Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cultural Productions III: Why I love 'Bold and the Beautiful'

For two years, I worked at a job where my lunch break was scheduled around 4.30 in the afternoon. I'd wander into the cafeteria room, while the TV was playing on the large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, and overhear - overwatch? - the daytime soaps and cooking shows.

I'd scorned, like any decent, cultured, intelligent human being, the daytime soaps for years - Bold, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless - since the time of my childhood. (Back in the eighties, the soaps were filmed, as today, in that really weird, gauzy lighting, which makes all the actors seem as if they were filmed through a silk veil - the famous 'Loretta Young' silks of the silver age of Hollywood. This technique doesn't make the actors look better: I suppose, by using it, the studios save money (also, by not filming outdoors most of the time)). Bold, as viewers know (and how many people admit, to me, that they never watch the soap, but, when pressed, can give an instant rundown of all the recent plot developments) is filmed in an economical half-hour format. Stories proceed at a glacial pace, and one can drop it for a few weeks, a few months even, and pick up it again without missing a beat. What's more, it has the advantage (over Days) of being only half an hour. When you add that up - half an hour, five days a week, at the same time slot, almost nothing ever happening - Bold is very easy to assimilate. Which is what happened with me. I'd look at one episode with scorn, the first time I saw it on at the cafeteria, and, after a few days exposure, began to tell one character apart from another, and then pick up on what actually what was happening. At the time I was watching it, Ridge (Ron Moss), the 'hero' and 'alpha male' of the show (who has a horribly sculpted face (sculpted by plastic surgery) and looks, in the words of a female colleague, like a 'plastic Ken doll', and is one of the worst actors in the world) was trying to prevent his daughter, Steffi (the sublimely beautiful Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), from marrying the slimy Rick (the repulsive Kyle Lowder), who is the son of Ridge's father and Ridge's current wife. Rick had previously killed Ridge's other daughter, Phoebe, in a car crash. There was one episode of mourning - in which the entire cast wore designer black outfits - and, in no time, Rick was engaged to Ridge's other daughter. So, after seeing this endless plotline play itself out, every day, on TV, I began to wonder how it'd pan out.

Scriptwriters are (meant to) always ask themselves the question, 'Why should I care?' when it comes to their characters: that is, how to make the audience care about the fate of their characters. This is one of the hardest things a writer can do. Bold succeeds in this spectacularly.

Bold has certain conventions it adheres to: rules which it never, ever breaks.

The first rule is that, in the best daytime soap tradition, the acting must be rubbish. There is what another work colleague called 'back-acting': a character will turn his back on another, walk up to the camera, and pour himself (if he is a male) a scotch. (I also call this 'scotch acting'). Then torrid expressions (only visible, at this angle, to the viewer) will play across the actor's face.

The other convention is the 'stare of death'. Two characters will exchange words, and then lapse into silence. The camera will then close up on to one character's face, who always has a ferocious frown, or a cocked eyebrow. Dramatic music - usually a menacing guitar chord - will play, and the show will cut to the ad break. (Ridge is the master of the cocked eyebrow, while his wife Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang) is the mistress of the frown. Indeed, she frowns in every episode). Sure enough, the staring match between two female characters, and hair-flicking, huffing and sneering will resume straight after the ad-break. Usually, they start weeping, and actresses in Bold have wept buckets over the years.

Another convention, unique perhaps to Bold is that none of the characters do any work. They are meant to be working in the fashion industry (and, crazily enough, all the male designers are heterosexual - each and every one of them) and running multi-million dollar business empires, but they never do anything. They stand around and gossip about each other's private lives. X male character will develop a romantic relationship with y female; then each of them will be confronted, separately, by a relative, or former (or current) spouse or love interest, warning them off, begging them, even. Before or after these "interventions", characters will meet up and discuss the relationship with characters other than x or y. These endless discussions take place in the office, or in a restaurant, or in the bedroom, and just go on forever. (The way parents in the show meddle, scrutinise and constantly interfere in the sex lives of their children is mind-boggling). Now and then something really dramatic and 'soap-ish' will happen: there will be a kidnapping, or an attempted murder, or attempted rape, or maybe a corporate hostile takeover. But high drama, as such, is few and far between in Bold (compared to it, Days is an all-out action drama).

