Blogging From The Beacon.
Thoughts on the week of September 14-18.
This is my final blog for Guiding Light. It's been an extremely sad few days since the show ended. There will be something very strange about not sitting down at my desk to furiously type the daily recap as I watch the show each day. To those who have read my recaps and thoughts over the past three years, I want to send a humble thank you. The same goes for those who have read my interviews, news stories and have become the residents of our message board. I know that some of you have watched the show far longer than I have, and some have even watched it before that, listened to it, longer than I've been alive, so I know that this time is hard for you, perhaps far harder than it is for me. Over the past three years, whether I've agreed with other fans or not, I've admired their dedication and passion for the series which has formed one of the cornerstones of their lives. I've also had the good fortune to meet and speak with many of the people at the show, both the actors and those behind the scenes, and to see firsthand how extraordinarily hard-working they are. My heart goes out to all of them at this difficult time and I wish them all the best.
But now, on to what I normally do. It's hard for me to be critical given the situation, but considering how weighty ending the series was, it should really be taken seriously. About last week... I think we all knew that someone was going to die, for symbolic reasons if nothing else. The week gave us three weddings and a funeral. The weddings were quick and enjoyable, but it was all overshadowed by the death. I have extremely mixed feelings about Alan's death. The acting for the story was stellar, Aleksander and Dusay in particular struck some wonderful chords. There was a healthy amount of restraint, showing distance as the family learned about his death. There wasn't any dialogue and it was done in long shots. It was somber, but it didn't feel dark or bleak, just genuinely sad. While I am no fan of the kind of sudden redemption and death plot which Alan was subjected to, that didn't make it any less emotionally effective.
The rest of the week felt less effective to me. I really didn't like the ending. More in particular, I didn't like the 'one year later' part. It was pure schmaltz. I know it gave a lot of people what they wanted, so I'm happy for them, but, personally, I thought it was weak. It was an impossible situation in many respects, but they could have ended it very differently, with as much ease, without it coming off like a shallow piece of fanfic. I know they were looking to give people closure, but closure isn't something you can rush. It also left Jeffrey in no man's land and I thought that he, and Edmund for that matter, really deserved more. And I have to admit that I dreaded a Jeva reunion. Yes, watching Robert Newman get teary eyed is very moving, but I thought that the show had finally gotten past this. They spent years trying to wean his character away from Reva and then they dropped him back in it. After carefully examining their history through the "Always" movie plot and moving on, growing up as it were, they regressed again, which I think is a shame and a disservice to all three characters involved.
Since I've never addressed in any detail why I think the show was canceled, this seems like the time to do it. Obviously, it was because the ratings were bad, but what caused this is more complicated. It wasn't any one thing, of course, it never is. Aside from a few brief periods over the past 70 years, the show generally had a middling to bad ratings share. From a purely financial point of view, CBS could have canceled it a decade or more ago but seemed to keep it around for symbolic and sentimental reasons. Considering the way that decisions are generally made in the very unsentimental TV industry, that, in itself, is an extraordinary tribute. Which is not to say that the network did everything they could to save the show, because they didn't. When affiliates began refusing to air it at 3:00 PM because of the lack of revenue it could generate, they allowed them to start airing it earlier in the day in many markets, effectively splintering the audience even further. Their promotion of the series was also lax for years and left much to be desired, but those things still aren't enough of an explanation.
There's another argument – that the show didn't tell good stories anymore, if they did, their audience would have grown – but it doesn't really work that way. If it did, B&B and it's three storylines which have lasted twenty years wouldn't be near the top of the ratings. Soap operas, more than any other sort of show, are a habit at least as much as a choice. Watching Guiding Light is more like smoking Camels than it is like watching the latest season of "Survivor." It has less to do with the flavor than with a kind of brand loyalty and all of the nostalgia which that can conjure. It becomes deeply ingrained within you and becomes part of who you are. It's because it has been woven into your life for a long period of time, not because you objectively decide that it's good. That also has another side. Not everyone can stick through it all. Lots of people get bored with endless repetition. Josh and Reva, as a supercouple, became the cornerstone of the show for many, but they also became the stumbling block for the show and a source of alienation for many viewers. Whenever they would break up, ratings would increase. Whenever they would get together, they would fall. Whenever she had a major plot, people would tune out. There was a very loud portion of the audience who loved her, and a quieter, though apparently largely portion who didn't. Reva essentially became a metaphor for everything which was wrong with the show. Producers and writers seemed to explicitly know this, though the inexplicably failed to do much about it beyond using her as a guinea pig to experiment with storytelling idea inspired by other soaps.
