Friday, July 31, 2009

Too Little, Too Late

"Go back to your roots. That's going to tell you everything."

In a recent episode of Guiding Light, a distraught Olivia, lost and confused and unable to figure out how to get on with living her life told Blake, "I don't know what to do." Blake's response, "Go back to your roots. That's going to tell you everything."

This bit of advice might have been useful to the writers of GL a year ago, or more. If they'd had that advice, and heeded it, we wouldn't now be sadly saying goodbye to the longest running serial in broadcasting history. If they'd thought to go back to the roots of GL, we wouldn't have wasted so much time on less-than-stellar, inexperienced young actors and/or characters who have no connection to Springfield's core values or history. If the writers had thought to go back to GL's roots - its history, its core characters, and story lines that made us care - we wouldn't now be faced with rushed swan songs by actors and characters who should have been in Springfield, all along.

The Mo Bauer Effect

Few plot lines have made as deep an impact on GL in the last 20 years as the death of Maureen Bauer. The major players in that story line, though - Ed Bauer, Lillian Raines, Vanessa Chamberlain - have been all but dead for the last few years, as far as the writers of GL have been concerned. On 7/28, we were treated to a reunion of sorts, when the scene opened with Ed, newly returned to Springfield, having lunch with Lillian, only to have Vanessa walk in to Towers. For those of us who know the history these characters share, their roles in GL's greatest tragedy, and how each of them has suffered guilt or sadness (or both) since Maureen's death, it was a charged moment.

Anyone who knows this this story knows that Ed Bauer's heart has never truly healed, and that his work in epidemiology is fueled, in part, by his guilt - if he couldn't prevent Maureen's death, he's sure as hell going to save anyone else he can.

Anyone who knows this story knows that Lillian has lived with insurmountable guilt, as well...that she blames herself for creating a situation that led to the death of her dear friend, deprived Ed of a wife and Michelle of a mother. We know that Lillian has not allowed herself to love or be loved for all these many years and that it is only now, with Buzz, that she has begun to let her guard down, forgive herself, and believe herself worthy of love.

Anyone who knows this story knows that, in Maureen, Vanessa lost a soulmate of sorts, and that the friendship these two women shared was closer than that of sisters. It's a rare thing on television or in film for platonic friendship to be honored in the way GL honored the friendship of Vanessa and Maureen. From the get-go, it was made clear that there were two primary grievers - Ed and Vanessa. Vanessa has suffered a sort of widowhood all these years. And, no, I don't mean to imply that there was any sort of sexual energy between these two characters, but that the bond between them was so strong, their friendship so pure and full of love and admiration, that the spot left empty in Vanessa's heart has never since been filled. And, while Vanessa has great love for both Ed and Lillian, it is also true that she knows about their long-ago indiscretion, and hasn't gone completely without feeling anger over it.

When these three are in the same scene, something happens.

This is strong stuff. It's the stuff good soap opera is made of: characters who we know well reacting to the events in their lives, living with the consequences of their actions over the long term, never forgetting where they've come from, or what they've been through. When Vanessa walked in and saw Ed and Lillian eating together, I felt something. How could I not? Just as Proust's Madeleine dipped into a weak cup of tea conjured up a lifetime of memories, the sight of Vanessa, Ed and Lillian sharing space brought me right back to a time and place when characters, history and continuity really mattered on Guiding Light:

Soap opera is, by definition, all about continuity - the story lines are on-going, characters are established and grow over time, and viewers become invested. Guiding Light - in fact, soap opera as a genre - would not exist if not for a core of long-term, heavily invested viewers who have followed the characters over time. Why, then, has it taken the cancelation of this show to bring these three actors and their characters together on screen? As an ensemble, they pack a wallop. They're all strong actors, who work really well together, and whose characters share rich, significant history. Isn't this exactly what a truly invested soap opera audience tunes in for?

Cheekbones and Pecs

In the future, when students of pop culture, screen writing,and broadcasting look back at this genre (and make no mistake about this - they will) and try to figure out what went wrong, one of the issues they'll undoubtedly bat around is casting. Somewhere along the line, Central Casting decided that the main requirements for landing a role on a soap opera were aesthetic: if someone looked the part, they got it. At some point in time, acting ability took a back seat to great hair, a strong jaw line, and looking great in a tight t-shirt. Combine this with America's cult of youth, and it's a wonder any soap continues to thrive.