A good life, one would think. All the characters - including the old ones, the grandparents Stephanie Forrester (Susan Flannery) and Eric (John McCook) - are dressed in the most up-to-the-moment designer fashion, and all have the most cutting edge mobile phones (and sending compromising texts plays a big part in the show). They are all rich, they have the use of private jets, they all live in nice houses and apartments, and, although they don't do much with their wealth, they live dream lives. Their main problems are romantic ones - and how to find happiness in life. In that respect, they are like most Westerners: they live in an opulent, safe society, and don't experience that much in the way of poverty or danger. Possibly, it is this fact that is one reason why the show is such a success. 'Kitchen-sink' dramas, like the British Skins or Shameless, set on council estates, portray grimy, dishevelled people living in welfare housing and living off welfare benefits, in an attempt at "realism" and "holding up a mirror" to the audience: ignoring the fact that the denizens of these council estates are tremendously more wealthy and secure than, say, the average Nigerian or Syrian.

One of the peculiar themes of Bold is incest. As mentioned above, Rick is the son of Ridge's wife, Brooke, by Ridge's father (actually, his stepfather). Brooke has been married to Ridge's stepfather, also, has been married to, or had relationships, with his two half-brothers, Thorne (Winsor Harmon) and Nick (Jack Wagner, who most people know as Dr Peter Burns from the infinitely more classy Melrose Place and who is, at the time of writing, married to Melrose's Heather Locklear). Ridge's other wife - like a Mormon who practices polygamy, he goes back and forth between two wives - Taylor (played by Hunter Tylo, who is notorious for her botoxed lips, which make her one of the instantly recognisable American actresses in the world) - also has had relationships with Ridge's two half-brothers, and also, a one-night stand with Ridge's father. Around ten years ago, there was a subplot where Ridge had an affair with his wife Brooke's daughter (also the offspring of his stepfather), but the fan base - long accustomed to Bold incest - felt that that was going to far. The uproar was such that the story was stopped fairly quickly, and the relationship went down the memory-hole, Stalinist-style: it never happened.

Nevertheless, the theme persists. The villainous magazine publisher, 'Dollar' Bill Spencer (Don Diamont, who strikes many viewer as being a somewhat gay actor, with his open-necked shirts, waxed chest, bangles, rings, medallions, ostentatious belt buckles, tight designer jeans and exquisitely coiffured goatee) has an extra-marital affair with the lovely young Steffi, and then promptly hands her over to his gullible, easily-swayed son Liam, who marries her. The son doesn't mind having his father's ex - such matches are normal on Bold. (Amusingly, when Bill's wife Katie (Heather Tom) discovers Bill's infidelity, with Steffi, she collapses and goes into a coma - nearly dying of nothing more than a broken heart. The three people in this unhappy triangle - Steffi, Katie and quasi-gay Bill - are pictured in the photograph above). Besides which, the sons on Bold have unusually good relations with their fathers - they don't hate each other, like fathers and sons do in other dramas.

All of this sounds comedic, and it is. But the thing about soaps is that they can't be parodied: they already are their own parody, and, what's more, they work, despite the lack of 'realism' and 'believability'. It reminds me of what the American comic book writer, Larry Hama (most famous for his work on Marvel's GI Joe back in the eighties) once said: the most important thing about comics is the fantasy of super-seriousness, the great drama. Which makes sense: superhero comic books are about grown men, wearing capes and underpants on the outside of their (spandex) trousers. Unless the characters aren't portrayed as being ultra-serious, and engaged in matters of life and death, as being part of a great drama - the book won't work. If a character stops at some point, and says, 'Oh my god, this is stupid - Superman is wearing underpants on the outside of his trousers! This is so funny, ha-ha', well, the whole thing falls apart. Comic books - and soaps - are anti-postmodern, which is to say, anti-ironic.

It's for this reason that viewers 'abstract out' the sheer unreality and unbelievability of the soap opera storylines. But art is like that anyway.

In Bold, the children in the show grow up and become young adults in a short amount of time (despite having been born in the 1990s or so - the show has been running since 1987) while the adults stay the same age. What's more, Ridge and Brooke have a young son - less than ten years of age - who is never present, in their house or anywhere else. (Likewise, Brooke's young child with Nick is almost never seen). Bold is not a child-friendly show. So, in short, things take place at an abstract level: the (unwanted) child characters are abstracted out.

But that's the same with other genres - Westerns, detective shows, and the older, more respectable versions of narrative (the opera, the Elizabethan play, the Japanese Noh play, the ancient Greek plays). Audiences understand, intuitively, that one can't include everything in a drama. They also know that a real Ridge or Brooke, or a real fashion house, or a real household, wouldn't be like the one in the show.

Great art succeeds when it strikes an emotional chord with the audience. And, oddly enough, Bold does this. In a recent subplot, Bold treaded where few dramas have gone before: the sexual feelings of married old men. The weak Eric, patriarch of the Forrester clan, the founder of the fashion house Forrester Creations, and the show's resident grandfather, confesses to his wife Stephanie - who, after a bout of chemotherapy and operations, no longer interested in sex - that he still feels passion: 'I need affection. Is it wrong to want to be touched by someone? That's why I got into fashion. I wanted to touch women, to be near them, and one of doing that was to design beautiful clothes for them'. It's an oddly poignant moment, seeing as how old (and overweight and unattractive) Eric is, and these lines are delivered with great authority by the actor (who has been playing Eric for decades). Another striking scene occurs when Thorne, Ridge's half-brother, heads to the bar after his attempt to take control of Forrester Creations fails, and is dumped by his girlfriend. He knocks back scotch after scotch (all men in soaps are heavy scotch drinkers) while a Halloween party takes place in the background, and broods, with the help of flashback to prior episodes, over all his past humiliations and defeats, heaped upon him by his brother Ridge, and recounts his sorrows and setbacks to the bartender. Thorne is played by an ugly middle-aged actor (ugly compared to Ridge) with a bad haircut, and you can understand perfectly - at that moment - why he feels the way he does. Likewise, the interaction between the aged Stephanie, and her deranged spinster younger sister, the put-down upon Pam (Alley Mills) is just right - they behave exactly the way that two women who are sisters, and of that age, behave. Stephanie slaps her brow in frustration at trying to get through to her sister, and placate her, and you realise the truth of what Stephanie says - that they've been in the same mutally-destructive rut for years, ever since they were girls.

In a recent zany storyline, the chipmunk-faced, virginal young blonde, Hope (Kim Matula), who is another of Brooke's children (by an off-screen character, Deacon Sharpe, who now appears in The Young and the Restless, in an unusual inter-show crossover) embarks on a morals campaign, designed to persuade young women to 'save themselves' for marriage. She is engaged to Liam, who, naturally enough, balks at the idea, even if he agrees with it in principle. He quickly becomes (although this isn't shown explicitly) a masturbatory wreck, while the moral fanatic Hope is portrayed, rather unsympathetically, as a scared young woman who is afraid of sex and of losing control. It's this unusually frank portrayal of male and female sexuality, and sexual problems, which makes Bold, a major US soap, stand out, seeing as North Americans have the reputation for being a prudish people.

