Writing for or directing a show with a set end date must be a mixed bag. On the one hand, the fact that a series has been cancelled and won't air after a certain date means there's not much in the way of job security to worry about. As a writer or director, one would certainly be tempted to try new things, take some chances, go out on a creative limb and just plain push the envelope. On the other hand, the fact that one's source of income is about to come to an end and that, at the end of the day, one's creative efforts have amounted to nothing more than a bunch of episodes of a television show that's about to wrap must be disheartening. I could see it being difficult to even show up for work under such circumstances. I could easily see a writer or director in such a situation becoming tempted to just phone it in. After all, what's the point?
It's clear to me that the writers and director of Guiding Light are facing both of these options right now, and are torn between the two.
Since the official announcement that Guiding Light had been cancelled by CBS, viewers have been treated to some completely original, and thoroughly refreshing hours of television. While other pundits, who shall remain nameless here, may find themselves disgusted with the choices made during the last few months on GL, and chalk them up to some elaborate conspiracy by Procter and Gamble to kill the long-running soap, I'm of a different opinion.
Within the last two months the residents of Springfield have been allowed to speak in ways which are much more natural and true-to-life than characters on any other soap opera. When Olivia, on hearing about Edmund's death, referred to him as a "sad bastard", my heart leapt with joy. This is just the sort of phrase a woman such as Olivia would use. She wouldn't call him a jerk, or a fool. She wouldn't describe him as a "really bad guy." It wasn't forced or phony. It wasn't a big deal. It was a strong, feisty, opinionated woman saying the first thing that came to mind. Natalia wasn't surprised: this was exactly the strong, feisty, opinionated woman she'd fallen in love with. I wasn't surprised, either - not at Olivia, anyhow. I was surprised at the courage of the writers for making such a bold choice. A few days later, Daisy referred to someone as a "douche-bag" and James called his father a "prick." Crude? Perhaps. But, then, real life is full of crude stuff. A teenaged boy who hates and resents his father isn't going to be polite about it. This, my friends, is the way real people express themselves. I rarely get through a day without a few profanities. If it sounds strange coming from your television, it's because very little on television rings so true.
As discussed in a previous blog, viewers also experienced television history when Olivia, in a fit of sexual frustration, went shopping for a sex toy. Not happy to leave it at a vague shopping spree where the contents of the wrapped, oblong boxes could only be hinted at, the writers of GL had Olivia and Blake engage in a lengthy discussion about the perfectly normal and healthy desire women have for sexual gratification.
Perhaps the boldest move on the part of the writers has been the development of tension between Natalia and Father Ray. Instead of a guilty confession, Natalia made a declaration of her love for Olivia, quoting scripture to defend her decision to follow her heart and love a woman. We may have expected a timid, pious woman woman who would beg her religious leader for guidance, but what we got was a strong, confident woman whose mind was made up. A woman who was not afraid to face her priest on a human level, and remind him that she only had one God to answer to.
Precious nuggets, really. Writers taking chances and bucking the trends. A director taking advantage of the rare opportunity to work outside of the network box.
Now, the not-so-great news. Brace yourself to be thrown for a loop. For months I've been one of the pundits who's gone on and on about the nature of soap opera, about the fact that the rhythm and structure soap opera are different than those of a weekly series or a two-hour movie or a novel. I stand firm on this. Soap is soap, and it's important to me, as a lover of the genre, that the writers and director get this. However. How freaking ever. Enough is enough. Time is marching on. Figure out a plan and stick to it.
