Thank God It's Friday

UT Grad Christian McLaughlin's 'Spyder Games' Cranks Up Soap Action

Christian McLaughlin's life changed when he contracted chicken pox in the second grade and began watching <i>Search for Tomorrow</i> during his convalescence.
Christian McLaughlin's life changed when he contracted chicken pox in the second grade and began watching Search for Tomorrow during his convalescence. (Photo By John Anderson)

On Thursday, July 12, this is one part of what happened on The Young and the Restless, according to TV Guide:

Victor warns Victoria not to turn her back on Tricia. Brittany talks with someone at Mac's old school but can't find anything out. She decides to write to Mac's mother and addresses an envelope to the school with a note to forward it. Billy spoils J.T.'s plan to warn Mac about Brittany. Later, Rianna becomes upset when she's reminded of her past with J.T. but asks Mac not to tell Raul.

But here is a bit of what transgressed on MTV's new soap opera Spyder Games the same day, as reported by MTV.com:

Julie goes back to see Temple, the hairdresser, desperate to make her fledgling marriage to [closeted gay husband] Ivan work. Hearing they've only been married for a week, Temple suggests crystal methamphetamine to spice up their love life. Julie rejects that idea, never having done anything harder than a pot brownie. He slips a little baggie of crystal into her purse anyway. Julie comes home, sees Ivan still isn't home and starts to cry. She grabs for some tissue in her purse and sees the drugs Temple slipped in there. Angry, she throws it in the bedroom trash can. Does it stay there for good?

Natalia Carlisle (Shawn Batten, center) cracks the whip at video-game empire Spyder Games. She's flanked (from left) by the assistant she tried to fire (Mink Stole), her suspicious brother Dmitri (Joseph R. Cacia), her closeted brother Ivan (Byron Field), and her secret admirer Todd (Travis Wester).
Natalia Carlisle (Shawn Batten, center) cracks the whip at video-game empire Spyder Games. She's flanked (from left) by the assistant she tried to fire (Mink Stole), her suspicious brother Dmitri (Joseph R. Cacia), her closeted brother Ivan (Byron Field), and her secret admirer Todd (Travis Wester).

Thursday, July 12, was also the day that Christian McLaughlin, co-creator with Valerie Ahern of Spyder Games, came to Austin from his Los Angeles home to screen and discuss several episodes of the bemusing and sometimes kinky neo-soap at the request of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. After showing a set of clips that recapped Spyder Games' recurring gay storyline, in which Ivan realizes he's gay even though he's married to Julie, McLaughlin presented three episodes that hadn't aired yet, and, in fact, won't ever air in the version the aGLIFF audience saw -- they are the episodes as they were originally taped, before MTV censored them. (McLaughlin, who grew up in San Antonio and graduated from the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin, has not been watching the censored episodes as they air; the material he brought to Austin could be considered a kind of "creator's cut.")

The day of McLaughlin's aGLIFF event, we met at the home of one of his friends so I could ask him some questions while we watched Spyder Games episodes. In one of them, Julie was certain that she was to blame for the sexual dysfunction of her marriage, and she felt compelled to snort the crystal meth. I asked McLaughlin if he thought that Spyder Games was a normal soap opera. "I think in form it is," he said. "We definitely sped up the pace; we wanted it to be like a soap on crack and make every episode like a Friday and not to have all the belabored pace and all the false jeopardy and red herrings. We wanted to just crank it."

Spyder Games takes place in Fort Kent and follows the wealthy progeny of video-game mogul Boris Carlisle as they vie for control of the company after their father's untimely death from driving over a cliff. (According to MTV.com, the Carlisle mother died "circa 1985.") Boris' death -- murder? -- has induced a variety of moods in his children, including gloating, relieved, and anguished.

Natalia, the eldest, is now in charge of the company, and prefers her father post-mortem (at the aGLIFF event, McLaughlin referred to Natalia as "the most back-stabbing twat"). Her brother Dmitri, a talent agent in L.A., suspects as much and hires detective Jeff Northcut to investigate Boris' death. Jeff woos Natalia under the pretext that he is a journalist writing about the youngest woman to head a large high tech corporation. Ivan is managing his sexuality by visiting Dr. Leslie Brogan -- Fort Kent's version of Dr. Laura -- who reassures him that having sex with his wife Julie won't be all that bad if he'll just concentrate on her pleasure ("What does [Dr. Brogan] use?" Natalia asks of her deprogramming methods, "Naked pictures of Roger Ebert?"). Sasha, who is 16, in a band, and reassessing his relationship to school by not attending it, has fallen for a 23-year-old vixen named Taylor Jones, who would really prefer that Sasha reap the benefits of his trust fund before he's 21. Taylor has a "nasty, ex-con, trailer trash brother" who pops up occasionally to demand money from her.

Thus we are presented with an alternately conniving and bewildered cast made up entirely of young people, except for Boris, who is dead but makes occasional surprise flashback visits; Merna Young, his loyal assistant, portrayed by Mink Stole; and Gretel Barnes, owner of the trendiest coffeehouse in Fort Kent, played by the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin.

