An elegy for Springfield

The "Light" is about to be dimmed forever.

The "Light" is about to be dimmed forever.

I guess this is the fifth stage of death: acceptance.

This is an elegy I never wanted to write, for an old friend who’s slipping away as we speak.

Guiding Light, a story that outlasted Sheherazade’s 1001 Nights, a world war, twelve presidents, and the entire rise (and fall) of the radio and television industry, will cease to exist on our screens in a few weeks. The last scenes have been filmed. Except for a trickle of post-production work, GL no longer exists.

Much of what I’ll post in the next several weeks will be nostalgic remembrances about favorite actors, favorite storylines and favorite moments. But I wanted to take some time to talk about the last several years of GL.

To paraphrase Talking Heads: “And you may ask yourself… did we get here?”  In talking about the end, we need to go back to the beginning.

When I started to watch GL in the early 80s, I was hooked because it was the smart show. Granted, soaps are escapist and fun and “smart” is a relative term. But it WAS a smart show. Stupid choices were made and dramatic repercussions followed, but in general, the characters were intelligent, engaging, and had a point of view. They fantasized about classic films, quoted from literature and lived enviable lives. The stories flowed from who they were.

There were a few bumpy patches in the 80s, but through several head writer teams (the wonderful Marland years, Pat Falken Smith, Pam Long’s two tenures as head writer) that intelligence was a throughline for the characters and the stories.

Many of us remember the most recent “golden years” of GL, when Nancy Curlee and Stephen Demorest wrote the show in the early 90s. It was a smart, grownup show with characters of all ages entertaining us. Mature characters like Ed Bauer, Holly Norris and Roger Thorpe were squarely on the front burner.

And here’s what you really need to focus on and remember: In 1993, when GL was at its strongest creatively, CBS pulled its support of that classy, intelligent show. They pushed for changes to the show, changes that would make GL more attractive to younger audiences. And they withdrew their support when several of the CBS owned & operated stations switched GL’s timeslot to an unfavorable morning slot.

This directive had already been coming down from CBS for a few months. It undoubtedly was the catalyst behind killing the character of Maureen Bauer. It was the last time that GL was really on solid footing. And it was the last time CBS gave GL the support that it deserved. Compare 1993 to 1994, when the show became almost unwatchable (with only the Vanessa/Matt story gaining any interest). 

Another World, another long-running P&G soap, ended in 1999 after 35 years. But it had been starved of stability for many years before its demise. It was undoubtedly at its finest during the Rauch/Lemay years, and it had several years of solid story in the early 80s, when the Love family and Carl Hutchins ruled the canvas, and during the Donna Swajeski years.

But after those periods, it was painful to watch AW. It went through a revolving door of head writers and executive producers. Every time a new producer or writer would come onboard, characters would come and go, actors would come and go. There were a few stable characters (Rachel, Cass and Felicia) but you could watch AW and not recognize it a few months later.

After a while, that instability just killed AW. It wasn’t one producer, one writer or one story that did AW in. There was no single “show killer.” But every time those changes came, a few thousand viewers stopped watching.

To a degree, the same happened with GL. When CBS changed its support of GL from solid support to conditional support back in ’93, that’s when the changes started coming. Frequent writer changes, even during the years that Paul Rauch was EP.

And the show’s narrative was radically changed. GL was so schizophrenic for so many years, with stories that didn’t complement each other. You’d have a few minutes of Classic GL with a character like Phillip or Harley or Reva….and then the next scene was about the Mob. There was no cohesiveness.

One of the biggest losses of stability came in 2005 when budget cuts forced GL to cut several veterans from the cast. And though the Jonathan and Tammy story was engaging and attracted a lot of new viewers in the “right” demographic, it made many long-term viewers throw up their hands in retreat. And when those characters left Springfield, so did the new focus of the show.

Again, I don’t think any one person, one writer or one producer was responsible for this loss of stability. What many people don’t realize is that CBS talked about canceling Guiding Light as early as 1995. That’s FOURTEEN YEARS of a corporate parent who put GL in hospice care and then looked at the clock and waited, if not willed, GL to die.

It’s easy to demonize and point fingers. But it’s hard for me to shift blame solely to, say, Barbara Bloom when reports have surfaced that she fought hard to keep GL on the air as long as she could.

I’ve said before in this space that I respect what Ellen Wheeler managed to accomplish with little support and an even smaller budget. As a fan of Eastenders (which is set on a permanent set and includes outdoor scenes) I said at the time that the new production model launched that I “got it” – I got what she was going for, and liked the idea. The execution of the idea was shaky at first (and some sets remain unpalatable to the eye), but the outdoor sets have been really appropriate this summer.

Clearly, however, the radical change in sets and surroundings was like an organ transplant – too much change for the audience to accept. Like the flood in Henderson that was the last stand for Search for Tomorrow, the new Springfield failed to catch on with the audience.

In my opinion, the weakest link for GL over the last several years has been the plot-driven writing. I’m not a fan of David Kreizman’s work. That’s the biggest question I have for Ellen Wheeler: Why did David stay HW as long as he did? (Answer: supposedly, someone higher up at CBS insisted on it.) I think Kreizman’s writing certainly made the show weaker, and that is something that Wheeler ultimately has to own – and answer why it happened on her watch.

