Saturday, May 28, 2022

Rolling back the years with Santa Barbara and Mason Capwell: the daytime soap as intellectual stimulant and memory-generator

(Last week I did something atypically fanboyish: I got up at 3 AM for an online session where a group of soap-opera actors performed Shakespeare and interacted with fans. In my latest Economic Times column, I write about an old obsession that I have only alluded to in public writings before.

The longer version of the column is below. But I am also working on something more elaborate about my obsessions of the early 90s.)

A few days ago, at the end of a stressful week where I could scarcely afford to lose more sleep, I set the alarm for 3 AM and sat at my computer with a cup of coffee for a two-hour-long Zoom session. It featured a group of actors whom I had first become acquainted with a long, long time ago, and many of their other fans – all of whom were located in much more manageable time zones.

This was, to put it mildly, an unusual thing for me to do. I don’t attend fan conventions. Though I have had many idols in various fields (music, film, literature, sport) over the years, people whose work has enriched my life, I have never felt a burning need to meet my favourites in person. In my early years in journalism I had such opportunities – for instance, finding myself in the same room as Sachin Tendulkar at a press event, with the prospect of being introduced – but I didn’t push for such an audience. Even when I did meet more accessible celebrities as a literary critic – favourite authors such as Salman Rushdie or Anita Desai or Kiran Nagarkar at festivals or during interviews – it didn’t strike me to have a personal conversation or get a photo taken.

And yet here I was at this online event – a fund-raiser for a Shakespearean theatre group based in Dalton, Georgia – which began with some very talented performers reciting short passages from the Bard’s work. This went exceeding well, but Shakespeare wasn’t my main reason for being there. I was there – feeling like a nervous teenager – because of a TV show in a category that’s often regarded the very lowest of creative forms: the American daytime soap opera. And because of an ancient fandom from three decades ago (soon after satellite TV came to India), with a daily ritual that lasted a few years: my mother and I sitting together for an hour every weeknight, watching Santa Barbara, and crushing (in our different ways) on its witty, tragi-comic anti-hero Mason Capwell, played by Lane Davies.

Davies, now in his seventies and still as enthusiastic a Shakespeare performer as he was during his Santa Barbara stint (when his summer breaks for theatre work necessitated Mason being written out of the show for a month or two each year), was one of the hosts of the online session, the fund-raiser being for his upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title of that play describes my Zoom experience too: I could scarcely believe that my tiny head was on the same Live video screen as his, much less that I got a few seconds of direct interaction with him and other cast members such as the excellent A Martinez (Cruz Castillo), Harley Jane Kozak (Mary Duvall), Louise Sorel and Nicholas Coster (Augusta and Lionel Lockridge).

Some of those names may jig your memory even if you weren’t a Santa Barbara viewer. Any Anglophone Indian who got a cable TV connection during the early 90s, gaping at this sudden wealth of options after the single-channel Doordarshan era, knows about the buzz around the American soaps, which were telecast on prime-time slots here. They were so ubiquitous, we knew them so well, that at the famous 1994 Miss India contest (the one that produced both the Miss Universe and the Miss World winners for that year), a question posed to Aishwarya Rai was whether she preferred Mason Capwell or The Bold and the Beautiful’s Ridge Forrester. Mason, replied the soon-to-be-Miss World, he has a great sense of humour. (I don’t know if a teenage Abhishek Bachchan was watching TV and taking notes for personality development, but twenty-eight years later this answer remains the one unqualified moment of fondness I have had for Ms Rai as a public figure; it has enabled me to forgive many of her acting trespasses.)

There are different, intersecting reasons for my own Santa Barbara-and-Mason love, and I can’t elaborate on all of them here. I could defensively present it as an excitable childhood phase, something one outgrows and later feels embarrassed about, but that wouldn’t be true: I still haven’t “outgrown” it, as I discovered recently when I found myself watching parts of the early episodes (which I had missed during the initial Indian telecast) on YouTube. In any case I was almost 16 when I first watched the show, not a cultural naïf, and had already experienced cinema classics from around the world and read serious novels: Santa Barbara was an essential part of my life during the very same time that I was devouring Kurosawa and Godard films, and books by Maugham and Salinger and Burgess. Speaking with hindsight as a professional critic, these intersecting experiences helped blur my ideas about High and Low art – it showed that rigour and depth could be found, even if in small doses, in things that weren’t outwardly respectable. That it was possible to be stimulated to thought by something as plebeian as a daily soap.

At its best it was a wonderful show that transcended its category anyway – fast-paced, sharply written, often very funny for a daytime soap, and brilliantly performed by the central cast (including the teenage Robin Wright, who later made it to movie stardom, played Buttercup in the cult hit The Princess Bride, and more recently won a Golden Globe for House of Cards – though in my head she will always be the imperilled young Kelly Capwell and no one else). Years later I would learn that these were among the reasons why Santa Barbara had such a brief run in the US, where most soap audiences liked their shows to be snail-paced, predictable, repetitive (like the much more conventional The Bold and the Beautiful, which is still running after 35 years) – Santa Barbara’s largest success was internationally, in countries like Russia where it developed a huge cult and apparently for many viewers even came to represent the more dynamic, liberating aspects of a capitalist culture. (Just last year, publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and The Financial Times had wide-eyed pieces about an elaborate installation performance in a Moscow museum, where Santa Barbara scenes were re-enacted by Russian actors. Here are a couple of those pieces: 1, 2.)

Of course, the show’s own merits aside, nostalgia – or the yearning to transport oneself back to a formative teenage period – is another reason for my continuing obsession. Now that my mother is no longer around, it has hit home that the most sustained period in our relationship – the period when we sat together and spoke every single day – was during the Santa Barbara years. And we really did talk. We spoke about the characters and their motivations, the complexities of their relationships, and the acting styles (since we weren’t the sort of viewers who “forgot” that we were watching a constructed tale). We discussed the politics of rape and of extra-marital relationships and filial unrest as these topics unfolded on the show. Watching Mason being funny-drunk, we chuckled; but my mother – who had gone through a bad marriage to an alcoholic – also sighed and wished aloud that real-world drinkers could be this sweet and charming.

Both of us being very reserved introverts who also relished dark or caustic humour, we were well equipped to appreciate some singular aspects of Mason’s character: the acerbic wit and Greek chorus-like asides, as well as the emotional reticence, the difficulty in expressing deep feeling, that lay below the character’s suave surface. Watching him, relating to him (the same way I related to a more respectable literary figure like Karna in the Mahabharata), I felt like I was understanding things about my own personality and how I engaged with the world. Thirty years later, some of his lines – spoken in Davies’s eloquent voice – are still entrenched in my head.

During the session, when that same voice read out and answered questions I had sent in advance on email (including a question about the character’s emotional undemonstrativeness), I reflected that my mother wouldn’t have missed this meeting for the world. Though she would probably have stayed off camera, watching hesitantly from the side. We shy types are like that. 

[Related post: When we became cable-connected - TV memories from the early 1990s]

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