Friday, April 3, 2009

Thank you, Guiding Light. A lesson taken from ER's goodbye

For fourteen of its fifteen years, I have been a loyal viewer of ER (the first year I lived overseas). I consider ER a "soap" (in the sense that it is a serial drama with an ensemble cast), but it was an innovative one stylistically and narratively. Although ratings fell over the years, and the format became less fresh, I found it an enjoyable run. You'd think I would have been choked up at the series finale, but it was done so lovingly (returning vets, going out with a full-blast sense of energy [this is not an's just that our time of being there with County General has passed], circle-of-life promises [oh look, there's Mark Greene's daughter!] and metaphors of death to help us through the ending [Earnest Borgnine's heart-breaking performance]), how can one do anything but say "Thanks for the memories".

As a "soap", ER defied a lot of the assumptions of today's disgruntled viewers. "Shaky cam" production model? Look--ER pioneered it. Departing vets? The show did fine on the backs of the final seasons (not counting guest stints) not a single original starring/front-burner cast member remained. Still, even with a show that strong, there is something about this long-form that is stifling. By staying true to its identity, ER eventually became just a little stale. Which means, as good as it was, the numbers fell (in part because of what happened to broadcast TV in general, but even the relative position of ER on Thursdays at 10 pm was clearly no longer a 'juggernaut'). It was just a little less 'must see', because it was repeating itself.

However, there is no sense in which this 'series finale' was a failure! Indeed, in a move of utter beauty, the writers brought back Ernest Borgnine, who had to sit back and let his wife die. "Is there nothing we can do?" he implored. No, said the doctors. It is time. When the last monitor was switched off, his searching eyes asked "Is that it?". Yes. A complicated life (her daughter loved her, but her husband treasured her), well lived, had come to a timely conclusion. Everything has a lifespan, and our job is to treasure what came before death, and not to perseverate on the death itself. Ernest's character got to lay with his wife's body a few minutes longer, to say a proper goodbye. As we did, with ER.

And so I turn to Guiding Light. First, my sympathies to the millions of fans who still loved her. I was never a regular viewer, but I would feel the same grief -- the same hole in my life -- if my long-running soap (they're ALL long-running at this point) were to disappear. I also know that, in the minds of some viewers, Guiding Light is not dead. P&G's press release says they're trying to find a new home, and so forth. For those banking on these new options, I wish you best of luck, even as I confess that the failure to let go makes me a little uneasy.

I can't help but think that there is a lesson in dignity, fitting endings, letting go, and so forth, in what we experienced with ER.

72 years! My goodness, how can that be viewed as anything but a beautiful, excellent, never-to-be-repeated thing? I have read angry viewers saying "I'll never watch CBS again" or "How dare CBS do this?!?". This network gave 72 years of air time to this show (and made a lot of money doing so). Does the inevitable act of cancellation (the lifespan of no entity is infinite) negate the foregoing decades? Not for me....

The objective facts show that GL was at the bottom of the soap ratings for at least a decade, was experiencing a faster-than-other decline rate in the recent years, earned a lot of fan and critical disgruntlement for both its storytelling and production style (offset by a recent glorious resurgence in part of the canvas). Affiliates time shifted the show all over the map. In many ways, the fact that GL remained alive in 2009 was a miracle...a testament to the pluckiness of its EP, the resolve of the parent company and -- yes -- even the unusual patience of its network. In the end, especially in a depleted economy, CBS' patience could not be boundless. But bless them for giving it this long.

As I look at the impressive "petitions" devised to save GL (over 3,600 signatures in 24 hours, for the one I saw), the comments are stunning. "I'm the sixth generation to watch this show". "I watched with my grandmother and mother, and now my daughter watches with me." "I remember Roger Thorpe", "I remember Beverley McKinsey". On and on it goes, a beautiful river of nostalgia.

But there's the rub. Almost nothing in those comments says "Oh, I sure miss the Manny supercouple" or "I really most love Grady and Cyrus". The sadness is for a GL that used to be, not one that exists today.

There are exceptions. Phillip Spaulding's return has clearly energized the show, and Otalia (the budding lesbian romance) has genuinely touched hearts. Are these stories a case of "too little, too late"? Not in my mind. Hell No! Instead, they are a remarkable gift to the fans: GL has a chance of going out on a high note! What a wonderful thing!

My wish, for the fans of GL, is that we get an ER-style send off. Someone, tipping the hat to the cultural institution GL was and all the money that it once made, should let the stories return to the veterans, bring back all the loved ones from the past (like ER) for a final goodbye. If we are left with the sense that Springfield will keep on going, and only that our (the viewers') sojourn through the fields has passed, that can be quite satisfying. Because then the show can live on in our imaginations. (That is why P&G/Telenext should move no GL characters to ATWT!! Let GL pass with dignity!)

There is something to be said for letting this dear old girl go out with smiles and fanfare and happiness and "thanks for the memories".

One of my favorite songs is "From Where I Stand" by Amanda McBroom. How about, as we say farewell to one of the last of Irna Phillips' grand shows, we honor the spirit of these words?

From where I stand
I see the bridges burning
From where I stand
Our love is goin' down

So close your eyes,
it isn't worth the cryin'
The sun will rise
and dry your tears away
And no, there's no hard feelings
I wish you all the best
Just leave behind your memory,
the devil take the rest.
And I watch you turn and walk away
I find there's nothin' left to say
I can't go back to yesterday
I'll never find the way.
From where I stand.

1 comment:

bl said...

The elderly woman who died on ER was 72. Considering GL's cancellation, that was very ironic. The ER finale was really good, and hope GL takes the time over several episodes to say goodbye like ER did.