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Erika Slezak Library

Soap Opera Weekly
Volume 11, Issue 17, April 25, 2000

The Babe Hits One Out of the Park

By: Marlena De Lacroix

A friend who has, like moi, been watching One Life To Live for the past 32 years watched the March 29 all-Viki special episode, featuring Viki preparing to go to the hospital for her breast cancer surgery. As soon as the episode started, we began chanting all the obstacles we had watched Viki overcome since the show's debut: a stroke...brain surgery...kidnappings of her children...being on trial for a murder she didn't commit...several major breakouts of dissociative identity disorder (during one of which one of her alters murdered her father, and during another of which an alter killed a man)...the deaths of two husbands..two divorces from a third husband...the death of daughter Megan.

Watching Victoria Lord Carpenter suffer nobly and overcome obstacles is why we love the character who has held center stage on OLTL from the start. Viki is everywoman; her victories are our victories. So it was an obvious, if perhaps too facile, choice for a soap as hungry for acclaim as OLTL to produce a special episode in which Our Lady of the Perpetual Overcoming dealt with the widespread disease breast cancer. In the past, OLTL Executive Producer Jill Farren Phelps has done bravura work producing several special episodes on Guiding Light (such as Ross' 1992 Election Day episode, and Billy's bachelor party) and Santa Barbara (such as Cruz's It's a Wonderful Life dream). OLTL head writer Megan McTavish has even had her moment. In fact, she pulled off a major miracle at All My Children by writing the early 1999 episodes for which Susan Lucci finally won her Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy: the family intervention with Erica's anorexic daughter, Bianca.

But what most determined the success of this OLTL special episode was the performer who was spotlighted. When you have Babe Ruth on your team, of course that's who you send up to bat. So it was no surprise that Phelps chose five-time Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy-winner Erika Slezak. And in this special episode, Slezak demonstrated why she is the quintessential soap opera actress. She can show humanity, she can show compassion, she can wring our hearts, she can mist up, she can get hysterical. And unlike some other soap actresses, she never for a moment loses her dignity or the audience's respect.

I have always loved Slezak as a performer because as many times as I've seen her triumph over yet another problem as Viki, she arrives at the next problem or storyline perfectly fresh, with Viki's vulnerability and intelligence intact. (In fact, Viki is perhaps the only female character on OLTL who hasn't suffered an IQ decrease in the past two years -- Nora and Blair being the two most notable victims.) The audience never gets tired of her. To build that kind of audience rapport takes a lot of skill and talent on a longtime soap performer's part. And in the special breast cancer episode, which was kind of "A Day in the Life of Viki" before she went to the hospital for a modified radical mastectomy, we got to see Slezak in every single scene, in all kinds of situations, personal and professional.

I was absolutely thrilled to see a Viki we way too rarely see, doing her job, giving her staff at the newspaper a farewell talk (loved her oh-so-current nod to newspaper/internet competition) and even making a speech at a playground fund-raiser. As a newspaper publisher, Viki is a powerful woman (think the Washington Post's Katherine Graham), and that has never been played up enough. Of course, the playground scene was used as a backdrop for Viki's beau, Ben, to coincidentally show up, basketball in hand. This is soap opera! But more on Viki and Ben later.

I thought the episode's strongest scenes were of a vulnerable Viki alone (crying in the attic, unpacking in her hospital room) and those with her family. Throughout this cancer crisis, Kevin has been a magnificent support to Viki, so much so that I finally, finally buy Timothy Gibbs as Slezak's son. And no mother/daughter relationship on soaps could be as sweet and close as Viki and Jessica's. Jessica's "hang in there, Mom" scene was very moving.

But what I found incredibly awkward about the episode and the whole storyline is that Viki would not tell Ben about her cancer. I know Viki's secret is being kept from Ben for some future maximum melodramatic soap-opera effect. But come on! In real life wouldn't a woman tell her significant other she was facing surgery? This part of the story is so unrealistic it's downright insulting to the viewer's intelligence.

Which is too bad, because other than that, the episode was a nearly perfect an hour of soap opera as we can expect these days. What made it especially interesting to moi as a critic was the realization that what I enjoyed most about it is exactly what annoys me about the show on a day-to-day basis. Usually OLTL is massively overproduced, with the (practically) non-stop music and the dark, funereal lighting upstaging the cast. But in the special episode, the meticulous production paid off. The intermittent soft, sensitive music and darkish, gold-hued lighting set an appropriately soft tone as the background for Viki's suffering. Not that anything could upstage Erika Slezak. When you're Babe Ruth, you hit one out of the park no matter who is managing the team.

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