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New Soap Bubbles From Abc

June 25, 1985|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

Although the five-day forecast for soap operas still calls for furtive affairs followed by pregnant pauses, it is said that a faster pace, an occasional murder, disco music and location shooting have enlivened the plots in recent years.

Now another ingredient is afoot: humor. The setting is what is called a "soapcom," a cross between a soap opera and a situation comedy. Such may seem heresy for a network, or at least as improbable as a tuba solo during a Jane Fonda workout.

But two soapcoms are being created for ABC--"Fitzgerald and Fennelli" and "Love on Trial." The former is by soap-and-comedy veteran Ann Marcus, the latter by Lin Bolen, NBC's daytime programs chief for 4 1/2 years and now an independent producer.

The term soapcom and these works-in-progress were unveiled last month to ABC affiliates gathered in New York by Jacqueline Smith, the network's head of daytime programs. She described a soapcom as "perfect for the morning," and added:

"It doesn't have a laugh track, but it does have sitcom humor, combined with the continuing stories of love and jeopardy associated with serials."

She later declined to be interviewed about these matters, pending developments, particularly by Marcus and Bolen.

In separate phone interviews, though, the Los Angeles-based developers recently said their respective shows would be daily half-hour efforts. The programs, they said, probably would air in late morning, in game-show country, instead of in the afternoons wherein the ladies and gentlemen of most soap operas now get their exercise.

All this, of course, depends on when and if ABC's proposed soapcoms--still in the planning-and-mulling stages--go into production and get slots on ABC's daytime schedule.

(No similar enterprises were announced to executives of NBC and CBS affiliates during their conventions last month.)

Neither Marcus nor Bolen finds it odd that television's traditional vale of tears soon may be invaded by a chuckle or two, "although 20 years ago I don't think the (predominantly female) audience would have watched," concedes Bolen, who left NBC in 1975.

Her theory is that while women still account for perhaps 90% of the daytime soap-opera audience, "they're much more educated and sophisticated" now and thus more willing to accept a different approach to an ancient form.

The traditional soap-opera form itself is ripe for change, says Marcus, who co-created the noted, syndicated soap-opera spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and whose writing credits include "Search for Tomorrow," "Days of Our Lives" and "Love of Life."

The producer-writer, also a veteran of prime-time situation comedy work in the '60s, believes that "it's kind of a natural thing that comedy should come to daytime. Everyone's getting sick of heaving and grunting."

The torrid boudoir scenes of unshirted passion that have become a cliche of contemporary daytime drama have been adopted as an art form by the various nighttime soap operas now at large, she notes.

"I think it's time there were changes to shake people up, to have fun, and be a little stimulating to the head," Marcus says.

At the ABC affiliates gathering, "Fitzgerald and Fennelli" was bouncily described in a recorded announcement--the announcer may yet hear from Gloria Steinem: "two girls on the rise and on the loose in New York."

Marcus is content to describe it as the stories of two young professional women who, because of an unscrupulous "holistic dentist," must share a Greenwich Village apartment (each thought she was subletting his place for her own).

Fitzgerald, she says, is a Boston blue blood, a Harvard Law School grad working as a public defender. Fennelli, from Trenton, N.J., and of blue-collar stock, toils as a production assistant at the kind of talk show only Phil Donahue could love--or do.

The Donahue brand of televised social inquiry offers possibilities galore for "marvelous satire," Marcus says. But her soapcom, she adds, would not be parody. It would be a daily diet of "strong stories" with humor, stories that are "mainly about the lives, loves and experiences" of the show's leading ladies.

"Love on Trial" is set in a big-city family court. There, producer Bolen says, stories of family feuds, divorce and juvenile problems, and the pathos, anger and humor evolving from same, hopefully, would evoke "laughter and tears simultaneously."

"We aren't going to make fun of people's problems," she emphasizes. Instead, she says, the funny, the sad and the in-between would come from both their stories and the never-ceasing efforts of a harried judge to keep families together.

The show would have eight regulars, plus what she calls a "short-term" cast of actors who for a week or so would portray various family members in distress, then withdraw as other actors and new plot lines enter the courtroom.

Bolen says the focus always will be the family, not the behind-closed-doors baring of human pelts so common in daytime soap opera.

"I'm not suggesting we won't see anybody in bed," she acknowledges. "I'm saying it's not the thrust of the piece."

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