Santa Barbara : It's not over, till it's over

 By Marlena De Lacroix, Soap Opera Weekly, 1992

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On or around September 1, NBC is scheduled to announce whether it will cancel Santa Barbara. But as Yogi Berra said, it's not over till it's over.

As a soap-world observer, I've felt obligated to watch the show because it's the work of two longtime soap-world heavyweights, executive producer Paul Rauch and head writer Pam Long. And what a collection of major-league soap talents are also gathered here : Kim Zimmer (Jodie), Jack Wagner (Warren), Nicolas Coster (Lionel), Robin Mattson (Gina), Gordon Thomson (Mason), Nancy Lee Grahn (Julia), Thaao Penghlis (Micah), Jed Allan (C.C.) and Judith McConnell (Sophia), among others. If Santa Barbara is canceled, the casting directors of the remaining 10 soaps will be dancing in the streets.

In the last few months, the most important name in the whole equation has been Pam Long. Staying true to the strengths of her writing on Texas and Guiding Light, she pushed aside the wealthy, sophisticated Capwell family and brought to the forefront her own creation, the middle-class, emotion-filled Walker family. One soap critic has bitched loudly how out of sync with Santa Barbara's past style Long's new material has been. No sh--, Sherlock ! This is exactly why Long was hired : That old stuff wasn't working ! Dying soaps always try outrageous measures when the cancellation notice is in the mail. Mating Long to Santa Barbara is like grafting the head of a giraffe onto a horse. Despite all good intentions, you'll never get a thoroughbred.

Long hasn't had enough time to totally rework the show, but evidently she's trying. The only glimmer of what she and Rauch hope to achieve has been her sole success - the B.J. child-abuse storyline, which incorporated Jodie's confession to Cruz that B.J. is his natural daughter. This beautifully produced sequence was filled with Long's trademark emotional intensity. On dramatically half-lit sets, the characters got to spill their guts all over the screen. (Long's personal motto is "Go for it.") I couldn't help but notice, though, that much of the sequence's success was actors who were giving their all. Weren't Sydney Penny (B.J.) and molester Nicholas Walker (Frank) superb ? The confession scenes showcased Zimmer and Martinez, a charismatic pair who could have been the show's future in Martinez were not leaving to join the cast of L.A. Law.

If Long could bring the emotional intensity of this sequence to her other stories, Santa Barbara just might have a scintilla of a chance of survival. (And a last word about Martinez : He makes acting look so easy. Through eight years of good and bad on Santa Barbara, no other actor has delivered as consistently. Wasn't the soap world lucky to have Martinez as long as we did ? Now we've got to give him back to prime-time TV.)

But let's face it - the rest of Long's work has been abysmal. Long's worst crime is that she's forgotten that one of Zimmer's big selling points as Reva Shayne Lewis on Guiding Light and as Nola Dancy on The Doctors was her sex appeal. Policewoman Jodie is portrayed as a frump. Hey, 40 isn't fatal !

And as I've written before, Santa Barbara's recent tries at "humor" are a travesty. Watching two favorite daytime actors, Mattson and Coster, as "jesters" Gina and Lionel doing everything but stand on their heads to get a laugh breaks my heart. Gina Jeans, indeed ! By the way, Ballymoor was baloney. Grahn and Thomson should sue. Long (who on Guiding Light invented the "Dreaming Death" disease and cured Johnny Bauer of terminal cancer) should stay away from the occult or any topic that's more convincingly concocted in a supermarket tabloid.

I should really stop myself here, but, of course, I won't. I can write so much more about Santa Barbara's weaknesses. All those boring summer teen stories... Why doesn't Forry Smith's (Reese) acting live up to his hunky looks ? Will Warren ever chuck his attitude ?... Santa Barbara is now nothing more than boring, average soap opera.

Marlena really hates to hit a soap while it's down. Colorful Rauch and Long have been two of my favorite soap-world personalities for more than a decade. They will resurface inevitably on other soaps. Santa Barbara derailed long before either arrived on the show. If Santa Barbara is canceled, you'll hear lots of chest-thumping as journalists scramble to explain the reasons why in print. As someone who has written extensively about the show for eight years, I'm not looking forward to its demise. Perhaps September 1, California Governor Pete Wilson will grant Santa Barbara a stay of execution.