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1991 Soap Opera Digest Critique of AMC

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ALL MY CHILDREN Has a Better Half

Even the Strongest Stories Need Support

By Donna Hoke Kahwaty

Report Card

Acting: B-

Continuity: A

Plotting: A+

Character Development: C-

Couples: B

ALL MY CHILDREN has come full circle, rising from sixth place in the ratings - where it often found itself in the past two years - back up to a solid number three, and sometimes even number two. No doubt the release of Head Writer Maggie DePriest, and the subsequent reinstatement of creator Agnes Nixon as head writer, helped accomplish the jump.

Under DePriest, AMC was floundering. Stories and characters - even those who had been on the show for years - were not well-defined. Watching ALL MY CHILDREN was like watching the antics in your office - you know the people, but their conversations aren't particularly interesting on a day-to-day basis. Likewise, one only needed to tune in to All My Children once in a while to see what everyone was up to. And the truth is, it wasn't much. And it got worse. Erica went on the run, Skye tried to kill Barbara and Silver's ghost plagued Natalie. The show was on a downslide and losing viewers.

Good plotting returned along with Nixon. Stories no longer meandered, but steadily moved from point A to point B in classic soap opera fashion, branching out to affect other characters and kick off new stories. Nixon is a master of the ripple effect. She began the Jackson/Erica/Travis triangle (Walt Willey/Susan Lucci/Larkin Malloy), which was an instant hit, delivering the tension that a daytime love story needs to survive. Introducing Barbara (Susan Pratt) and Tom (Richard Shoberg) further intensified the drama. Barbara's daughter by Travis had leukemia, and her only chance of survival was another child conceived by the couple. As a marriage-busting ploy, it beat having a wife return from the dead.

AMC's plotting is such a major strength, in fact, that reading advance story is as compelling as watching the show. But it takes convincing characters as well as good stories to make a show work, to make it compelling to watch. In this respect, AMC is only half working right now. While the plots are foolproof, the characters are often wanting, and not interesting enough to watch for themselves.

All My Children has a habit of bringing on new characters who are not fully developed. They hire actors to play out a story requiring one dimension, and, when that story is over, the character has nowhere to go. At this point, AMC usually takes one of two paths. Option one: Give the actor a story that is completely wrong for his/her character, thereby confusing the viewers as well as the actor. Caera's (Genie Francis) incest story is a perfect example. She was brought on as a femme fatale, and now she's a victim. It doesn't wash. Dixie (Emmy winner Cady McClain) would have been a much better choice; her father, Seabone Hunkle, was a louse, and viewers care about Dixie. Instead, the exceptionally talented McClain is wasting away following her front-burner year (and why hasn't Will [Patrick Stuart] had a decent story since he's been back?). Opal's (Jill Larson) relationship with Palmer (James Mitchell) is another bad move. Opal has taken away Palmer's edge, which he had always maintained, even when he was in love. He no longer spars with Myra (Elizabeth Lawrence); he's just one more casualty of the AMC Emasculation Syndrome. And Opal whines too much.

AMC's second most popular bad character remedy: Recast with someone who will fit the story better. The most recent example is Brian Bodine (Matt Borlenghi). The original Brian (Gregory Gordon) auditioned twice for his part; AMC should have been sure of him at that point. Why weren't they? Probably because the character was never fully developed. He probably still isn't, and may well go the aimless route of David Rampal once the Hayley/Brian love story is over.

A tendency to rely on larger-than-life eccentricities to make new characters interesting also creates a problem for All My Children. Once the story that fits that eccentricity is over, the character blends into the mainstream, often without a solid identity. Witness Opal, Hayley (Kelly Ripa) and Trevor (James Kiberd). All three started out unique and ended up shadows of their former oddball selves. Had they been more developed from the beginning, this wouldn't have happened. Characters wouldn't take 180-degree turns, like Barbara did when she met Tom. She lost all her verve. How is anybody supposed to identify with a character who has no direction? Character personalities should be developed in and of themselves, not merely for the sake of a particular story.