The last several months have shown a return (too late, unfortunately) to more classic storytelling and classic characters. Grant Aleksander’s return as Phillip, and Phillip’s effect on the Spauldings, has been the most powerful and consistent story on GL for the last few months.

But this leads to my other question: We were hearing about Grant’s return, and Jill Lorie Hurst’s ascension to the head-writing team, as early as last fall. Why the hell didn’t this material (and the great Hurst-penned Otalia material) not kick in until January and February? I can’t help but think that with a few more months, and a bit more traction, April Fools would not have happened.  (Again, reports seem to suggest CBS has veto power over stories, and apparently the Phillip return and Coop’s death was the end result of months of back and forth – ergo the delay.)

The excellent Mimi Torchin interview with Maureen Garrett (which ran recently in Nelson Branco’s Soapgeist column)  underscored how severe the changes were to the show from where it had been before. Production had been stripped down to a bare minimum. So had most of the scripts.  And we’re seeing the same changes at ATWT.

We’re seeing the same changes everywhere, really. And though the actors and producers and writers work really, REALLY hard to minimize changes on our screen, they do affect what we see. Because the biggest effect is on the sense of community and connectivity that these shows have.

And perhaps that’s why I’m having a Zen moment now as GL comes to a close. There may be stories I still scratch my head at. Of all the story choices for Otalia…..they chose to make Natalia pregnant? And there was three days of mourning for Jeffrey O’Neill – a character that’s been around for all of six years and isn’t even dead – when Ross Marler, a character who was part of GL for 26 years, got 26 minutes a few years ago?

But I’m mostly happy about what’s happening. I am very happy, ultimately, that GL lived for an extra year or two, long enough for the story narrative to come back to where it is now (and away from Grady and nuCassie). I’m happy that many of the people I’m seeing on screen are acting…..well, like I expect them to.

And in so many scenes, I see community and connectivity. Love may save the world, but it’s a connected community of characters who create another world – or thousands of other worlds – that will keep us reading, watching and listening. Let other shows learn that lesson before all of these visual storybooks disappear like the Light.

8 thoughts on “An elegy for Springfield

  1. As a Guiding Light viewer since May 1977, I have but one word for your elegy: BEAUTIFUL. Thank you, Patrick. Long may the Light burn in our memories.

  2. Thank you Patrick, that really was an insightful read. As a UK viewer I didn’t really see GL during its ‘glory’ days, but I have to say that to me the show is pretty fantastic at the moment. The acting and writing are top notch, and I think that saddens me even more about the end. We had AW for a while back in the ’90’s, and I admit that to me the show was ready to go, but I just don’t see that with Guiding Light. I am truly surprised that P&G weren’t able to find it a new home, and when I read articles saying how bad the production model is, and how these last episodes are unwatchable, I honestly feel that they are not watching the same show as me. I want to echo what SOAPSNOB said – ‘Long may the Light burn in our memories.’ I will never forget.

  3. As a viewer — consistent and never, ever leaving — of GL since the mid-70s, I can certainly appreciate all your thoughts here.

    We had a couple of rough patches in the 80s and 90s, but NEVER did I doubt the likelihood of GL continuing. That is until the most recent years (say last 5?) when: 1) the budget was slashed repeatedly; 2) CBS kept “leaking” that GL was on the chopping block; 3) CBS execs decided to get involved in dictating where the stories would go and even what stories should be written; and 4) CBS officially let it be known (see the above 3 items!) that they really were no longer invested AT ALL in the continuation of GL, much less it’s growth and return to the grand stature of before.

    I hate what has happened. I know the “word” out there is that Soaps are a dying genre. Fine, I get it has changed for any number of reasons, but seriously — when you can get 10+ million folks checking out all the soaps during the middle of the day AND you see the kind of activity online with boards, videos and replaying of episodes HOW ON EARTH can one say it is dying? It is changing!

    Mark my words – the first network/soap owner to really jump on that concept and RUN WITH IT will actually survive, thrive and may actually bring respect back to this industry.

  4. Yes, acceptance. I have reached that point, but still not happy about it. GL is the smart soap with real community connectivity. Its why i chose to return to it and left the others in wayside. The show has returned to good soap writing and perfected its model, but even if it hit its stride 6 months or a year ago it wouldn’t have changed much in ratings or profitability for CBS. I will mourn not only this show, the town of springfield and its citizens, but the genre, the format and the method of storytelling.

    as always, thank you for sharing your GL memories.

  5. Glad you are back. Great blog.

    Did you watch Dinah’s last day?

    Every day I have left with GL is a blessing. It has brought joy, and comfort over the last 25 years. I will miss it.

  6. Such a beautiful statement, Patrick! Sorry it took me a few days to read it. I remember the “rumors” beginning in 1996 with an interview Marj Dusay did with SOD. And even at that point she referred to the cancellation rumors having been in place for awhile.

    There have been many times in the past 10 years I’ve looked at GL and wondered, “Is it worth it? Do we really prioritize a show’s quantity over quality?” Of course this is an issue that comes up in society as far as value of life. It is worth it to keep something alive longer if it is suffering?

    Well the last six months of GL have proven a qualified “YES!” Because out of the ashes of budget cuts and bad florescent lighting rose a show that had power, truth, and emotional depth. Some material in 2009 IMO, has rivaled some of the best shows in the early 90’s. If only CBS cared enough to recognize this.

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