This is not to say that there are no talented young actors - E. J. Bonilla has done some excellent work on GL, especially in the last two months. And I'm certainly not saying that no one over 40 can be attractive - GL's present cast is fairly teeming with incredibly talented actors who also happen to be over 40, and great-looking: Maeve Kinkead and Tina Sloan are two of them. What I am saying is that too much of an emphasis has been placed, over the last few years, on youth and beauty, and not enough on good acting and meaty content that actually goes somewhere. Whereas Vanessa and Lillian were once the center of incredibly popular, front-burner story lines, they've been virtually invisible for the last few years. It would be a logical assumption of any new GL viewer to come to that Lillian is pretty much around to help Beth get ready for parties, or that Vanessa is just Dinah's mother, whose main job is to keep Billy from eating too much pie. And Ed? Ed Bauer, who used to be the backbone of the show? He was evicted from Springfield, long ago. A new GL viewer would have no reason to know who Ed Bauer even is. Are you listening, Irna? The Bauers haven't much mattered for a long time, now.

In the last few weeks GL has given us little glimpses of what once made it so great. While I welcome this - I can't imagine having this show go off the air without one last glimpse of Ed or Holly, and I'm glad Lillian finally, finally has an involvement in something other than helping Beth decide what to wear - it makes me sad. Revisiting past greatness is always a mixed bag. In this case, it makes me wonder: what took them so long? Why did TPTB wait until it was too late for any of this to make a difference? I know there have been serious budgetary constraints, but I also know that there exists a group of strong, talented actors who have been associated with GL, all of whom play/played characters who actually have history in and strong connections to Springfield. In the past few years, these actors have been either dropped from contract status, or pitifully underused. I'm talking about:

Tina Sloan
Maeve Kinkead
Liz Keifer
Justin Deas
Michael O'Leary
Peter Simon
Maureen Garrett
Ron Raines
Lisa Brown
Marj Dusay

I'm sure I've missed a few, and I'm sure I'll get emails about who they are.

What About Otalia?

Was it worth it? Did stomping all over what once made this show great, and treating both actors and characters the viewers love as disposable pay off in any way? Has anything been gained by ignoring the importance of continuity in this genre? And, what about Otalia?

I'm not against progress and growth. Nor do I have anything against developing fresh, new story lines and introducing new characters...but they can't stand alone. Not on a soap opera. There have to be connections. When Maureen Bauer died, every single character in Springfield, every single story line on GL, felt the impact. When Holly was raped by Roger, it touched everyone. When 5th Street burned down, no one was left untouched. Continuity. Connection. These things are vital to the success of a soap opera, but the writers of GL seem to have missed this point, time and again. Even in the strongest story line the show has boasted in years - Otalia - writers dropped the continuity ball long ago. In early May, Patrick Erwin finally said what he'd undoubtedly been holding in for a long time: Olivia and Natalia desperately need a one-way ticket out of the storyline island they’ve been stuck on.

And where do we find ourselves with Otalia now, as the show gets closer and closer to winding down for good? Watching a disjointed mess due, in part, to the fact that, without Natalia, there is no Otalia story line. If the writers had taken heed of Patrick Erwin's words, Crystal Chappell might actually have had something interesting and logical to do during Jessica Leccia's maternity leave. Instead, we have this:

Olivia: I just feel like I'm dealing with everything on my own.

Philip: I don't think that's true. You're a huge part of this town. You're connected to everybody.

Olivia: Why do I feel so alone?
Why do you feel so alone, Olivia? It might just be because, when they could have been developing your story line in such a way that made it an integral part of the Guiding Light/Springfield saga, as a whole, the writers were busy with Disneyworld, pretty boys using stolen diamonds no one cares about as an excuse to show off their sculpted bodies, and the inconsequential nonsense of Remy/Christina's marital status. None of that was good or interesting or relevant....but it sure did bring the young and pretty.

© 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


Ocean1Blue said...

The other sin committed by the writers and TPTB at GL is betrayal, and I'm not just talking about Nat's betrayal of Olivia. I mean that time and time again we have been lead down a path, invested time and energy in characters and a s/l only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Look at all the episodes spent on grieving for Jeffrey and now he's alive!! Please!! After awhile one grows cynical and loses interest because we all know it is just a matter of time before they do something stupid or lame. As much as I love Otalia, it will in some ways be a relief when it is finally over and we are not jerked around anymore. It is so sad that it fell so far.

