TV: A window to the world

Any longtime reader of my blog knows that I am not a fan of what I call “darkness.”

That’s not to say that I want the scripted TV or movies that I watch to be all light and no substance. Exploring sadness, loss and complex feelings in a person, in a family, in a community? Sign me up.

What the issue has always been, in my eyes, is when it’s the default setting of a story or a show, when it’s celebrated and embraced with little or no balance.

Several months ago, this was a post on General Hospital’s Facebook feed.

Self explanatory, no?

It should surprise no one that this show and this character are near the top of my list of dislikes.

I have no beef with the actor, nor with the initial arc of this character, one many of us expected to see play out a few villainous plots before heading off to pay for his sins.

But somewhere along the line, Sonny became a character with rooting value.

Never mind how many people he’s killed, or what nefarious things he’s done. He’s still considered the core center that this particular world revolves around.

It’s a template that worked well for GH, after all. They had the original recipe antihero, Luke Spencer.  And they’ve got a stable of handsome leading men who also have metaphorical (if fictional) blood on their hands.

Jason (whoever he may be), Valentin and Julian – all murderers in some way, at some time – are positioned as romantic leads along with Sonny. Their misdeeds are a challenge, perhaps a roadblock, for the women that love them to work through with them – together. Viva la supercouples!

It goes much deeper than that, of course. It’s also the female characters, and it’s also other shows.

If you think I’m being specific or literal about murderers, or saying that they don’t belong on soaps, you’d be wrong. Certainly soap characters have killed other characters as part of a story.

But for many years now, someone – the storytellers, the networks, the viewers, perhaps all three – seems to really be dwelling and living in the blood and gore of it all. It’s shown in a way that I think blurs lines, that feels less like entertainment and more like tragedy porn.

Sure, it’s probably a direct response to things like reality TV, to the sorrow porn of shows from the 90s like Maury, Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, hours of human beings being horrible to each other and to themselves.

It’s impossible for me not to see a connection between the tone of these stories and the ugliness we all see and hear in the world today.

I don’t know if this is a “chicken or egg” debate, whether our changing world fed into these stories or whether our fears, projecting into our reality, made things worse.

There’s an academic theory, “mean world syndrome,” that gives some credence to the idea that much of our media – TV, movis, video games – make us think the world is far more violent than it is.

I just assumed for a long time that I must be a terribly old-fashioned viewer. I probably had relatively sophisticated tastes for a teenager.

There were edgy stories, dime store novel murders and guns and bombs in the stories I watched back then. (Let’s not forget, our GL hero Phillip once blinded true love Beth with a bomb.)

But there was also Nick, the Santa Claus stand-in. There were millions of smaller, quiet moments, and a willingness to embrace a loving moment, a happy ending, a resolution.

A few months ago, the Washington Post featured an article about the Hallmark Channel.

The headline? “The Feel Good Hallmark Channel is Booming in the Age of Trump.”

I wonder if I am still the only one with the soft spot for corny sentiment, the Pollyanna who yearns for those family centered shows.

Many programmers think that there’s extremes – that it’s either a saccharine sugary schlockfest where everyone hugs and learns lessons at the end…..or that it’s body counts, coroners and bloody gangfights in a gritty setting.

Is there no space in the middle? The world around us, I think, looks far more like that middle than it does either of those extremes.

I remember reading several articles expressing surprise that NBC’s Dolly Parton movies were so successful, that a Waltonsesque historical story with no mobsters, serial killers or antiheroes/antiheroines would attract such an audience.

Some of the success, no doubt, is the legend of Dolly Parton. But it’s also a story of family, of dealing with the difficulties of life as a family. It’s a hopeful story.

And whaddya know….it’s a story written by none other than Pamela K. Long – the former Guiding Light head writer who created many characters (including that lady who wore red all the time) and who loved those small, charming, mildly corny moments. Like Nick showing up on Christmas Eve.

Like Beth showing up on Christmas Eve – a moment (at around 43:00) that still makes me tear up after all these years.

Shows up, I should add in (a) an episode written by Pamela Long that (b) is filled with those kind of sweet moments and (c) ends with the cast and their families singing a Christmas Carol which just SLAYED me completely.

(Whew, it is really dusty in here…)

I love a good Christmas miracles, but we can be miracles for each other on other days, in other scenarios, too. We can embrace the good in all of us as much as we embrace the uncertainty, the fear, the ugliness. And we can have narratives of our lives that do the same.

Yes, uncertainty and tension is the friend of any writer. But if everyone’s at the edges, who will tell those of us in the middle a story?

And more importantly: Can we edge our way back to the screen with these types of stories? If the everyday soap isn’t feasible, where can we tell these stories, and see these people on screen? There’s an audience for them, a hunger for them, that much IS clear.

Product placement: making us sick?

Remember when we got a little irked when Margo Hughes talked about touching up her hair with Nice ‘n Easy?

Or when Dinah Marler craved a package of Pringles? Remember?

We didn’t know how good we had it, kids.

