Sunday, November 2, 2008

Save The Soap Opera; Save All Television...

Back in 2004 a documentary-- not completely unlike Trekkies but for the soap opera crowd-- began filming in Los Angeles, interviewing the stars and fans alike of Days of our Lives. In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the show being on air (as well as the producer/director's college thesis project), this documentary sought to look deep into the psyches of the people who dedicated the majority of their lives to following this show. At an hour a day, five days a week, starting at a time before TiVo, it was true dedication to devote one's interest to such a show. What was found, though, was that the fans weren't the only ones influenced by the fictional Horton, Brady, and DiMera families in the ambigious town of Salem, USA: other television shows and even a few films thought it important enough of a blip on the pop culture radar to make reference to it. Days of our Lives has cropped up in just about every key project in recent entertainment history.

Perhaps in the beginning all of the references were NBC's way of simply advertising the program within their other programs. In the early seventies, Days of our Lives was still a fairly new soap when compared to CBS' Guiding Light, for example, which had built an audience first in radio before making it to the small screen. So when Sanford and Son (NBC's prolific answer to the racist Archie Bunker over on the alphabet network) blatantly called out not just the title of the show or the tagline but also it's timeslot (Fred was flirting with a woman who was talking about the magnitude of life, and he said: "Well, you know what they say: like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives." She told him it was poetic, and he replied with: "It's what Macdonald Carey says everyday at 12:30, 11:30 central.") it was a little suspicious, to say the least.

But the impact was felt nonetheless, and DOOL, as it is known, started to crop up more and more, including in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi phenomenon Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss built a mountain out of trash, there was a television on in the background playing a scene with Doug and Julie (Doug and Susan Hayes) that then cut to the show's hourglass opening. The television was an important prop just a little later in this scene because on it Richard Dreyfuss spotted the exact same mountain he was building and first began to realize something is going on.

In Elle Woods' Harvard admissions video in Legally Blonde, she cited her good factual memory as a reason she should be a lawyer, and to back up her claim, she began reciting what happened on the previous day's episode of the soap opera, explaining: "Once again we join Hope in the search for her identity; as you know, she's been brainwashed by the evil Stefano." This is not just a simple reference but also a subtle way to explain the movie's own theme of Elle trying to find who she really is; she thinks she's destined just to be Warner's girlfriend, but her journey teaches her she's so much more.

Sometimes the references are a bit more about allusions than imagery, though. At the point in Growing Pains when Jason (Alan Thicke) began to work at home, he could often be found on the couch, passing the time with Days of our Lives. Scenes were never shown, but the theme song could be heard, and some believe it was a homage to Gloria Loring, his ex-wife who used to play Liz on DOOL. Simarly in The Sweetest Thing, Christina Applegate and Cameron Diaz' characters buy ridiculously flamboyant outfits to attend a wedding and at catching first sight of themselves in a car window reflection, they exclaim: "Like sands through the hourglass...!" Though this quote has originally been credited to Socrates, many believe this was a call to the soap opera, not the philosopher, because in early nineties, when Alison Sweeney (Sami) first started on the show, it was often mentioned by fans and writers that she resembled Applegate, who was then appearing on Married With Children (ironically, Applegate once tried to make a witty comment to another character on her sitcom using the "sand through the hourglass" line, but being the blonde bimbo she was painted to be, she misquoted and attributed to Shakespeare).

Often, Days of our Lives has been heard rather than seen in other television programs. Writers seem to have become adept at throwing not only the show's tagline but also mentions of some of the "absurd nature" of it's storylines into their own scripts when they need to justify their own absurd behavior. Somehow on television, if it's been done somewhere, sometime it seems slightly more realistic to happen somewhere else, again. This happened in Cheers when Carla's ex-husband wanted custody of their kids, and someone in the bar yelled at him to "take out an ad for a kid;" he replied with: "What is this, Days of our Lives?" Vicki Lawrence's title character Mama on Mama's Family was also somewhat obsessed with the soap opera and would talk about it often, such as when Naomi's ex showed up again, and she said she'd been "watching Days of our Lives long enough to know that when exes return they usually want something."

Of course the biggest showing of influence Days of our Lives has had in recent popular culture, though, would be with the character of Joey Tribbiani on Friends. It wasn't enough for Ross and Chandler to watch a scene with Marlena and John (Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn) in one early episode; the show goes so far as to ignore the fact that DOOL shoots in Los Angeles, and Joey lived in New York City, so he could play Dr. Drake Ramoray on the show within the show for the majority of Friends' run. This often led to "trips to the set" for Joey and some of his pals, which allowed for cross-over for some of the DOOL actors to play versions of themselves/their characters on the primetime hit. Roark Critchlow (ex-Mike Horton) was up first with a simple cameo in the infamous episode where Joey gets killed off the show for telling Soap Opera Digest he writes a lot of his own lines,

but in later years, Kevin Spirtas (ex-Dr. Wesley) and Kristian Alfonso (Hope) share a scene within a scene with Joey in Salem's hospital, and Joey even throws an annual "soap opera party on the roof" featuring cameos by Kyle Lowder (ex-Brady), Matt Ashford (Jack), Eric Winter (ex-Rex), and Farah Fath (ex-Mimi).

The Nanny also had some fun with co-star Charles Shaughnessy who used to play Shane on DOOL. Fran (Fran Drescher) and her mother (Renee Taylor) were watching the show on television in on episode when he walked in and chastised them for watching such shows. Fran admits he's right because "it hasn't been the same since Shane left."

In another episode Stephen Nichols (Patch on DOOL and Charles' real life good friend) guest stars are a fictional soap opera star from a show (One Day After The Other) clearly based on DOOL and their shared experiences while on the show. When he hits on Fran, she tells him she's going to report him to Soap Opera Digest because he's nothing like his character, and he tells her that he's exactly like his evil twin, and he slips on the eyepatch he wears on DOOL.

Ironically in 2004, fellow NBC soap Passions made reference to DOOL, when Evil Faith went after Charity with a knife; she mentioned Marlena, who for a little while was brainwashed to be the Salem Stalker and ended up "killing" some of the smaller characters like Maggie, Cassie, and Roman. It's ironic now because since the canceling of Passions a few of their actors have found their way migrating over to the DOOL stage on the Burbank NBC lot. But perhaps the way soap opera actors tend to bounce from one daytime serial to another is the start of a whole other diatribe! And though rumors have buzzed for the past few years about the end of Days, so to speak, the aforementioned evidence of the show's importance and affect should prove it will surely live to see its fiftieth anniversary in just a few more years.

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