Sadly, Guiding Light is Operating at Diminished Capacity

Mes chers, today Marlena would like you to meet Patrick Erwin, a newspaper reporter and thinking soap fan who will be posting his reviews here once a week.  Patrick is particularly interested in the Procter and Gamble shows.  First up, his look at Guiding Light, a show we have all loved at one time or another.  How and why has the oldest show in daytime become a shadow of itself?________________________________________________________________                 

By Patrick Erwin 

Being a viewer of Guiding Light has been an exercise in frustration and patience for many of its longtime fans.  The show may be 70 years old, but after several facelifts, it’s nearly unrecognizable.

When I started watching GL in the 1980s, the show was one of the most compelling hours of television, with talented actors portraying multifaceted, multilayered storylines.  Peter Simon‘s Ed Bauer was an exquisite portrait of a basically decent man, hounded by weakness and bad decisions.  Maureen Garrett‘s Holly was a captivating ball of contradictions – a woman with a stellar intellect overruled by her hate/love relationship with the mercurial Roger Thorpe, played to perfection by the late Michael Zaslow.  GL was a smart show, for smart people, written by artists with great intellect (Douglas Marland) and
intense emotional range (Pam Long).

Those complicated, eminently watchable characters were once a GL mainstay, but the show has shed much of its skin in the last decade.  This troubling trend began with the gimmick-laden writing regime of Megan McTavish in 1995, and continued through several more head writer changes.  Executive producer Paul Rauch was able to steady GL to a degree, but the show continued to suffer under writing teams that were either at odds with Rauch’s production style, or too gimmicky and ratings-hungry (hello, clone storyline!) to care about history.

With the regime of Ellen Wheeler (executive producer) and David Kreizman (head writer), the show’s mantra seems to be “simplify, simplify, simplify.”   More to the point? The show was dumbed down.  Decades upon decades of important (if complex) history and characters the audience cared about were either completely jettisoned (Holly, Ross, Phillip) or severely sidelined (Blake).  For years, longtime viewers have been encouraging “the powers that be” at GL to respect its history and go back to what worked for the show before. But lately, I’m beginning to think we should have been WAY more specific.  The current GL is featuring a number of plot-heavy stories that seem to be made up of recycled material – almost brushstroke-for-brushstroke copies of earlier work.

Take, for example, the Josh/Cassie storyline.  If you feel a sense of déjà vu here, you’re not alone.  GL has a bad habit of repeating this story every time Josh Lewis is paired with someone other than Reva.  The romantic pairing of Josh and Cassie hasn’t really clicked, and now GL seems to be edging toward repeating another past triumph by edging former princess and current Pollyanna Cassie into bad-girl territory.  (She’s asking Edmund for help, and it’s not to move furniture or touch up her highlights!)  GL obviously hopes that Nicole Forester‘s Cassie will evoke the memory of Cynthia Watros and her Emmy Award-winning turn as nurse-turned-nutbag Annie Dutton.

Speaking of nutbags, we’ve also seen some déjà vu with the most recent storyline for Dinah Marler.  I shuddered at seeing Dinah chase, and then bed, her mother’s estranged husband, Matt Reardon. This pairing makes no sense, but the writers at GL (going as far back as Megan McTavish in 1995!) just love this idea.  No, I was never a big fan of the snoozy “Mattessa” pairing, but it seems like a huge slap in the face to have this happen. Dinah may be a couple dozen different kinds of crazy, but it seems unlikely she’d be so cruel to Vanessa. It’s another unoriginal storyline, and one that’s a real shame, since Gina Tognoni‘s Dinah seemed to show real growth and substance in the last year.

