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.

30 years of Designing Women

The women of “Designing Women.” (Internet photo) 

Okay, I know, I know – Designing Women isn’t a soap opera.

And technically, it’s been thirty ONE years since it landed on our screens in 1986. But I’m giving GetTV a pass on that one, because they’re bringing Designing Women back to our TV sets. Thirty years is a great hook – and a great Twitter hashtag too!

I’ve always loved this show, and while it changed over the years, and lost some of its charm – and a few of its finest characters – towards the end of its run, it still stands as a solid piece of work for me.

One thing I truly loved about the show is how carefully defined each character was, and how story emerged from those details. As with the best of soap opera, a well defined character meant the story would often write itself.

As with Maude and All In The Family, the more I watch them, the more timeless they feel. The wallpaper might be out of fashion, and the situation of the episode may seem quaint. But the issues that people are fighting about are the same.

Suzanne was, of course, a predecessor to Karen Walker, but one with a beating heart under all the bravado.

Mary Jo was, as Dash Goff once said, “part calico choir girl………..and part satin dance hall doll.”  

Charlene was everything you saw at the surface – a loving, generous friend, with a quirky stream of consciousness emerging from her brain 24/7.

And Julia was, in every sense, a grand lady – a combination of beauty and brains, with high standards – and no problem letting the people who didn’t meet those standards know about those failures!

Designing Women had Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry at the helm, with Linda writing all the episodes during the first few seasons. The consistency in the writing showed in the quality.

I always sort of felt there was a kinship between DW in that era and Guiding Light, which had Pam Long, another writer with roots in the South who wrote about Southern characters, and understood the balancing act – and the conflicts – between old worlds and new ones, always a fertile ground for soaps to cover.

It was no surprise that GL’s Kim Zimmer made a memorable appearance on DW as Mavis, Charlene’s cousin, in a 1989 episode, shortly before Zimmer left GL. It seemed almost tailor-made for Zimmer’s talents.

The way they were….. (Internet photo)

I loved Julia’s epic reads, though I know some people found them a bit wearisome. But I truly loved how she could, as the old Irish saying goes, tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they’d look forward to the journey.

Fans – myself included – remember some of the more iconic scenes – the “night the lights went out in Georgia” speech, an AIDS episode – based largely on Thomason’s own mother struggling with AIDS – as well as Charlene’s WWII fantasy and wedding, and the arrival of Charlene’s baby.

But one of the most moving ones, for me, was an episode called “How Great Thou Art.”

Charlene feels a call to the ministry, and approaches her very conservative church leadership about this call. (You’ll recognize Patrick Tovatt, Cal from As The World Turns, as the minister.)

Meanwhile, Julia is asked to sing at her church, and fears performing the song How Great Thou Art because of her worries about hitting the high note.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s a very moving one. Much of the power of it comes from the characters (and of course the performers).  The Designing Women Online website, a wonderful resource for any fan, has a wonderful writeup about this episode. 

Their words say it splendidly – that the show “created and told an emotionally explosive story with no gimmicks or dramatic scenes — simply two women struggling with their faith.” 

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna for thinking there’s an enormous amount of drama in these true-to-life situations, drama that need not involve a chimera (whatever the hell THAT is), or a virus that makes you hit people on the side of the head with a giant rock.

This is high stakes for the characters involved, and for at least one of them, it doesn’t end with a happy ending. That doesn’t make the drama any less meaningful or involving.

And it also makes me wonder why faith was always generic and rare on soaps. It was seldom used, trotted out only at holidays and for weddings, funerals and deathbed prayers.  (There’s probably a whole separate post coming on that one.)

I’ll be checking out the GetTV episodes – even if I do have all the DVD’s already. GetTV, by the way, has a really great library – I’ve especially enjoyed some of the 60s and 70s talk shows they’ve got in their library.

Check out the GetTV site to see where it plays near you.

ALSO: Check out this blog post about the return of DW by writer Will McKinley. He’s an expert on classic movies and classic stars. He’s also quite knowledgable about soap operas, too. You can follow him on Twitter here.

A Daytime Mystery: Guess That Day Player

Here’s a fun question for my TENS of readers, especially my old P&G friends.

As one does, I was clicking around on We Love Soaps. This often leads to a rabbit hole, so to speak – one click takes me to another link, and so on.

In this case, one of the site’s features, Today in Soap Opera History, had a GL clip from 1984. Once that played in YouTube, I clicked on other clips that had been uploaded where the air dates were just a few days ahead.

Which brings me to this clip.

