In an era defined by its greed, glamour, and political upheavals, Capitol was the quintessential 80's soap opera. Premiering on Friday, March 26, 1982, in a successful hour-long primetime special, the serial appeared to mirror the real-life marriage of politics and art exemplified by President Ronald Reagan, himself a former Hollywood actor turned politician. The following Monday, a legion of viewers followed the show to its regular daytime slot, where it received unusually high ratings for a neophyte serial.
With ersatz production values, a gorgeous cast, and sound concept (two warring political families), Capitol seemed like a sure-fire hit. It was certainly visually appealing.The ballroom set featured in the first episode cost $100,000 alone, while the series had the highest budget of any half-hour soap in TV history. However, lush settings and pretty faces can never compensate for a lack of storyline, and what little plot Capitol had moved like a tortoise.
Much of the initial story focused on the star-crossed Romeo-and-Juliet romance of Captain Tyler McCandless and Julie Clegg -the least interesting characters on the show- whose families were hell-bent on keeping them apart. Running concurrently with that was an extended plot in which hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Shelley Granger (aka Kelly Harper) got mixed up in a sinister scheme to blackmail intelligence committee member Phil Dade.
By the end of 1982, creators and headwriters Stephen and Elinor Karpf were out, replaced by the husband-and-wife writing team John William and Joyce Corrington, who had created their own soap Texas two years earlier. Under the Corrington regime, Tyler and Julie finally married, while Kelly confessed her sins and left town, apparently pregnant with Trey's child. While a little more entertaining than what preceded it, these stories were sluggish, too, prompting another change in writing teams.
In mid-1983, Peggy O'Shea became Capitol's third headwriter and gave the show a desperately-needed boost of energy. Her first move was to introduce deliciously demonic villainess Paula Denning, a character only referred to previously. Superbly played by former B-movie actress Julie Adams, Paula's murderous rampage afforded stars Ed Nelson and Constance Towers a chance to really shine, while also shifting the focus away from Tyler and Julie onto Trey and Sloane. O’Shea wisely brought Kelly Harper back to the canvas, generating years of story for Trey, who had never gotten over the one great love of his life. Although O’Shea’s writing was excellent, the ratings failed to increase significantly.
In October 1984, CBS hired prolific author and veteran soap scribe Henry Slesar to replace Peggy O’Shea. With a long headwriting stint for The Edge of Night under his belt (15 years, then the longest in daytime TV), many fans speculated that Capitol would soon become another mystery/suspense serial. However, he quickly proved them wrong. More than any writer preceding him, Slesar constructed an astonishingly well-balanced show, deftly mixing romance, melodrama, mystery, and political intrigue. The dialogue grew richer, plots increasingly complex, and supporting characters far more useful.
Slesar’s most important plotline was the year-long Jarrett Morgan mystery, a serpentine story involving practically the whole cast in one way or another. This was contrasted with a series of triangles and quadrangles (Sloane/Trey/Kelly/Thomas, Wally/Brenda/Dylan, Clarissa/Baxter/Mark/Paula), as well as the bittersweet romance of Jordy Clegg and terminally ill Leanne Foster. Though Capitol appeared better than ever, finally hitting its stride in all areas of production, it still failed to hold the audience fed to it by As the World Turns , and had lower Nielsens than Guiding Light, the soap Capitol preceded in most markets.
By late 1985, CBS affiliates began dropping the serial, preferring to air syndicated or local programming instead. The loss of markets caused Capitol’s overall Nielsen rating to decline sharply, a loss of nearly one million viewers from 1985 to 1986. Predictably, the network panicked, prompting headwriter Henry Slesar to leave the series suddenly in February 1986. He was succeeded by former actor James Lipton, who had ironically worked as an associate writer under Slesar on The Edge of Night.
Not wanting to cool his heels waiting for the ratings to rise, Lipton went hog-wild, plunging the characters into one bizarre plot twist after another. Among his doozies: Kelly’s transformation into an overnight dope fiend, the revelation that Sam, not Trey, was the father of Kelly’s child, and the wildest ever...Mark Denning’s secret life as an American traitor. Though the series was quite entertaining and decidedly unpredictable, many performers began to complain about character assassinations and outrageous plotlines, including Ed Nelson, who bailed out a couple of months before the show ended.
Although Lipton’s crazy melodrama brought the ratings up a notch or two, a decision was made to axe the show in favor of a projected serial from Y&R’s creator William J. Bell. In December 1986, CBS announced that Capitol’s March 20th episode would be its last. To add insult to injury, the network requested the series vacate its Television City studio by the end of January, giving Capitol about a month to tape over 45 episodes! It aired for the last time on Friday, March 20, 1987, replaced by The Bold and the Beautiful.
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