Having Dinah kidnap sister Maureen underscores another storyline rut at GL: the sloppy and simplistic portrayal of its women characters.  Aside from Kim Zimmer‘s Reva, nearly every actress over 40 has been portrayed as a controlling bitch or maniacal crone.  Beth became a shrewish harpy well before her head-scratching marriage to Alan.  When storyline ideas dried up for Holly, she was designated the Nursery Rhyme Stalker, a resolution so silly it literally felt as if Maureen Garrett’s name was drawn from a hat. Perhaps the worst case of this is the way the character of Alexandra Spaulding has been written. During the character’s heyday, Alex was a masterful villainess whose intense nature masked her love for her family and her vulnerability.  But the character was decimated by gimmick-laden writing that had her stalking Reva (don’t ask) and becoming a major drug dealer (ditto).  Aside from Reva and Harley, the female characters on the show are apparently only allowed to be vapid idiots or demonic tramps.  It’s a shame, because there are so many points in between we’d love to see.

Then there’s Rafe and Daisy, for example.  Rafe is an obvious stand-in for Gus, while Daisy is meant to evoke Harley.  Their romance, played out in juvenile hall, seemed to be meant to evoke Jonathan and Tammy, the only truly successful young love storyline GL has had in years.  GL may have been bold to let Daisy have an abortion, but the teen pregnancy story is one they had already told before – with Harley, Daisy’s mom, and Bridget, Daisy’s former stepmother.  (Not to mention Daisy’s confidant, grandma Reva, who had her own baby as a teen – Daisy’s father Dylan.)  Throw in the fact that Rafe’s mother Natalia had also bore Rafe out of wedlock, and you wonder if, somehow, the news about birth control has completely missed Springfield.

It’s not like GL isn’t capable of doing better.  Whether you love or hate some of the recent changes, it’s got to be acknowledged that there’s certainly a lot of creativity going on at GL.  Characters like Doris and Ashlee hearken back to the days of characters like India — colorful, multi-faceted people we root for (even when they’re up to no good).  The pairing of Reva and Jeffrey has not only sent off some surprising sparks, but has given Kim Zimmer her strongest love interest in years and may actually have achieved the miracle of making unlikable lout Jeffrey O’Neill more tolerable.  I may hate what’s happened to Alexandra in the last few years, but her recent scenes with Cyrus sparkled. It’s clear these two have each other’s number, and Marj Dusay‘s Alex clearly relishes the mental chess game these two have had.  Cyrus and Alex, as well as Lizzie and Billy, have also made great use of something nearly all the other soaps have ignored – the idea of multigenerational storytelling.

The grand old “Light” may have reached the big 7-0 this year, but right now, watching the show makes me feel like I’m watching an elderly woman who’s suffering from dementia and is tarted up like a teenager.  I have a lot of love for this show, and would love to see it come back to life, but right now, Guiding Light is operating at diminished capacity.

Comments

  1. Greg says:

    Patrick….I’ve always enjoyed your responses to Marlena’s former column under the Jack Meyers website, and was eagerly anticipating reading this article once I saw it on this one. I couldn’t agree with you more on every single one of the words you have written on this page. I sincerely hope that somewhere, Ellen Wheeler and DK get a chance to look at what you have written and take it to heart. Although it appears that fan input is not what this regime is interested in.

    Everyday when I watch my beloved GL, I get the feeling that EW/DK are doing exactly what they want to do and to hell with everyone else. Their pairing of Josh and Cassie will go down as one of the worst soap couples to ever be presented in Springfield. I have loved GL since Roger raped his wife Holly (now I’m showing my age). That single story got me hooked and it breaks my heart to see the state of the show today. Again, thank you for a very intelligently written article. Greg

  2. Kate Cahoon says:

    I agree with you, Patrick on just about in your assessment of “GL.” One little paragraph stands out for me in that you approve of the pairing of Reva and Jeffrey. Many viewers do and have written and written…..and written to EW that this couple could soar….given the chance! The “lout” Jeffrey, as played by Bradley Cole, has been a favorite of mine since he left Richard and returned as Jeffrey. J. has life and spunk and it’s beyond me why the writers haven’t given this actor more in the storyline department! Then, they go out and hire more kids to come in and frankly, waste my time…..and the network’s! As the ancient old saying goes, “Who buys P&G products? Adults with money or kids going to school?”