There’s a day player who shows up at around 6:10 and appears through the episode. The waitress with the red hair.

That voice….it’s familiar. The face is familiar.

Could it be recent Tony winner Cynthia Nixon?

I’m kinda convinced that it is. I asked a few folks, including We Love Soaps’ Roger Newcomb, what they thought.

But no one is sure. The credits that roll on the following day’s episode don’t mention the character or list Nixon’s name.

GL is not listed on Nixon’s IMDB page.

She was in New York at the time this would have been filmed. 1984 was the year Nixon was in two plays at the same time – Hurlyburly and The Real Thing. So that puts our, uh, suspect at, shall we say, the scene of the crime.

So daytime mystery lovers, here’s a mystery to solve! Let me know if you find any leads or have any theories or clues.

Let’s just make sure this mystery is shorter than that Carolyn Crawford one in Oakdale, amirite?

 

 

Yet Again, STILL The Worst April Fools Joke Ever

I do love to repeat myself.

It’s now been eight years since Guiding Light’s ‘cancelversary.’

Here’s what I said last year.

I had the briefest of hopes this year, with The Talk’s celebration of GL and ATWT as part of the 30 Years of CBS Daytime event, that a reboot – even the tiniest of reunions – might happen, but so far, no dice.

I still hold a flicker of hope that the story will resume someday.

Call it a flicker in the window….a light, if you will.

The joy of the season

I haven’t had a chance to watch Sense8 on Netflix yet, but someone posted a trailer to the show’s Season 2 premiere, which in Sense8’s case, will be a Christmas special. (Thank you, Lana Nieves, for sharing.)

I’m not familiar with the Wachowskis’ work – I know they did The Matrix movies and several other films and shows.

But I was struck by what Lana Wachowski says in the first few seconds of this video. She talks about “the intersection of my life with these fictional characters.” I love her explanation of stories with a viewer’s life, just as a fictional book can sometimes intersect and resonate in a reader’s life.

Lana lists a few TV shows with holiday specials that she remembers – and lo and behold, All My Children is on that list.

I loved what she said here. The holidays are special, and it was perhaps one of the times I loved most about any of the shows I watched.

As Lana Wachowski says in the video, the holidays can deliver a sense of togetherness for some, and underscore isolation for others.

And while the holidays are “special episodes,” they can be great ways to take the temperature of where all the characters are in any story.

Another World and As The World Turns certainly had memorable holiday shows – ATWT started at Thanksgiving with the Hubbard Squash, of course!

But I have to admit, I have the softest spot for Guiding Light and its holiday shows. Especially during the Pam Long years, where the story had a lot of unabashed heart (and, let’s be real, a bit of welcome cheese, too).

I mean, Saint Nick was a character. HELLO!

In 1988, Holly had just returned to town, and Phillip was trying to help Harley with Alan-Michael.

(The Phillip/Harley scenes were among several from that year where many of us saw chemistry between the characters and actors, a decade or so before they were actually paired.)

And then there’s the episode from the following year. Pay close attention to the end of the episode (from around 53:30).

Times change, styles change, and people change, and that’s undeniable. It’s been a rough year, and an angry one.

I wish we were telling more stories that didn’t turn to violence or ugliness as a default setting. I wish we had more stories with vulnerability and heart. Even if it’s a little cheesy.

At the holidays, we could all use a little cheese, and a lot of warmth.

Happy holidays, everyone!

POSTSCRIPT: For more holiday clips, check out this blog post from Alina Adams. Adams was a part of the P&G team for years, and wrote the Oakdale Confidential book, as well as several other P&G show-related titles.

Remembering Claire Labine

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-9-48-10-am

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.

Agnes Nixon: In tragedy and triumph

We learned Wednesday that Agnes Nixon died.

There’s not much I can tell you here that hasn’t been better said elsewhere. The New York Times published an excellent obituary.  Daytime Confidential and We Love Soaps have also paid tribute to Nixon. Many millions were impacted by the stories Nixon told, by the characters she created.

I had two thoughts when I heard about Agnes.

One was to really think about, and deeply appreciate, what she accomplished as a writer, as an artist. She rose from challenging beginnings and family tragedy and strife to become a successful working woman in the 1950s and 1960s, when such a thing was not common. Nixon was not just successful, but completely rocking it at a level that was unheard of at that time.

Even setting all the characters and creative achievements aside, she had few equals in ANY part of television. You had Lucille Ball, who owned Desilu for a time, and then you had people like Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon. They may not have owned their shows per se, but their services, their creative abilities, became a company and an empire.

