One of the worst instances of both eliminating an established character, and introducing a brand new one, on a long-running series took place 25 years ago in 1988 at the start of the 8th Season of the hit prime time soap "Falcon Crest" (1981-90). At the time, I was in High School and "Falcon Crest" was my favorite TV series that year. I enjoyed the fast-paced storylines and wry humor that had been integrated throughout the 6th and 7th seasons of the show. I particularly enjoyed the storyline that had been devised for the series' resident scheming vixen, Melissa Agretti (Ana Alicia) at the end of the 7th season. Having found a legal document in the cliffhanger episode that proved the Agretti family originally owned the land that Falcon Crest was built on, and that Angela Channing's (Jane Wyman) family had cheated the Agrettis out of their rightful heritage decades ago, Melissa sued Angela and won a court ruling that granted her full ownership of the series' titular winery. As Melissa kicked Angela and her family out of their longtime home, and moved onto the property herself, the established matriarch of the Tuscany Valley warned Melissa that "You won, Melissa. But you won't have one night in this house without wondering what I'm up to. And, believe me, I'll be up to something...I'll be back," thus setting the stage for a potentially interesting and exciting storyline for the 8th season.
Over the summer, I breathlessly anticipated what would happen during the 8th season as the rivalry between Melissa and Angela promised to intensify to an even higher level than before. Therefore, I was surprised when I learned that the season 6 and 7 regime of producers, headed by the spry Jeff Freilich, was leaving the series. I heard that the new producers included Michael Filerman and Camille Marchetta. As I understand it, Filerman worked on the first season of "Falcon Crest" and retained producing credit after the first thirteen episodes, but had not been involved with the series since early 1982. My understanding of the situation, from what I've read in the beautifully written and researched "Falcon Crest" fan newsletters produced by the esteemed FalconCrest.org website, was that CBS felt that Filerman should not collect a fee for a show he wasn't working on, and ordered him to take a more active role with the series. Camille Marchetta had never worked on "Falcon Crest" before, but had worked on both "Dallas" and "Dynasty" in its earlier years when both shows were particularly popular. I had some concerns because I felt that Freilich, and his colleagues, did a good job with revitalizing the series in Season 6 and 7. I'm not trying to idealize Freilich at all, because he did make some serious mistakes (such as killing off Laura Johnson's delightful Terry Hartford character at the beginning of Season 6 in order to make room for Kim Novak that year), but overall I can't fault Freilich's choices because, under his command, "Falcon Crest" still gelled.
Eventually, Filerman and Marchetta announced that a new young vixen was being introduced to the series, "Days of Our Lives" starlet Kristian Alfonso as the heretofore unheard of character Pilar Ortega, and that Ana Alicia was leaving the series. I kept an open mind with regards to these changes until I watched the season premiere on October 28, 1988 and was appalled at what Filerman and Marchetta had done to this show. They stripped the series of any sense of humor, slowed the pace down to a snail-like crawl, and forced the Pilar Ortega character down viewers' throats whether they liked it or not. In one episode, Melissa had gone insane and was established as a pariah on the series. Concurrently, Alfonso's Pilar was introduced and was immediately given so much screen-time that more than a few people cracked that "Falcon Crest" had suddenly become "The Pilar Ortega Show." Kristian Alfonso's Pilar Ortega ultimately became the "cousin Oliver" on "Falcon Crest": a character introduced late in the run of an established show whose presence and influence single-handedly destroyed a hit series.
It was apparent while watching Season 8 that neither Filerman nor Marchetta truly understood or appreciated what Melissa Agretti brought to the series. In fact, I recall that in one of the "Falcon Crest" fan newsletters, when Filerman was interviewed about his decision to kill off Melissa, he appeared clueless as to who the character was and how she related to the series as a whole. Since Filerman left "Falcon Crest" after the first 13 episodes on Season 1, and Melissa was introduced in the 14th episode that season, it became apparent that Filerman didn't know who she was because he never bothered to follow the 173 subsequent episodes that featured the character between the time he left the show in early 1982 and when he returned in mid-1988. Filerman and Marchetta made foolish assumptions that, because Pilar was a character from a modest Hispanic family of laborers, and had grown up in a working class environment in the shadow of the wealthy and entitled Melissa Agretti, that audiences would immediately transfer their affections and allegiances from Melissa to Pilar immediately. This demonstrates their degree of arrogance and hubris to assume the audience would stop caring about someone they'd been watching for several years and quickly accept a new character that they had never seen before.
