In the old days, it used to go like this: Mom watched soap opera. Kid got home from school. Kid sat down and watched soap opera with mom. Kid grew attached to soap opera. Kid continued watching soap opera into adulthood, and passed the addiction on to the next generation. Soap characters like Luke and Laura from "General Hospital" and Roman and Marlena from "Days of Our Lives" became as familiar to kids as their friends at school -- extramarital affairs, demonic possession and diabolical twins notwithstanding.
This passing of the soap tradition from mother to child is called "mentoring," according to Lynn Leahey, editor of Soap Opera Digest. "That's generally how girls got into soaps."
But not anymore. You can blame it on working moms, Jerry Springer or whatever -- mentoring is practically dead. These days, Leahey says, "A soap has to hook teens in some other way."
Enter "Passions," which replaced the venerable but ratings-impaired "Another World" five weeks ago on NBC (Monday through Friday at 2 p.m.).
"Peyton Place meets the X-Files" is how creator James E. Reilly describes "Passions," a mix of teen angst, standard lather and the occult. "Passions" has already snagged second place in the daytime ratings (behind "Days of Our Lives") for the young and restless 12-to-17-year-old audience. In overall ratings, however, it's second to last of all daytime dramas, coming in ahead of "Sunset Beach," a more Aaron Spelling-esque attempt at drawing young sudsers.
Teen characters on soaps are nothing new. What is new are teens dealing with standard adolescent feelings instead of more mature story lines. In the '80s, we had Frannie from "As The World Turns" dealing with anorexia, while over at "The Young and the Restless," Nikki was being sucked in to a cult and Phillip was dealing with alcoholism.
Set in the fictional, picturesque New England town of Harmony, "Passions" revolves around four families, or you might think three, seeing as the African-American Russells are rarely seen, with the exception of their tennis-playing daughter Whitney (Brook Kerr). And when TC (Rodney Van Johnson), the father of the Russell clan, is spotted, he isn't particularly dimensional.
"Every time you see him, he's angry for some reason," says Kelli Herod, 17, a Gaithersburg resident and "Passions" fan who posts messages on the show's Web site.
Meet the families
The Cranes are the genteel, astronomically wealthy clan with the palatial estate. The blue-collar Bennetts contend with their dueling daughters Kay (Taylor Anne Mountz) and Jessica (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And then there are the Lopez-Fitzgeralds, presided over by matriarch Pilar (Eva Tamargo Lemus). Her job is, guess what?
The Cranes' maid.
On "Passions," unrequited teen love is a main theme. Characters spout such lines as "I'm going to flush your head down the toilet" and "My behind is anything but sorry." Characters forage for lost siblings on the Internet; VH1 Pop-Up Video-style graphics help move the plot along. And, for better or worse, current events come into play.
"Passions" was slammed early on by viewers and critics for an introductory story line in which resident poor little rich girl Sheridan Crane (McKenzie Westmore), a close personal friend of Princess Diana, had a dream sequence in which she went through the same series of events Di experienced on the day of her death.
"I think they thought people could connect with it," says Erin Drummond, a 17-year-old from Mahoning County, Ohio, who also posts messages on the "Passions" Web site. "It was almost sacrilegious to bring her into that story line."
Even though she took offense, Drummond says she is still hooked on the "Passions." She started watching because she liked the idea of following a soap from the beginning.
Fan Kelli Herod is wild about the characters, particularly deluded Latina teen Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald, whose obsessed character all but stalks the suave young heir to the Crane dynasty, Ethan (Travis Schuldt).
'She wants what she wants'
Lindsay Korman, who plays Theresa on the show, explains her character this way: "She's just neurotic. She just wants what she wants, and that's how you are at 17," says Korman, mature and worldly at 21.
Theresa's clumsy attempts to get Ethan's attention aren't all that Herod likes.
"Theresa wears very trendy clothes, which is strange, because she's supposed to be poor," Herod points out.
