Low-Rated 'Santa Barbara' Soap Takes Chances That Pay Off

Daytime soap operas are usually thought of as the most formularized of melodramas. So what was going on the other day on the NBC stage in Burbank where "Santa Barbara" is taped?

In one scene being shot for airing Tuesday, actor Justin Deas as sleazy Dist. Atty. Keith Timmons, clad in a grass skirt, convinced new bride Gina (Robin Mattson) to leave their bedroom immediately to catch a honeymoon flight to Hawaii--still wearing her wedding-night lingerie and a mint-green facial masque. In another, deaf actress Phyllis Frelich was using sign language to respond to questions being asked of her character Sarah, a nun whose disturbing dreams may reveal a murderer's identity.

Clearly, this is a show that is not afraid to take chances: Roles for deaf performers are a television rarity day or night, and the Gina-Keith scene, with its deft timing and sight gags, seemed more appropriate for a sitcom than a soap.

Just as clearly, the break from tradition is paying off. Lowest rated among the networks' daytime serials following its premiere four years ago this week, "Santa Barbara's" ratings are up 23% since last year--it now ranks ninth among the 13 soaps--and it recently won an Emmy as TV's best daytime drama series, besting such veteran competitors as 32-year-old "As the World Turns" and 18-year-old "All My Children."

"It would be unfair and untrue to say that other soaps are not good," said actress Marcy Walker, who plays Eden Capwell. "But the Emmy is an acknowledgment that we belong in the top league."

The serial also picked up Emmys for Deas as supporting actor and its second consecutive nod for outstanding music direction and composition.

According to Bridget Dobson, who created "Santa Barbara" with her husband, Jerry, the show was meant from its inception to stand apart from others of its genre.

"We wanted to take risks," she said. "Otherwise, we knew the show would die in that time slot, as other soaps and game shows had." (It airs weekdays at 2 p.m. opposite ABC's popular "General Hospital," which was created by Dobson's parents, Frank and Doris Hursley.)

"So we created two competitive families, the Capwells and the Lockridges, who were psychologically complicated but also psychologically and emotionally valid. We took the core of our own inner souls and put it on screen, for multifaceted characters with multidimensional personalities. That there was humor made the show unique--each character has a sense of humor."

The attempts to differentiate the show take many forms.

"We move faster, have a more rapid pace than other shows," said executive producer Jill Farren Phelps. "Our stories often begin and finish in the same day. There's less of that 'tune in tomorrow' to find out what happened."

"We wanted to make sure it was the most contemporary show on the air," said Brian Frons, NBC's vice president of daytime programs, who asked the Dobsons to create the show. "We wanted dialogue on the cutting edge, a new kind of musical sound rather than violins and organs, a warm California look--which our first lighting director, Kirk Witherspoon, gave us."

An example of the series' contemporary bent: the long-suffering romance and recent marriage of Walker's golden girl character and the Hispanic detective Cruz Castillo, played by A Martinez. Castillo was conceived as "someone with a tremendous sense of morality and a heroic background," according to Frons, to reflect the Hispanic influence in Southern California.

The romance came about as a "fortunate accident," Walker said, as other characters left and a chemistry developed between the two that viewers noticed and liked. For his part, Martinez recalled, "there had been a prevailing sense that there was a risk involved in putting us together, but somebody stood up for it. On the other hand, it does play on the old cliches--lovers from the wrong side of the tracks, 'Lady and the Tramp.' "

On the opposite end of the romance spectrum from the idealistic Castillos are the villainous duo Keith and Gina, the chief practitioners of the comedy that has become a "Santa Barbara" trademark. The couple, whose wedding airs Monday, has staged pie and mud fights, wreaked havoc as contestants on "Wheel of Fortune" and parodied everything from mythology to "Moonstruck."

"We'll look at the script in the morning and say, 'They want us to do what? ' " Mattson recounted. "Some actors would be uncomfortable appearing the way we do, but I think if you just go with it, take it and run, it can be very winning."

Anne Howard Bailey, co-head writer with Chuck Pratt, agreed. "There is that zany sense that no matter what ridiculous situation we put them in, they'll bring it off with a wonderful insouciance. But we also deal with contemporary emotional issues. Cruz had had a child by another woman, a drug addict, and Eden can't conceive. So we'll be dealing with her feelings of bereavement and resentment. And the character Cain (played by Scott Jaeck), a Vietnam vet, finds his Amerasian daughter, which is a strong, viable story being played out in America today."

(Bailey and Pratt have been sidelined due to the writers' strike, but the show, like other network soap operas, has remained in production, apparently with nonunion writers. Bailey and Phelps declined to comment on where the new scripts were coming from.)

"Contemporary" is the word for the show's musical elements as well, with its liberal use of popular songs. Music composer/supervisor Dominic Messinger--the winner, with colleagues Liz Lachman and Rick Rhodes, of back-to-back Emmys for music--said that themes are written or chosen specifically for each character, unlike the usual soap practice of matching previously recorded cues to a particular scene.

Messinger also tries to find novel uses for familiar music, such as rescoring the wedding march for synthesizer. "And for a chase scene, I found a piece of Beethoven string music with the right pace and reworked and rerecorded it. You wouldn't normally think of Beethoven as good chase music," he said.

"Santa Barbara" may be unusual as a soap, but, true to its genre, the show has encountered difficulties. Last August, when then-executive producer and series co-owner Bridget Dobson--whose contract gave her creative control, including the right to hire and fire writers--tried to dismiss head writer Bailey because of creative differences, she discovered that Bailey's contract with series co-owner New World Television permitted her dismissal only upon NBC's request or series cancellation. Citing breach of contract, Dobson's attorneys declared her own contract with New World rescinded and demanded that the series be returned to her ownership.

Ultimately, New World barred Dobson from the studio and filed a breach-of-contract suit; the Dobsons, in return, filed a cross complaint, both for the return of the series and for damages resulting from defamation of character. Their attorneys recently filed a motion for an early trial date.

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