Sunday, May 17, 2009

What We Lose If We Lose Guiding Light

This blog is a direct response to Patrick Erwin's piece A Hypothetical Question

The cancelation of Guiding Light has hit viewers, and hit us hard. For many, soap operas are old friends who have been with us a lot longer than most of the people we know. For many, watching daytime television is something we look fondly on as something we shared with our mothers and grandmothers.  Soap opera has changed the way we look at women, and families and relationships. It's changed and helped shape what popular entertainment is today. When no one else dared, soap operas brought us stories about cultural and religious diversity, race relations, reproductive rights, euthanasia/assisted suicide, HIV/AIDS, sexuality among people with disabilities, ALS, addiction and recovery, domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder and, yes, same sex love.  Like so many things, the elements of soap opera add up to more than the sum of its parts. 

Guiding Light is at the center of all of this - the longest running soap still in production. 

If you've never watched a soap opera you won't - you can't - understand why people care so much about some old tv show being pulled off the air....especially  since it's had such a long run. You probably have no idea that soap opera, as a medium, can only exist if an actual relationship exists between product and viewer. And exist it certainly does. Fans of this genre don't just watch. We become invested. It wouldn't work any other way. Soap opera offers an interesting duality: total escapism and total immersion. For the hour Guiding Light is on, we, the viewers, can leave all of our own details behind. The traffic, the noise, the financial problems, the deadlines at work, the neighbors who annoy us, the dinner we have to cook, the laundry that needs washing, the leaky roof that needs seeing to....these things dissolve away. They disappear for a short spell, as we immerse ourselves in the world of GL. We can leave New York or San Francisco or Chicago and spend an hour in Springfield, where we immerse ourselves the lives of others - others we know so very well. Our professional worries are replaced by the goings on at Spaulding Enterprises. Our aches and pains go by the wayside as we watch Olivia deal with heart disease. This hour-long escape and immersion is something we look forward to, something we cherish. It's more than a comfort. It's a relationship. On some level, it helps keep us sane. And, damn it, it's fun. It's fun to put aside all the big stuff that makes up a put it aside for just one hour and indulge in a harmless vice. I don't smoke. I don't drink much. I don't gamble. Instead, soap operas are my addiction and the television is my opium den. Have you tried taking crack cocaine away from an addict? This is what the cancelation of Guiding Light is like - taking drugs away from an addict.

Of course, the implications of this particular cancelation are huge and daunting. CBS has been merciless in pulling the plug on Guiding Light, the longest-running soap opera in history. A show that started on radio and has been running every week day for 72 years. This is a show that holds an important place in the history of broadcasting. It's a landmark, and it's been pulled down in the way one might pull down a tent when the circus run is over. No mercy. If CBS shows no mercy for the grand dame of soap opera, what does it say about the future of soap opera as a genre? In my opinion, it's the death knell. As far as I can see, CBS is making a statement about their overall plan for the future of daytime television: they want low-cost, fluffy programing to frame around paid advertising.  Why employ some of the best writers in the field,  when it's cheaper invite a studio audience to watch trailer trash take paternity tests? Why offer young actors a training ground on which to cut their teeth, when its cheaper to film people arguing over dry cleaning bills in small claims court? 

Once Guiding Light is gone, other daytime dramas will follow. And, when they're all gone...when soap opera is truly a thing of the past, we will have lost not only a piece of our social history, but a valuable resource. I'm sure the results of a Google or Wiki search would be much longer, but I prefer to do this off the top of my head....  a list of people who got started on soaps and/or who I first saw and always associate with their soap roles:

  • Julianne Moore
  • Ray Liotta
  • Susan Sarandon
  • Jill Claybugh
  • Kevin Bacon
  • Meg Ryan
  • Christopher Walken
  • Robin Wright Penn
  • Kathleen Turner
  • Jobeth Williams
  • Alec Baldwin
  • Alison Janney
  • Marg Helgenberger
  • Melina Kanakaredes
  • Francis Fisher
  • Mark Hammill
  • Nia Long
  • Kyra Sedgewick
  • Kate Capshaw
  • Lori Laughlin
  • Michelle Forbes
  • Demi Moore
  • Christopher Reeve
  • Marissa Tomei
  • Tommy Lee Jones

Without soap opera, where would these folks have honed their skills, learned the ins and outs of working in front of a camera, had an opportunity to work with and opposite dozens of other actors of all calibers, and developed the discipline necessary to memorize a new script and film a new mini-movie every day? 

The demise of the soap opera can be likened to doing away with minor league baseball. Who needs all those farm teams, anyhow?  Surely, the New York Yankees can just hit the streets and find a bunch of guys who can hit a ball with a bat, so why set up a system where young men can learn about working as part of a team, develop their skills by playing with and against a variety of other players in a variety of situations and terrains, find out if traveling around all the time works for them, and generally become mature enough to, hopefully, one day be ready for the big leagues?  A system which makes it possible for sports fans to find out about up-and-coming players, and support their careers/watch as they develop? What's the point? 

 © 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

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