Originally published May 28, 2000
They never watch television. They never discuss politics. Books are just shelf decorations. They rarely sit down to talk, and when they converse, the subjects are always the same — feelings, relationships, needs and betrayals.
Children can grow from infancy to adulthood in eight years. Recovery from disease is always fast and complete, although those unfortunate enough to die of cancer have a way of putting on weight as the end approaches.
Yes, it’s an odd little universe that I’ve immersed myself in virtually every day for 11 years. It’s the world of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” one of the last half-hour soaps on network television, and it’s an addiction I can’t kick.
The notion of a theater critic watching a daytime soap may strike some as mere slumming. Maybe it is, but so what? I take solace in the great drama critic George Jean Nathan, who in 1923 wrote: “The trivial is often the inspiration for something that is not trivial … A thousand trivialities are placed in the test tubes of aesthetics that a single piece of sound criticism may endure.”
In an interview a few years ago, actor William H. Macy described turning on his television one day and by chance seeing an actress he had gone to school with performing in a soap. He watched with a professional’s eye and was transfixed. Her work, he recalled, was as good as it gets, and he suddenly felt ashamed for all the times he had walked through commercials and small parts on television without really trying.
In other words, daytime soaps — or this one, anyway — are much like the larger world of arts and entertainment. Most of the time it is bad (and therefore vastly entertaining); occasionally it can be good (thanks to an individual actor or a burst of lively writing); and once in a blue moon it stuns you with a moment of utterly convincing drama or a bravura performance that transcends all the ridiculous trappings of daytime television.
It all began innocently enough.
One day I received a phone call at work from my wife. She managed to speak through her laughter.
“You’ve got to see this,” she said. “There’s a woman that looks like a man in drag! She looks like Divine.”
She referred to Darlene Conley, who has played rag-trade hustler Sally Spectra since “The Bold and the Beautiful” went on the air 13 years ago. Conley, it’s easy to see, was probably a convincing glam-girl once upon a time. These days, with a red wig piled high atop an increasingly spherical body, she inevitably brings to mind Divine, the cross-dressing star of John Waters films in the 1980s.
And, just as Divine did, Conley brings a sense of high theater to the table. Her husky baritone, her biting enunciation, her way of accenting a line with sharply pursed lip, all become ingredients in an ongoing performance that seems a synthesis of grand diva mannerisms and overbearing maternalism.
How could I not watch? We began taping the midday broadcasts and playing them at night. Early on I hit the fast-forward button anytime Sally wasn’t on, but inevitably I began watching complete episodes. The long, never-ending saga of “B&B” began taking shape:
At the center is the Forrester clan, headed by Eric Forrester (John McCook), internationally known fashion designer. He and his wife, Stephanie (Susan Flannery), a master of devious manipulation, reside in a Beverly Hills mansion with a curious decor that includes marble columns and what looks like a bust of Julius Caesar.
Meanwhile, in a Los Angeles warehouse district, Sally Spectra’s outlaw company, Spectra Fashions, often looks for ways to throw banana peels in the path of the mighty Forresters, enraging Eric and Stephanie by producing cheap knockoffs of Forrester originals.
At the time I started watching, silver-haired Eric had fallen in love with blond-babe Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang), a caterer from the Valley who was young enough to be his daughter. She was pregnant with Eric Jr. (now called Rick), even though she actually was in love with Ridge (Ronn Moss), Eric and Stephanie’s angular son. Eventually Brooke would be married to Eric and Ridge, but these days is madly in love with Ridge’s younger brother, the chisel-jawed Thorne (Winsor Harmon).
If she and Thorne marry that means Rick Forrester’s stepfather would also be his half-brother! And the whining Rick (Justin Torkildsen), now a freshman in college (even though he was an infant less than 10 years ago), is now pressuring Thorne to be honest about his feelings for his mom.
Brooke, as a result of her divorce from Eric Forrester, owns 51 percent of the stock in the Forrester fashion house and is now the CEO and wants vengeance on Ridge and Eric for sabotaging her relationship with Thorne. Thorne is now miserably remarried to Sally’s daughter Macy (Bobbie Eakes), a recovering alcoholic teetering on the brink of relapse.
Ridge, although he still harbors feelings for Brooke, is oh-so-happily married to Dr. Taylor Hayes Forrester (Hunter Tylo), a willowy beauty whose medical specialty was changed from oncology to psychiatry early on. This is their second marriage; believed dead after a plane crash, an amnesiac Taylor spent months in the palace of Prince Omar in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, during which time a grieving Ridge married the available Brooke.
The plot goes on and on, piling absurdity upon absurdity. There was Stephanie’s bout with amnesia, during which she lived homeless on the streets. There was Eric’s survival adventure in Iceland — or was it Greenland? — with sexy Lauren Fenmore (Tracey E. Bregman). Brooke survived a period of “reactive psychosis” in which she lived like a wild dog in Barbados. Sally stopped a gangster’s bullet but bounced back. Dr. James Warwick (Ian Buchanan) was introduced as a renowned psychiatrist who also happened to be a 40-year-old virgin. Warwick was later held prisoner for months in a dungeon by the psychotic Sheila Carter (Kimberlin Brown).
Adding to the show’s surrealistic atmosphere are the occasional guest performances — Fabio, Carol Channing and Charlton Heston have appeared as themselves. Phyllis Diller shows up as a wise-cracking hairdresser. The late James Doohan (Scotty on “Star Trek”) was James Warwick’s father. Despite all this silliness, a steady diet of “The Bold and the Beautiful” reveals a debt to classical theater. In the mix are vaguely incestuous relationships, internecine conflicts, ceaseless scheming, frequent faceoffs, characters who talk to themselves, eavesdropping, intercepted letters, babies switched at birth, mistaken identities, even ghosts. All of these are found in “B&B” and echo the plays of the Elizabethans and the Greeks.
And, perhaps because this show relies on many of the same raw ingredients needed to make a film or produce a play, there are moments that come close to validating the entire enterprise.
Those are usually provided by Susan Flannery, a veteran of daytime soaps and prime-time television whose most memorable moment in movies was leaping in flames from a penthouse suite in “The Towering Inferno.”
Flannery, who scooped up the outstanding actress award at the Daytime Emmys on May 19, has a way of making the most implausible dialogue sound reasonable. While some of her colleagues seem challenged to say “hello” convincingly, Flannery throws herself into a scene with a focused intensity that becomes a show unto itself. When she tongue-lashes an adversary or reiterates her hatred of Brooke, I remember why I tune in.
So tomorrow, my VCR will kick on at 12:30 p.m. and on Monday night I’ll watch the day’s events in B&B World. Maybe Flannery will be in top form. But if not — if the wheels come off the plot, if the writing takes a sugary turn, if actors struggle to keep straight faces while performing with uncooperative babies, if they stumble over dialogue — I will be no less entertained.
To quote Nathan once again: “If one goes to a concert hall and hears a bad performance or to an art exhibition and sees only bad paintings, one’s disappointment is complete. In the theatre, contrariwise, the worst play and performance of the year may provide the greatest hilarity.”
© 2000 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved