By Patrick Erwin
The other day I got so fed up, I turned off Guiding Light and swore I’d never turn it back on. That might have been an overreaction — of course I’ve been watching it so long that I’ll inevitably tune in again sometime. But in my up-and-down relationship with GL, it’s time to give it some tough love. My old friend has changed drastically over the last few years, but these days, it seems to be self-destructing.
Lest you think I’m fickle and have made the judgment lightly, let me tell you a few things. I’ve been watching GL since 1980 or so, and I’ve seen a lot of wonderful actors playing fantastic stories. Despite the clunker stories of the 80s and 90s (Ghost Reva, Amish Reva, walking through paintings, etc.) I have stayed tuned. Why? Well, Springfield was home. Characters might have changed or evolved, but there was always a core of the Springfield I knew around. And there was always something happening to these people I cared about. Therefore, I cared about the story and tuned in tomorrow.
What’s changed? The production format may have changed, but honestly, that hasn’t influenced my decision. In fact, GL really seems to be working out many of the technical bugs that made the change so jarring at first. And really, the new format may have been billed as a creative change, but the reality is that GL can now be made with 50 fewer crew members (and therefore more cheaply).
No, what’s made me throw up my hands in defeat is the story. I’m not saying that GL has horrible stories right now. I’m saying I think the writers of GL have altogether forgotten how to tell a story in a serialized manner! There is little to no reason to tune in tomorrow as a result.
I know that the days of story arcs lasting two or three years are gone, but most shows are still playing out their arcs over the time of a year or so. GL often seems as if it’s being conjured up a day at a time. I suspect this lack of commitment to story is due, in part, to the fact that a big chunk of GL‘s talented cast is on recurring status, and you can’t assume that the actors will be around down the line (we miss you, Jerry ver Dorn). But this has a really negative impact on the show. Without the ability to create a sweeping story that impacts more than just a few characters, our interest is going to suffer.
Even for the front-burner stories, the pacing seems to be completely off. GL has spent much of the last year telling the stories of Josh and Cassie, and Reva and Jeffrey. But there’s no consistency to what’s being written. Cassie the stripper is a minister’s wife! Cassie deals with demon child! Cassie sleeps with Cyrus! Individually, these stories might have been more interesting if they’d been explored at a far deeper level. Sequentially, it makes me wonder if the writers are picking plots out of a hat.
Reva and Jeffrey haven’t had an easy time of it, either. Their pairing got a big positive response, but their airtime was in dribs and drabs, and just as it seemed to be heating up again, the story took an odd U-turn when Jeffrey married Olivia. (Don’t ask.) Cyrus has been paired with so many women in Springfield, and his fling with Cassie seems especially illogical after the character of Harley was changed and compromised so significantly to make them a couple. There seems to be no timing or pacing to any of these stories, or any changes to the canvas.
GL‘s problems go far deeper than any one couple or any single story. I believe it’s the current overall approach to the show that’s really taking it off track. The show has traded much of its serialized narrative to showcase shorter, closed-ended vignettes. Those scenes individually may work — fine acting and good dialogue — and they may achieve their purpose (romantic, funny or menacing). But they don’t build momentum. And it ultimately leaves characters unconnected to each other, further weakening our interest.
Like an opera, an orchestra, or a great soul ballad, a great story builds momentum and then culminates in a powerful ending.
GL has told many powerful stories in its day. We all have our favorites, and they all have had compelling story arcs and magnificent, memorable conclusions. This was driven home for me recently as I watched the great scenes with the late Beverlee McKinsey where Alexandra confronted Roger at the country club. GL took several years to tell that story, and the Roger/Alexandra and Roger/Mindy storylines weren’t always popular. I remember being furious when Roger and Alex got married, thinking that it made Alexandra look stupid! But that story kept building momentum, and led to a fantastic denouement that impacted half of Springfield — not to mention the viewing audience, who was blown away by the power of that story.
But as the song says, what has GL does for us lately? In my opinion, the show has only had a handful of stories that really had that kind of impact since Ellen Wheeler and David Kriezman have come on board. There was the “death” of Phillip and its aftermath in 2004, the death of Ross Marler in 2005 and its aftermath. Then there was the death of Tammy in 2007 and its aftermath, and this year, the death of Gus and — say it with me — its aftermath.
And what do those stories all have in common? The death of longtime characters. And when they die, all of the momentum and power that those characters held bleeds from the canvas.
GL isn’t the only show to try this tactic to tell a compelling story or boost ratings (General Hospital has a high character mortality rate), but because GL already has a barebones cast, the show can hardly afford the losses. We’ve just learned that Beth Ehlers, who has been a part of the show for much of the last 20 years, is leaving, and with her goes Harley, a character that (until recently) was one of the few remaining characters with intelligence, strength, AND heart.
And more than that, the willingness to jettison history and heart to survive strikes me as the show lopping off a broken arm as a survival task, trying to streamline a ship to make it float. It’s heartbreaking to watch when you care about the characters, and when you know the actors deserve so much better. And WE deserve so much better, too. And we know it CAN be done better, even on a budget.
So despite what you may have heard, it’s really not the format, or the outdoor scenes. It’s not the fact that the show isn’t filled with old favorites. I may be a longtime fan, but this isn’t a case of whining that I want old favorites back, or that I want to turn back time. I know the genre has changed.
No, it’s the story. Or to paraphrase Bill Clinton: It’s the story, stupid! I’ll watch a scene with a black cloth as a backdrop and a few light bulbs overhead if the story is compelling and the actors are bringing it to life. There’s a happy balance in there where thoughtful, compelling story intersects with old and new characters and takes us on a journey. The actors are doing their part, GL – so where’s the story? When you find it, let me know. I’d like to turn the Light back on.