Passions: A Look Back
Hi! I just wanted to say that I love Serial Drama and follow it religiously. We had talked about the idea of my writing some guest entries on Passions once it neared its final episode since I was an absolute Passions fanatic for most of its run. So over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sharing several Passions-themed entries with you: retrospectives, recaps of select episodes I did back in the day, and more! Let’s start with a general overview and look back at the show.
Passions debuted on NBC on July 5, 1999. I didn’t start watching it then, but had read and heard from friends that it was laughably awful. The first episode I saw was later that year when I was home sick from work and from what I can remember, revolved around everyone being at some sort of high school dance where Theresa locked Gwen in a broom closet while Tabitha and Timmy sat in a corner and provided running commentary. I started watching regularly at the end of the year, when, from what I remember, a fake Martin Fitzgerald fell to his death through a skylight at some New Year’s Eve gala, but EVEN THOUGH SOMEONE HAD JUST DIED ABOUT TEN FEET AWAY FROM THEM, Kay was more upset that Miguel was with Charity and Gwen was hounding Theresa to produce this so-called “boyfriend” she kept talking about (who didn’t exist because Theresa, of course, was really in love with, as she inimitably and overenunciatedly pronounced it, “EEEEEEEEEEthannnnn-nuh” because, as she reminded us at the drop of a hat, it was “FAY-tuh”); meanwhile, Tabitha and Timmy parked themselves in the corner and provided running commentary. The whole thing just seemed so sublimely, almost surreally godawful that I started setting my VCR.
(Now, I finally did see the first few months when the Sci-Fi Channel reran the show briefly in 2006 before yanking them with no warning when we were ONLY ABOUT TWO MONTHS AWAY FROM ME HAVING CAUGHT UP TO WHERE I CAME IN. Er, not that I’m bitter or anything. Anyway…oh. Oh my. Sheridan’s riotous fear of dying just like her “dear friend” Princess Diana, including getting into a car wreck in the exact same tunnel and then chirping to the random British voiceover in her out of body experience, “Diana? Diana, is that you?” The Little Angel Moppet running amok singsonging “GRAAAAAAAAAACE… GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE…” while Grace ran around like a nincompoop screeching, “LITTLE GIRL! LITTLE GIRL!” Kay and Jessica shrieking about beepers (hello, 1999!) and bust exercises? The never-ending carnival? I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life. And hey—did you know that Sheridan was more like a big sister to Ethan than an aunt?)
The beauty of Passions back in those days was that it was this intoxicating, improbable mix where anything could, and did, happen, yet at the same time nothing actually happened, but overall it seemed to be glacially progressing toward a mythical “something” happening. For example:
Witch Tabitha wanted to get rid of insipid twit Charity because once Charity came into her “full powers,” the “dark side” would be doomed forever. To accomplish that end, Tabitha might try to choke Charity through Charity’s bathroom sink using a magic bowl, or electrocute her when she lit the town Christmas tree, or have Charity fall through the ice at the town skating rink, or try to get Charity to accidentally kill her equally insipid boyfriend Miguel with poisoned petits-fours (No, really. We seriously heard the phrase “poisoned petits-fours” about 10,000 times that week. And I’ve long forgotten exactly what that was supposed to accomplish), or turn her into an evil doppelganger using an enchanted pendant, or any number of equally over-the-top schemes. But none of them actually worked, so we would always end up right back at square one, like we were watching Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons acted out with humans. Still, it did all seem preplanned, like we were reading an extremely slow-moving book that would eventually lead somewhere, and each instance seemed to get us one paragraph closer. This was mainly due to the fact that underneath the insanity, Passions actually had an extremely intricate and well-crafted backstory that intertwined all four main families, as well as witch Tabitha, for generations back.
But while you could miss an entire month—hell, probably an entire year—and still know exactly what was going on, the most addicting quality was the sheer WTF?-ness of it all. Sure, overall the plot may not have progressed, but what ridiculous happening (OMG! Tabitha melted when she got hit with water, so Timmy had to call Dr. Bombay from Bewitched, and he accidentally turned her into a goldfish!) or “I can’t believe I’m hearing this” line of dialogue (“I’m picking mushrooms to destroy goodness!”) might you miss if you skipped an episode? It was like watching a brand new Ed Wood movie every day.