    Good to see you again Marlena……I haven’t (seen your comments) since Scorpio left GH!!!!

  3. Chelsea says:

    Thank you for wonderful article. Unfortunately, I feel that TPTB will not listening since fans have been complaining for some time and yet there have no changes. With the new implementation of digital cameras next year on the show, I don’t see the show improving or returning to its glory in 1980′s and 90′s.

  4. Shirley Cain says:

    Kate, I see the situation as you do. Why is P&G so interested in the teens? Most kids have their own programs they like. How many school kids buy P&G products? Use the teens as part of the families but stop making the little ones older. The older fans who have watched for years are the people who are buying the products and we are the people they ignore.

    Poor Bradley Cole has been on for four years and still has had no story which has him in the foreground. He and Reva are great and we should see more of them. If GL is to prosper they are going to need new writers and a better Producer who can tell by low ratings it means the stories are just not stories most people can watch. Stop the incest and one nighters and give us good couples and families we like. Also give us more living areas which are not part of a hotel.

    I do like the new scenery outside and many good stories can be made using this if we have writers who can think on their own and not copy what has been written many times. With the snow in winter they can go sledding, Go iceskating and use the park as good places for filming. So much can be done.

    I want to see the show come back with good stories and high ratings but we need writers who have great writing skills which we don’t seem to have at this time.

    Shirley

  5. Pam says:

    Patrick, I have to agree with everything you said. I have watched GL for more than 30 years and can’t stand what it has become in the last 5 years. I used to say I’d never let the light go out until it went out on me, but sadly, I have to say the light went out and I quit watching a few months ago because I can’t stomach it anymore. The characters and the show itself have become so cartoonish it hurts to watch. Until the present regime is replaced, the light will stay out for me.

  6. James says:

    Well said. BRAVO!! Now if only the GL TPTB would read it and listen.

    As a GL viewer since 1982, I find the show mostly unwatchable these days. I quite taping it regularly 2 year ago — killing off Phillip was such a collasal mistake that tore the tentpole out of the show., I still occassionally tune in with hopes that it has improved. Alas, little holds my interest.

    And its so painful to watch now, given the el cheapo sets they’re using. Ahh for the glory days of the wonderful country club set, the Beacon Hotel lobby with its wonderufl staircase, the grand Spaulding lving room, or even just the Bauer lving room. Instead we’re left with a hospital set made up of tiki-tacky and lime green, an interchangable Beacon hotel room set and the ubiquitous Main Street set that can host weddings, funerals, cookoffs, car wrecks and Bauer barbeques. Oh how the mightly have fallen!!

    And its not just the sets, the show just looks cheap. Are they using an old lens that’s yellowed with age on the cameras? Everything just looks dull and washed out.. And save for that lime green in the hospital set, the color palate on the show seems to range from brown to gray with a little bit of beige thrown in for excitement.

    There are a few bright spots on the show. Daniel Cosgrove’s return has truly given the show a burst of energy. And pairing Jeffrey with Reva has accomplished the seemingly impossible by making me actually enjoy Bradley Cole for the first time in the 8 years that he’s been taking screen time away from characters I care about..

    But those improvements still haven’t been enough to convincce me to reprogram GL back into my Tivo permanently.

    Perhaps doing remotes outside will help. We’ll see what 2008 holds. Hopefully the lighthouse will get brighter rather than dimmer. But TPTB have got to make some changes or I fear GL won’t be around to see 2009.

  7. Sylvia says:

    I could not agree more with all you say. I have watched GL since it was on in black and white for 15 minutes. The only reason I still watch is in hopes that if we watch the show will continue and possibly return to it’s glory. I feel an obligation to the show sort of like going to see the old auntie in the nursing home every week. It’s not fun, but it’s my duty.

    I have a problem with the fact that no one EVER seems to get their just desserts for their wicked deeds – they just keep on going. Josh as a minister is beyond absurd.

