The Fun-Mask Wearing Escape That is and Always Will Be “Days of our Lives”

DaysMaskStory 300x167 - The Fun-Mask Wearing Escape That is and Always Will Be "Days of our Lives"
Credit: NBC

Soap Operas are very much a place of the mind that takes you on the escapism into tales and stories of a larger than life town and community with characters that embody our heroic or villainous desires, sexual appetite and provide a fantasy and departure from life and reality as you step into the rabbit hole of: the stories in Daytime.

Soaps over the years, however have become very homogenized. Down to four Daytime Soaps: CBS’s Young and the Restless/Bold and the Beautiful, NBC’s Days of our Lives, and ABC’s General Hospital. The revolving door of executive producers and head-writers from ABC to CBS to NBC. Some writers/producers visions serve in accomplishing demands of an executive’s hierarchy, a view of what soaps should be, and servicing the same tropes and stories that are perceived to spike ratings. All the while, the stress, demands of churning out 250 shows a year, unknowingly, how secure their job and position is.

Things can change on a dime, and a story point can be killed half-way through and plot points often made up as they go. With budget restraints, and the faster-pace of producing a soap and lack of job security, long story and “a story bible” that spells out a vision of a show isn’t a MUST anymore. Especially when you have too many cooks in the kitchen.

The 80s Supercouple Action-Adventure Identity:

In the 80s, some shows departed from what the show was and morphed into plots surrounding: Action-Adventure, Spies, League of Dooms, Capers, Bringing down evil organizations, all rooted in fun escape, glitz, glamour, high shoulder pads, even rolling out fun promos such as NBC’s “It Will Excite You.” Also, the 80s was the rise of the Supercouple Soap. General Hospital’s ratings shot up because of the departure of what it was, and morphed into crazy over the top adventure tales with supercouples, such as Luke and Laura, a rape turned into romance, with a wedding that averaged 30 million viewers and featuring Elizabeth Taylor, who was a fan, who’s legendary cameo as Helena Cassadine placed a curse on the hitched couple to be.

Days of our Lives, though was the true supercouple soap, as the other soaps sort of didn’t use it to shape their identity: Days in the 80s revolves around the couples: Bo and Hope, Patch and Kayla, Jack and Jennifer, Shane and Kim, Justin and Adrienne, Tony and Anna, Roman/John and Marlena, with Supervillians and their obsessions and connections to these couples: Stefano DiMera, Orpheus, Ernesto Toscano, Harper Devereaux.

Days’ was that fun supercouple soap, in which your supercouples were the heroes/challenge of the superfriends facing off the evil, looming darkness a crime plaguing the town with the nefarious plots by the Supervillian and his league of doom, as they plot their terror and tyranny.

You weren’t going to get Another World-type or even Bill Bell or Agnes Nixon type of story with social conscious and that was perfectly fine because by then Days set on what it’s identity would then become and morph into.

The “Reilly” Days:

It’s important to have distinct identities: Jim Reilly said it best, there must be a healthy variety in Daytime, one where it doesn’t copy off other writers, the latest trend, and the big crazy, zany, hot story in Daytime. Reilly’s Days is widely applauded and criticized for his bang-the-drum campy, outrageous with gothic, supernatural and religion undertones style of storytelling. Mixing the Peyton Place with Dark Shadow and Dressing Soap Tropes and Playing with Soap Conventions. Reilly’s big story in 1995 in where Marlena Evans was possessed, took the soap from #7 to #2 where the decline in ratings began and the pre-emption of many soaps due to the O.J. Simpson Trial. Days’ skyrocketed in the ratings with this big story turn, and really brought in a younger demographic (Females 18-34 demographic that Networks wanted), to where soaps with distinct identities tried to mimic that as executives wanted to grab ratings, sacrificing a show’s identity for plot in a problematic way that kills/hurt shows’ identities when you try to capture the latest trend than organically let the characters drive an engaging story, a departure that has killed soap operas creatively into cancellation.

Jim Reilly said in an interview with Michael Logan in May 1997:

James E. Reilly: “There should be room for 11 or 12 different types of soaps. They should be like neighborhood restaurants. Ya feel like Chinese, go there. Ya feel like deli, go there. We should all be different.”

In December 1992, Reilly became head-writer coming off his success and Emmy win with Guiding Light. He was definitely a man, who was different, and fell into the soap genre and has a deep love for it through his interviews and just by the way he tells stories. Jim Reilly’s style in his first reign was very gothic, splashy, it appealed to the masses/popular culture in a very MTV-esque way for a younger audience especially when MTV was seeing a great deal of success with Reality Television and toying with scripted content and FOX with it’s daring young adult soaps with Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Party of Five and the short-lived Models Inc.