This is what not only kept me glued to the screen, but made it feel like it was “my” soap—which was odd, because the other soaps I have felt that way about—Santa Barbara and, through reruns, Ryan’s Hope—were pretty much the polar opposite of Passions. Sure, Santa Barbara had some out-there plots (Santa Claus gets sick and asks Cruz and Eden to take over the magic sleigh for Christmas!), and Delia did get kidnapped by a grunting guy in a cheap $2 costume who was ostensibly supposed to be a gorilla on Ryan’s Hope, but both soaps on the whole were extremely well-written and acted. Passions, on the other hand, went beyond mere cheese—it was a complete Velveeta buffet. But it was FUN—and fun to talk about. I would have people at work who had never seen an episode in their lives ask me what was happening now because they heard me say things like the following:
- “So Charity’s closet has turned into a portal to hell, see, and…”
- “So Tabitha and Timmy have checked into the Bates Motel, and Norma Bates, who turns out to be the daughter of Norman, apparently killed Tabitha in the shower, except she was nearsighted and didn’t realize that she was only hacking at Tabitha’s bottle of strawberry shampoo…” (NOTE: This, despite Tabitha having melted the year before when water was accidentally thrown on her. I never said Passions was one for continuity!)
- “So Hecuba caused Ethan & Theresa’s and Sheridan & Luis’s love noodles to break…”
- “So the Bennett house is getting sucked into the ground in a burst of hellfire, but Simone is more concerned that Chad is standing closer to Whitney than her…”
- “So Ethan and Theresa and Sheridan and Luis are having a double wedding, but Ivy crashed into the church with her car while “Chapel of Love” was playing on her radio and snapped that she couldn’t find a place to park…”
- “So the Talking Tree ordered Charity to break up with Miguel…”
And it wasn’t just me and my friends—Passions got a huge deal of mainstream press at the time of the “Hottest Guilty Pleasure” variety, and Hidden Passions, the book allegedly written by Tabitha and Timmy that told the backstory of the show, made the New York Times bestseller list. (It didn’t hurt that it was plugged on the show mercilessly, but humorously.)
Sounds great…and yet it’s being canceled. So what went wrong?
To me, it started to go off the rails in 2002. For the first two years or so, as I said, even though the pace was excruciatingly slow, it did all seem to be leading somewhere. But by 2002, the show just seemed to be winging it. There was a huge murder mystery—Who Killed Julian Crane?—that was basically dropped; the shooter wasn’t revealed until 2006, and even that seemed like a hasty afterthought to hustle Liz off-canvas. Sheridan and Luis had had a tortured love affair at best from the time it started, but keeping them apart for nearly a full year after Sheridan was in a boat explosion and presumed dead, but was actually an amnesiac calling herself “Diana” on an island near Bermuda called St. Lisa’s, was sheer overkill.
But the biggest thing to derail Passions, unfortunately, was a tragedy that couldn’t be helped—the death of Josh Ryan Evans, who played Timmy, in August 2002.
The Tabitha/Timmy relationship was one of Passions’ most recognizable and iconic—most people who had never watched the show had at least heard of them, whether by name or as “the witch with the talking doll.” And, in an odd way, it was the most realistic relationship—sure, they were a witch and an animated doll-turned-real boy, but, while most of the other characters were squawking to the high heavens about FAY-tuh and TRUE LOVE!!!111!!! and the like, Tabitha and Timmy, in their own way, seemed to be the only characters who genuinely cared about each other. I always thought that was sort of a brilliant touch, actually—when the heart and soul of the show is the friendship between a witch and her doll, it becomes a literal illustration of the Shakespeare quote “What fools these mortals be!” (And there were certainly no shortage of fools among the loons that were the other characters!)
So when Josh, and by extension Timmy, died, to me, so did the show’s emotional center. “Emotional center” may seem like a weird concept to apply to a show that routinely featured exchanges like the following:
CHARITY: You’re alive!
TALKING TREE: Most trees are, you know!
But it helped to keep all the craziness grounded on some level. It’s one of those things where you don’t really notice it or realize how important it is until it’s gone. Which is perilously close to the title of a 1988 Cinderella song. But I digress.
The show scrambled to fill the void, but couldn’t seem to figure it out. An initial attempt to simply replace Timmy with a bratty living doll, Cracked Connie, was an absolute disaster, and she and her cohort Cecil were swiftly and mercifully hustled out of town. Then the show basically sidelined Tabitha while they tried to figure out what to do, and the “offbeat yet genuine friendship” role shifted to Mrs. Wallace and Precious the orangutan nurse for the next year or so. It wasn’t exactly the same, by any means, but Precious was adorable, hysterical, and restored the show’s buzz factor. (“So the orangutan fantasized that it was Scarlett O’Hara and Luis was Rhett Butler…”)
The show finally hit upon another winning formula for Tabitha when Kay moved in with her daughter Maria and became Tabitha’s apprentice, while Tabitha’s daughter Endora turned out to be a good witch who communicated in onscreen thought bubbles. The show finally had its new emotional center.
