Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Defecating on tradition

By Rick Morris

For many years now, CBS's vaunted daytime show GUIDING LIGHT has been rumored to be on the brink of extinction. Ratings have been poor relative to other shows of the same genre, and the program has received the proverbial kiss of death in terms of attractiveness to advertisers: the perception that the demographics are disproportionately skewed towards the elderly. As a fan of Saturday afternoon PBA broadcasts when I was growing up, I know full well how that view can sink even a series with high ratings, much less the poor numbers of GL.

[Now, full disclosure here -- I was a longtime fan of GL, which is certainly not perceived in some quarters as the manliest thing to cop to, but I've always believed that true manliness lies in telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may in terms of perception. So yes, I watched GUIDING LIGHT for almost half my life, do with that what you will!]

In my youth, when I discovered GL though my exposure to it when I came home from school every day to find my mom checking it out, I enjoyed it almost immediately. To my friends who ragged on me for watching "a crappy soap opera," I replied that it was certainly much less over-the-top than other shows allegedly so similar. As a budding writer, I appreciated the fact that the show generally paid at least a modicum of attention to character continuity and the storylines were at least a bit more down-to-earth than other daytime shows. I attributed these qualities to the lineage of GL, which is the oldest TV drama in existence and dates back to its form as a radio program in the 1930s.

In the late '90s, when the show digressed into the DYNASTY-like silliness of the San Cristobal storylines, I tuned out. I only resumed watching seven years later when the Phillip Spaulding character was being prepared to be killed in a "whodunit" storyline. I always believed that Phillip was one of the greatest and most complex characters in TV history and I was fascinated to watch his character's demise and the subsequent fallout that ensued (in a twist I should have seen coming, Phillip ended up not being dead after all, but due to the incompetence of the show's writers, they alienated him so much that he ended up not wanting to come back and the storyline never fully achieved closure). Along the way, I became acquainted with the Gus Aitoro character, Phillip's half-brother (hey, they only do half-brothers and half-sisters on soaps!), who I also found to be well-written and well-portrayed. Subsequently, poor writing again drove me away as a viewer, this time after less than two years.

The looming cloud of cancellation due to the rating situation has hovered over the show for years and whether I have been an active viewer or not, I have always wished for the program to achieve at least enough success to keep from disgracing the aforementioned lineage -- or at least to go out with a bang if it does get cancelled. Sadly, the mediocre direction embarked upon a decade ago and re-embraced in the last two years was almost enough to erase the memories of greatness from before. Just recently, GL killed off Gus Aitoro in completely asinine fashion after completely obliterating the direction of his character over the previous year. But never before has GL gone as far off the rails as they have recently, and in a way that makes "death with dignity" when the show inevitably ends irretrievable.

What did they do that was so bad? Well, this once-classy program, with an unmatched television heritage, decided that their return to relevance was contingent on adopting choppy, MTV-style filming with awkward camera angles, epilepsy-inducing shot segues and random zoom-ins that leave one with the ability to count the pores on an actor's face. At least now there is a sad consistency -- the lazy rewriting of history to fit today's stupid storylines is now matched by a presentation style equally infantile.

Upon learning of the changes and deciding to see them for myself, I taped a recent episode and was, as you can tell, horrified. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that I felt like I did when I drove by a half-demolished Cleveland Stadium in 1996 and felt like my childhood memories had been crushed in the rubble. It makes me ill to think of the hours I spent watching this show growing up with my mother and seeing it defiled like it has been now -- and knowing that the alienation of more core viewers is just bringing the day of reckoning that much closer.

What's most sad is the fact that when the show inevitably gets axed, it won't be remembered for the television classic it once was, but for the festering piece of putrid garbage the present Powers That Be have devolved it into. The end of the road will be richly deserved for the hacks who have presided over this mess, but GUIDING LIGHT and its 75-year legacy sure don't deserve it. For shame.

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