Where the writers and director were only recently giving us perfectly-timed scenes filled with hints at increased physical affection and intimacy between Natalia and Olivia, they have since become sloppy and seemingly unsure of how they want to proceed, and where, exactly, all of this is headed. We see Olivia and Natalia in the privacy of the farmhouse, unable to even share a friendly kiss hello. I'm not talking about a romantic kiss - I believe there's still a valid argument to be made for the girls not having shared a big, romantic kiss, yet. I'm talking about the fact that there's some sloppy and uneven writing and directing going on, regarding the level and type of physical contact these two characters are sharing. On the one hand, their private greeting at the farmhouse is awkward and stilted, when it should be free and easy and comfortable: you go to wish your best friend well on her first day of work, you hug her, you give her a peck on the cheek. Case closed. On the other hand, we have Natalia and Olivia sitting at a booth in Company....Natalia is not feeling well....Olivia sits inches from her and strokes her face, right there, in a public setting, in a way that only a lover would. If I walked into a restaurant and saw two women sitting in such close proximity to one another, looking at each other in that way, and touching in the way that Olivia touches Natalia in that scene, I would immediately assume the women were a couple. Their body language, their closeness, the way they look at one another - all of this screams "couple" in a way that doesn't ring true for two women who don't even - can't even - peck each other on the cheek hello when they're in private. Furthermore, it makes it all the more difficult to believe that someone such as Buzz - who knows Olivia, and knows what she looks and acts like when she feels she is being loved - would not pick up on the Otalia vibe. It is sloppy and haphazard writing and directing.
Which is it, then? Is this a story about two women who are deadly afraid of having their secret found out, and terrified about acting on their feelings and moving forward? Or is it a story about two women who can comfortably and confidently huddle together in a very public place, share long, lingering stares and smiles, and a level of face-touching and caressing that is reserved for people in love, without giving a damn what onlookers might think? It cannot be both.
The sloppiness is not reserved for Otalia, either. A recent scene had Lillian Raines - a seasoned nurse, a professional - not only inappropriately disclose a patient's confidential medical information, but basically discuss the impending death of said patient in an almost mirthful way. In what may be the sloppiest bit of writing and directing I've seen on GL in ages, Lillian receives a call from Dr. Ed Bauer saying that a patient with a terminal illness will soon be in for medication. Philip then walks in and Lillian, unaware that Philip is the patient, gleefully blurts out something along the lines of, "I'm expecting a guy any minute who just found out he only has three months to live! He's terminally ill!" If life were a cartoon, my rubbery neck would stretch out of shape as I did a double take because....say what????
Not only is this scene and the way it's directed completely unbelievable in every way - not just because it goes against basic medical ethics, but because viewers know Lillian as a consummate professional and a compassionate woman - but it's totally unnecessary and ineffective. The writer of this scene was both sloppy and lazy. The scene is a textbook example of clumsily spelling out the details of a story, instead of trusting the audience to work certain things out for themselves. A much more effective and economical scene, which would have maintained Lillian's true nature and allowed Tina Sloan to remain in character would have opened with the phone call from Ed, followed by Philip walking in, and an exchange to the effect of:
Lillian: Philip...what a nice surprise. I can't really stop and talk, though - I'm expecting a patient to come in any second.
(Dramatic soap opera pause)
Philip: I know. Lillian...(Philip does soap opera "look at the floor" move, pauses, then looks Lillian in th eye) I'm that patient.
(Cut away to Lillian, whose face says it all: she's expecting a terminal patient, Philip has identified himself as that patient....fade to Fabreeze commercial.)
Lillian knows that someone with a terminal illness is about to walk in. We know that Philip has a terminal illness. Philip walks in. Does any of us need to be hit over the head with this idea? And, really, is there any room for smiles and laughter in this scene? What the hell is Lillian so damned giddy about????
The wonderful Tina Sloan deserves a better scene than this one.
Don't Shoot the Messenger
There's no denying it - there is some sloppy and lazy writing going on, and there are questionable decisions being made by the director. Perhaps, under pressure of time constraints and the prospect of impending unemployment, there are people behind the scenes who have just given up. It's possible that there are script writers who have already moved on to other projects, leaving fewer people to cover a heavy workload. Whatever the reasons for some of the messier things going on in Springfield, one thing cannot be denied: this will have an impact on how Otalia plays out between now and September 18th.
Otalia seems to have been on one trajectory just a few weeks ago, and shifted gears, as of late, along paths unknown. A month ago I wrote about how sure I was that Olivia and Natalia would ultimately share one of those over-the-top romantic soap opera sex scenes, complete with rose petals and tea lights. Considering the time constraints and the way in which this story seems to have been derailed (Natalia pregnant? Seriously? Now???), I now think viewers may have to consider bracing themselves for the very real possibility that the long-awaited kiss will be the big pay-off, with any other sort of intimacy only implied for the off-screen future. (More on this theory in my next blog)