Critics corner : Santa Barbara

 By John Kelly Genovese, Soap Opera Digest, 1986

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At two-and-one-half years of age, Santa Barbara is one of the most firmly established, talked-about soaps on the air. Though not yet in the Nielsen top five, it is nonetheless NBC's first successful entry in a time slot once seemingly doomed to reruns - a slot shared by the wildly popular General Hospital and old familiar Guiding Light. Santa Barbara is also a long-overdue break for its creators and part-owners, Bridget and Jerry Dobson. It's their first "baby". For years they paid their dues on other soaps where they rejuvenated iron-poor blood : General Hospital in the early seventies (the smashing Phil Brewer murder mystery), Guiding Light in the mid-to-late seventies and As The World Turns in the eighties. The Dobsons' combination of labyrinthian plotting, spicy humor, and offbeat characterizations generated enough notice to finally put one of their originals on the map.

Like The Young and the Restless, Santa Barbara is totally individualistic in style and content. As a result, there are elements utilized on this show which are not common on all the others. There are also elements common to other soaps which are foreign to Santa Barbara - whether accidentally or purposely. More often than not, this uniqueness works in the show's favor. The root of the story is the long-standing antagonism between Lionel Lockridge (Nicolas Coster), an easy-going, spendthrift dilettante; and Channing Creighton (C.C.) Capwell (Jed Allan), an industrious millionaire who is occasionally prone to dubious methods in protecting his large family. Playing pivotal roles in the conflict are ex-actress Sophia Wayne Capwell (Judith McConnell), C.C.'s wife and Lionel's ex-lover; and the intense Brick Wallace (Richard Eden), the son shared by Lionel and Sophia.

It's incredible that Santa Barbara has remained so well centered, considering how drastically its structure has been altered during its short life span. Of its four founding families, only the Capwells remain intact. The blue-collar Perkinses have virtually all been killed off, except Marisa and Jade. They're usually off in another room. The Mexican-American Andrade family, highly touted when Santa Barbara premiered, is now minor except for Santana (Gina Gallego). And the zany, sitcom Lockridges are now represented solely by Lionel, his son Warren and his too-scarely-seen, indomitable mama, Minx (Dame Judith Anderson).

On almost any other soap, this would be heinous plotting. Such a loss of family balance - not to mention continuity - could be death for a relatively new soap. For a show as wild as Santa Barbara can be, however, it has been a blessing. Santa Barbara is not traditional, family-based soap about nice couples who guide their plethora of relatives through loveee triangles and murder trials in between hospital emergencies. And it doesn't pretend to be.

Prodigal son Mason Capwell (Lane Davies) is a cynical, sometimes unethical lawyer whose most vulnerable trait is a crying need for father C.C.'s approval. Mason is crazy enough to bed his horny step-mommy Gina... offer to father a child for determinated single lawyer Julia Wainwright (Nancy Grahn), his female counterpart... or fall in love with Mary DuVall, a virtuous ex-nun who ended up killed by a letter C.

Gina first got involved with the Capwells by adopting Brandon, the illegitimate child of Santana Andrade and the late Channing Capwell Jr. Then she roped C.C. into yet a second dismal (but lucrative) marriage. How ? She blackmailed C.C. by threatening to destroy a tape which could clear his daughter Kelly (Robin Wright) of murdering the second boyfriend in two years who flaked out and tried to kill her. Then - as an added bonus - Gina discovered that Lily Light (Lynn Clark), a bogus evangelist, is her long-lost illegitimate daughter.

Santa Barbara isn't all played for laughs. It has a heroic, romantic pair that clobber their counterparts when it comes to sensualit-iron-willed Eden Capwell (Marcy Walker) and tenacious, idealistic cop Cruz Castillo (A Martinez). These two have fought everything from family interference, to Cruz's hasty marriage to his childhood pal Santana, to Eden's near-death at the hands of yuppie mad-man hubby Kirk Cranston (Joseph Bottoms), to the recent Katie Timmons’ drowning mystery. Enmeshed in this suspense caper are Katie's embittered brother, wily D.A. Keith Timmons (Justin Deas) and Cruz's jealous ex-flame Victoria Lane (Kristen Meadows). Keith is also tied mysteriously to Courtney Capwell (Julia Campbell), C.C.'s conniving niece, and the recent murder of her sister Madeline. Madeline's murder made for a much-heralded, then seemingly dropped story thread which has suddenly been picked up again. Whether or not the Dobsons meant for the story line to go on a two-month sabbatical, its interim lack of story mention was a bit awkward. But it's such fun ! The shaky alliances among a sea of rats - Mason, Gina, Lily, Keith and Victoria - make for much of Santa Barbara's storytelling. Fortunately, their antics are balanced by the heroism of Cruz and Eden, the struggle of C.C. and Sophia to find happiness, and the sensitivity of anti-hero Lionel. A perfect balance.

Other story fronts include the young marriage of Ted and Hayley Capwell (Todd McKee and Stacy Edwards) in the interest of avoiding damaging courtroom testimony - even though they love each other - and the intriguing new set of women inhabiting Lionel's house. Black ex-mental patient Alice Jackson (Marie-Alise Recasner) loves Cruz's cop friend, Phil Whitney (Stoney Jackson), but has visions of an evil cop from her past. Plain Jane Wilson / Roxanne (Jane Sibbett), a college student suffering from split personality syndrome, fights her vampy mother Caroline (Lenore Kasdorf) for the affections of lonely Lionel. The pairing of Kasdorf and Coster looks like a winner.

Of course, the entire cast of Santa Barbara is a winner. Nicolas Coster's gentleness and "oh-what-the-hell" carriage as Lionel bely a reserve intensity which he displays in spades vis-à-vis C.C.. After numerous hit-and-miss casting attempts, Jed Allan is clearly the definitive C.C. Capwell; and Gina Gallego, the definitive Santana. No need to proceed further. There isn't a bow-wow in the church.

Directors Gary Bowen, John Sedwick, Andy Weyman and Rick Benewitz are consistently imaginative risk-takers. The freeze-frame ending and campy music when Gina got C.C. in a compromising pose provoked howls. And Caroline's first scene in which she melodramatically dumped another rich lover - juxtaposed with daughter Jane's account to Lionel of the first scene which her mother had played time and time again with unsuspecting males - was a writing masterpiece. The Dobsons and their writing fold - Charles Pratt, Jr., Frank Salisbury, Patrick Mulcahey and Courtney Simon - are getting better all the time at turning out brisk, original scripts with lively dialogue.

Santa Barbara, indeed, copies no one. For that reason alone, it deserves to succeed.