However, the rest of the show was in a complete state of flux. After years of Tabitha proclaiming, “ZOMG WHEN CHARITY COMES INTO HER FULL POWERS WE’RE DOOMED!!!11!!!”, Charity and Miguel basically left town in mid-2004 with a whimper when the actors’ original contracts finally ended and they chose to bail. So you could argue that the show was forced into cutting their storyline short, but, I mean, you would think a show could complete a storyline in FIVE FREAKING YEARS. Then again, Ridge on The Bold and the Beautiful has been waffling between Brooke and either Caroline or Taylor since Samantha Fox was on the charts. But the show most likely chose to drop the storyline rather than immediately recast because the new Tabitha/Endora/Kay makeshift family dynamic made the whole “must kill Charity” thing not really fit anymore, as Tabitha had her hands full with her own little good witch, who was challenging Tabitha’s notions of evil=good & love=bad, and Kay similarly had evolved from ruthless schemer to merely ditzy yet well-meaning, helped along by Heidi Mueller taking over the role. (To this day, I don’t know if Miguel has ever learned the extent of all Kay did to Charity back in the early years.) Similarly, Grace left town with David without ever finding out he was a sham (she did years later, but then almost immediately got blown up on a bus), and TC eventually just sort of faded into the woodwork. Not that any of these characters were my favorites, mind you, but being that I had followed their storylines from the beginning, I did at least want some sort of resolution.
Meanwhile, other long-standing secrets finally came out and were either complete letdowns or WTF gut overhaul retcons. One of the longest running secrets on the show was what TC had in THE SHED. He never let anyone go near THE SHED. Liz snuck a peek and swore she would never forget what was in THE SHED. So after all that buildup, what was in THE SHED? The wrecked car from his accident that cost him his tennis career. Whoopee.
Similarly, the much-talked about youngest Lopez-Fitzgerald child, Paloma, came to town along with “Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler,” who turned out to be Martin Fitzgerald and Katherine Crane, who had run away together years ago to escape the wrath of Alistair, which was a COMPLETE retcon that would in essence make Paloma older than Ethan(!). This also meant that Sheridan had been plagued for years by nightmares about either killing someone or witnessing a murder when she was a child, and the victim was assumed to be Martin—no, wait! He’s alive. Katherine? No, wait, she’s alive too. So it was Katherine’s sister Rachel! Except, no, wait, now she’s alive too, and her being alive got a huge buildup with dedicated webisodes and the promise it would CHANGE EVERYTHING!!!!111!!!! Except not, because she was around for less than four months and spent about half of that chatting with Katherine over coffee. So this meant that Sheridan had nightmares…of nothing, for no reason. Oooooookay. To say nothing of the awful secret that Antonio learned as a teenager that made Julian send him out of town…if it wasn’t that Martin had been killed by one of the Cranes, what else was it? Granted by then, Antonio was dead himself, except now he’s alive again, and…OY.
Also around this time, characters would drop off canvas for months, only to pop up with completely different personalities. Jessica, once recast with the dreadful Danica Stewart (I will never understand the concept of a show voluntarily firing an actor who can act in favor of one who can’t), instantly became a walking shill for Avon’s Mark cosmetics, then disappeared almost completely for a year, then suddenly popped up as a drug and cutting addict on the road to prostitution. WHAAA?!? Meanwhile, Simone disappeared for several months and suddenly popped up as a lesbian—although in all fairness, her coming out storyline was remarkably tasteful and well-done, especially for this show. But it just seemed like the show had been taken over by a five-year old with no longterm memory in desperate need of Ritalin. Which describes a James E. Reilly-penned show on even the best of days, so…even more so than usual, then.
It also was remarkable how Passions consistently proved it could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Fox and Theresa made for a fun pairing (onscreen and off, as the actors married in real life), so the show…stuck him in a snooze of a pairing with Whitney. Similarly, Fox and Kay were awesome, and easily had the rooting value heading into a triangle with a newly recast and returned Miguel. One disastrous recast of Fox later, and Kay basically found herself stranded for over a year in a storyline with two attractive blocks of wood. In scenes with NuFox and/or NuMiguel, one halfway expected Kay to turn to the brick wall and be like, “So anyway…” in an attempt to get some—any—sort of emotional response. And Jared Casey was one of the best new characters the show came up with in years, and he and Theresa were another great, fun pairing, but he wound up coming in second to Ethan and FAY-tuh and slunk out of town.
