Other changes included promoting a 29-year-old intern turned writer to the head writing team and creating a five-person technology department that oversees daily podcasts and video features. And after seeing the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated, Wheeler decided to start broadcasting weekly “illuminated” episodes that would focus on one character.
This year, Wheeler made her biggest mark yet with the debut of the show’s spiffy new set—a dollhouselike structure with two layers of anodynely decorated four-walled rooms and “breezeways” stacked on top of each other. “It used to be that if you needed a court scene and the set wasn’t up, you’d just write a scene with the judge talking about a case at a restaurant,” Wheeler says. “With our new sets, everything’s ready all the time … We wanted this city to be a real place.”
Scrapping the old, paper-thin sets that had to be erected every morning by a crew of now laid-off stagehands cut production costs by 10 percent. Daniel Cosgrove, the Beverly Hills, 90210 alum who plays Bill Lewis, an oil prospector who went blind and (naturally) regained his sight, finds the changes bittersweet. “It’s exciting, but it’s sad at the same time. In any change in business, some people are going to lose their jobs. Most actors are [here] to make art, but let’s face it. There’s a reason the name ‘soap opera’ was coined—[these shows were created] to sell soap.”
The actors generally approve of the reality-style shooting, which leads to a fresher kind of acting. “It’s less like shooting a play,” says Murray Bartlett, who plays Cyrus the Australian jewel thief. “Now you can lose yourself in the environment. It feels more intimate, and you can hopefully be more subtle.”
There’s no indication that all this radical retinkering will save the genre. Certainly, it will never see the like of its mid-eighties heyday, when some 50 million people—mostly women—were watching at least one show. So far, it hasn’t even paid off for Guiding Light. When the “new” show debuted on February 29, there was the expected backlash. Fans immediately hit CBS with online complaints about the artsy flourishes (producers have toned them down). “These shows are created to be romantic fantasy and fantastical adventure,” says TV Guide’s soap columnist, Michael Logan. “We don’t want reality when we’re watching a soap. We want a ‘Calgon, take me away’ moment.”
A little over five months later, viewership is still hovering below last year’s average of 2.6 million. And yet the industry is taking note. Producers from other networks have been dropping in at the new digs to check out Wheeler’s revamp, suggesting that even if her changes haven’t paid off yet, there’s a feeling they will. “Let’s put it this way: I don’t think they’re making social calls,” she says.
Should the unspeakable happen and Guiding Light get canceled, it’s unlikely the rest of the underperforming shows will be spared. Will anyone care except the soap fanatic? “The thing about soap operas that’s so special is they make you realize how similar we all are,” says Wheeler. “Oh, gosh, I’m going to get sad.” Her voice catches, and she pauses to wipe a tear away. “Sometimes we feel very isolated and on our own, and soaps give you a chance to look at other people’s lives and say, ‘I’ve felt just like them. I’ve never had a beautiful Australian come out of the blue and fall in love with me, but I’ve felt the way Marina feels.’ ”
Ellen Wheeler is a believer through and through. If anyone can save the soap, she can. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to light a few more votive candles.