On a deep, subconscious level, I think, so many films and TV shows appeal, to Western audience, because they tap into the audience's racial instincts. Would the Star Wars series have been as successful with an all-black, or all-Hispanic, cast? As it is, Bold has token black actors, and because of the limited pool of sexual partners on the show, inevitably, the two male blacks have been paired off, at one stage, with white women. But the black actors get shuffled to the sidelines - they don't have any real emotional resonance. (As a friend of mine shrewdly observed, the producers intuited that the 'race-mixing angle' didn't work, and so paired Marcus (Texas Battle) up with an Afro-American female). Marcus is a nice enough character, but the actor who plays him is stupid and annoying, without depth. In comparison, the Ridges, Nicks and Owens are full of depth - which is saying a lot. It's not the Marcus character isn't likeable; it's just that he isn't liked. The show's only bad guy, 'Dollar' Bill is a cad, and is a bad actor, but he's oddly likeable.

No, the real focus is on the white characters. And what a nordic, American bunch they are! After the departure of Kyle Lowder, Rick is played by Jacob Young - a blonde, blue-eyed, square-jawed, sweater-wearing character, who looks like a young Robert Redford, and who seems almost like he's stepped out of a 1950s-timewarp. He is a decent, WASP, American college boy character. The lovely Steffi has one of those androgynous, tomboyish, nordic-American faces - like Hilary Swank or Mireille Enos (an actress of Mormon background, who appears in Big Love and the American adaptation of the Danish TV series, The Killing). When she is angry, blood rises to her face, and she appears to choke on rage, like Swank or Enos; when she is around a man she likes (e.g., Liam, usually, I think, because she is responding to the actor, not the character) she 'breaks character' and giggles in a flirty, moronic way, which is really redolent of 'American womanhood', chronicled by Henry James and so many other male American authors. Likewise, Brooke will, at odd moments, break into lilting laughter - and it's her laughter, and her accent, that seems almost Germanic-American in these moments, or perhaps Norwegian-American; the same goes for the accents of some of the other female actresses as well. Is this because of a Mid-Western, Scandinavian heritage?

The audience responds, I think, because they see part of themselves, or people they know (including family) in the characters, or people they would like to know. The caustic, sharp-tongued and yet vulnerable Stephanie, the grandmother of the show, reminds me of my own late grandmother. Liam, Oliver, Owen, remind me of the good-tempered, well-mannered, easy going young American international student men I've met at my time at university. This is what people want to see: a reflection of their own families, communities and racial kinship groups. Which is why, as Kevin MacDonald notes in one of his articles, all-black TV shows don't rate so well. The vast majority of TV audiences are still white, and they want to see white actors and white characters who relate to them in a deeply personal, emotional way.

(In that connection, another of the strengths of Bold is that its cast is multi-generational: in contrast to other shows - in which all the main characters are from the one age group - Bold has three generations, grandparents, parents and children. This is also 'true to life', because, in our lives, the older and younger generations just don't disappear; they remain with us and are part of their lives. And, given the deep hatred that the two young women of the show - Steffi and Hope - share for each other (a mutual hatred they have inherited from their mothers, Brooke and Taylor, and which is derived, like theirs, from their competition for the same man), it's possible that the show will continue long after the grandparents have died, and Ridge, Brooke and the others will become the new grandparents).

The show is a real triumph of casting: the Joan Collins wannabe, Jackie (played by Lesley-Anne Down, who seems, incongruously, about the same age as her son Nick), who, with her quavering voice, seems always on the verge of a nervous breakdown; the obsessive Thomas, Ridge and Taylor's son, who is played by the creepy actor Adam Gregory (this actor, unintentionally, really will make your skin crawl, and should have been cast, instead of Matt Damon, in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)); the sad-eyed, doe-eyed, perpetually crying Bridget; also, the doormat Taylor, who is still in love with her ex-husband Ridge, who constantly leads her on, dangling the possibility of a resumption of their relationship (she did resume things with Ridge for a while, but only by offering some very heavy anti-depressant pills in exchange for sex). (I am something of a Taylor fan (despite her botox lips, which are mocked by all who have seen the show), but others are Brooke fans: men are either Brooke or Taylor men).

Sometimes a trashy exterior can hide a real gem: you decide.