I've been a fan of Days of Our Lives since the age of 5, when I used to sit quietly with my babysitter while she watched it. I didn't totally understand the dialog, but I could sense that it was dramatic and exciting. Weekday television was limited in my house, and the content wasn't exactly kid-friendly, but between viewings at friends' houses and the occasional day home sick from school, I managed to follow along.
Then something magical happened in the summer of 1993: Vivian Alamain buried Carly Manning alive. My younger sister and I were watching it one afternoon while my mom was out. When she got home, we summarized the plot. Her curiosity got the better of her. "I'll just watch until Carly gets out of that coffin," she said. We were hooked.
I was smack in the middle of junior high that year, and I needed an escape. Things weren't exactly awesome between me and my mom, or me and my little sister, or me and anyone. But every afternoon at 4:00 we converged to watch Days. Sure, we rolled our eyes and cracked jokes, but we were into it nonetheless. Sami Brady, Billie Reed, even Stefano DiMera...we loved them all.
Turns out we weren't the only ones lured to the show by the "Carly's Buried Alive" plot. It was the first major storyline by new head writer James E. Reilly, and it gained media attention and high ratings for its outlandishness. Reilly became known for writing that pushed the boundaries of possibility even more than soap operas usually did. His villains were more diabolical, his heroines were more gullible, and the ongoing battle of good vs. evil that had gripped Salem since 1965 took on epic proportions. It was a golden age.
Reilly's writing wasn't just bizarre — it was intricate. Even the subplots reverberated to every character in the show, influencing their relationships and creating new subplots. Reilly showed women rare respect by treating them as discerning viewers who deserved quality storytelling. He also set himself apart by appealing to their sense of humor.
Within a few years, my afternoons filled up with boys who could drive and extracurricular activities, but my mom still gave me occasional updates on Marlena getting possessed by the devil and Kristen's identical sisters. That's right; she kept up with the show long after Carly got out of that coffin.
James E. Reilly died in October of last year, and fans or Days of Our Lives and Passions wept. I didn't know his name when his work was most important to me, but I know now that he had a profound influence on my understanding of storytelling, and even non-fiction writing. He demanded a level of engagement that was rare in the soap opera world, and raised the bar for daytime television. Some people hated what he was doing, but Reilly was okay with that. "Be angry at me! Hate me!" he said, "It shows that you are involved. But watch the show and see what happens. Stay tuned!"