There was a huge change, coming off the glitz, glamour and opulence that was the 80s, Regan Era.

Guiding Light was glitz and glamour, while General Hospital and Young and the Restless were telling bold socially conscious topical tales….while Reilly was producing and serving something different for Daytime. It wasn’t your classic soap or the one’s you grew up watching with your grandparents or parents.

Reilly shook up the core fabric of the show far from romantic entanglements and affairs. Some of the notable water cooler stories Days had was: Carly Mannings’ buried alive at the hands of Vivian Alamain, Marlena being Possessed by the Devil, and Eileen Davidson’s portrayal of 6 CHARACTERS! Kristen DiMera, Susan Banks, Sister Mary Moira Banks, Thomas Banks, and Penelope Banks.

Deep down, Reilly was dressing up classic soap elements, tropes and conventions into larger than life, outrageous, operatic different style/entanglements of life and twisting of the rules of soap opera. There was no exception as Reilly’s vision for Salem and his stories were this fun escape while capturing popular culture and younger viewers with crazy, beat-the-drum, larger than life, outrageous campy stories that stemmed from history and character all within this midwestern small gothic, supernatural larger than life town of Salem that was the watercooler in the 90s that had people talking and had publications such as Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide talking about the show. Even in his second stint, during the Salem Stalker Storyline with Marlena killing off core veterans of the show in response to the show’s budget restraints. The show became a topic of conversation and shot to a #2 in the ratings in May 2004, scoring coverage from Entertainment Weekly to News Weekly, to New York Post.

Days has never been a realistic show since the late 70s. Under the pen of Bill Bell it was known to be a very dark psychological show.

Days has had socially relevant stories in recent years: Will’s coming out story, Haley’s immigration story, Theo’s shooting, Jack/Eve appealing to one issued voters and bigoted people.

However Salem is a world of it’s own. It’s this campy, outrageous, larger than life town with these supercouples, the men and women being bad-asses, and the women always having a gun ready to load and going on adventures with their man, and their man making love to them in some scenic locale or romantic moment as they have these afterglows and big hair and still manage to look good, and will go out and save the world as they go up against Supervillians, League of Doom and will even die a few times and end up on an island such as a Replica Salem called Melaswen only to thwart the villains plan and return home sighing a breath of relief or if your Dr. Marlena Evans, MEW! after two years of agony, angst, sorrow, pain and return home to Salem ready for the next big adventure and plot to thwart.

Salem is a world of it’s own and it should be treated as one. It’s not Days’ fault, most soaps went out of their way to copy/exact similar stories and feel to it, that’s as a result of network interference, and the homogenization of these soap operas and the revolving doors of executive producers, head-writers, and even casting wars/stunt casting with people who don’t look, or fit the brand-or know anything about the show and making it into something it’s not to fit an agenda, as a result the edge, appeal of these shows have been lost and it’s become too safe, repetitive soap tropes/conventions of the same stories to spike ratings as if it’s new/groundbreaking, it’s become dated/as if we’ve seen it 5-10 years ago, too as it tries hard to not to be “SOAPY” and some of these shows need to: take the gloves off, learn the identity of the show, know that soap equals DRAMA so spice it the hell up. Show.

Don’t tell, use socially relevant aspects of culture as a plot point to try and be hip. Y&R had a scene of “Society” with Summer, and two vapid models just dancing and getting drunk and talking hip. It wasn’t hot, edgy and taboo, I’m 22 and a college student, YOUNG PEOPLE. DON’T. DO THAT. ADD SOME DIVERSE, YOUNG FRESH BLOOD or I don’t know, watch a frickin young cable drama: The Society, Younger, Euphoria.

Carlivati’s Latest Twist!

Days I can say is fun and soapy under Head Writer, Ron Carlivati. He’s a soap writer who writes from a soap fans point of view, while adding his soapy flare and love for the soaps, tropes and conventions he’s grown up on. His writing showcases his love for this genre, and I won’t see a 1980s trope being taken seriously as if it was just discovered/new. He tries to reinvent it, having fun with it and add a twist or dress it up to tell an even bigger story to an outcome, reaction, big payoff—the what if—-exploding the beats to a big moment.

Life is complicated, as Reilly said sometimes we just need an hour to escape.

The Carlivati Era captures Days since Reilly, it captures the essence of what a fun soap this is, and it doesn’t need to have the socially relevant topic it’s a world of its own with colorful characters and: the heroes, villains and the morally greys. Scheming, seeking redemption who are passionate and craving love.

However, as Summer heats up: the dominoes have been set to fall, as we’re introduced to the splashy RETURN of Villainous, Red Dress Galore Kristen DiMera. For weeks, it was hinted of Kristen’s return in this latest reveal but there’s nothing like a huge crazy moment play out on screen.