For me, the last great hurrah of the show was the Rome/Vendetta storyline in 2006. It was a laughably awful ripoff of The DaVinci Code—but in that classic, fun way of Passions of old. So Whitney, thinking (mistakenly, as it turned out) that she had given birth to her brother’s baby, decided to shut herself away from the world in a CLOISTERED CONVENT. (Seriously, it was never referred to as just a convent. It was always a CLOISTERED CONVENT. Oh, Passions.) But then Whitney started getting visited by God, who wanted her to go to Rome and complete a mission for him, but she had to be in complete disguise, which turned out to be blue contacts and a Whitney Houston-in-The Bodyguard wig, and then she had to get the Holy Grail from the Pope’s chambers using virtual reality goggles. So it turned out “God” was Alistair, and then everyone wound up in Rome, and there was a wildly overacting hunchbacked nun who kept braying about “The EEEEEEEEEEEENNOCENT one,” and annoying tertiary characters got killed on roofs by lightning, and everyone was after JT Cornell and his memory stick (not a euphemism), and Alistair threw Fancy and Luis to the lions, and Mrs. Wallace and Norma popped up as lesbians with a singing revue that consisted of them singing “Lesbian, lesbian” to the tune of “Edelweiss,” and then Simone and a lesbian army defeated Alistair, and Alistair and Beth and Marty’s train got hit with a rogue scud missile. It happens. Yes, it was as godawful and convoluted as it sounds, but it was HYSTERICAL. And FUN.
In the end, I think that’s what did Passions in…it simply ceased to be fun. Either storylines went on well past their expiration date (why can’t Ethan make up his damned “brilliant legal mind” once and for all between Theresa and Gwen and, more importantly, why do they put up with it?), or got too dark (watching Alistair and Vincent running around town committing multiple rapes and other crimes, and Sheridan degenerating into a heartless bitch, isn’t necessarily my idea of a good time. Come back, poisoned petits-fours! All is forgiven!).
There were still some occasional bright spots. The Wicked parody in 2007, in which Tabitha and good witch Esmeralda (Georgia Engel from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) explained in musical flashback how they met at witches’ school, was hysterical and dead-on, much like the parody of Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” in 2003. (And did Chicago have an orangutan in a boa? I think not!)
But the most telling sign is that when Passions made the big switch to DirecTV, I wasn’t able to follow because you try getting an entire New York City apartment building to switch from cable just so you won’t miss your soap. I kept up with it by reading daily recaps, and by the time I had the option to purchase episodes online, I realized that, except for the occasional Tabitha/Kay/Endora or Esme scene that sounded fun, I really had no desire to watch what I was reading about.
So, now it’s coming to an end. But MAN, it was fun when it was in its prime! For providing me with moments like these:
- TC, who is so ridiculously hot-tempered he’s basically a human Rock-Em Sock-Em Robot, cheerfully revealing he’s also the town grief counselor.
- Eve decides to torch Orville’s apartment to protect her SECRETS, but the dumbass doesn’t bother to plan an escape route. As the fire grows and grows, she just stands there, trapped, sputtering, “Wha—wha—the fire’s spreading!” Um, DUH.
- The romantic montage spoofs, be they Tabitha and Timmy or Precious and Luis.
- Eve doing a mad dash up the aisle of Liz’s nightclub, waving and looking for all the world like she was frantically hailing a taxi, screeching, "STOP THE MUSIC!!!!" because Whitney was up on stage SINGING!!!111!!! Because singing leads to DRUGS! And PROSTITUTION! And she wants a better life for her girls!
- Grace bringing her famous tomato soup cake to dinner at the Crane mansion, then somehow becoming convinced that Julian loved it and making sure she made it for him in the future.
- Rebecca ensuring I will never, ever look at a donkey the same way again. (Speaking of Rebecca, did she have an imaginary friend named Bobo who lived on the ceiling? Because I swear she delivered every line to there.)
- Timmy and Julian’s adventure on the run, which included a Wizard of Oz spoof and Julian entering pro wrestling as The Masked CEO.
- Whitney tearfully telling Chad they couldn't tell Simone the truth about their relationship because of how distraught Simone had been as a child when Whitney accidentally broke her Happy Meal toy.
- Theresa’s raging case of preeclampsia causing her to stab Gwen with scissors, then hallucinate that she, Ethan and Gwen were singing the Passions theme song.
- Gwen destroying Theresa’s room with a baseball bat as she smirked, “Payback’s a BITCH!”
- Whitney snapping to Theresa, “If you say the word 'fate' one more time I am going to duct tape your mouth shut forever, do you hear me?”
- Adrian Zmed as The Floating Head.
Passions, you will sorely be missed!