Thursday, August 20, 2009

When the "Light" goes out...

I've been in mourning for a while now, ever since CBS announced the cancellation of The Guiding Light. Now that the final airdate is rapidly approaching, it's getting harder and harder for me to face not having the Bauers, the Spauldings and the Coopers in my life anymore.

Yes, soaps are among my favorite things, a not-so-guilty pleasure.

I suppose the addiction goes back to childhood when I'd listen to soaps on the radio with my mother, but it came back with a vengeance during my years as a television critic when I was stuck at home with a broken ankle and a cast up to my hip for weeks on end during one interminable winter. Though daytime TV was theoretically part of my job all the time, during this period I became addicted to it all over again. I wrote columns about all the shows on the air, especially my favorites...The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and The Guiding Light.

I was always willing, if not downright eager to interview soap stars, unlike many of my colleagues. I became friends with a couple of them...Paul Gleason who was then on All My Children and Don Stewart, who played Mike Bauer on The Guiding Light. I often saw them in New York, met them for drinks or lunch.

On one particularly memorable occasion I had lunch with Don, who invited me back to the set, thinking, I'm sure, that he was with a semi-sophisticated journalist. As I walked through the set, however, I was wide-eyed with awe, exclaiming things like, "Oh my, it's Ed's office," or "Wow, this is Sarah's living room." Before his eyes I'd been transformed from journalist to pure fan, caught up in the world that captivated me every day.

To think that that world, which has enticed viewers for decades, will be no more after mid-September breaks my heart. I could lay the blame for that where the network does, on dwindling viewership and changing times, but instead I lay a lot of it on the network and local stations who've treated soaps more and more shabbily in recent years. The shows are preempted at the drop of a hat, interrupted for so-called breaking news that could easily wait a few more minutes. In some markets The Guiding Light was taken off the air in the afternoon and shifted to various morning times.

Of course, the show itself has made its share of mis-steps, but ironically it has been better than ever in recent months. Favorite characters have been brought back in solid storylines, reminding all of us why we've cared and why the show has endured. Phillip's back, along with Ed Bauer, Michelle, Jonathan and so many other beloved characters played by incredibly talented actors who too often don't get the credit they deserve. The writers are playing to the show's history and its strengths...focusing on family and relationships. Each episode is filled with a mix of laughter and tears.

For weeks now, I've been hoping for a reprieve. There was talk of the show being picked up by a cable network, but to date that apparently hasn't happened, so the end is in sight. One more loss to be chalked up to changing times.

At least, though, when the "Light" does go off for the final time, it will be doing so with honor and integrity, with stories that engage and actors who can make us care. The show's devoted following deserves no less, though we want much, much more.

Sherryl Woods

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guilty, soapy pleasures

For the past couple of months I've been totally obsessed with how TV's soap operas were going to negotiate their way through the disaster of the writers' strike. Why, you may well ask. Because one of my guilty little pleasures for many years has been watching the daytime soaps.

It may go back to childhood when my mother listened to a couple of soaps on the radio before I started school and she went back to work. Or it may go back to my years as a TV critic in Ohio when I broke my ankle, had a cast up to my hip in the middle of winter and was stuck in the house with soap operas to entertain me. I wrote a whole series of columns on the soaps and got hooked all over again, especially on The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. My favorite story from that time was mentioning in a column that I just couldn't figure out the convoluted relationship between two characters on As the World Turns. By Monday morning I had a stack of mail on my desk explaining it to me . . . and every version was slightly different.

Over the years soaps have been maligned by critics, denigrated by TV snobs, and treated shabbily by networks and local stations who cut into them at the drop of a hat for "Breaking News" that usually isn't worth the airtime it wastes. With viewing patterns changing and soap ratings falling, I wondered if the writers' strike would be the kiss of death for this form of daytime entertainment.

When the strike began, word was that most soaps had sufficient scripts to carry them into February. Just in case, I hoarded my daily tapes, allowing myself to watch only the occasional hour, staving off the day when they might be forced to air reruns.

And as February neared, viewers I think could begin to see the very clever ways that the shows were trying to grapple with a dwindling supply of words for their characters to utter. Some shows had more than usual musical segments...meaning music played while characters interacted without speaking. This entailed long, meaningful looks, strolling hand in hand, rolling around in bed or anything else that could occupy the screen while music substituted for words. Some shows resorted to many, many flashbacks, weaving old clips into the story which could easily extend one new script into two days worth of shows.

My favorite, though, has been All My Children. Now some of this was, I'm sure, planned even before the writers' strike. The return of beloved characters Angie and Jessie -- never mind that he died onscreeen years ago -- could well have been in the works all along, but it has allowed somewhat conveniently for many, many flashbacks. In addition, they brought back the "real" Greenlee -- Rebecca Budig -- for an amnesia storyline about her old love Ryan, which has -- you guessed it -- allowed for the use of many, many flashbacks. They couldn't have pulled that off with the new actress in the role.

In general All My Children and the three CBS shows I tape have weathered the strike mostly with aplomb. After all, many of these seasoned actors spend their spare time on the New York stage and are used to live performances that require them to roll with the punches when the unexpected happens. They mustered on no matter what material they were handed. Only on rare occasions have I gone, "Huh?" when a storline or character veered wildly off-course.

Thank goodness, though, that the strike ended when it did. Had the strike gone on and necessitated the kind of scheduling disaster that occurred in primetime, it might have been the death knell for the soaps. And as someone who not only loves the genre, but also writes connected books because of an affinity for stories that return to the same world again and again, the loss would have saddened me. Now if network executives could muster up the same amount of respect for these venerable old shows, I'd feel even better about their future.

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