Lipstick on a Pig
Greetings, cherubs! 'Tis I once again. I wanted to take a quick moment to clear up a little confusion that was stirred up my inaugural post: my name, or rather, what to call me. Regular posters on the blogs here have known me as "DS9Sisko," but the switch to my real name for blogging purposes led to a bit of puzzlement. Now, I admit I have been called rather unprintable names over the years (many of which were in foreign languages), but after some consideration I think it would simplify things if folk called me either "DS9" or Bernard. None of those unprintable names though, specifically the ones in ancient Celtic or Mayan. Now...
The Story So Far: Ex-meth addict/porn star/nursing student Alison Stewart (Marnie Schulenburg) of the Permanently Dysfunctional Stewart Women, just got hitched to teenage sweetheart and all around good guy Aaron Snyder (Agim Kaba) of the Upstanding Salt of The Earth Holier Than Thou Snyder Clan, right after doing the horizontal mambo with maybe-maybe-not-supposed-to-be-edgy good guy Dr. Chris Hughes of The Pillars of Society Hughes of Oakdale. This is coming off a messy, but ridiculously short sexual harassment suit brought to bear against young Dr. Hughes by young Ms. Stewart while young Mr. Snyder seethed for various and sundry reasons. Now, after having "done the deed" with both men within hours (minutes?) of each other, we wait for the seemingly inevitable Who's The Baby Daddy? storyline to commence. Meanwhile the recently returned Dani Andropolous (another Stewart woman) tried to make sure that object of her lust, that would be young Dr. Hughes, makes her hollar "don't stop, git it git it!" Oh...and there is a cute little dog, too....
When As the World Turns is good, it is riveting television and classic soap opera. The show embodies deep passion, human emotions, subtext galore, and storylines that have ripple effects throughout the canvas.
And then there is the Chris/Allison/Aaron imbroglio.
This triangle more or less exemplifies everything that is wrong with ATWT, which if you bear with me, I will address shortly.
This state of affairs is certainly not, I repeat not, the fault of the actors involved. Marnie Shulenberg can seemingly handle whatever head writer Jean Passanante and her team throw at her, whether it is drug induced rage and paranoia via the recent Rick Decker story to edgy interactions with her always volatile family members. This young actress has grown exponentially since she first appeared on screen, and even though she isn't Jessica Dunphy's goofier, conniving and more vulnerable Alison, Shulenberg has remade the role into her own in what I think is a good way. Dylan Bruce is a great find as the 8th actor to play Chris, entirely believable as the son of Bob and Kim Hughes. Thanks to terrific chemistry with Don Hastings and Kathryn Hays, Bruce fits right in with his overachieving family as the son who always feels that he can never live up to his father's reputation or skill. And Agim Kaba, who has been done the greatest disservice among all the young actors on the show, continues to turn out solid and understated work, often without a net. All three of these fine young actors have more strengths than weaknesses and each brings a nice dynamism to their roles, but what I mean by working without a net is not Pacino/DeNiro-esque Method acting, but rather the net of solid story and scripts. And as written so far, the failure of the Chris/Alison/Aaron triangle to catch fire is a study in the dangers of compressed narratives, island storytelling and the lack of a plan or even vision for the characters themselves.
By all rights, Chris, Alison and Aaron should be burning up the screen. Each character has long standing history on the show, their families are interconnected in various ways (most of them messy) and all three characters have somewhat volatile personalities. Perfect ingredients for years of storylines. Instead this triangle falls flat because there is no real sense of what is stake for any of the characters involved in terms of their feelings for each other and no time was afforded any of them to express their motivations. Sure, there have been scenes between and among all of them in various combinations, but these scenes have always seemed more declarative than character driven. What we know is that Aaron loves Allison. Chris loves Allison. Allison is, well, a cipher. There is no genuine sense of push-pull between these two men and why she is torn between them.
I think a lot of the problem is that these characters have been given "things to do" rather than story to play. In other words, the equivalent of busy work. In soap terms this means keeping a character (and actor) on screen to play whatever is thrown their way. Today Allison is a porn star. Tomorow a meth addict. Day after that a nursing student. Day after that she loves Aaron. After that she loves/hates/loves Chris. Days after those there is a lawsuit. Sprinkle a few fights between Aaron & Chris in the mix and so on. There is little cohesion to anything that has gone on between these characters.
