The “Guiding Light” Flickers Out

The  NY Post made the announcement on April 1. It was no April Fool joke. After 72 years of broadcasting, and with more than 15,700 episodes—CBS has pulled the drain plug on America’s longest running soap opera. The last episode aired Sept. 18.

It all began on NBC radio, Jan.25, 1937 as a 15-minute radio serial, moving to CBS radio in 1946, then to CBS TV in 1952, where it has stayed. What is unique in the genre is that even while building a TV audience, it continued as a radio drama for four additional years. The same actors played their characters in both media. In 1967 Guiding Light went to color, expanded its episode length to 30 minutes a year later, and finally settled into its signature one-hour format in 1977. During its run, it amassed 69 daytime Emmys. This is broadcast “history” of an unique order.

Speculation has been broad-based about the reasons for the demise of  Guiding Light. Some say its target audience of women have been so integrated into the American workplace, that stay at home moms are no longer a significant demographic. The usual suspects of cable TV and the internet are also cited.  Simply put, there are too many other options for women today.

Curious about all this, I started to track comments on the CBS website: “Guiding Light Community Message Board.” Here, a recurrent theme seems to be that the show’s writing has been badly misfiring for some time. Now, soap opera writing is not something about which I claim to be a scholar. But this one plea did sound a sympathetic chord:

Every time I sign onto CBS website there is a question of should CBS cancel The Guiding Light… but I keep wondering why would they want to cancel the longest running soap. And I get the answer every time I tune in to watch the show. The writers...They don't know what they are doing. First of all, why is Josh trying to get Reva back. Don't you know that people are tired of them. Jeffrey and Reva happen to be the best match on the show in years. They are fun together and fun to watch. I am sick of Josh and Reva. Stop back tracking and go forward. Then they go and mess up Billie and Lizzie. You messed that one up when you had Billie marry Ava, but now you have the opportunity to bring them back together and you are messing that up. You are trying to turn Billie into another Alan Spaulding, and there is only one. Their relationship was so romantic and you need to put the romance back in the show.

That is one woman’s opinion—but not that of the producers, as you will soon see. One thing I find so fascinating is just how broad is the spectrum of impassioned opinion about every detail of the show, the intricacies of which only a devoted viewer could follow.

The Wikipedia entry “soap opera” has a fascinating history of the genre since inception (even as an international genre)—more information than any single, sane person can wish to acquire:

Wikipedia entry link

In an effort to track some of this further, I searched several other sites. The arcanum destination for all things soap is Soap Opera Digest. You’ve seen the print version in the rack at your supermarket checkout. First appearing as a monthly magazine in Nov. of 1975, it is now published weekly. The subscription base is over half a million, with one million more copies being grabbed from newsstands.

I soon found myself lost in a farrago of chatter, plotlines and vociferous pleadings. I had hoped to track several intersecting stories to see how the final episodes are resolved—but I got lost very quickly in the dense tangle of adulteries, divorces, deaths and disappearances. And that is really partly the point. One thing that has been a staple of Guiding Light and the genre in toto is the “cliffhanger” at the end of every episode. I remember my mother watching this show and As The World Turns as she cleaned the house and how she would slow down her chores and finally stop altogether, sitting on the edge of the living room sofa as each day’s episode moved toward its climax. You could hear it coming as the underlying organ music swelled. Then BOOM—some unexpected line of dialogue with a plot turn would leave you hanging until the same time tomorrow.

One typical viewer is Dorothy Colhard. Her reminiscences are here: link

Guiding Light takes place in the fictional town of Springfield and tracks the lives of several families—Spaulding, Lewis and Cooper. The patriarch and oft-times dynastic villain (but a veritable linchpin of the series) has been Alan Spaulding who has been presumed dead several times over the decades and then has re-appeared in the guise of another actor, most recently played by Ron Raines from July 15, 1994 until the present. A staple of the genre has been these floating plot and character lines as actors have come and gone. Some of the actors who have played major roles over the years include James Earl Jones, Kevin Bacon and Hayden Panattiere.

These shifts have been anything but nimble and have contributed to the complicated timelines—ones that have confounded anyone but the most hardcore cadre of viewers. Take a look at this one of Alan Spaulding. Just scroll way down to see the convoluted life this man has led. Midway, you are given a “brief character history” that would confound a 19th century Russian novelist: link

Two years ago while at a wedding reception Alan is gunned down. The most recent Wikipedia update for him tracks his final days:

During the reception of his wedding to Doris on February 16, 2007, Alan was shot and remained in critical condition for several weeks. He awakened as a new man full of love and forgiveness, but he soon reverted back to his evil self. The shooter was his stepdaughter Ashlee Wolfe February 20, 2007. It was revealed on April 4, 2007. He saved Reva's life and to keep each other from telling anyone Reva moved into the Spaulding mansion. Alan volunteered to have a transplant, an extremely risky surgery to save his son Phillip's life, in September of 2009. While recovering from the transplant, Alan attended the Lewis / Cooper Wedding with four Generations of Spauldings, Alan peacefully passed away on Tuesday September 15, 2009 on a bench in front of a lake, when Philip came over, and realized he was dead. He was cremated, and the private, family only funeral was held on Thursday September 17th, 2009. They put his remains in the same lake where he passed away.

