine more residents--many of them played not by dispensable newcomers but by beloved veteran actors whose combined airtime totaled an astonishing 158 years--dropped like clay pigeons. Viewers recoiled in disbelief. Aside from seeming like a cheap demographic ploy (i.e., knocking off old folks to make room for a slew of models-turned-actors), the so-called Salem Stalker story line grew more graphic (and ironic) each day. Recovering alcoholic Maggie Horton (Suzanne Rogers) was bludgeoned by a liquor bottle. The bloody corpse of troubled teen Cassie DiMera (Alexis Thorpe) tumbled out of a turkey-shaped piñata on Thanksgiving Day. And the town's patron saint, Alice Horton (played since the first episode in 1965 by 89-year-old Frances Reid)? Poor thing choked on a doughnut--her culinary specialty--that was forced down her throat. Even a nonfan would agree: That's just cold!

Only one man in daytime has the gumption to off a little old lady with lethal pastry: prolific soap opera writer James E. Reilly, who churns out 10 hours of supremely bizarre story each week for Days and NBC's other sudser, Passions. Reilly used controversial tactics once before to resurrect Days--in the mid-'90s he imbued blue-collar Salem with kitschy gothic touches straight out of Dark Shadows, from a buried-alive saga to a demonic-possession drama. His stories elicited two distinct reactions from fans: I love this nonsense! or What the #@!* happened to my show?! Still, new viewers flocked in droves. Once Reilly left in 1997 to create Passions, an outrageous soap riff filled with witches, demon dogs, and shirtless hunks, Days lost viewers and creative steam--so last June NBC lured Reilly back. "I don't think it's overstating it to say the show's long-term survival was at stake," admits NBC Daytime chief Sheraton Kalouria. "We needed the fix, and we had the fix right here."

For many, though, Reilly's solution was just too drastic. Loyal fans were outraged, some vowing never to watch again. (Even Days devotee Julia Roberts says, "They've gotten a little wacko.") Soap critics derided the show's quick decline into death, gore, camp, and supernaturalism. "This whole story reeks of cynicism about the genre, the characters, and the audience," says Soap Opera Weekly columnist Mimi Torchin. "If we want to watch cartoons, we'll turn to Disney." Reilly, a former medical student who stumbled into soaps when he appeared as an extra on The Young and the Restless in 1980, understands fans' wrath but isn't fazed by it. "I was never trying to destroy the fabric of this show. But I did have to shake it up because it was really in trouble," he says. "Be angry at me! Hate me! It shows that you are involved. But watch the show to see what happens. Stay tuned."

According to the numbers, viewers--livid or otherwise--are doing just that: Last January, during the week that the killer was revealed to be Dr. Marlena Evans Craig Brady Black (played since 1976 by one of soaps' most recognizable actresses, Deidre Hall), Days earned some of its highest ratings in years, attracting 5.8 million viewers. (In fact, Days and Passions, along with CBS' Guiding Light, are the only soaps this season to post year-to-year gains among women 18-49, no small feat in a genre that's been losing viewers for almost 20 years.)

But Nielsen's good news didn't exactly appease an emotionally whipped, deeply saddened cast that has had to say goodbye--10 times--to its closest friends. "It was a tremendous grieving period," says Kristian Alfonso, who has played feisty heroine Hope Brady since 1983. "Every conversation started with the same question: Have you heard anything?" Hall carried the double burden of knowing that the deaths--and her coworkers' apparent unemployment--came via her alter ego's hands. "Survivor's guilt?" she asks. "Wow. I knew those people well. That's where the sadness was. I hated it." Adds Drake Hogestyn, who plays Marlena's valiant husband, John: "It became like Survivor around here."

In more ways than one. On May 24, Reilly will reveal his latest insane twist: "None of them are dead!" That's right, all 10 of the victims are alive and kickin' it in their new home--a copycat version of Salem that's been reconstructed on a remote Caribbean island. Reilly promises that by summer's end, befuddled viewers will learn how Marlena's murder victims survived their on-screen demises, along with the reason for her slashing spree. (All 10 actors who previously thought they had been dumped by the show have agreed to return.)

The question is, will Reilly's latest bamboozle soothe widespread disappointment among fans? Or is this just a hasty remedy that ultimately devalues soaps? "Jim's stories fly right in the face of this form," says Jack Smith, an exec producer and head writer at CBS' long-running Restless. But, he argues, "financial pressures and dwindling numbers force writers to tell atypical stories that are not consistent with the genre." ABC Daytime president Brian Frons worries that Reilly's risky story could end up hurting Days' longevity rather than cementing it: "They've gotten the hype, but were they right? The danger with this type of storytelling is that you come for the girl in the piñata, and then you turn away and say, 'Call me for the next installment of CSI.'" Counters Reilly: "Remember, every fairy tale ends with the phrase 'And they lived happily ever after....' But in order for that to have an impact, it meant that they had a horrible, god-awful time before they got there."