While I am the first person to laud a character for having strength and integrity to overcome a modest background to make a success of their lives, I also like it when a character continues to fascinate and compel me because of their ability to demonstrate their humanity despite their weaknesses and flaws. For all of Melissa Agretti's immaturity, selfishness and ruthless scheming, "Falcon Crest" fans still liked and cared about her because she ultimately had moments of charm, vulnerability, humor, and concern for people that she cared for that redeemed her in their eyes. Ana Alicia's fine work in helping the audience to see Melissa's sympathetic qualities, despite her inherent flaws, went a long way towards building audience interest and compassion for the character. By that point, we had spent 7 years watching Melissa and had grown to care for her. We weren't willing to suddenly transfer our allegiances to this Pilar character, who hadn't earned our loyalty yet. I hated how Melissa was made an outcast and pariah on her own show by Filerman and Marchetta, while Pilar was expected to be admired and respected without having to work for it from the audience. Melissa wasn't even shunned to this degree by the other characters on the series the season before when she, in essence, caused Chase Gioberti's (Robert Foxworth) death in San Francisco Bay. (As I understand it, the decision to eliminate Melissa from the show alarmed the other cast members, who are still close friends with Ana Alicia to this day, and that purportedly co-star Susan Sullivan conferred with the new producers in an attempt to change their mind, an effort which evidently fell on deaf ears.)
What was so bad about the introduction of Pilar into "Falcon Crest" was how she suddenly had a history with almost EVERY character on the series. We were to suddenly understand that she and Lance Cumson (Lorenzo Lamas) were childhood sweethearts, that she was childhood rivals with Melissa, that she and Angela already had an adversarial relationship, and that she had been working for Richard Channing (David Selby) for some time. While I acknowledge that "Falcon Crest" already had a history of introducing new characters who had a built-in back-story with established characters, by the 8th season it was straining credibility to ask us to believe that Pilar had such extensive connections on the show when we had never heard of her before. For instance, Rod Taylor was introduced the previous season as Melissa's long-lost Uncle Frank, but that addition to the show worked beautifully due to Taylor's inherent charm as an actor, as well as the fact that the Frank Agretti character blended easily into the ensemble and made no effort to steal the spotlight from the other cast members the way Pilar did. In contrast to the humor and charm that Ana Alicia brought to "Falcon Crest," Kristian Alfonso gave a stiff, stilted, bland performance as Pilar. I recall in a TV Guide interview how Camille Marchetta alleged that Pilar was meant to be a "younger version of Angela Channing," but Alfonso's uninspired performance quickly put that fanciful and quixotic notion to rest. In actuality, the show already had a character who had been established as a young Angela Channing, someone who had been thoughtlessly dismissed by the Filerman-Marchetta regime, Ana Alicia's Melissa Agretti.
I also didn't like how Filerman and Marchetta eliminated Melissa within the first three episodes of Season 8 by having her lose all of her family and friends, go mentally insane, and then set fire to Falcon Crest so that she could destroy it and die within the flames. The whole thing reflected sloppy and lazy writing, and made no sense from a dramatic perspective. Even though Melissa suffered from mental instability in Season 6, she spent the entire Season 7 making great strides to try and bring sense and stability back into her life. Without a clear impetus for why she retreated back into insanity, her sudden mental and mood swings at the start of Season 8 seemed contrived. Furthermore, it had already been established throughout the series that Melissa Agretti was a devout Roman Catholic. I recall, in Season 6, when Melissa goes to Father Bob (Bob Curtis) for confession, how despondent she became when he refuses to absolve her. This demonstrated the degree to which Melissa took her faith seriously, and was a contributing factor for her first nervous breakdown. So deep are Melissa's religious convictions, that I never believed she would intentionally take her own life, because at the time, as I understand it, suicide would have been considered a sin that would have denied her a Catholic service and burial. The fact that this was ignored by the new writers and producers of the series demonstrates their lack of understanding of the series and of its established characters.
