The other show that Agnes Nixon created was One Life to Live, set in the Philadelphia suburb of Llanview. The show never really got quite the attention that it’s sister shows on ABC did, airing for most of its run between the better known All My Children and General Hospital, and it did veer into the weird from time to time. But when it was on its game,One Life to Live was without question one of the best shows on television.
I can remember watching from a very early age, with our babysitter and my grandmother. The lead character was–and always remained–Victoria Lord. The show followed the classic soap set-up of two contrasting families–one rich, one poorer–but Agnes Nixon gave that classic set-up a twist. Usually, the families were large–the Hortons on Days of Our Lives being a prime example–and very WASP-y; with names like Hughes and Lowell and Matthews. The “poorer” family wasn’t really poor; it usually was more upper-middle class, with doctors and lawyers; money was never a concern. What Nixon did with One Life to Live was very different than anything else on the air. Of course, there were the Lords, filthy rich with their mansion and publishing empire–but she deliberately made the second family not only working class but ethnic–the Polish-American Woleks.
And even more shocking, one of her initial storylines was about Carla…who turned out to be a light-skinned black woman passing for white, engaged to a white man, and struggling to deal with whether she should embrace who she was or continue living a lie. For the 1960’s, this was shocking–particularly since she was engaged to a white doctor. The big reveal when the audience found out that Carla was actually black was one of the biggest plot twists ever on a daytime drama–and needless to say, didn’t play well in the deep South.
The show always took chances–some of them paid off, others didn’t. The underground city of Eterna story, the time travel story that sent Clint Buchanan back to the 1880’s–these were the things that made one roll one’s eyes.
But like I said, when the show was on, it was fucking on.
Take the character of Tina Clayton, for example. She was originally brought on as the teenaged daughter of Viki’s best friend from college, and a little loose with her morals. She left the show, only to return in the mid 1980’s older, trashier, and with a secret–she was actually Viki’s half-sister, because her mother had had an affair with VIki’s father!
Now, one of the original big stories on the show was Viki’s mental illness–she had DID (dissociative identity disorder), or what was then called a ‘split personality.’ She would become another woman, Niki Smith. This illness was originally ‘cured’ and Viki moved on. Tina’s return, and the claims about Viki’s father, brought Niki Smith back out yet again. Tina was front and center on the show for several years, superbly played by Andrea Evans, until she left the show. The part was recast a couple of times, but Evans was so definitive it was hard for the other actresses to make the part their own.
But Erika Slezak was fantastic as Viki. She won six Emmys for the part–in no small part because of her stunning performances during the DID episodes, when she was completely believable as someone else.
She also had amazing chemistry with another amazing actress, Robin Strasser, who played her arch-enemy and stepmother, Dorian Lord.
The scenes when Dorian finally confronts Viki with the knowledge she’d always thought Viki knew herself–that Victor Lord had sexually abused her as a child–were stunning; they are on Youtube, if you want to take a look. That was when Viki’s mind shattered into several different characters; at least six. Amazing acting and writing.
In the early 1990’s, One Life to Live was absolutely must-watch television, at least for me, as the show took on homophobia and HIV. Viki’s youngest son Joey’s best friend Billy Douglas, played by Ryan Philippe, was thrown out by his parents for being gay.
At the same time, a local girl named Marty Saybrooke was obsessed with Father Andrew Carpenter, an Episcopalian priest who was trying to help Billy. When Andrew rejected her advances, Marty started telling people that Andrew had actually molested Billy and that was why he was gay. Andrew’s older brother had actually BEEN gay, and died from AIDS without reconciling with their homophobic father. It was riveting to watch, as characters whom I’d watched and loved for years had to struggle with their own homophobia and biases, as well as their fear of AIDS. Watching Sloan Carpenter come to terms with the knowledge that his own fears and biases had cost him his son was powerful, and of course, in the end all was well and the truth came out and Sloan convinced Billy’s parents that loving their son–and not losing him as he had lost his own son–was most important. The storyline wrapped up with a visit to the AIDS Quilt, where the Carpenters added a panel for their lost son.
As a gay man in a homophobic world, you can only imagine how powerful that was to watch. That they actually showed the quilt was one of the most amazing things in the world to me.
But the show wasn’t done quite yet with powerful stories. Next came the gang rape of Marty Saybrooke, at a fraternity party. SPurning the advances of Todd Manning and pretty much loathed and despised by everyone in Llanview as a liar, Marty got drunk at a fraternity party–and Todd, along with two of his buddies, including a cousin of Viki’s–gang raped her in one of the fraternity dorm rooms. The rape was actually shot through an aquarium; so you could see vague movements and blurred violence, but you could hear it happening. It was incredibly horrifying, and extraordinary television and storytelling; because who would believe notorious liar Marty? Especially because she included Viki’s oldest son, Kevin, in her accusation because she was drunk–and later recanted, which threw her entire story into question.
Susan Haskell won an Emmy for her portrayal of Marty–she would later win another for reprising the role fifteen years later.
And the show created the most terrifying villain of all in ringleader Todd Manning, superbly played by Roger Howarth (who also won an Emmy). The character was so popular they had to somehow find a way to keep him on the show–which meant rehabilitating a rapist (problematic, but that’s a subject for another time). Eventually, Todd turned out to be Viki’s half-brother, product of the continued liaison between her friend Irene and her father.
For those two stories alone–the homophobia and the gang rape–the show should never be forgotten.
It was brave and daring for its time, and incredible storytelling.
And I didn’t even mention Judith Light’s brilliance as housewife hooker Karen Wolek.
S thank you, Agnes Nixon. You were an amazing writer, and a creative genius, and your creations were some of the best television ever.