THE PASSION OF THE REILLY
(Originally presented on the Cracked podcast)
The daytime Soap Opera...it’s the racism of the television world...most people like to think it died ages ago, but when exposed to it they’re like “Oh my god. That’s still a thing? After all these years?”
Originally invented in the late 40’s as a way to discourage children from faking sick, soaps have maintained a foothold in the daytime television landscape, with such popular shows as Guiding Light, Another World, Port Charles, All My Children, Search for Tomorrow, Redemption Cove, Santa Barbara, and only one of those I made up.
For decades, soap operas entertained white people and white people alike with fanciful elements like hunky doctors, wealthy families with a penchant for scheming, children rapidly maturing to adulthood, statistically improbable evil twins popping out of the woodwork, and having conversations with people with their backs turned to them. Relatable? Sure. But after so long, these tropes became stale.
Until one man, fed up with the tried and true conventions of soap opera narratives, had the vision, creativity and (Steven, remember to insert a third quality here, but make it funny), to elevate these narrative from absurd to nut-ass bonkers. And that man was James E. Reilly. Born 1948; died 2008..
Raised in the Bronx with his staunchly Catholic family, Reilly got his first taste of serialized storytelling when his grandfather would tell James and his sister two hour long stories every night, making sure to always end them on a cliffhanger to keep them hooked. Which is so like an elderly Catholic man on the cusp of death to string people along into his complex web of lies, look, I don’t want to talk to it.
In college, Reilly triple majored in psychology, social anthropology and biology. In the middle of med school, he was introduced to the world of soaps when he worked as an extra on The Young and the Restless. Shortly after, at a party in Palm Springs, someone asked him if he wanted to be a soap writer, and he was like “...yeah alright.” And he dropped out of med school to pursue what would become his lifelong career. I’m assuming he dropped out. It doesn’t specifically say anywhere that he did, but he wasn’t a doctor so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In the 80’s, Reilly cut his teeth, serving as a writer and even head writer on several soap operas. And this was during a time when soaps would dip their toes into crazier stories as a ratings grab. A diamond heist here, an evil mummy there...but for the most part, writers, including Reilly, continued with the typical “baby-switcharoos” and “pensive wine glass holding” everyone was used to.
In 1993, NBC’s Days of our Lives was ranked 8th in the ratings. Absurd, I know, to think there was a time when there were at least 8 soap operas airing on tv...there were 11. That was when they brought James on as head writer to shake things up. And it was as if an angel descended from the heavens above and whispered softly into his ear “Burn it all down, Daddy. Burn it for me.” ‘Cause he Kool-Aid-Manned his way into that writers room, slammed his big ol’ dick on the table and shouted “Listen here, dick-shits! There’s a new sheriff in town and he goes by the name Sheriff James E. Reilly, which is what my name is! And there’s gonna be some changes around here!”
We’re gonna have Carrie Brady, a teen girl with model aspirations get acid thrown in her face by mobsters, prompting a 9 year old Steven Wilber to ask his mom what a skin graft is.
We’re gonna ignite a feud between Vivian and Carly that will escalate to a point where Vivian starts killing Carly’s hospital patients by injecting them with household cleaner in an attempt to frame her. Then fakes Carly’s and then buries her alive in a coffin outfitted with speakers so Vivian can taunt her.
Hope Brady, thought to have died 4 years ago in a cave explosion, comes back to town, but you come to find out during those 4 years, she was made to believe she was a notorious art thief thanks to a satellite-linked computer chip implanted in her brain.
Next, for an entire year, we’re going to have the most popular character on the show, Dr. Marlena Evans (played by the incomparable Diedre Hall) Get possessed by the fucking Devil. You mean the devil popularized by Christian lore? THE VERY SAME.
It had all the drama, suspense and scenery chewing, but now was nuts to the butts full of crazy shit to separate it from the other, and I can’t stress this enough, ELEVEN soap operas on at the time.
And wouldn't you know it? Much like performing oral sex on Shaquille O’Neal, Days of our Lives BLEW UP. Old viewers who tuned out years ago were coming back, as well as a slew of new younger viewers. Days was so cool, it may as well have been smoking cigarettes. It rose from 8th to 2nd in the ratings, not only having to compete with other soaps, but also OJ Simpson and all of that tomfoolery.
