Passions run deep as soap operas struggle to catch up to our fast-changing world

Love and obsession, triumph and defeat, sin and sacrifice -- sounds like another typical day at the network-television soap operas. Soaps have always been timeless. There's comfort in being able to tune out for years at a time but still feel right at home when you do check in. Recovering from her near-death experience, Valerie is still trying to win back Bob. Stephanie hasn't stopped running around on Evan with the father he gave up for dead years ago.

But there's trouble in daytime paradise. In a world driven by rapid change, staying the same is no asset. Today the soaps' very timelessness makes them seem archaic. How can these television mainstays win new audiences unless they reflect the Internet-driven, breakneck speed of the world around them?

Seeking an answer to that very question, the producers of a major-network daytime drama (one you would recognize) recently approached two well-known fiction writers who freelance as professional Hollywood script doctors. In response the writers had a few things to say to the producers about how to drag their dramas, kicking and screaming, into this digital world of ours. The following is a real memo written to real network producers. It is a fascinating peek into what they believe is really changing. An excerpt of the memo appears here as it was originally written, except that the names of the writers, the shows, and the fictional characters and places have been changed to protect the innocent -- should there be such a thing in that world.

Can soaps find happiness in the new economy? You be the judge...

TO: Hollywood Television Moguls
FROM: Brian Smeeks & Ted Noble
RE: 21st-Century Suds

Holy Susan Lucci!

As Ted told you over the telephone, ever since our lunch at Le Jardin we've been watching Arcadia, On the Rocks, and Heaven & Earth. We've become quite familiar with all three programs and the characters that people Maple Creek, Blaine Lake, and Pinewood. Actually, going in blindly was a blessing in disguise, since it gave us far more objective eyes.

Let's examine an advantage that Arcadia enjoys over the other two shows -- its snappy, more contemporary, and definitely more glamorous slant. It's a fact: trends from the go-go 1980s are back: conspicuous consumption (there are 3x the number of -- and huger -- megayachts being built today than back in the '80s), grand parties are back in style, and so are break-the-bank weddings (take the Miller girls), expensive fashions, and above all, what about all the "instant" fortunes being made in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley?

Yet, to our amazement, despite the fact that On the Rocks has a prince -- make that two princes -- which should offer gobs of opportunity for glamour, that aspect is sadly lacking. It's not taken advantage of in either look, plot, or feel. Ditto Heaven & Earth. It has the television station and the fashion thing going, but they were barely used.

Plus -- and this is of paramount importance! -- Arcadia is overall sexier somehow. But it's an attitude that's projected -- not just shown through kissing and playing musical beds. It's there in language, in the sets, in the fashions (current Vogue-type clothes rather than discount mart). Arcadia, we guess you could say, has got more...well, more va-va-voom!

It's very commendable that, on Heaven & Earth, older characters are kept on the show for continuity. But please! Let's weave them into the fabric of the plot! They're more than wallpaper! (These days, Americans are getting older while remaining lively and more youthful.)

Pinewood and Maple Creek are stuck in a shopworn time warp -- even the kids. So let's get with it! Let's step outside and look around us for a minute and absorb reality. For the most part, the girls on the show look and dress like cheerleaders back in the '70s. The guys -- kids and adults alike -- are Ozzie-and-Harriet squeaky-clean: living, breathing, walking sweaters and hairdos, with little differentiation.

Think about this for a moment. Except for Tiffany, the romance novelist who gave birth at Christmas, where are the laptops? For God's sake, we're in the INFORMATION AGE. The Internet, akin to the birth of the telephone, provides a wealth of opportunity for plot elements (and characters). For example, consider the merger of Time Warner and AOL. What does this tell us?

Even Arcadia dropped the ball this time. They've got a stalker who sends threatening letters to Joanna that result in an important ad campaign being dropped and a company's entire future being plunged into jeopardy, and then they let that entire plot line take a vacation, the psychos and stalkers presumably taking the holidays off to celebrate. (Not to mention Rebecca and Jeff's flying off to Venice for New Year's! New Year's? In Venice? In WINTER? We hope they haven't forgotten to pack their stilts!) Why weren't the threatening letters sent by E-mail to, let's say, Joanna's "superprivate" E-mail address? Wouldn't that make it even spookier and more "home invasive?"

Which brings us to another burning question: Why can't somebody in Pinewood (or Maple Creek) make a dot-com fortune? For example, somebody who hates Keeley, uses a series of dummy corporations to buy a large stake in her thriving local TV station, and tries to wrest control, creating a major power struggle? Then this dot-com guy could seduce one of the young girls and marry her -- weddings are always popular -- and she finds out, too late, that he's really, really weird. Locks her in the manse, won't let her spend money, won't let her communicate with friends? Needs rescuing? We'll call that the Rapunzel factor, and there are other obvious ones. The Cinderella factor. The Sleeping Beauty factor. The Prince and the Pauper factor. Et cetera, et cetera.

Class warfare: Sure, in On the Rocks, Candace is in love with Ricky Toriz. (For some reason, which is still unclear to us, the Torizes are considered shady.) But the class difference -- in this case, ethnicity -- isn't even broached. Once again, Arcadia is off and running with this one. They have the nice and naïve little sister who's seeing Val, the grease monkey, whose corn-fed older sister schemes to break them up. This works because it's not only talked about, it's acted through in an embarrassing scene at an upscale restaurant. Those are the kinds of scenes viewers can identify with. Yes, we're all created equal. But we really aren't all equal, are we? And we all know it. Unfortunately, in both On the Rocks and Heaven & Earth, there isn't enough diversity among characters -- they all are middle or upper class and mix and mingle with the ease of old chums.

Maple Creek and especially Pinewood can use any boost they can get, both set-wise and as far as the characters go. About dusting off those cobwebs: one simple remedy is to get the characters moving. They're too static. Not enough roughhousing, no toss-a-candy-in-the-air-and-catch-it type of thing. Nothing cool. There are too many instances where one of the kids is standing around, and another conveniently happens along. Why aren't they out jogging or Rollerblading, and one happens to be tying his or her sneaker laces? Oh -- and get ready. How about... a sushi bar? (That could introduce an Asian couple -- as it is, Pinewood seems nearly lily-white.) And how about a glitzy coed gym where bodies are on view while working out? All that takes is carpeting, a mirrored corner, and a few exercise machines. Nobody seems as gym- and health-obsessed as our contemporaries. Also, let's move Courtney out of her rather grim digs into some contemporary pad. She is, after all, a news anchor.

Last week, when we popped into Manhattan for a couple of days, we had dinner at Jo Jo's and sat at one of the two front booths. And who should be sitting directly opposite us? Sue Simmons and company. (She wore the same pantsuit -- not cheap -- later on, on NBC's 11 o'clock news.) We instantly thought of Courtney. Why not upgrade her? Why not show her signing off on the news (maybe when someone else in Pinewood is watching TV, before switching off their set)? We need to inject some life and reality and adrenaline. As it is, the TV station doesn't work -- it's too generic and ordinary. And a cheerleader (Robin's sister) and a klutz (dull Thomas) should hardly prove competition for Courtney -- even with compromising pictures. Courtney should be able to eat these kids alive; she has great villainess potential. Also, Courtney's signing off on the news (seen on a TV set) provides the ideal opportunity to add new blood into Pinewood -- a handsome anchorman, perhaps.

High time to fire up a few cylinders. Give the shows a good dose of Geritol! Need we say we have plenty more to say regarding plots and characters?

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