Nicole Walker, who returned at the end of April, has been delivering a more shady-confrontational-in your face version of Nicole that hasn’t been seen in YEARS. As the character was watered down to baby stories, Daniel Jonas, and a damsel in distress. No doubt, Arianne Zucker is an incredible actress and she definitely provides “emmy episodes”, however it also became frustrating for fans, as it was a departure from who Nicole’s character was, just as Days tried to make Sami Brady into a heroine under the Dena Higley years. Nicole was this fun, scheming, villainous who was very self-serving and liked her drinks, while throwing deeds in other peoples faces and getting caught in blackmail, plots, schemes and occasionally affairs and murder….oh and fantasy! Nicole loved herself a fantasy.

It’s been such a hoot to watch Arianne have so much fun as Nicole, that gives a shade of what Nicole used to be but with a darker, villainous, mustache twirling edge. Right to when her and Xander were revealed to be in cahoots toasting to a bottle of champagne…..”Nicole” wanting to wear a red dress to Holly’s funeral still drinking champagne. Oh and the annoyances: Eric and his crying, Holly, etc. You knew there was something more than just PTSD from the explosion.

The big reveal, in which Nicole slowly peels layers of the mask, as she says “This town holds grudges like no one’s business.” Right as Xander with a smirk, as he states in a very meta way referring to soap recasts/introductions:

“The role of Nicole Walker is now being played by the one and only Kristen DiMera.”

I’ve always thought even when he was at General Hospital, that Ron Carlivati brought a James E. Reilly flare to his writing and Daytime. His stories always have such an operatic, larger than life element that echoes the fantasy and escape elements of what Soap Operas are supposed to provide instead of this “realism approach” or “Reality-approach”

James E. Reilly: I’d put seltzer in my pants if I thought it would give someone a moment of escape. And that’s what the audience wants. Life is not that easy. Though the stock market is up, people are working harder than ever, and when they come home they want to watch something that makes them laugh or scream, “I don’t believe it!” They want — they need — something to jump up and down about.”

Soaps are a place of the mind, Jim Reilly understood that and escapism, fantasy element are tied in with certain tropes dressed up in a different fashion as this was a story about: The Return of Kristen DiMera, but in getting there, there had to be a different logical twist so it could be exciting and surprising and not like any other return, or back from the dead, especially since it’s Salem and this town an it’s characters are larger than life, so the effects have to be BIG. It’s in the show’s DNA and mythology.

Carlivati also has a knack for playing with soap conventions, tropes, in trying to put new twists to it while also paying homage and the dramatic effect it has in structure and world of a soap community/town and it’s characters and the wackiness of it. That’s what makes it fun, it’s almost like a homage/love letter to soaps and soap fans and instead of dismissing the crazy, he embraces it. It’s why we watch/love soaps. Embracing the good, bad, ugly and the crazy! Would we have anything to talk about, if it was just watching paint dry?

The mask trope is also a callback to Mission Impossible, Comics and Saturday Morning Adventure/Superhero vs. Supervillians Cartoons. Soap Operas are a lot like comics, and soap fans are a lot like comic books fans, Marvel, DC fans debating about their superheroes and villains and either praising or nitpicking the content at hand in a community.

However, not everything is going to be apparent in the beginning, and not everything is going to be loved or on ACEs. But the journey and watching it unfold is very much what being a soap fan and watching soaps are about. Soaps provide: Fantasy, Escapism, Desire, or un-comfort and darkness as we watch “our stories” and tales spin for months as it’s a place of mind.

I’m loving Days, these days as it’s a callback to the craziness I loved as a kid.

For an hour, who wouldn’t want to be entertained by the insanity that is Salem rather than try to make it into this after-school special reality? I think we have spinning out of control as politics is rearing its head and a civil war among people over political philosophies, an allegiance to one man, one party and his rally and rhetoric.

There was chatter, oh there goes Ron with the masks. Ron previously was head-writer on General Hospital where he has used the “Mask” for big reveals/returns. But one must remember, Days of our Lives goes way back with using “Masks.”

Masked History:
-Salem Slasher: Andre DiMera wearing a Roman mask to frame him for the murders.
-1996: Stefano in a jail cell…except it isn’t Stefano.
-2004: Eugene and Kate tried to gaslight Sami by wearing a “Brandon” mask around Halloween.
-2005: While held captive by Andre DiMera, Jack tried to escape and ran into Jennifer! Except….It was a henchwoman wearing a mask to fool Jack!
-2005: Allison Sweeney went on maternity leave and to usher her off, she was transformed into STAN!
-2017: It’s alluded that Shawn Donovan wore a Stefano mask to impersonate him to get Hope Brady cleared of all charges.
-2019: Nicole is really Kristen!