And when AMC wants to push that pet story, they have a predilection for ramming the new characters down viewers' throats (before they've been given a chance to care about them), to the detriment of its proven actors/characters. Phyllis Lyons (Arlene), Kelly Ripa and Genie Francis are talented, but they take up more than half the show. To watch them is like turning on a movie in the middle; you don't really know enough about them to be engrossed in their actions. But that doesn't mean that stories about the children of alcoholics, or incest stories, are not well-developed ideas; they are. AMC just needs to develop characters equally well. And they must introduce new characters gradually, like they did with Katie Kennicott (Greta Lind). By the time she got involved with Joey (Michael Brainard), she was familiar. Likewise, Joey was introduced slowly before he got a front-burner story.

Joey is one of AMC's backbone characters - those played by actors talented enough to imbue their characters with personality and depth with little direction from writers. Michael Brainard is in good company: Brooke (Julia Barr), Tom, Adam (David Canary), Erica, Jack and Natalie (Kate Collins) are all vertebrae in the Pine Valley backbone. No story is completely lost as long as one of those characters is in place, and that is to the actors' credit. These thespians know how to deliver, to make any scene work. The anguish of Michael Brainard's Joey overrides Emily Ann's (Liz Vassey) one-note obsession and Katie's too-good-to-be-true morals. David Canary makes Adam's desire to win over his child believable, and helps to obliterate the horrendous acting of the students at Pine Valley High. How old is that Z (Brian MacReady) character anyway? He looks thirty. AMC has trouble doing credible teens. Canary is aided in his plight by Phyllis Lyons (Arlene), a talented newcomer. Lucci is similarly fortunate in working with Charles Van Eman, who makes lovesick Charlie very appealing. It's too early to tell how Kate Collins will fare in her dual role (Nat and sister Janet) but she certainly is talented enough to pull it off and All My Children is to be commended for giving her a chance to demonstrate her versatility. And, of course, the Tom/Jack/Brooke triangle was the triple crown. It was a perfect set-up that couldn't miss with these three actors in the saddle.

This triangle could never have developed if AMC didn't cultivate normal friendships among characters. Donna (Candice Earley) and Natalie, Jack and Tad, Brooke and Jack, are just some examples of characters who are actually friends. From real relationships come real stories - stories that make more sense, and flow. Jack and Brooke have been through as much as some super couples and All My Children - a good matchmaker - is always quick to recognize when a couple belongs together because of history, as well as chemistry.

But history, or continuity, has forever been an iron strength of this show. AMC rarely misses. In large part, this is because Agnes Nixon never removed her hand from the till. When Natalie fought to get a fair divorce from Adam, Stuart saved the day by threatening to reveal another time when Stuart stood in for Adam. That Stuart, not Adam, secured Adam's divorce from Erica is a little piece of information viewers may have forgotten about. but AMC didn't; they saved it for precisely the right moment. All My Children is also very good about remembering characters long gone, as if they were real people. It's not unusual for Enid (Natalie Ross) to mention her son, Greg. Phoebe (Ruth Warrick) talks about son Lincoln often, and, when Brooke lost her daughter Laura, Phoebe recalled the loss of her own daughter, Ann, who died years before. It's natural to do this, but most soaps don't.

One of AMC's strengths used to be humor, but lately, some of the most laughable things surely aren't meant to be, e.g. Hayley's drug trip on the roof or Ceara's flashbacks, in which Genie Francis sported pigtails. All My Children needs to make better use of naturally funny actors, like Walt Willey, Charles Van Eman and Louis Edmonds (Langley) - who isn't used nearly enough - instead of trying to artificially create humor with characters like Opal. It comes across flat. Scenes like the one where Jack babysat for Jamie are infinitely more funny.

While it may seem that All My Children has a lot of problems, they aren't that far-reaching. If the show took the time to more fully develop characters, and then hired more fully developed actors - rather than the inexperienced performers they tend to cast- to play the parts, it would be top-notch.

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