Despite its popularity, there was of course some pushback. Executive Producer Ken Corday constantly locked horns with Reilly, because while he couldn’t ignore the ratings boost, he didn’t like how off the rails the stories went. He just wanted to go from vanilla to french vanilla, not vanilla to a giant spider wearing sunglasses and doing 8 yo yo tricks at once.
And there was something else always getting in the way, something I didn’t think existed. You know how people will use the anonymity of the internet to bully and antagonize a person online, say, if they criticize a popular videogame, or if they call out political incorrectness, or if they are a woman? Well, they have that, but for soap operas. Angry fans of the show came up with a nickname for him by taking his initials, JER, and sticking a little k at the end. I was reading message boards posts from people wishing he was dead for ruining their favorite show, or not even their favorite show. Some were just mad that he was ruining A show. Someone made a posthumous twitter account under his name that just talks shit about Days of our Lives. Someone has even made crude computer animated youtube videos of arguments Reilly had with cast and crew.
Frustrated and feeling pressure from the top brass, Reilly left Days in '98 to make his own soap opera, one where he didn’t have to kowtow to the legacy of the show. One where he can build his own world and make it as fucked-up as he wanted. That show was called Passions and he certainly hit the ground running, whilst pissing in the face of sanity.
Passions made Days of our Lives look like One Life to Live, if you can believe it.
Here’s what Passions had.
Sheridan Crane, a character who was close personal friends with Princess Diana, and was in fact, talking with her on the phone shortly before her death in that Paris tunnel in 1997, just two year before Passions premiered. Sheridan later had a similar accident in the same Paris tunnel and is visited by an angel version of Princess Di and tells her to move on.
It had a 300 year old witch named Tabitha who and her sidekick a little doll named Timmy who she brought to life and assisted her on her various magical adventures throughout history, including the sinking of the Titanic.
There was an Orangutan named Precious who was a live-in nurse for one of the characters, and often had fantasies about one of guys on the show falling in love with her.
Once, there was a scene, where three on the characters (one of them was a zombie) were watching an episode of Passions.
There was a time when so many sexual assaults on the show, to both men and women, that fans affectionately called it the “Year of the Rapes.”
It also had demon elves, closet doors that led to Hell, a blind priest who could sense evil and a dude who had his penis chopped off, then drunkenly reattached upside, got it fixed with the power of magic...at a wedding.
It was so insane, they used to air reruns of Passions on the SciFi Channel. It truly was James E. Reilly’s Mr Holland’s Opus.
Then in 2003, Days of our Lives was on the brink of cancellation, and they were like “we gotta get Reilly.” and he became Head Writer on Days, under the stipulation that he could do whatever he wanted. So this motherfucker went ahead and wrote a two year long storyline about a serial killer who was brutally taking out prominent members of the show, including a guy who got shot in the head on his way to his kid’s baptism, a girl whose body was found when it fell out of a giant turkey pinata and a lady who has been on the show since its debut in 1965, that was choked with a donut. And the killer turned out to be none other than Dr. Marlena Evans (played by the incomparable Diedre Hall). Evidently the execs panicked and forced Reilly to undo the whole thing with a convoluted follow up, where none of those people actually died, but were transported to a secret island and by making Marlena’s murderous rampage was actually caused by mind control.
In his private life, Reilly was very reclusive, mostly working from one of his three homes ‘cause apparently this shit PAYS. He was never married, a “confirmed bachelor” in the same was as that uncle who your mom always says “Just hasn’t found that special lady who shares his passion for Sondheim and hummel figurines” But he did have a love in his life. He loved writing soap operas. A pet peeve of his was when his colleagues would say things like “I’m just doing this soap stuff until I can get on a primetime show.” He even loved the haters, because if they were complaining, that meant that they were still watching.
“I'd put seltzer in my pants if I thought it would give someone a moment of escape. And that's what the audience wants. Life is not that easy. Though the stock market is up, people are working harder than ever, and when they come home they want to watch something that makes them laugh or scream, "I don't believe it!" They want -- they need -- something to jump up and down about.
And in 2008, when James E. Reilly died, recovering from cardiac surgery, it proved once and for all that no one, not stuffy executives, not angered fans, not even doctors tasked with saving his life, no one could change what was in his heart.