TV Dawn to Dusk
September 1978
by Pat MacDonald

Jack and Mary Fenelli's (Michael Levin and Kate Mulgrew) marriage is so successful that it's become boring to watch. 

Most soap opera characters are as brightly colored and essentially formless as “play dough.” This is so they can be easily molded to fit the requirements of plot, which is the most important element in a successful soap.

For example, a man who has been a happy husband and all-around nice guy for years is suddenly faced with a choice between true, illicit love and a wife who won’t give him a divorce. He considers the options and decides to murder his wife. And we don’t bat an eyelash at this absurd decision because we are more interested in what’s going to happen than in why he would ever do such a thing. When you think about it, his character has always been a bit fuzzy anyway.

Then you have Ryan’s Hope. It takes place in New York City and the people who hang out at Ryan’s Bar are just as sophisticated and savvy as you would expect city-bred people to be. They have values and needs, just like anybody else, but they are smart. We know just what each of these people is like, and their characters are not rearranged to suit plot devices. On the contrary, it is their characters which cause the plot to happen. But it is this very quality, which once made Ryan’s Hope the most outstanding show on television, that is now causing it to fail. It is a concept which just won’t work on soap opera in the long run. In the short run it worked beautifully, but it seems to me that the short run is over. They have tried to make the problems realistic, and the stories true to character, and they have ended up with a drastic shortage of plot.

Take, for example, the story of Jack and Mary Fenelli. The problem between this couple, as it was superbly portrayed by Michael Levin and Kate Mulgrew, was unique in the annals of soap opera for its utter likelihood. A lonely man, set in his ways and used to being a bachelor, falls in love with a much younger woman for whom even groundhog day is turned into a family celebration. When she gets pregnant soon after the marriage, he feels trapped and stifled. He leaves her, and it isn’t until he admits to his paternal feeling for his own child that he is able to accept and understand his wife and her family. The relationship between Jack and Mary and the Ryans was written and performed with such passionate precision that it made you want to stand up and cheer. It was a life crisis for two people, but once it was resolved, it had nowhere else to go. It is not strictly the absence of Kate Mulgrew in the role of Mary (she has been replaced by Mary Carney), which has defused this story, although Mulgrew certainly put an indelible stamp on the role. It is that realistically this couple has achieved an understanding which promises that they will be happy in their marriage. And, as Tolstoy said, “all happy families are alike.”

Jill Coleridge has been in love, for as long as we’ve known her, with the infrequently available Frank Ryan. After all this time we have to suspect that this is the way Jill wants it. She is a woman dedicated to her career and her child, with less room in her life for a husband than she would like to think. She does not act impulsively, but tends to analyze a situation from every angle, a quality not surprising in a lawyer. Whenever the opportunity for marriage arises she can think of six reasons why not to join the crowd at the altar.

Now, as Rae Woodard schemes to break up the newly reconciled Frank and Jill by monopolizing Frank’s time with a Senate race, we can only yawn at the prospect. As glamorous and gritty as the trappings of a Senate race might be, the conflict at the heart of it is one with which we are overly familiar. Jill will act just as we would expect her to. She is absolutely right in terms of her character—doing slow burns and having debates with herself. We would reject it if Jill started breaking up campaign rallies by barging through the crowd with her son held aloft, or running off to Puerto Rico for weekends with a glib playboy. Jill, like most real people, doesn’t fall in love everyday, or even every few months like the plasticized heroines favored by some soaps. She goes about her business and tries to succeed in loving the one man whom she has really cared for in her adult life. It is all you can expect of her, but it is rather a drag to watch, day in, day out. Soap opera thrives on crisis. It’s supposed to be an escape from everyday life, not a minute by minute recounting of it.

Dr. Faith Coleridge is entering a marriage of convenience with Tom Desmond to help him out of a bind with the immigration authorities. It is a clever device, since it is hard to imagine Faith in a marriage of convenience for any other reason, independent spirit that she is. Yet everyone on the Upper West Side keeps suggesting to Faith that this marriage will ruin her chances with her ex-fiance, Pat Ryan. Why, we have to ask? This is a practical arrangement, with no hidden secrets. Violating the vows of this union might lead to some hurt feelings for Tom, but it doesn’t promise much in the way of high drama. Faith will do the sensible thing. She always does. We know that about Faith.

The one person in the whole group who can do just about anything she pleases and convince us it is possible is Delia. Delia’s character has great flexibility built into it because she is both selfish and desperate. However, in looking back at the plot in recent months, Delia is beginning to resemble a whirling dervish confronting a cement wall. She has precipitated so many outlandish plots and schemes that there seems to be less and less reason why she is not immediately committed to Bellevue. It is straining credulity to accept that the Ryans who are  so sensible about most things, have not kept track of Delia’s doings. I was ready to give up on her back about the time she started talking to cornish hens at a dinner party. Delia needs a rest, and we need a rest from her. The problem is, without Delia’s manic activity, where is the action?

My feeling is that soap may be the wrong format for Ryan’s Hope. Why not make a primetime series out of it? I would rather watch a drama about the Ryans and friends once a week than watch the characters undermine themselves day by day. The writing and dialogue on Ryan’s Hope is probably the best on television—at times truly brilliant. But it seems to me that what the Ryans and friends need now is another format, one where the characters could keep their integrity and the plot would only serve to let us know them better. As it is, the exigencies of plot may take the life right out of them. The realities of these characters may have to be sacrificed just to keep the story going, and that would be a loss to all of us.