Agnes Nixon and her work became so popular because, like the best writers, she wrote what she knew. You can look at an uber-modern 2016 show like “Transparent,” with its core family, the dreams and hopes and disappointments of those people, created and written by someone spilling much of their own life onto that canvas, and you can see the DNA of a writer like Agnes Nixon in those strands. Erica Kane was long rumored to be based on Agnes herself.

Agnes got the balance right, the magic alchemy that gets people involved in a story. So many of her characters – Phoebe, Myrtle and Opal come to mind – were people we all knew, and also, at the same time, people who were just a little bit bigger, broader and brighter than our neighbors and friends.

The other thought, of course, is that it truly is the end of an era.

Her legendary work moves toward memory, the same memories so many of us have as children when we first saw these shows.

I heard the news on Wednesday and heard the first notes of this music, and I got goosebumps hearing this. It took me back to the opening of that book, to the telling of that story, and of so many others.

The words that Nixon wrote for the show, which appeared in the photo album in the show’s opening, hearkened back to the days of Preston Bradley, and the spark that Bradley ignited in Irna Phillps – to entertain people, to inspire them, to comfort them. Agnes Nixon did all that and more.

The great and the least, the rich and the poor

The weak and the strong, in sickness and in health

In joy and sorrow, in tragedy and triumph

You are all my children. 

Political overload

We’re in what seems like the longest presidential race ever. And all this after a decade of American politics that is far more crazy — and over the top — than any soap opera could be.

It’s times like this when I’m nostalgic for a certain candidate for Senate…..if only some of our politicians would break out in cases of humanity like Ross Marler did.

I did post about Ross’ dream before here, but I have to say, I’m not sure it seems so ridiculous these days. Bread and circuses surround us in this one, I’m afraid.

Lady Parts and Otalia

As I mentioned in my last post, the video blog Lady Parts – created and hosted by Liron Cohen and her wife, former Soap Opera Weekly editor Mimi Torchin – has a new episode with former Guiding Light head writer Jill Lorie Hurst. You can see it below.

It’s a fantastic chat, well worth a watch, and I don’t want to comment or editorialize on it (it can speak for itself) but I will say this…..

I’m a big fan of Jill Lorie Hurst. When I made the trip to NYC in 2008, and “the bloggers” got to cover GL, we met a lot of people. A LOT of people.

And Jill stood out for me among the crowd, because of her authenticity. The optimism, the generosity, the attempt at fairness (and here, forgiveness) and looking at the glass half full that you see in this interview? That’s all real, and all Jill.

She may have been “co-head writer” but it’s not hard to understand that the humanity that increasingly surfaced in the show in its last year or so came from Jill’s pen, and from her view of the world as a person. Otalia may have been the most vivid representation of that, but you could see it, feel it and sense it in many other corners of Springfield (and Peapack).

POSTSCRIPTS:

  • In the vlog, Liron mentions an article about lesbian characters who have been killed on our TV screens; I found one link here. Astonishing (and devastating)  to see in its entirety.
  • Another great interview surfacing this week is Michael Logan’s chat with the legendary Jane Elliot. Check it out here.

Postscripts and followups

Who doesn't love a good hat?

Who doesn’t love a good hat?

Just wanted to make a quick post to say that I really appreciate the comments people have shared with me on my Beverlee McKinsey tribute from earlier this month.

I’ve always been so in awe of her work, but I’ve been amazed in the last year or so how many people are still mentioning her and her work on GL and AW.

The PS here is that I also wanted to give a mention to Marj Dusay. My adoration of McKinsey’s flawless work isn’t in any way diminishing Dusay’s work as Alexandra.

I’m a big fan of Marj’s body of work, as well (in so many roles – her soap roles alone are amazing) and I thought she really “got” Alex in her initial stints on the show.

In later years, the character went off the rails in subsequent returns, but that was more about some really dumb writing choices for the character.

Marj’s Alex became comic at times, tapping into Marj’s improv beginnings, but where else can you go when everything about the character is contradicted in a storyline?

Alexandra keeping Alan’s son Gus from him after the very cornerstone of her introduction was about Brandon being kept from her? Oh, HELL, no.

There were some things at the end (Alexandra and Cyrus) that humanized her again, and at last she got to go off with Fletcher, around the world.

As for Dusay, she was also one of the GL actors I met during my trip to NYC in 2008, and I’ll always remember spending a crisp, sunny winter afternoon listening to Marj tell me some wonderful stories, as if I was an old friend. It was GLORIOUS.