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The plot to save ‘All My Children’


By Nelson Branco

New headwriters Barbara Esensten and James Harmon Brown dish on recasting Babe, Dixie’s death, and creating a diverse canvas

Susan Lucci, ABC
Susan Lucci (Erica) faces big changes ahead on 'AMC'

When ABC fired its controversial All My Children headwriter Megan McTavish earlier this year in favour of dynamic writing duo and soap vets Barbara Esensten and James Harmon Brown, we were literally jumping up and down with glee and anticipation.

To say that watching McTavish’s plot-driven mess during the past four years was painful and arduous is putting it lightly — talk about torture!

New hope has arrived, and after TV Guide spoke with the new headwriters, we are almost certain that Esensten and Brown are the miracle AMC fans have been praying for.

As longtime fans of Pine Valley, this talented couple, who also penned a little show called Dynasty, know this genre – especially after helming such daytime serials as Port Charles, Guiding Light, The City and Loving.

Read on to find out what we can expect in Pine Valley in upcoming months. The best news? Vampires and murder mysteries, which were Esensten and Harmon staples in the past, need not apply!

TV Guide: Your work has only aired for a month or so, but it’s already evident that a new sheriff is in town! Why did you decide to return full-time to soaps and try to fix one of daytime’s most ruined shows?
Barbara Esensten: We weren’t totally missing soaps. [Laughs.] We were script editing for Days of Our Lives and quite frankly, we wouldn’t have returned to daytime in this capacity if it weren’t for AMC. It’s our show of choice as a viewer; we’ve been big fans over the decades.

TVG: What can we expect in Pine Valley under your reign? Clearly, you are returning the show to its roots and grounding it in reality.
BE: One of our big stories is Spike’s hearing impairment. Last month’s big event resulting in a car crash provided real consequences. If you just write big events without any impact, then you lose your audience because it’s not realistic. We’re really excited about bringing on Kassie DePaiva’s (Blair, One Life to Live) son JQ, who is deaf in real-life. We spoke to his parents — Kassie and James DePaiva (ex-Max, OLTL) — as well as JQ, who has had a cochlear implant, to learn everything we could about this affliction and how it affects a family. While we’re basing the show in reality, we’re also trying really hard to make the show fun and exciting to watch.

TVG: That’s good news! AMC has always been infamous for its sly humour.
James Harmon Brown: The relationship that’s building between JR and Ava will be comedic.

BE: We’re big fans of Jacob Young (JR), and we can see him doing a lot more humour than he’s done before. Tad, Krystal, and Adam will also provide a lot of laughs — they boast some of the best chemistry in daytime.

TVG: Do you have big plans for your marquis star, Susan Lucci (Erica)? 
JHB: One of things that the car crash creates is a ripple effect that will affect the canvas for a long time. We’ll see Erica become more prominent in 2008, and her storyline will be linked to Greenlee and Spike going over the ravine. So yes, we plan on using Erica a lot more — and let’s face it, she’s a valuable resource. Erica and Jackson are very funny as well, but we’d also like to play Erica’s big heart. We have to work around Susan Lucci’s vacation time, but once she’s back at the end of this year, her big story will kick in. One of the reasons we wanted to do this show is because the characters are so well-defined, and so well-acted, that it’s an embarrassment of riches.

TVG: Fans are clamouring for the return of Julia Barr (ex-Brooke) and Eden Riegel (ex-Bianca). Will you be bringing back old favourties?
JHB: We’d love to have Bianca back on the show, but ultimately it’s Eden’s decision and we can’t recast her because she’s so defined as Bianca. We haven’t yet talked about specifically bringing people back from the past, but the show has a rich history.

BE: If we could, there are a couple of dead characters we’d like to bring back! But that train has left the station.

TVG: I assume we’re talking about one of McTavish’s biggest blunders — killing off Dixie after bringing her back from the dead only a year earlier!
BE: Frankly, yes!

JHB: We have a lot of respect for Megan McTavish — we’re not here to run anyone down. We’ve always thought long and hard before we killed off a core character, especially on these kind of shows, because if you’re going to do that you must get a big bang for your buck. And in my opinion, that didn’t happen when Dixie was killed off — so why do it? We would have never killed her off, but then again it’s easy to do Monday morning quarterbacking. Any time new writers take over a show, it’s clear the show is in some kind of trouble, which is why we are here. And we’ve been in the same situation [Megan] was in before. 

TVG: It’s been reported that Alexa Havens (Babe) will more than likely be leaving the soap; any plans to recast?
BE: It’s out there that we will probably lose her, and it certainly isn’t our choice. However, we’re still writing the show as if she’s not leaving. If we should have to recast Babe, we’ll help the actor take over the part by writing specifically for the new actor like what we did with the Greenlee recast. We saw some little things in Sabine Singh (Greenlee), so we wrote for her accordingly, but you get into real trouble when you completely change the character for a recast. Luckily, Jim and I don’t have any trouble separating the actor from a character because the latter is really paramount in our eyes.

TVG: Will we be seeing a more diverse canvas?
BE: We’re bringing in a younger generation that will join Sean and Colby in a university/college campus that will help propel the show forward, but also allow us to cast more ethnically diverse characters. We won’t be playing them 24-7 right away; they’ll be introduced slowly. Some of the newcomers will have connections to established characters.

TVG: How about our beloved veterans; will they enjoy some more screen time?
BE: We love Joe Martin — and we plan on using him as much as we can. We adore his scenes with Tad, so expect backburner veterans to be used more often and more effectively because that’s a great way to bring back fan favourites without necessarily revamping your canvas.

JHB: Listen, we’d be foolish not to use the Erica’s and Adam’s – they are the most popular characters on the show. So why not use them as the main focus? Hopefully, we won’t have anyone on the backburner because our stories typically tend to have a lot of branches.

TVG I assume your mandate from ABC is …
JHB: Get the ratings up! [Laughs.]

BE: Make it good! [Laughs.]

JHB: The mandate we got from ABC was to take it back to its roots and what it represents to the audience historically, but also make it contemporary.

BE: We also want our characters to sound like themselves. For example, there was one scene recently that was beautifully written, but those words would have never come out of that character’s mouth. As a writer, you have to be careful not to fall in love with the words as much as the character themselves. As a writer, you must speak out the dialogue when you write it out — we’re not writing a novel; we’re writing for the ears and eyes, and that’s one of our top priorities.

TVG: Have you talked to AMC’s creator Agnes Nixon for her blessing and input?
JHB: Yes. We talked to Agnes for sure; we worked with her on Loving. She’s astonishing.

BE: She’s lovely! When she’s at a writer’s meeting she’s very quiet, but then unexpectedly, she’ll come up with a story gem that just wows all of us. She’s been very supportive even when we don’t agree, but she’s invaluable. She is Erica Kane.

TVG: As The World Turns is telling a love story between two gay male characters that has fans addicted. Things have changed in daytime. Is this the right time for writers to finally tell stories they want to?
JHB: Yes. It’s really about telling the right story in the right context. We’re committed to diversity in all areas — ethnic, sexually, etc. Now is the right time to tell real gay and lesbian storylines that five to 10 years ago you couldn’t.

BE: It would be great to bring on a gay character and not make the story about his homosexuality, for example. There are other issues gay people face everyday that has nothing to do with their homosexuality.

JHB: What’s great about the younger generation is that they’re colour-blind. I think we can learn something from prime time, which boasts a realistic canvas to write from. We need to explore those areas and not be afraid to write them realistically, as opposed to how they were written in the past.

Published: Thursday, August 23, 2007

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