McLaughlin brought the creator's cut of several <i>Spyder Games</i> episodes when he came to Austin last week.
McLaughlin brought the "creator's cut" of several Spyder Games episodes when he came to Austin last week. (Photo By John Anderson)

McLaughlin's transformation from apparently mild-mannered child to producer of a somewhat outrageous soap opera on MTV began at a specific moment -- in the second grade, when he contracted chicken pox and began watching Search for Tomorrow. There was a Search for Tomorrow storyline involving a women's prison, and McLaughlin recalls being "riveted" by the idea of prison drama. The summer after the second grade, he began watching The Young and the Restless and encountered Rose DeVille, a madam who ran a secret bordello -- underneath her antiques store. "And she would beat up these teenage hookers," McLaughlin recalled, "and throw them down the stairs, and I loved her. She was big and scary. And she kind of looked like Divine, as I later discovered." By the end of the summer, Rose DeVille had escaped without getting caught, but she managed to return seven years later to head up a black-market baby ring. "And then I got really hooked on Y&R again in high school and then I sort of stayed that way," he said. McLaughlin became friends with film director Robert Rodriquez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids) at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, and the two of them made short films titled "Reform School Sluts" and "Lesbian Avon Lady From Hell."

McLaughlin's affection for soap and B-movie camp, and more particularly the subset of prison drama, has not diminished. "Prison's such a great microcosm for whatever you want to do," McLaughlin now understands, having nurtured his fascination in a productive manner (when he was a senior at UT, he brought a New York play called The Boys of Cell Block Q to the Capitol City Playhouse). Prisontown is a show that McLaughlin and Ahern have been wanting to create for some time.

"We'd drive through Buda to get to San Antonio," he recalls, "and this was before they built the prison and people were protesting it and there would be all these signs that would say, 'No Prisontown!' And I thought it was really funny.

"You can have all the different characters that you want in [prison]," he says, "and there's great backstory, because what the hell did they do to get in there? Also, when I was a kid I would have these fantasy/nightmares about, 'Oh God, what would happen if I was framed for something and got thrown in prison? I would never last!' And it would be so scary and I just liked to scare myself thinking about that." He's hoping to create a prison storyline if MTV buys another season of Spyder Games (65 episodes have already been shot, which means that the show will end in mid-September if it isn't renewed).

Given McLaughlin's sensibility, it is perhaps not surprising that MTV has opted to censor certain elements of the show, particularly after three teenagers recently decided to set themselves on fire after watching Jackass, MTV's ludicrous stunt show. I asked McLaughlin how Spyder Games is different from Undressed, MTV's nighttime show about sexual couplings in which clothing is typically just a pesky encumbrance. That question bothered him, though it didn't exactly make him angry. "Oh my God!" he squealed. "They have nothing in common! They could not have less in common! Except this actress was on Undressed," he said, referring to Monica Serene Garnich, who plays Julie on Spyder Games. "[Undressed] is an anthology show about these sexual vignettes, it's not a soap opera," he decided.

McLaughlin says that the crystal meth storyline and the closeted husband are plot elements "you wouldn't ever see on a regular soap because you're not allowed to, because they're old-fashioned, because they didn't think to do that. I like the idea of just pushing it a little bit." In one censored scene, Ivan returns home from a session with Dr. Leslie Brogan and begins to remove his stash of gay porn from underneath his and Julie's bed. At the same time, Julie is in their bathroom sniffing crystal meth with the idea that she will become alluring to her husband if she can only manage to lower her inhibitions. Later, they attempt to have sex, and Ivan has to run to the bathroom to throw up.

Spyder Games plays some of the usual tricks of soap operas and adheres to its plot conventions, except at a dizzying pace. In one episode, Sasha Carlisle is at Euphoria, the popular coffeehouse owned by his mentor and former rock star Gretel Barnes, when he says, somewhat ominously, "I have to go do something, it's ... important." Something "important," eh? What could that be -- a little blackmail, two-timing, or murder? This is soap opera talk at its most classic. But because the sensibility of Spyder Games is a bit campy and revved-up, when characters utter dialogue like that, they mean it with a little smirk, as if they knew how ridiculous soap opera dialogue is and are bestowing it as a gift to viewers. McLaughlin says that he hopes Spyder Games will convert new viewers to the wonders of soap opera, but what they'll actually be getting is soap opera plus. end story


Spyder Games airs Monday-Friday, 6 and 10pm, on MTV.
READ MORE
More Screens Reviews
Pilot Program
Pilot Program
The first-ever ATX Television Festival celebrates cult, classic, and cutting-edge TV

Leah Churner, June 1, 2012

Design for Living
Design for Living
Reality TV staple and (ahem) silver fox Tim Gunn opines about art, Alexander mcQueen, and queer youth

Andy Campbell, April 13, 2012

More by Clay Smith
The Insider's Outsider Guide to Texas
The Insider's Outsider Guide to Texas
Remembering Bud Shrake

May 15, 2009

SXSW Film
Barlow the Ubiquitous
Daily Reviews and Interviews

March 20, 2009

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Christian McLaughlin, Spyder Games, soap opera, MTV, prison drama, Valerie Ahern, aGLIFF, Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)