by Zack Smith
Nor was it the stroke, the brain aneurysm, the killer virus, the breast cancer or the traumatic repressed memories that had resulted in her developing seven personalities and forgetting about giving birth to not one but two daughters (one of whom developed a split personality of her own before dying of lupus). No, for all her resilience, what finally killed Viki and her fellow residents of the fictional Llanview, Penn., was a diet show.
Llanview, setting of the 43-year-old ABC soap opera One Life to Live is just the latest fictional small town to disappear from TV screens in the last few years, in a wave of cancellations that have also seen Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Passions and All My Children leave the air.
“In a way, it was inevitable — not just to One Life, but to a genre that had a very good long run,” says Duke University English professor Michael Malone, who served as One Life’s head writer from 1991-1996 and 2003-2004.
“I’ll always say the fiction of Llanview lasted longer than Shakespeare’s Globe. These were very long-lived shows—30 years, 40 years, Guiding Light was 70 years. That’s a lot of stability in a very fast-moving medium like television. And it taught other parts of television how to make serials.”
Malone, a Durham native who resides in Hillsborough, says it’ll be “too painful” for him to watch on Friday, Jan. 13 when Viki and the others say goodbye, with a few cliffhangers and Viki taking yet a third round-trip to heaven before giving way to the new self-improvement talk show The Revolution with Ty Pennington and Tim Gunn. But he remembers his time in Llanview fondly, and maintains a deep and abiding respect for daytime soap operas, a genre of TV that seems on the verge of extinction.
Malone cites declining audiences for network programming for the soaps’ demise, along with the fact that “there became so many other ways to see this stuff,” citing shows such as Gray’s Anatomy and Six Feet Under as examples of programming that co-opted the soaps’ style of open-ended long-form serialized storytelling.
“It’s not that (audiences) don’t want story, it’s just that they have so many more ways to get it,” Malone says.
His tenure in Llanview was one of the show’s most influential periods, with many of the characters he created still playing major roles on the canvass as One Life to Live reaches its end. It was also one of the most unlikely pairings in television—a Southern literary novelist with no television-writing experience and a soap that by the time he arrived, had eschewed its roots as a spotlight for social issues in exchange for stories about time travel, lost underground cities and the aforementioned trips to heaven (in fairness, a storyline about a soap-within-a-soap had shot some exterior scenes on Duke University’s campus).
1993: Malone won an Emmy for this episode, which guest-starred Marsha Mason as a priestess who marries reformed bad boy Max and “North Carolina goddess-worshipping feminist” Luna.
Dirty Dancing producer Linda Gottlieb, who’d been brought on the save the program, recruited Malone as headwriter based on his experience as “someone who wrote capacious novels” such as Time’s Witness and Handling Sin.
“In a way, our complete ignorance of (daytime’s) traditions gave us complete freedom to do adventuresome things,” Malone says.
Those “adventuresome things” included tackling issues that even prime-time TV was shying away from in the 1990s. One of Malone’s first major storylines cast a 17-year-old Ryan Phillippe as a gay teenager struggling to come out; the story climaxed with the AIDS quilt being brought to Llanview, with the names of actual AIDS victims read on a location shoot.
For Malone, the story represented an opportunity to allow viewers to relate to the issue through characters they had come to know through years of viewing.
“To have Viki carry the AIDS quilt into the church and lay it on the altar was to say to the audience of One Life who had spent so many years with Viki and trusted her judgment that ‘It can’t be all bad to be accepting and understanding,’” Malone says. “For all its conservatism, daytime expands tolerance.
It also allowed him a broader audience than his literary work.
“There was no way ever on God’s green earth that five million people a week would be reading my novels, but they might see Viki carrying that AIDS quilt to that altar.”
1992: A CBS This Morning segment and the final scenes from Malone’s gay teen/AIDS storyline.