    I am enjoying Reva and Jeffrey and loving having Edmund back but my guess is that Edmund will die and Olivia will get his heart and become evil. The show has become too predictable and there are no surprises.

    Most of all I miss Holly and Ross. There are no mature (not old, mature) characters on the whole show. They started a good thing with Buzz and Lillian but seemed to have just dropped it. Alan is a comic book character. Gus, who started out as a ball of fire, has become a total wimp. Good guys become evil and bad guys become saints.

    I’m looking forward to the new format and hoping it will be less depressing than those tired, ridiculous sets they are using now. I spend a lot of time watching the Beacon bedroom sets comparing one to another like the old kid’s game “What is different about these two pictures?”

  8. Allison says:

    One thing that has stood out for me lately, is that the most recent regimes of writers know NOTHING about big business, or even just business in general. So many of the most intelligent, compelling stories of the past were written around WSPR, Spaulding Enterprises, Lewis Oil/Construction, Cedars Hospital… now these are nothing but backdrops for silly & outrageous plotlines. I’ve worked in “business” (at a desk with a computer and phone) for the last 30 years, as long as I’ve watched GL – and knowing the “business” side of people is just as important to me as knowing their personal lives. Now it seems that no one has a job anymore! They all just wander around at Main Street or Company… Completely vapid, IMO. And WHY in the world does everyone live at the Beacon??? ;-)

    Okay, my rant’s over…

  9. BL says:

    Congrats on the new column Patrick.

    First off, I agree with you that GL was a smart show written for smart people. It was immensely watchable even if you didn’t know the history. The performances were brimming with subtext that gave clues to who the characters were and why they behaved in a certain manner. As a teen, I feel in love with the kind of characters that GL eliminated. I doubt that I would have become a viewer because its appeal was how it was so different than what else was on the air at the time.

    GL seldom portrayed shock and awe which came out of nowhere instead building upon what was seen on the screen. While this is satisfying to the regular viewer, well to the new audience they were trying to court this just would not do. So they jettisoned parts of GL’s identity to fit this aim. Certain characters just are less marketable (ie less flashy), but that doesn’t mean they are less loved by the audience. If you ignore people though long enough, their fans may hush or move on due to losing the battle.

    I do have one area that I disagree with you Patrick. In the past, GL fans tried to be specific in their complaints. Back in the Rauch era, when the SC and mob stories came to the forefront, he had to answer questions as to why outside of Josh and Reva that all the other veteran performers barely had any work. Ironically, that situation was a harbinger of the future as just about every character from before their introduction has been ignored or shafted. This isn’t to say others haven’t been severely damaged.

    Today even if viewers complain about the lack of their favorite long term performers, we get slammed and given excuses. When people are specific, it is almost as if the show hears the complaint and does the opposite. So unless you’re on the wavelength of TPTB, you’re out of luck.

    When it comes to recycled material, sometimes I feel like we’re watching the greatest hits of Phillip, Holly, Blake and Ross (among other classic characters) retold with half the writing skill. For example, Lizzie getting pregnant with Jonathan’s baby and then wanting to marry him = Mindy getting pregnant with Phillip’s baby and wanting to marry him though she miscarried. On screen, Blake likened Josh/Cassie getting involved to her early romantic relationship with Ross and how Reva was like Holly who had given up her claim. Of course, now it almost feels like Cassie equals Annie with the whole lying about a paternity test along with what you mentioned Patrick. Rick and Beth 2007 is a play on Rick/Beth marrying when she was pregnant with Lizzie and Rick acting like daddy to Phillip’s child to protect her.