What also troubled me about killing off Melissa was the way it was dramatized on-screen. During the final minutes of the second episode of Season 8, "Farewell My Lovelies," which aired November 4, 1988, Melissa sets fire to Falcon Crest and then goes upstairs to prepare to die. At the beginning of the following episode, "Dust to Dust," which aired November 11, 1988, Lance discovers the fire and rescues an unconscious Melissa from the house before it completely burns to the ground. Melissa remains in a coma as she is rushed to the hospital. She lingers in a coma throughout the first half of the episode until she finally dies of smoke inhalation, without ever regaining consciousness. Melissa's death was dramatized in this manner in order to help set up a lame storyline where Lance would be accused by the police of having murdered Melissa. In so doing, Filerman and Marchetta deprived the audience of a satisfying and dramatic death bed scene for a character that we had followed by that point for over 6 and a half years and had grown to care about.
Moreover, once she had been killed off the series, Filerman and Marchetta did not provide an appropriate level of mourning expressed by the other characters on "Falcon Crest" that one would have expected for someone as important as Melissa. When Chase Gioberti was written out of the series more than a year earlier, the previous regime of producers gave him a dramatic, heroic, and admirable exit, showing him jumping back into San Francisco Bay to try and help rescue other characters who were trapped underwater after Melissa had driven her car into the Bay. In Melissa's instance, her death was handled in a casual and pointless manner that showed little respect to the character, for the show's audience, and for even Ana Alicia herself. As Ana Alicia diplomatically related to Kathleen Sullivan on "CBS This Morning," when she learned of the fate that Filerman and Marchetta had devised for Melissa, "I asked not to be written out in this particular way. I said, 'Please leave the character some dignity.' And, of course, they wrote her out in this particular way! (laugh)."
Melissa was eliminated in order to allow Filerman and Marchetta room to introduce Pilar Ortega and her family onto the series. This included introducing actors Castulo Guerra, Dan Ferro, and Danny Nucci into the cast as Pilar's father and brothers. During that season, the Ortega family of Hispanic field laborers were introduced as regular characters in an attempt to provide racial diversity to "Falcon Crest," as prime time soaps of the 1980s had started to become criticized for not being racially integrated. "Knots Landing," a prime time soap also produced by Filerman, had already attempted to broaden its racial landscape the season before by introducing the African American Williams family into that series, with lukewarm results. Even though Lynne Moody, Larry Riley, and Kent-Masters King gave good performances, they were never properly utilized by the writers. Similar to the Williams' on "Knots Landing," the Ortegas on "Falcon Crest" never really fit into the established format of the series, despite the sincere performances of Guerro, Ferro, and Nucci. Audiences tuned into "Falcon Crest" for larger-than-life escapism, not a contrived and heavy-handed attempt at social realism. Artificially inserting story lines involving a working-class family of laborers into a show that had, up to that point, dealt with power, glamor and excitement simply wasn't what the doctor ordered.
Moreover, the decision to make the Ortegas a working class family of laborers demonstrates the racial myopia and condescension of producers Filerman and Marchetta, who were somehow unable to imagine introducing Hispanic characters into the series who were as rich and powerful and glamorous as the established Channing, Gioberti, and Agretti clans that were the mainstays of the series. As I understand it, Mexico has a rich history of wine-making and Filerman and Marchetta could have easily made the Ortegas a wealthy family of vintners from Mexico who were now establishing new ventures in the Tuscany Valley. This would have allowed the Ortega characters to be utilized more effectively within the show's established, upscale milieu. Throughout the course of Season 8, the screen time for the Ortegas on "Falcon Crest" eventually dwindled, except for Pilar (who had married Lance later in the season). It appeared that Filerman and Marchetta were only interested in salving their consciences by filling their racial quotas on the series, rather than making a sincere effort to devise a strong and engaging storyline for the Ortega family that would have properly utilized them.