Wow! Did you follow all that? If not, no matter, because it is at this point that we join the story. Here is a section from the next to last episode aired on Sept. 17, 2009.  As the Spaulding family comes together, Alan’s ashes are scattered at the lakeshore.  Something really different is going on here. In a TV series where wallpaper music seems to drone on as if in an endless loop, the banal music fades after a few seconds and there is only the sound of water lapping. Just as surprising, as the family,one by one, scatters the ashes, there is little dialogue. You will need to scroll to 18:20 and watch the obligatory commercial perhaps both when you hit play and again after you scroll down. Bear with it— no more than 30 seconds of commercials, not five minutes as on the TV broadcast. link

The scene is shot in an almost artless way, looking self-conscious and stagey in the open air at the lakeshore. For decades, the shooting of Guiding Light had taken place largely in the studio. Interior sets, with at least three cameras on traditional pedestals that allowed stable compositions and controlled movement by skilled operators, defined the style. Dramatic lighting emphasized the melodrama as well as concealed sometimes-schematic sets. But about a year ago in an effort to cut production costs, Guiding Light abandoned its signature style, one that is common to many “soaps”.

Instead of the classic pattern of staging and shooting for multiple cameras within a basic proscenium axis, a switch was made to handheld, smaller cameras, in keeping with the shakycam aesthetic of its prime-time cousins. Expensive stages and sets were cut back and crew size was reduced. Stage lighting was replaced mostly by day exteriors. With all this went a radical change from the stylized, even hothouse, milieu of the stage to mundane, even generic, locations. The decision initially was an economic one but an unintended consequence was that it brought the characters into a real world three-dimensional space. This physical change also dictated a change in behavior as the actors became looser and more free form in their gestures and line readings. The camera style accommodated and contributed to this alteration in acting and choreography. The proscenium axis was broken. There were cuts to reverse angles and awkward eye lines. I kept expecting to catch a glimpse of another camera at the edge of frame.

One of the normative signs of the traditional style had been that the “world” of the action is in a space more abstract and alien from that where we real-life humans all live and work. This stylization helped embody a fantasy universe that defined the drama—unreal in look but somehow relatable on its own terms to the homebound viewer. This change in technique and location toward reality made it all seem more quotidian, more ordinary. At first look, it would seem to be desirable. But despite this change, the target audience continued to slowly drift away.

My own guess is that it is this very stylization and seeming irreality that is one of the soap’s markers of success. Just as the conceits of film-noir only succeed in a dark and spare frame, the heightened drama of internecine violence and betrayal in the soaps just do not play well in a style that looks as if it were photographed by your Uncle Charlie with his Handycam. For me as a filmmaker, it is this very disjunction between form and technique in the last years of “Guiding Light” that is so fascinating. This new style also makes often-uncomfortable looking actors seem awkward. If you take a few minutes to dip into any recent episode at random, I think you will see this disparity.

The final episode aired on Sept.  18. In it the multiple strands of the different families resolve. The most crucial is that of Reva and Joshua. Reva is the single character that most embodies the physical and emotional values of the target viewer. She is a Middle American Everywoman with a very real middle-aged face and body. She has been much troubled over the years but is on the verge of “finding myself.” In the last eight minutes of the last episode, it all comes together. In a public park, each story strand seems to find resolution even as Reva in a different location finally accepts Joshua as her life mate. The background lighthouse looms phallus-like in their scene’s every wide shot.  But then maybe sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse.

Again, once you click on,  there is an episode index below the screen. Click on the episode for Sept. 18 and bear with the commercials after you scroll to 29:15 to start the final sequence. After the Joshua/Reva scene there is a final montage in the park as all the families come together, then back to Joshua and Reva as they drive off in his vintage Ford pick-up toward a hoped-for brighter future: link

After 72 years, the title card no one ever could have anticipated dissolves onto the screen—“The End.”

But is it? Crystal Chappell who plays the character Olivia sees the show reincarnated as a web series titled  Venice which she says will “air” in November. One of the few unresolved plotlines is that of Olivia and Natalia, known to fans by the conjoined name “Otalia”. These two grown women have fallen in love. One anticipated event other than the scattering of Alan’s ashes and Reva and Joshua driving off into a life yet unknown, is: will the two women have a passionate onscreen kiss before the final fadeout? That question may only be answered online.

The cancelling of this soap opera is a cultural marker. While you and I may have little noted its passing, there are generations of viewers that found consolation in the series’ daily ministrations to a devoted congregation. Much like the Yuppie series  Seinfeld, Guiding Light gave a specific demographic its own voice in the Babel of our oft-times strident democracy.



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