I am of the classic soap theory that if the audience understands the motivations of characters, most viewers will be able to jump on board most of their stories. Motivation is not simply "why" they say they are doing things, but rather what spoken and unspoken passions drive characters to do those things, what compels them in the face of, in spite of, or against the odds. When motivation is established, a writer can take a character almost anywhere. Why? Because we feel we know these characters even when we don't agree with their choices and actions.
On their own Alison, Chris and Aaron all have motivations enough for each to have compelling stories: Alison, despite her dubious past, wants to clean up her life and become respectable. Chris wants to, but feels he can't and will never, live up to his father. Aaron, ever the outsider and just as hotheaded as all the other Snyder men, is stubbornly determined to pave his own way in the world. A writer and producer truly invested in these characters could spin any number of stories involving them and their families over the long haul. Instead, Alison, Chris and Aaron have been thrust into a triangle that doesn't gel, without any of their personal motivations intact and one which only provides plot markers like the hoary old "sleep with two men in short period of time."
And these characters have been isolated onto an island and kept there. How else to explain the asinine reasoning that was assigned to Holden for not having Aaron included in the search for the missing Ethan because Aaron was on his honeymoon? What kind of logic is that? "Sorry Aaron, but we didn't think you'd want to break away from boinking your new wife while your little brother might be being molested." No, folks, this is how the the writers deliberately keep characters out of the action in order to play the canvas more broadly with A and B stories instead of, say, centering the entire episode on the coming together of the strained Snyder family to hunt for the missing tot. By calling Aaron away on a family emergency, this could have paved the way for a left behind Alison to have been alone in the hotel and more logically vulnerable to Chris' presence rather than inexplicably turning Aaron into a control freak. And that brings us to the dangers of compressed storytelling.
There are two types, both of which ATWT employs. The first is where unnecessary action is edited out (or never filmed) to get to the point of the story and move things along. For example, Character A is in the hospital and says she is going to Character B's house to confront them. In the very next shot, Character A storms in and confronts Character B. I know some fans don't like it, but I do. And it also works very well for a short term story arc like the recent return of Rick Decker. If you hated the Decker story, it didn't last long at all. And if you liked it, it was a fun little diversion. Compressed storytelling has its place.
But the other type of compressed storytelling is the one that ATWT (and probably worse on sister soap Guiding Light) absolutely gets wrong every single time, and it is most seriously at play in the Chris/Alison/Aaron story. I call it "emotional compression." This is where characters have certain emotions and emotional responses without aforementioned motivation established. While we may see the story play out (boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, have difficulties, etc), we don't get any of the why behind it. What is it that Dani Andropolous sees in Chris Hughes? Why did Allison really marry Aaron? When did Aaron suddenly turn into a puppy hater? Characters do things instead of feel them, act on impulse often without rhyme or reason, and the consequences are limited at best. With their limited screen time, even Luke & Noah have had more opportunities to establish their relationship on a level that makes sense than Alison, Chris and Aaron have had among themselves. "Emotional compression" disallows the audience the opportunity to understand this stuff because the viewer rarely sees the beats between the decisions. I thought Alison's Felinni-esque black & white near-death dream sequence when she shared limbo with both Aaron and Kaba helped re-establish the connective emotional tissue between the characters going forward, but I simply feel Passanante/Goutman did not capitalize on that opportunity in order to let their collective story play out longer to establish the beats necessary for a true tug of war triangle to be viable.
None of this is helped by the fact that as capable as the actors are that there is precious little chemistry between Kaba's "Aaron" & Shulenberg's "Alison," precipitously lowering the stakes. Nor does the sudden inclusion of Dani in the mix, a character that has to establish herself (character and actress) in much the same way that Shulenberg's version of Alison did when she first came back on the scene. And poor Aaron, sidelined or totally absent from his tumultuous family troubles while his portrayer Kaba has been left trying to hold the integrity of Aaron as we knew him alive, only to have this sudden personality change take hold as if it will charge up the triangle or make it more interesting. You know.....like putting lipstick on a pig.
Only the adorable little doggie gets out of this unscathed.
Gentle readers, am I out of my mind? Do you see the viability of the Chris/Alison/Aaron/Dani-Come-Lately grouping I don't? Isn't "lipstick on a pig" dated already? Isn't that dog cuter than Ethan Synder?