By Alina Adams
How's that for a cheery title first thing in the morning?
With little Jake poised to shuffle off his mortal coil on General Hospital, it got me thinking about other soap children who have been killed off in the name of "entertainment."
There was poor Zach on Days of Our Lives (and after all the trouble Bo and Hope went through to un-switch him and change the tyke's name, to boot), the victim of a hit and run, like All My Children's Laura.
One Life to Live's Jessica lost two children at birth (and, for a while there, Starr believed she'd lost hers). Bold & Beautiful's Amber's son was stillborn. Young & Restless' Lauren mourned Dylan, who she thought was her biological child. There was Gwen's Billy on As The World Turns (though, initially, Jennifer believed it to be Johnny; two grieving mothers for the price of one!). And little Johnny was named after the baby Jen's mother, Barbara, lost with John Dixon years earlier. John held the preemie in his arms as he died, same way All My Children's Gloria held Anna Claire, while singing You Are My Sunshine.
(Obviously, there are many more examples, but even cyberspace is finite.)
This is entertainment?
Mary Stuart (Jo), Search for Tomorrow star from the first to last episode, didn't think so.
When Jo gave birth to her second child in 1956, it was due to Mary's real-life pregnancy. SFT filmed on location with Mary in the hospital, and her newborn son, Jeffrey, played little Duncan Erik.
When the storyline called for the toddler to run out into the street and get hit by a car, Mary balked, threatening to quit.
She told Afternoon TV Magazine, "It was my own child. It had been a complicated pregnancy for me, and playing the death of the child was just too horrible to even consider. The show's ratings had been dropping, and I knew they were killing the child just to have something dramatic to boost the ratings. I played those scenes all right, but I made them so horrifying that nobody could watch. Not even the make-up girl. She wouldn't even look at the monitor to see whether my make-up was right, it was too awful to watch. And nobody out in television-land watched either. In my own mind, I was remembering the morning my own father died. My mother just could never accept it. She'd walk around with a hopeful smile, in a daze, saying, "He's going to get better..." That's the way I played it. I destroyed them. It didn't help the ratings."
And that is the key issue.
Dead baby stories win Emmys. They do not help ratings.
Arguably, the best tale of its kind was GH's BJ/Maxie heart-transplant tale (obviously, ABC thinks so too, or else why go back to that well yet again?). It was heart-wrenching and dramatic, gorgeously acted and phenomenally written.
But, it did not raise the ratings.
I loved the GH story. Because it aired in 1994. I didn't have any kids in 1994.
In 2003, when my husband told me I should watch All My Children's David and Anna deal with the loss of their daughter, Leora, because, "It's really, really good," I had a four year old son and another on the way. I couldn't even think about the story, much less turn on the TV.
My husband said, "Okay, I'll save it, and you can see it later."
I still haven't been able to.
Granted, soaps are no longer the exclusive domain of stay-at-home moms grabbing an hour or two of Me Time before the kids get home from school.
But, surely, they must still make up some fraction of the audience.
And if they tune out every time there's a dead baby story, you've got to wonder why the soaps keep on playing them. Don't you?