Another argument often dragged out is the 'jumping the shark' argument. It's an old argument used by TV critics which states that when a show begins becoming more outlandish, even competitively outlandish, people can't take it seriously anymore and tune out. Although, considering some of Reva's plots (time travel, cloning etc), this seems like it could be valid, on closer inspection, it's far from clear. None of those plots were particularly successful, but then again, neither were many of its more realistic plots which seemed to alienate at least as many viewers. One of the defining things about soap operas, other than their ties with blatant product placement, has been their outlandishness. Even when they were on the radio, this was something they were mocked for. At their peak in popularity during the 70s and 80s, the genre was ridiculous enough to spawn a series of sitcoms ("Soap", "Mary Hartman,") which only mocked them. That didn't hurt them though. What it did illustrate, and what happened with Days of Our Lives ratings boom in the 90s showed, was that the genre had two basic audiences. One relatively small and loyal group who were raised on them and stayed with them through hell and high water, and one large group that came and went based largely on the over the top aspects. And this is not to say that the ridiculous can't alienate a substantial portion of the audience, but that has more to do with the fact that doing it well is so hard and so few producers and writers can actually pull it off.
One of the signs that things were going seriously wrong was that the series was failing to integrate enough new characters and families successfully. Bringing in plenty of new characters, dropping out old families and letting new ones come to the fore, even jumping out of location, were all essential to the show's growth. The few characters who were brought in over the recent past, ended up being related to those already on the canvas, further diminishing scope and create increasingly incestuous plots. The show also began focusing on bringing back old characters, something which fans often clamor for but which, in practice, seems to alienate more viewers than it excites. There are exceptions to the rule – bringing Alan and Roger back actually worked – but that was decades ago and, since then, it has generally held that it's a bad practice.
Another major reason is, frankly, that the audience is literally dying. It's a common phenomena for soaps, even in England where there was a report issued last week saying long running soap "Coronation Street" loses at least 1,000 viewers a week to death. Although there hasn't been such an explicit study done on American soaps, from what sources have told me, the numbers are at least as high and the lost viewers haven't been getting replaced for a long time. Guiding Light's majority viewership was between the ages of 55 and 80, with low income and nearly 200 percent more likely to die in the short term than most other demographics. The lack of replacement viewers is due largely to major demographic shifts in the population which have eliminated the pool for growth which the genre used to have. With all of the new choices for entertainment available to people regardless of income, not that many people are raised on soaps anymore.
There are numerous other reasons one could suggest. P&G used to proudly assert that the series was created to mirror the wishes and desires of Nixon's silent majority and the show was often accused of being overtly right wing. Pamela Long even allegedly left the series because they refused to allow her to introduce a new family because they were Jewish. In recent years, the show has become far more overtly Christian, it's also become more politically liberal. Although such a juxtaposition was basic to the show's original intentions when Irna Phillips created it, it's an extremely delicate and dangerous thing to juggle which can often cause a rift with audience. Another major factor hastening the demise of the genre has been the Internet, which, while it creates strong and vocal fan groups, has also managed to help erode ratings. The soap press hasn't helped much either and not because we're often critical but because the audience ends up being too well-informed. It doesn't help when it is so easy to know what happened and what is going to happen, who will be leaving and who is coming.
The most complicated reason for the show's fall is something else though and it has to do with the way sensibilities and experience changes. Sometimes an institution just can't keep up. While the show served to express the feelings and wants of a segment of the population for generations, something eventually went wrong and there was a fundamental disconnect between the show and much of its possible audience. This may best be explained with an analogy. During Guiding Light's heyday, disco was the most popular thing. The show even tried to cash in on this with a disco theme song and musical guests like the Bee-Gees. For years, disco was the popular expression of a generation... and then that stopped being the case. That doesn't mean people don't still make disco music or listen to it or that the Bee-Gees can't sell out concert halls. It doesn't even mean that the disco they make now is any better or worse than it ever was, it just means that the zeitgeist of the times changed and it ceased to be a viable part of popular culture.
There are other factors too, and they do have to do with the creative thrust of the show. A lot of historians of the series will cite Maureen's death as the point at which it went into decline. I would argue that it was a combination of this with other things. It was also the period when Reva came back from the dead and things started to lose focus for Roger. If Maureen was the show's heart, Roger was the blackness that allowed the light to shine. I guess one of the things which I've come to see as the major weakness of the series over the past decade was it's growing loss of real villainy. To look back at the series earliest days, one string leads straight to today. It was never about a specific town, or family – it was about a sense of community, one which existed in darkness and sought light through an argument between the worldly and the spiritual, never quite resting with either. The duality was no longer believable though, the evil became too superficial and the optimism too forced. Guiding Light always set itself apart from other soaps for the scope and complexity of its villains. While other soaps had villains on a grander scale, none had the degree of emotional depth or rage, none were quite as disturbing. Over the past few years, as the show seemed hellbent on redeeming all of its fallen characters one way or another, its greatest strength was sapped out of it. As Buzz said at Alan's funeral, he made everyone what they are. Unfortunately, and in spite of Ron Raines' truly beautiful performance, for years the character was often written as a shadow of his former self. Of course, Alan wasn't the only one to fall prey to this, any character with a dark side was eroded into absurdity or blandness.
Now that Guiding Light fades to white, I sadly salute its passage. Whatever its flaws, it was one of the most remarkable things to occur in the history of TV and it's unlikely that any medium will see a comparable achievement. I know that many of us will grieve over this loss for years, but I encourage everyone to take a look back at the show's glorious history in our news room and keep the show alive in your heart.
Anyway, those were my thoughts about last week. Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below and remember that this is all in fun.
- Matt Purvis