My opinion on this matter is influenced by a quote that Michael Filerman gave in the aforementioned interview for the "Falcon Crest" fan newsletters. Filerman explained that he created the Ortegas because "We thought we would have that kind of nice Hispanic flavor." I was always uncomfortable with Filerman's remark, as I felt it a patronizing and condescending statement that suggested the extent to which he didn't view the Ortegas as human beings, but was merely taken with the novelty, or curiosity value, of their ethnicity. This helps to shed some light on why the Ortegas never really came across as engaging, fully dimensional and developed characters, instead of the one-dimensional archetypes that they were. What I consider ironic about Filerman and Marchetta's act of political correctness was that, in order to introduce Pilar and her family into the series, they eliminated the one regular actress on "Falcon Crest" who is of Hispanic heritage, Ana Alicia (who was born in Mexico City), and hired in her place Kristian Alfonso, an Caucasian actress born in Massachusetts of Italian-European descent. In my humble opinion, this demonstrates the extent to which Filerman and Marchetta were not truly sincere about broadening the racial landscape on "Falcon Crest."
The other irony with regards to the introduction of Pilar and the Ortegas was that "Falcon Crest" was the only prime time soap of the 1980s that already featured an ethnic character in its regular cast since its inception--Chao-Li Chi's character Chao-Li, Angela Channing's majordomo and right-hand man. While there are some people who feel that Chao-Li was perpetuating an Asian stereotype because he played a servant on the show, I vehemently disagree. As someone who is himself an American of Chinese descent, Chao-Li was the only Asian face I saw with regularity on television growing up in the 1980s. I was always proud to see Chao-Li as part of the regular cast of one of my favorite television shows and was never embarrassed to see him on-screen. Chao-Li was portrayed as an intelligent, warm-hearted individual who could be shrewd, ruthless and cunning if crossed. He was an elegant gentleman who was also the only person on "Falcon Crest" that Angela Channing respected and never messed with and was the one genuine father-figure in Lance Cumson's life. He wasn't Angela's lackey, as sometimes he would defy her in order to help Emma (Margaret Ladd), who he felt a paternal affection for. Chao-Li was indeed part of the Channing family on "Falcon Crest," and was probably Angela's sole confidante and best friend on the series. He knew what was going on in the Tuscany Valley more than anyone else other than Angela herself.
As I mentioned before on this blog, I personally prefer watching an Asian character on a television series who is completely connected with his ethnic heritage, even if he is playing a character who works as a servant, rather than watching the bland depictions of Asians on current television shows, where they are cast as doctors or attorneys (sometimes with Anglo-sounding surnames, as if their Asian heritage was irrelevant) who play thankless roles that are not integral to the heart or story of the series and who behave as if their ethnicity plays no role in their lives. Chao-Li's Chinese heritage played a major role in shaping who he was, the same way the Italian heritage of the Giobertis and the Agrettis shaped the individuals in those families. While I understand their rationale for introducing the Ortegas into the show, Filerman and Marchetta demonstrate the extent to which they did not understand "Falcon Crest" by ignoring how Chao-Li already brought a level of diversity to the series in a way that felt organic and natural, and not as contrived as the way the Ortega characters were awkwardly inserted into the series.
Killing off Melissa and introducing Pilar Ortega and her family into "Falcon Crest" single-handedly destroyed both the series and the storyline that had been set up the previous season, with Angela fighting Melissa to regain control of "Falcon Crest." The show never really recovered after that. With Melissa gone, Angela easily resumed control of the winery and the rest of the season dealt with a dull storyline involving insider trading that concerned Richard Channing and Pilar. Ratings fell drastically that season and Filerman and Marchetta invited Ana Alicia to return for five episodes at the end of Season 8 in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their mistakes. I must acknowledge, in the interests of full-disclosure that, at the age of 16, when I was still in high school, I wrote Camille Marchetta a letter at Lorimar complaining about their decision to kill off Melissa and, in-essence, replacing her with Pilar. I got a bland form letter from Ms. Marchetta in the mail a few weeks later thanking me for my "suggestions." When I was surprised after it was announced that Ana Alicia was returning to the series, my sarcastic older brother joked, "Why are you so surprised?! You caused this!"
