We’ve come a long way since Dr. Marlena Evans was first possessed by a demon on Days of Our Lives. Back in 1994, that storyline was just another outrageous soap opera twist. (Marlena was eventually exorcised by her true love, who was in the midst of a stint in the priesthood at the time). Now when one character is overtaken by another, it tends to point to larger ideas.
In this past season of TV alone, audiences saw the device used for myriad purposes. On a standout episode of CBS' Ghosts, for instance, the spirit of Gilded Age socialite Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky) found her way into the body of Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the ex-Brooklynite now living in the mansion she used to call home. While Hetty's in his skin, Jay takes on all her mannerisms and her prejudices, including her aversion for the poor, the morally weak, and (most especially) the Irish.
This was satisfying on a number of different levels. First, the storyline gave straight man Ambudkar the chance to unleash his precise comic timing. But there’s also the meta layer of watching a performer so effortlessly capture a co-star’s performance. When Ambudkar zeroes in on the beats of Wisocky’s character, it reminds us that they’re co-workers in an ensemble comedy who appreciate one another’s work as much as we do.
There was a similar scenario in season four of Prime Video's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, when Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) was hypnotized into recreating a stand-up routine by her daughter Midge (Rachel Brosnahan). Just like on Ghosts, it's hilarious to see Hinkle mimic her co-star so well, but this time the "possession" also had heavier implications for the story. As she watches her mother become her, Midge is forced to confront who she is as a performer and as a very public member of her family.
And on Starz’s Shining Vale, the conceit implicated the audience as well. The show follows Pat (Courteney Cox), a novelist who rolls her eyes at anything that smacks of a traditional homemaker role. That is, until she gets possessed by Mira Sorvino’s dead 50s housewife. Where previously Pat was brusque and sarcastic, now she’s hyper-domestic, keeping her husband sexually satisfied and her children emotionally nourished.
There's more to this story than initially meets the eye, but before the plot turns, Cox gets to stretch in ways that will thrill longtime fans. She’s always had a self-awareness about her, whether on Friends or Cougar Town, and one would be hard-pressed to picture her being cast as a "happy homemaker" type like Rosemary. But there she is, walking the fine line between playing the smiling wife and burlesquing the stereotype.
Modulating her voice to recreate Sorvino’s mid-century cadences, Cox briefly breaks out of Pat’s narcissism and depression, making her family wonder if they prefer this overhauled version. And what about us? We're invited to relish Cox's ultra-feminine turn. What expectations are we setting on women when we enjoy the performative routine? It's an uncomfortable scenario that amps up the possession plot device.
As for Dr. Marlena Evans on Days of Our Lives? Well, she was recently possessed by a demon again, so perhaps her next exorcism will really teach us a thing or two.
Mark Peikert has served as editor-in-chief of Playbill, Backstage, and New York Press, and has written for Rolling Stone, Town & Country, and Out Magazine, among others. Read more of his writing at markpeikert.com.
TOPICS: Ghosts, Amazon Prime Video, CBS, Starz, Days of Our Lives, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Shining Vale, Courteney Cox, Marin Hinkle, Mira Sorvino, Rachel Brosnahan, Rebecca Wisocky, Utkarsh Ambudkar