    Re-exploring the Dinah/Matt connection in regards to Vanessa could have been good except it was an under written farce. The angst wasn’t there, and it seemed that traumatic brain injury and a short dalliance with Matt was just an excuse to break up Mallet and Dinah’s marriage. When Matt and Vanessa decided to get back together, we saw nothing. Instead we had Dinah upon seeing Matt’s wedding band how he went back to her get upset and call him a traitor. The biggest slap in the face wasn’t the idea of Matt being unfaithful to Vanessa, but that barely any of it played out on screen. Why should we care that Matt and Vanessa are having problems, why should we care that Dinah wants to hurt Vanessa due to her mom firing her? I don’t know, because we didn’t see it. I don’t blame the actors on this one, but the writers and decision makers who put little thought into how to portray this situation. If they weren’t willing to take the time to show the story or else they couldn’t pay the actors, Dinah and Mallet’s should have broken up in another way. It was pointless (outside paying and seeing Maeve Kinkead and Kurt McKinney for some episodes) as since Matt/Vanessa have reconciled we’ve barely heard anything about them.

    With Rafe and Daisy and the teenage pregnancy, I think how just about every female character on the canvas today in a contract role is either a child of a teen mother or was a teen mother herself. It is kind of ludicrous. Educated characters just don’t seem the norm anymore, or they are devalued. Certain situations like what happened to Alex, I do my best to ignore. There are scenes nearly every week that are good, but the follow through is lacking.

    BL

  10. Blake says:

    Great article Patrick! There are some things I like on GL: the return of Edmund and Bill, Reva and Jeffrey and seeing old favorites get more airtime (Beth, Blake, Alexandra, Rick).
    But I agree wih BL that there is no follow through. Matt and Vanessa are a perfect example!

    And characters are doing things they would never do and there are scenes on the show that never should have happened! Lizzie and Remy having sex on the floor in the men’s bathroom? Sick! Beth kidnapped Gus and Alan? Yeah, she was able to carry those two big guys, and again, no follow through! Harley going after her niece’s lover? Cassie and Josh hooking up while Reva is fighting cancer? Blake trying to poison Jeffrey?

    I hope we Guiding Light fans get our Chirstmas wish, with new, decent executive producer, headwriter and writers.

  11. lynn says:

    I turned the Light off this week. Which isn’t to say that I won’t ever turn it on again; of course that assumes that TPTP don’t turn it off permanently first.

    I, too, have been watching since the 15-minute days, when I caught a few minutes before heading back to school at 12:55 (back in the Ice Age when school children came home for lunch). I’d hadn’t watched on a regular basis for several year, but a while back a couple of things caught my eye (for what it’s worth, it wasn’t anything, and I do mean anything, I saw on any CBS promo). Somewhere in the soap media, Tina Sloane (Lillian) mentioned that she and Buzz were getting together. I had interviewed Tina a couple of times back when I was writing about how nurses were portrayed in the media, so that was appealing. Then I came across some discussion on the Serial Drama blog that convinced me to take a look.

    Of note: I started recording right before Daisy’s abortion (how many weeks ago was that?) and the first time I saw Lillian was last week. That said, I was actually pretty impressed with the abortion storyline. They touched all the right notes and made sure all the right characters were involved in the admittedly too short aftermath, even if their involvement had a check-list quality to it: Harley, check; Rafe, check; Reva, check; Natalia, Buzz, Dylan – check, check and check. But a couple of weeks later, there was a scene between Daisy and Rafe that for me justified the whole story. Daisy was telling Rafe that she had the abortion for him, and even though you knew he’d never admit it to himself, much less to her, you could see the relief just flooding over this kid’s face.

    What finally pushed me to turn off the Light was a minister participating in murder on his ordination day. I am not a particularly religious person, and I don’t take offense easily, but Robert Newman has been quite public in his faith, and this storyline must breaking his heart. It would be one thing if the story were being played as parody or camp, but it’s not. And not a peep from all the religious people who flooded CBS with protests after Luke and Noah kissed on ATWT (the only storyline that keeps me jettisoning ATWT as well). Have to say, I will miss the conflicted Doris, and truth-teller Ashlee; she and Coop are adorable together – I hope it works out for them.

    Marlena says: I staunchly agree with you about the blasphemy that was the Ordination Day Murder. Most people don’t realize that Irna Phillips originally meant “The Guiding Light” to be God, not Reva Shayne nor doing tasteless stunts in the need for better ratings.

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