Malone’s greatest acclaim came the following year with a large story where town bad girl Marty Saybrooke (named for his daughter Margaret), was brutally gang-raped and brought her attackers to trial. The story won Emmys for many of the actors involved (and Malone himself received an Emmy for his work on the show that year), but ran into trouble when Roger Howarth, who played lead rapist Todd Manning, became so popular that the character had to be kept on the show.
1993: After realizing her clients, including Todd Manning (Roger Howarth) are guilty of gang-raping Marty Saybrooke (Susan Haskell) at a frat party, attorney Nora Gannon (Hillary B. Smith) throws her case and triggers a mistrial during her closing arguments. The storyline won Emmys for Howarth, Haskell and Smith, whose character was based on a lawyer named Nora from Malone’s novel Time’s Witness.
Todd was partially redeemed into a self-destructive antihero who remained popular until the show’s end, but his portrayer and many critics were wary of having him becoming a romantic lead. Malone says the character’s appeal came from the way Howarth’s portrayal evoked such classic actors as Valentino, Bogart and Gable, who who became romantic leads after playing violent thugs .
“That deep pain that the actor is able to literally send out across himself to the audience, the vulnerability of the character is as strong as the lashing out,” Malone says.
1994: Accused of rape again, Todd pressures Marty to reveal he’s innocent; Malone marks the confrontations between Todd and Marty as among his favorite scenes.
Malone’s tenure on One Life to Live wasn’t all social issues and acclaim—at more than 250 hour-long shows a year, he admits, “you can’t make every episode as polished as House or The Sopranos.” Actors would break a leg, then have to have their casts written into their characters; other actors had been their characters for so long that “they’ve gone a little bit bonkers and lost touch with reality, so they think they are the character.
“I remember one of them saying to me, ‘If you want to know what so-and-so would be saying, don’t write it down, come and ask me!’
“Erika Sleszak, who is not bonkers at all, has been Viki more hours of her life than she has been Erika Slezak. That’s an astonishing thing that must have some kind of effect on an actor. It’s different from one day I’m in The Cherry Orchard, next week I’m in As You Like It.”
1995: Dorian (Robin Strasser), Viki’s longtime rival and former stepmother, inadvertently shatters Viki’s psyche when she forces Viki to remember being molested by her father as a child. The storyline won Slesak the fifth of her six Emmys for outstanding actress in a daytime drama.
Still, daytime soaps were on the decline by the time Malone left the series, helped in part by constant preemptions for coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial.
“I vividly recall the meeting where the network posted a graph showing viewership before the trial started and after trial,” he says. “It looked like a toboggan ride downward. It is what broke the huge hold on the audience.”
After leaving One Life to Live, Malone developed an unsold a late-night soap for Fox called 13 Bourbon Street and wrote for NBC’s now-defunct Another World, along with continuing his work with novels (which he now found, as a result of his daytime tenure, tended to end their chapters with cliffhangers). He returned to One Life to Live in 2003, but found the commute from North Carolina to New York troublesome and the environment at the network changed.
“At the time when the genre needed to be the most daring, the most recklessly unhampered by whatever the ratings were, rather than going backwards to what had worked half a century ago, you needed to forward and take the kind of chances we took the first time I was there,” he says.
This tenure did produce his best-selling novel, The Killing Club, “co-written’ by one of the characters on screen to tie into the show’s storyline—though Malone says he was less amused when it was promoted by having the actress appear on talk shows talking about having “written” the book.
Though Malone says he prefers focusing on novels and teaching to doing another TV series, he remains affectionate about his days in daytime. “People think of it as roses and hot tubs and people committing adultery and eating chocolates while they do it, but it’s not all that. It’s a uniquely American form.
“It was created almost entirely by women, as so many early practitioners of the novel and quilts and other things that wind up in museums and often aren’t perceived as art. There was a time plays weren’t art because poetry was art, and then movies weren’t art because plays were art, and then television wasn’t art because movies were art, and so on. Daytime has been in some ways the stepchild in terms of prestige in terms of narrative, but that not an informed view of the genre.”
And as to whether One Life to Live will indeed live again, he remains optimistic: “You never know, people might get tired of watching people diet.”