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Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Many people harbor a cultural bias against soap opera. It’s a very hypocritical attitude, because all the rest of popular culture, including shows that are heaped high with praise and acclaim and awards, uses the storytelling methods of soap opera. The very term “soap opera” is an expression that people commonly use for anything that they consider frivolous, empty-headed, and not meriting serious attention. (Another such expression is “comic book”.) Can you name a popular TV series, other than the unscripted ones, that doesn’t trade on extended, continuous narratives and cliffhangers? Most of them do it these days. (In fact, even the unscripted ones are pretty soapy in their way.) And yet, no one wants to admit to liking soaps, and nothing wants to be labeled as a soap.

I’ve learned a healthy respect for the soap form, especially those soaps that demonstrated how truly innovative and inventive you can be in that genre. There was Dark Shadows, a supernatural horror/gothic soap. My regular soap since high school has been All My Children, which has frequently dealt in socially aware stories and had one of the better histories of using black characters, and has done a great deal with gay and lesbian characters. AMC is also known for its sense of humor. And speaking of sense of humor, there was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap that not only made fun of soaps but also consumerism, the effect of the media on the masses, and just about everything else that was going on in the late 1970s. MH2, as people called it, was one of the most ingenious uses of the medium of TV itself I’ve ever seen. And for sheer pop-culture appeal, you can’t beat General Hospital, even though I’ve not been watching it regularly of late because I’ve grown tired of watching stories about mob violence, and seeing gangsters, thugs, and hit men portrayed as romantic heroes.

And then there was a show called Generations.

Generations ran on NBC from 1989 to 1991. During that time I had grown a bit bored with All My Children and swapped it out for this show. Generations was the story of an exceptional African-American family, the Marshalls, who had built an empire on the ice cream recipes handed down through the family of patriarch Henry Marshall (Taurean Blacque and James Reynolds). The stories followed them and their white friends. The show is to be applauded for that reason alone, the fact that it portrayed the coexistence of the races in a medium where so much has been either jet-black or lily white. But beyond that, Generations gave me my favorite character of all the characters I’ve ever encountered in soaps, a character that I still miss to this day: Ruth Marshall, played by Joan Pringle.

I didn’t realize it when I was actually watching the show, and wouldn’t learn it until years later, but Ruth’s story was an update of the movie Imitation of Life. Ruth was the daughter of a maid, Vivian Potter (Lynn Hamilton) who was best friends with her white employer, Rebecca Whitmore (Patricia Crowley and Dorothy Lyman). Ruth grew up in a spectacular mansion on the north shore of Lake Michigan, where she was surrounded by a privileged white society to which she aspired but to which she didn’t belong. She had a lonely and humiliating experience as a girl and vowed that she would return to that mansion some day, not as the maid’s daughter but as the mistress of the estate. (In Imitation of Life, young Sarah Jane [Susan Kohner], the daughter of a maid who worked for and was best friends with a Broadway star [Lana Turner], was a fair-skinned black girl who suffered from low self-esteem and desperately wanted to “pass for white”.) Ruth married Henry and helped him to build the Marshall’s Chicago Ice Cream empire, elevating her station to where she was convinced that she belonged. (The first time I saw Imitation on one of the cable networks, I got a load of Sarah Jane and her mother Annie [Juanita Moore] and immediately thought, Oh my God, this is where Ruth and Vivian came from!)

Ruth was a kindred spirit to another favorite soap character of mine, one who belonged to prime-time TV. Her soul sister was Dominique Devereaux, played by Diahann Carroll, a woman I’ve loved since she played Julia. Dominique was essentially my only reason for tuning in to Dynasty. I wasn’t really interested in Blake and Krystle and Alexis and all those other people; I used to watch both the show and the clock, counting the minutes and thinking, Enough of these characters; where the hell is Dominique? I’m going to have to devote some future Quantum Blog to talking about the magnificent Ms. Devereaux and the goddess who portrayed her. If Ruth and Dominique could ever have met, they would have instantly bonded for life! And the stories they could have told each other...

Anyway, I’m not going to go into the whole story of Ruth and the Marshalls, as this was a daily soap and I’d be blogging about it from now till Juneteenth Day. But the story of how Ruth finally achieved her fondest ambition and returned to the Whitmore Estate as its proud owner is one of my favorite tales from daytime TV. It’s a story of personal ambition, the rise of a family, race relations, and heartbreak. Humble Vivian, who didn’t have to work as a maid once Ruth and Henry emulated the Jeffersons and “moved on up,” argued with her daughter that owning that house wouldn’t make her any whiter (shades of Imitation of Life), but Ruth wasn’t hearing it. What she did hear was an ominous voice on the phone warning her not to bother moving into the Whitmore Estate, as she would “never live there”. Then came the day that Ruth made enough of a rapprochement with Rebecca’s daughter Laura (Ruth and Laura had grown up together, but it hadn’t been a happy friendship) to bring her to the house to see the renovations under way--and on the living room wall they found the words Nigger Get Lost spray painted in ugly letters! The terrorizing tactics kept coming: rattlesnakes in the Marshalls’ furniture, a bomb at their gala housewarming party. When Henry and family friend Jason Craig (one of the show’s requisite stunning white hunks, Anthony Addabo), caught the bomber with the help of Ruth and Henry’s daughter Chantal (Sharon Brown, later Debbi Morgan--Angie Baxter of All My Children), his trail led to an apartment filled with all the literature and paraphernelia of hatred--against blacks, Jews, gays, you name it. The Marshalls may have been saved from the wrath of one bigot, but the greater hatred that he espoused was still ominously loose in the world.

