A fresh-scrubbed SOAP

'Passions', a made-for-teens soap opera, has hooked an audience with its hip, young look and imagination. But don't expect depth or storytelling.

August 17, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

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.

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