Indeed, Theresa sports such fashionable brands as BCBG and Express, and wears butterfly hair clips, beaded necklaces, Capri pants and other garments sure to make any teen-age girl swoon.
Comely cast members in current styles make "Passions" easy on the eyes. A theme song that could have played Lilith Fair and background tracks from Ricky Martin to Luscious Jackson give it a good beat and make it easy to dance to. Like its pop soundtrack, "Passions" is all about the quick hook.
"It takes a lot of time to build [loyalty], and with teen-agers, they don't have time to build," Leahey says. "The stories are more obvious. It doesn't take years of emotional investment to find out why two people fell in love."
On "Passions," usually it's because they're both really cute. Which is good, because that's all some of its characters have to offer.
"They have all these buff young guys who are always taking their shirts off," says viewer John Williams, a 24-year-old writer from Fort Worth, Texas, who posts on the "Passions" Web site. "I hope some of the younger people will pick up some acting skills along the way."
Reilly says the writing staff includes only two people in their 20s or early 30s. He is a soap veteran who has written for nearly every daytime drama during his career, and was responsible for a wildly popular demonic possession story line on "Days of Our Lives."
So it's little surprise that besides giving his Generation Y viewers something they can identify with, he's also thrown in a dash of the supernatural.
"We've changed the soap form to fit the 21st century," he says. "People used to think soap operas had to be with the heavy organ music and people sitting across a table."
Reilly says the early '80s marked a change in the genre, introducing hip music, more location filming and more bizarre story lines.
On "Passions," those story lines include resident freaks Tabitha (Juliet Mills), a witch, and Timmy (Josh Ryan Evans), a doll she brought to life to assist in her evil doings. Timmy, who is played as a speech-impaired midget, sometimes gets thrown in the dryer or the microwave when he displeases his boss.
Timmy and Tabitha's campy rapport may make you laugh hysterically or seriously question your sanity. The duo have become a favorite of viewers, but sometimes the show goes a little overboard.
"The doll is fine. I don't mind the doll," says fan Erin Drummond. "But when they start pulling people through sinks ...
"Some things work, some things don't," she says.
John Williams thinks he understands Reilly's reasoning in adding such silly supernatural stuff.
Other supernatural hits
"You have "Buffy" and "Charmed," and they're big hits, and they're feeding off of that," Williams says. "It's a good idea in theory, but they're fumbling the football."
To Reilly, it's all just part of repackaging the genre.
"It adds a freshness," Reilly says. "Maybe it's the millennium thing. Who knows?"
"Passions" also retains many of the basic elements of daytime soaps: the rich, frosty blond frigid wife and philandering patriarch; the righteous cop; class conflict.
For all its cool clothes, hot actors and weird science, "Passions" has proven that the real way to hook teen viewers is to make them crack up -- even if that's not what it intended.
"The first couple of weeks we watched it just to laugh," Drummond says. "Everything was so stupid and ridiculous. It was so cheesy.
"Most soap operas don't make me laugh."
How 'Passions' plays
Here are a few recent happenings in Harmony, the setting of the new teen-oriented soap opera "Passions":
Identical twins Grace Bennett and Faith Standish, separated 20 years ago, practically come face to face in a church. The twins, both of whom are imbued with supernatural powers of good, live in the same small town, but for some reason have never run into each other.
Rich girl Sheridan Crane crashes into officer Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald's police car. She gets snooty and says something to the effect of "You can't put me in jail, I'm a Crane, blah, blah, blah ..." He does his duty, though, and she spends the night talking about what a jerk he is. Hmmm, wonder if they'll get together.
Lovesick teen Kay Bennett dresses up like a football player and sneaks into the locker room of her dream-boy, the hunky Miguel Lopez-Fitzgerald.
Miguel takes off his shirt at a carnival for no apparent reason.
Bitter witch Tabitha shoves her sidekick Timmy the doll into the microwave.