Hall likes to knit during her downtime on the Days set--even when she's about to be buried alive. While waiting to shoot Marlena's "funeral" (Dr. Evans is actually bound for what the show calls New Salem), the actress climbs into a coffin clutching the bright red beginnings of a blanket. As Kirsten Storms and Alison Sweeney (who play her daughters, Belle and Sami) kneel over her in faux mourning, Hall's hand pops up, offering a homemade treat: popcorn drizzled with chocolate syrup. Her good humor seems to stem from her confidence that Days will ultimately thrive, even if it doesn't look quite like the show fans have loved for nearly four decades. "I have to trust that Jim's smarter than the rest of us," she reasons.

Most of the Days cast is used to trusting Reilly from afar: An informal on-set poll found that at most, they'd caught a passing glance at the writer during one of his rare West Coast visits. Says Peter Reckell, who originated the role of popular antihero Bo Brady in 1983, "I've never shaken his hand.... I think I waved to him across the room once." Adds Tanya Boyd, who plays the tea-leaf-reading psychic Celeste Perrault, "Hey, however he wants to do it is fine by me. I would like to know if he likes my work, though." (Reilly's explanation for his evasive nature? "The characters are my friends. I can't find out that my ingenue is a bitch. I don't want to know that my heroes beat their dogs.")

The effects of Reilly's far-reaching story decisions have yet to play out, but he'll be around to see their consequences: NBC has renewed Days through May 2009, and the show recently outpaced Restless to become the season's highest-rated soap in the women 18-49 race. Meanwhile, rumors have been bubbling for months that another soap, possibly a Days spin-off, is in the works. Reilly wants it to happen: "I need to tell stories every single day. I could use my Fridays for a third project. Where, goddamn it, is my third show?!" (Kalouria insists the rumors are unfounded.)

For now, Reilly will have to content himself with wreaking havoc in Salem--and that suits the actors who play out his silly, sweeping stories just fine. "When Jim came back, I felt like a guiding hand had returned," says Sweeney. "I had faith that he was going to bring this show back. And there was a belief that whatever nightmare he was going to put this entire show through would be worth it." For the record, Reilly says the more traditional Days of yore will return--someday. "I wanted to reawaken interest, get everybody talking, and then take them back to the Days that they know and love." But the next time ratings require a jolt, how will he top his own storytelling madness? For once, Reilly seems stumped. "A lot of people ask me that, and I get nervous! I don't know," he says. "Maybe I should just get myself taken away to that island."

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This is an October 1974 interview with Bryna Laub, publisher of Daytime Serial Newsletter.  She talks about several shows but the largest portion is regarding Susan Seaforth Hayes and the way Bill Bell wrote for the character of Julie.

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Edited by jam6242

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Thank you for sharing the Laub article. Some fascinating comments, especially about HTSAM. And about Bell's view of Susan. I wish he'd shown more of that when she was at Y&R

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The description of Julie being sensuous is always how I think of her from that period.  Bell wrote Lori on Y&R in a similar manner.  I was disappointed with Susan's material at Y&R.  Supposedly, Bell created the role of Stephanie on B&B with Susan in mind but she turned it down because she wanted to go back to Days.  I guess it would have been better for her career if she had accepted it.

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3 hours ago, jam6242 said:

Supposedly, Bell created the role of Stephanie on B&B with Susan in mind but she turned it down because she wanted to go back to Days.  I guess it would have been better for her career if she had accepted it.

 

Agree.  Susan got her chance (several, in fact) to return to DAYS, but by that point, DAYS was such a different show, and I don't think she fit in anymore.

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7 hours ago, jam6242 said:

The description of Julie being sensuous is always how I think of her from that period.  Bell wrote Lori on Y&R in a similar manner.  I was disappointed with Susan's material at Y&R.  Supposedly, Bell created the role of Stephanie on B&B with Susan in mind but she turned it down because she wanted to go back to Days.  I guess it would have been better for her career if she had accepted it.

 

I think she would have been great on B&B but I'm not sure about Stephanie - I wonder how she might have been as Beth Logan. 

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That really was a low point for DAYS. Who was writing then?

 

I didn't realize Suzanne Rogers added Groom to her professional name for the short time she was married to Sam.

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52 minutes ago, teplin said:

That really was a low point for DAYS. Who was writing then?

 

I didn't realize Suzanne Rogers added Groom to her professional name for the short time she was married to Sam.

 

I think the writers in 1981 were Michele Poteet Lisanti and Gary Tomlin. although Nina Laemmle had been there just before them and really screwed up the show, so perhaps the damage David Johnson was referring to came from her.

 

Kellam Chandler was one of the nine mostly-dud characters Laemmle introduced (she axed 13 others) and the story with Kellam raping Marlena happened under Laemmle, as did Mary's marriage to Alex. As boring as Poteet-Lisant and Tomlin were, Laemmle's material was boring, stupid, and destructive to the entire show. She was by far the worst writer ever to work on Days up until that point (Reilly was years in the future), and she had the nerve and the audacity to announce that the show had before "dull and repetitious" before she arrived. HA!

Edited by vetsoapfan

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