Anyway, the difference between Ruth and her cinematic predecessor, Sarah Jane, was that with Ruth it was never about trying to “pass for white”. Ruth was a beautiful African-American woman from skin to bones; she owned it and worked it. With Ruth it was about having come from a place where she was always painfully aware of what others had designated was “her place,” and she wasn’t having it. Ruth Marshall knew at the very heart of her heart that “her place” was wherever she said it was, and she wasn’t going to take anything else or anything less. Not even if that meant dealing with not only the standard sorrows of daytime TV, but the slings and arrows of being a black woman in white America. The Whitmore Estate wasn’t a big, expensive house to Ruth; it was a symbol of a life without barriers in which she wasn’t just a black woman; she was a woman with the same mind and heart and aspirations and worthiness as everyone else. Let others think she was greedy or vain or materialistic or shallow; Ruth didn’t care. Owning the Whitmore Estate was her symbolic triumph against a world that told her that she was a lesser person. There was nothing “lesser” about Ruth Marshall. And I loved her. I loved her then and I still miss her now.

NBC was supposed to give Generations three years to establish itself with the audience. But it was a Nielsen ratings cellar dweller from day one and, unlike Ruth and her family, never managed to pull itself up. The network considered this justification for canceling the show prematurely, short of their commitment to the series. To add insult to injury, the last weeks of Generations aired at the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, and the networks insisted, as they so often do, that war coverage could not wait for the time slots designated for the news; it had to be aired as it happened. So the brilliant but dying, racially integrated soap opera suffered from constant pre-emption on its way to TV oblivion.

Even more tragically, the show was just entering a suite of stories that would have been truly incredible to watch, had they been allowed to play out. Rebecca’s long-missing husband, Peter (Ron Harper) had returned, and Vivian spent her days in horror of the secret that she and Ruth were keeping from the rest of the family: While Henry knew that Ruth was pregnant at the time of their marriage and that he wasn’t the father, no one knew that the father was actually Peter! You see, Peter had not been raised in wealth and privilege, either, and young Peter (Corbin Timbrook) and teenage Ruth were kindred spirits--so kindred that one night, when Ruth sang at Peter’s jazz club against Vivian’s wishes, Ruth and Peter conceived Chantal! The eldest Marshall child herself didn’t know her true parentage, a secret that would blow the Marshall family to pieces when it finally got out! When we last saw the Marshalls, Vivian finally broke down and told Rebecca everything but the truth about Chantal, then Rebecca confronted Peter and accused him of acting out a “white master fantasy” with a little black girl who idolized him. When Peter said he had loved Ruth then and still loved her now, Rebecca slapped him!

But still another horror awaited Ruth, as Henry’s jealousy of her friendship with Peter and Peter’s helping her to start her long-abandoned singing career almost led Henry to sleep with Ruth’s best friend Doreen Jackson (Jonelle Allen). What stopped Henry was a literal change of heart, from his conscience and a heart attack--just when Ruth and Henry’s son Adam (Kristoff St. John, now starring in The Young and the Restless) walked in on his shirtless Dad and their family friend! What would Adam do? Would he tell his Mom or help Doreen (with whom he had become a father himself, but that’s another tale) and Henry--if he lived--concoct a cover story? We were never to know, because Adam’s discovery was the very last scene.

The African-American characters I’ve loved best on TV were always the ones who stood out from the standard portrayals of blacks in pop culture: people of intelligence, class, articulation, education, achievement, and beauty. The Marshall family shouldn’t be as remarkable as they are. Neither should Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) of Star Trek, or Julia Baker and Dominique Devereaux, or Detective Ron Harris (Ron Glass) of Barney Miller, or the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, or the Siskos of Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Characters like these should be the rule, not the exception. There has never been another show like Generations. I hope that if anyone ever tries a thing like this again, it’s just as good.

Next week: Another black lady I love, this one from comic books--and I only wish the comic book company to which she belongs loved her as much as I do! Find out what I mean when we learn that “The Captain Was a Marvel”.


  1. I was flicking on the TV in 1990 and who should I see but Richard Roundtree (!) apparently on the run for a crime he did not commit. It was from that perspective that I came onto Generations, which I watched until the end of its very short run.

  2. I didn't know you dug Generations, Roger. How cool!
    Richard Roundtree turns out to be a soap fan himself. He was last seen as a detective on Desperate Housewives. For some reason the otherwise progressive show--the creation of a gay Republican!--nixed Roundtree's fling with Nicollette Sheridan's blonde vamp, Edie.

  3. I have never watched US soap operas (although I bet series I watch like Desperate Housewives could easily be soap operas, too).

    But seeing as you like Marvel Comics and reading this line: "people of intelligence, class, articulation, education, achievement, and beauty", I have to ask if you know about Monet StCroix, from Generation X. She is all that and more. She is also full of herself, though, but no one can deny all of her good qualities.