General Hospital recently told a story that involved a real company doing real product placement.

And like much of what Sonny Corinthos does, it was questionable at best and perhaps misleading.

Arstechnica summarizes the nitty gritty details here. 

I found some of the comments amusing (among them, “Luke would have NEVER let this happen”) but this trend is disconcerting.

In general, it raises my anxiety that, in the Trump era, we don’t know who’s behind the messages we’re getting in media or what their goals are.

And when it comes to daytime, our shows are discounted and disregarded already. Yes, everyone has to make a profit these days. But stories should help people, not just treat them as human ATM’s, targeted only for their marketing value.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to stop by the store and score a canister of Pringles. Can’t stop at just one, you know.

Remembering Claire Labine

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I didn’t mean for this post to be so late, but this has been a truly sad and bizarre week, and it’s taken a while to get my equilibrium back.

So much has already been said about Claire Labine, who died last week at 82. She wrote small, intimate stories with memorable, one-of-a-kind characters.

I was a fan of Ryan’s Hope when I finally got a chance to watch it (the local affiliate in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, never carried it). That was near the end, but I did get to see Maeve and Johnny, Delia, Roger and some other great characters in action.

Her run at General Hospital still stands as the only time during the show’s run that I could count myself as a fan. Yes, I remained a hardcore Guiding Light fan through thick and thin. But Claire’s arrival at GH in 1993 captured my attention.

She humanized a GH that bordered on parody, and introduced characters like Lois who widened the base of the show, and yet never felt out of place.

It was interesting to see Luke, Laura and Lucky return to the canvas. I know Tony Geary has gone on record with his dislike of the 90s era L&L, but I, for one, enjoyed the different perspective on those characters.

And of course, BJ’s heart. Enough said.

In 1993 and 1994, the wheels were coming off at GL. There were a number of departures of actors, and some writing changes, and the show felt tremendously different very quickly. GH was actually a bit of a safe haven at that time – I watched characters I could still understand and recognize.

Speaking of GL, I was so happy when I heard that Claire would be writing for the show. Sadly, what should have been the ideal fit never seemed to click. Was it a bad match? Interference from the network or P&G? Paul Rauch? Claire shared a little here and here about what happened.

With the passing of Labine and Agnes Nixon, we are truly near the end of an era. It’s a cliche, I know, but one that is wholly appropriate in this case.

The characters, the stories, the way those stories made us feel, continue to sink into the ether, deeper into memory, preserved in bits and pieces on YouTube.

Bittersweet symphony

geary gh

Yesterday was Anthony Geary’s last episode (at least, for now) as General Hospital’s Luke Spencer.

I have to give the man credit for spending a majority of the last 37 years playing the same role, and for an obvious desire to practice his craft and bring Luke to life.

I have mixed feelings in general about all that the Luke-and-Laura era represented for soaps. I think my thoughts (and the thoughts of fellow soap analyst Lynn Liccardo)  have been well represented in a number of our posts.

Geary and late GH executive producer Gloria Monty went on record with their dislike of traditional soap opera. I still believe that for all of the short term wins — in ratings, in audience, in growth — for these shows, the over-reliance on action/adventure was what started the dismantling of these shows. The transition to incessant darkness, and unrepentant antiheroes, has just added weight to a sinking anchor.

GH did become a more exciting show during those Luke and Laura days, and it was certainly the era for romantic action/adventure. We saw it in film, too, a la Romancing The Stone. GH and DAYS were among the shows that hit the right notes with their audience using the format.

But it also set in motion the first wave of what I’ve come to call “the Moldavian Massacre Conundrum.” Once you’ve shot everyone in the head and blown up the institutions in your story, what’s left? Where’s the tension? Where’s the novelty? It just becomes a game of shoot-’em-up cowboys.

We’re seeing this in primetime, too (my previous post on this was about Scandal), but its emergence in daytime was on GH.

Many of the established shows, including the P&G shows, attempted to mimic the GH formula. Search For Tomorrow wasn’t even subtle about it, giving Travis Sentell a Luke Spencer perm. Guiding Light initially stayed strong with the classic soap of Douglas Marland, but soon was overcome by The Dreaming Death.

I feel like what should have been the takeaway message from GH’s Monty-era success for all the shows was missed: Hey, you can try new things, and the audience will like them!

What most writers and producers heard was: Hey, GH tried something new, and it worked, so let’s all do exactly the same thing to copy them.

Geary’s goodbye interviews have been laced with disdain. I find it curious that an actor who was given near-carte-blanche over storyline and the words coming from his character’s mouth could still be so disappointed in his experience.

Last week’s news of GH head writer Ron Carlivati’s departure was a surprise. I hope that the new HW’s will give Laura — the other half of that famous pairing — a chance to explore her life as deeply as Luke was explored on the show. Laura….you know, the character who actually has even deeper roots in Port Charles?

PC will always be a place with antiheroes, bad guys and waterfront docks. But I hope that the show finds some balance in its remaining years. It might just do so, away from the long shadow of Lucas Lorenzo Spencer.