However, Filerman and Marchetta exacerbated a bad situation by not resurrecting the Melissa Agretti character and, instead, had Ana Alicia return as a Melissa look-alike named Samantha Ross. Ana Alicia did fine work as Samantha, but with only five episodes it was not enough time to allow her to effectively establish a new character on the series. Moreoever, we wanted to see Melissa back and entrenched in Tuscany Valley intrigue, not a look-alike who had no prior connection to the characters on the series. By this point in the season, Pilar had married Lance and the presence of Samantha proved unnerving to Pilar, as she felt threatened about her own status as Lance's wife. It would have been preferable if the Samantha Ross character had been retained for Season 9, and continued to be a thorn at Pilar's side, until Samantha could eventually work her way into Lance's heart and marry him so that Ana Alicia was still firmly in place as a member of "Falcon Crest's" cast by the time the series ended in Spring 1990. Season 9 suffered greatly as a result of having no appearances by Ana Alicia that year.
Despite Filerman and Marchetta's stupidity and ineptitude, I was pleased to hear how Ana Alicia was still paid her full contracted salary for Season 8, even though they had killed off Melissa within the first three episodes that season. Moreover, I was especially pleased to hear, when Ana Alicia appeared on "The Pat Sajak Show" to promote her return to the series, that Filerman and Marchetta had to pay her an additional salary for playing Samantha that was separate from what she was already being paid under her prior contract. As Ana Alicia had previously studied law at Southwestern University in Los Angeles, she admitted to People magazine in 1982 that "I run my own corporation and read my own contracts." Clearly, Ana Alicia is a shrewd individual to have negotiated a separate salary for playing the Samantha character. Given how she was mistreated by Filerman and Marchetta, I was happy to hear how she not only was paid her full salary for Season 8, but was also able to shrewdly set the terms of her return to the series in a way that further benefited her financially.
The 8th Season of "Falcon Crest" was interesting only in that it was the first time I grasped the role that producers play in the direction of a television series. With the change in regime from Jeff Freilich to Michael Filerman and Camille Marchetta, I understood how important it is for a producer to have a clear vision and understanding of a show, and its characters, and the direction they would take for each season. "Falcon Crest's" Season 8 demonstrates what happens when a show is taken over by people with their own myopic agenda who have no respect or understanding of the series and its audience. That season also stands as a textbook example of how not to write out an established regular character and how not to introduce a new character into an established series. I learned that an audience appreciates it when a character is carefully written out of a series in a way that honors their contributions to the show. In the 1986-87 season of "Dallas," for instance, we saw how the Donna Krebbs (Susan Howard) character divorced Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly) and slowly built a new life for herself in Washington, DC. Donna's departure took place across the length of that season so that, by the end, Donna had established a new home and identity for herself and it wasn't jarring for her not to return the following season. That didn't happen for Ana Alicia's delightful and endearing Melissa Agretti character, who was given short shrift by Filerman and Marchetta and was thoughtlessly treated by them as if she were an expendable element to "Falcon Crest."
Concurrently, I also learned how it's a mistake to introduce new characters, without giving the audience enough time to slowly acclimate to them, by artificially inserting them into the series in an obtrusive, destructive way and allowing too much importance and screen time before we've gotten used to them. As an example, "24" in Season 2, as I've mentioned before, did a good job of integrating the Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) character by having her appear in a handful of scenes in her early episodes, thus allowing her to establish her identity, before utilizing her in a more extensive manner. The audience never really accepted Kristian Alfonso as Pilar Ortega because they resisted having to accept her into their hearts since she was foisted onto them without any restraint or consideration. Watching Kristian Alfonso on "Falcon Crest" is always a painful experience because it felt like being force fed bad-tasting food, that you knew you didn't want to eat, by stupid people who were insisting that it was good for you. In the interests of fairness, I sense from her interviews that Kristian Alfonso is a very nice person and I admire how she continues to thrive once she gave up notions of prime time success and retreated back into her limited daytime niche by returning to "Days of Our Lives." Nevertheless, her presence set in-motion changes to the series that eroded the core cast and essence of "Falcon Crest" and led to its eventual demise at the end of Season 9. That's why, in my humble opinion, Kristian Alfonso's Pilar Ortega, aided and abetted by producers Michael Filerman and Camille Marchetta, must ultimately take responsibility for the single-handed destruction of the once-popular prime time soap "Falcon Crest."