Almost a Quarter of a Century After a Whackadoo Soap’s Debut, We Look Back at How a Primetime Megaproducer Tried and Failed to Conquer Daytime
There was beauty aplenty to be found on Sunset Beach. If only we could have found something more.
Sunset Beach started with a dream — NBC’s dream of snagging a younger audience. With only two aging soaps left by 1997 — Another World and Days of Our Lives — the network decided it was time to branch out and grab a new generation of afternoon-TV viewers. Reeling in those viewers has been the daytime holy grail ever since soaps in the ‘70s like All My Children and The Young and the Restless showed how lucrative it could be. It’s why every summer, we get a slew of teen stories while high-schoolers and college kids are home on break.
Revolving an entirely new drama around this premise, though, was tough. It would be NBC’s first new soap in over a decade. So if the network was going to do this, it needed a surefire secret weapon. And that was something that the powers that be were certain that they found in Aaron Spelling. If anyone knew how to draw in young viewers with soapy drama, it was the primetime megaproducer who had given us the likes of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place.
Plus, Sunset Beach seemed to have everything needed to attract young viewers to daytime. There were location shoots galore, a sexy young cast, a sexy California town, sexy lifeguards, sexy, topical storylines — in short, the show figured it couldn’t go wrong with the maxim that “sex sells.”
So what went wrong?
Sunset Beach began with a Kansas gal moving to a beautiful, bronzed California town to find the love of her Internet life. Granted, Meg Cummings (Susan Ward) made the move after learning on her wedding day that her fiancé had cheated on her, but hey, romance, right? It was a convenient conceit since, as Meg tried to figure out the identity of her dream man and got to know the residents of the town, so too did we.
Except… it could be a bit difficult to get to know the characters.
Growing pains for a new soap are to be expected, but in its first year and a half alone, Sunset Beach lost a third of its starting characters. Actors left, characters were recast and then abandoned, a serial killer was set loose startlingly early in the show’s run. And of the 14 original characters that lasted, three were recast. In fact, one was recast so fast, you can be forgiven if you thought Eddie Cibrian had been playing Cole Deschanel from the beginning, as the original actor — George Hamilton’s son, Ashley — was let go after only a month.
And even though 14 characters survived the entire (almost) three-year run, by the end of the series, the show had whittled down from its original 21 contract players to a mere seven. With that much turnover and screen-time reduction, how were viewers supposed to get invested?
The writing changes probably didn’t help, either. When it began in 1997, soap vet Robert Guza Jr. was both co-creator and headwriter. It was a position he held on Loving and General Hospital, but he didn’t even make it a year before exiting. After him, the show burned through three more top scribes. When you flip through writers that fast, it can be tough to keep much of a story through-line.
Maybe that’s why Sunset Beach seemed to end up so episodic.
There were the usual soap stories, of course. Winning over the man of your dreams after breaking into his house and dressing in his dead wife’s clothes. Balancing your professional career as a jewel thief with the love of an heiress who, let’s face it, had to have had an embarrassment of jewels. Then there was the old turkey-baster-impregnation trick.
Gets ‘em every time.
But there were also plenty of big, gimmicky storylines. “Terror Island” was a murderously fun romp if you were a fan of Scream rip-offs. Just check out the trailer below. They even gave the killer his own spooktastic costume.
Something you can also tell from the trailers is that NBC was treating these storylines almost as little movies. That’s great and exciting, but the problem with movies is that they end.
Take 1998’s “Shockwave” story, for instance. An earthquake rocked the town of Sunset Beach, while a tsunami tipped over a party boat in the ocean, just like in The Poseidon Adventure. It drew enough viewers in to give NBC hope for life. They even turned it into an hour-long mini movie one night. But once the earthquake tale was over, so too was the rising tide of viewers. They’d tuned in for the spectacle, not the characters.
For any soap hoping to build an audience, that’s a problem.
With a name like Aaron Spelling attached and a burning desire to bring in new young viewers, NBC wasn’t about to dump the troubled show easily. It’s tough, though, to discern just how much involvement Spelling actually had as executive producer. Still, the network renewed the soap twice in the hopes of it finally catching on before giving it the axe on New Year’s Eve 1999.
In the end, Sunset Beach just could never quite find enough cohesiveness to last. It was fun, it was campy, it was over-the-top and sexy. It burned bright and fast, then burned itself out.
Luckily, NBC still has one soap left for us to enjoy. So why not take a photo tour of all that Days of Our Lives offered us in 2020 before diving into a new year in Salem?