Nicholas Fonseca
June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Galen Gering looks worried. The actor, who plays the upstanding, hunky cop Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald on the NBC soap opera Passions, stands in front of a gazebo, as hundreds of red and white rose petals fall from above in a slow flurry. He is clasping the well-manicured hands of McKenzie Westmore, the bubbly blond with the TV-ready name who portrays his girlfriend, starry-eyed rich girl and international socialite Sheridan Crane. Having just nailed a crucial scene in which Sheridan accepts Luis’ marriage proposal, Gering, 30, should be smiling — but instead the actor wrinkles his forehead and fixes his shocked gaze upon the production crew.

”That’s it?” he asks, his voice heavy with disappointment. ”No bombs, explosions, people dying? What’s going on here?”

He’s got a right to be suspicious, because gushy vignettes of love and hunky-dory fairy-tale endings are fleeting on this Studio City, Calif., set. After all, Passions’ most popular couple is not Luis and Sheridan, but a 300-year-old witch and her adoring acolyte, a talking doll. And the humble townsfolk of Harmony, a saltboxes-‘n’-seafood hamlet located somewhere along the Atlantic Coast, have a lot more to deal with than love triangles and kidnapped babies.

Explains former Falcon Crest star Dana Sparks, who plays premonition-ridden craft-store owner Grace Bennett: ”In the last two or three days, I’ve found out my husband was in love with a wealthy woman in town and had a baby with her. I fell down some stairs, miscarried, died, was resurrected, spoke to an angel, saved the town hunk from the jaws of a demon who was in the fires of hell, was on Jerry Springer’s show, and got to play a scarecrow.”

Whoa! Angels and demons? Fires of hell? Jerry Springer?! This is definitely not your grandmother’s soap opera. Heck, it’s not even your mother’s. But whatever you want to call it — comedy, drama, camp classic, soap send-up — Passions works. By tossing the traditional rules of daytime TV to hell, the emerging cult serial is turning the ailing soap opera industry on its well-lathered head and giving NBC’s struggling daytime division hope: Its ratings in the key women 18-to-49 demographic have risen 42 percent since May of last year, and Passions has helped the network reach No. 1 in that same demo for the first time ever. So while a new audience finds itself tuning in tomorrow — and the next day and the next — network execs are as puzzled as Galen Gering, realizing that this might be where ”love in the afternoon” is heading.

”I had to bang the drum,” says Passions’ emmy-winning creator and head writer, James E. Reilly, 51, over lunch near his house in Amagansett, N.Y. ”People’s lives are so complicated. I had to give them a reason to try us. I wanted a show that people would talk about.” He got exactly what he wanted — and then some. Immediately following Passions’ July 5, 1999, premiere, the media cauldron began to bubble over with disdain. Viewers took umbrage at a short-lived plotline that compared Sheridan Crane to the recently deceased Princess Diana; the narrative was so vilified, it was decried as ”totally inappropriate” by — no kidding — Yugoslavia’s Princess Elizabeth. Even the actors, a mix of soap vets and newcomers, weren’t quite sure what they’d gotten themselves into. ”It was definitely challenging,” says first-timer Jesse Metcalfe, 22, whose teen hottie Miguel Lopez-Fitzgerald spent much of last spring battling the undead in Hades. ”Once I realized we weren’t the traditional soap, it became easier.” Ben Masters, 54, who portrays sniveling aristocrat Julian Crane, says, ”The only way I could do it was over- the-top and three inches above reality. I said, ‘I think this is what they want…”’ Adds Westmore, 24, who found herself at the epicenter of the Princess Di brouhaha, ”We weren’t sure how to play it. Then we realized we could play it to the hilt and go overboard.”

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