Snapper said...

Funny, I was just the other day telling someone that I never think anyone on a soap is dead, anymore. Time was, the death of a central character meant something, as the Mo Bauer death illustrates. When Mo died, her funeral took about a week or more of episodes. Not on second was less than riveting. Now? Someone dies and it's, "Yeah...whatever...his body was never found. He'll be back."

Rikita said...

I am so sad to see all of the wasted potential of talented actors who know their characters so well and can do anything the writers invent for them to do if only given the material. With all of that wealth we have gotten so little and they have wasted enormous amounts of time with stories that have gone nowhere Jeffrey's "death", Edmund's murder and especially Otalia. It's an outrage to have squandered the tremendous resources they had at their disposal not only to save the show but now to go out with anything resembling dignity. A few decent moments here and there do not redeem many wasted hours meandering through with no plot, character progression or entertainment value.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, as usual. I always like hearing your insights on GL's history when I didn't watch it.

Just a comment on Blake's statement: "Go back to your roots" which still doesn't make a lot of sense to me unless it's a (totally out of context) nod to CC's return to DoOL.

Yes, I know Olivia and Natalia were both pregnant at 16, but I would never interpret that as their "roots". Olivia going to Chicago was her interpretation. It was misguided, but understandable.

If I was Blake and I saw Olivia in that much pain, I would have told her a lot more clearly that she wasn't at fault and that Natalia just needed some time to figure things out. That whole scene was weird to me.

Snapper said...

I didn't think "go back to your roots" meant that Olivia should go to Chicago, or that it was a reference to the teen pregnancy thing. I thought Blake was trying to tell Olivia to get back to the simple things in her life: taking a shower, going to work, being Emma's mother...being HERSELF. Sortof like, "Remember what's important, and things will be ok."

Of course, if the writers weren't on CRACK, Blake would have said, "Olivia, I can't tell you why Natalia left, but I CAN tell you that she loves you and that you didn't do anything to drive her away. Now, why don't you get yourself together, take care of Emma, and concentrate on the things in your life that you actually CAN control? That won't fix everything, but it might make you feel less lost until Natalia decides what she's doing with her life."

Ocean1Blue said...

And I would also add a "comforting lie" from Blake: "Natalia's decision to leave without saying anything to you had nothing to do with you, but everything to do with her. It is all on her and has nothing to do with how much she loves you. It is merely a reflection of how truly lost she was."

maggie23 said...

thanks lana, for giving me something else to watch while i am hopelessly awaiting the return of natalia, and olivia for that matter(and ever more resigned to the fact that this story line will continue to let us all down, right to the bitter end)...i am watching all of the goodbye my friend eps on youtube and enjoying them very much...

i am a sponge for all s/l's that explore, in depth, the very layered relationships between women, no matter the perspective (same-sex relationships; platonic, intimate friendships; sisters, et al...). it is so very rare, indeed, that those relationships are given the realistic depiction, on either the big or small screen, that they so deeply deserve.

i know you are reminiscing about the old days of gl, but as a child (and maybe as a long-time soap afficianado, you can either verify my recollections or attribute my romantic memories to the easily influenced recall of a child's mind), but i remember back to sick days and summer holidays and my mom watching one life to live...i was so enthralled with judith light (karen) - maybe my first crush, in retrospect - her sister jenny, her relationship with vicki...i recall karen and the baby switch s/l, and karen taking the fall for vicki in some murder trial...but what i mostly remember is judith light's acting - she could cry like no other actress i had ever seen (until cc, that is) - and her love for those women in her life was so palpable - for me anyway...i think i may just have to spend some more time on youtube :)
tc, and thanks again...

Snapper said...

Maggie23 - I've said before that the title of best overall performance on a daytime soap (within my lifetime, anyhow) is a toss-up between MIchael Zaslow's Roger Thorpe, Maureen Garrett's Holly, and Judith Light's Karen. Judith Light was phenomenal, and few dramatic scenes on television can hold a candle to that famous courtroom scene. And they baby switch? It was such a damned good story line, OTLV just used it again a couple of months ago. And, yes - youtube is our friend. If you watch the entire "Goodbye, My Friend" series, you'll notice that Maureen's death and funeral took well over a week to get through, and not a minute of it was less than riveting. We don't have that, anymore, because no one really dies.