In recent years, watching the Daytime Emmys has become an exercise in frustration. This year's ceremony was no exception. By any standards, the production was a mess, running 35 minutes over (a marked contrast to 2009, when the broadcast ended just as Bradley Bell was about to accept The Bold and Beautiful's first award for Best Drama). Of course, there was a production lapse that led to, what for me, was the highlight of the evening: Corbin Bernsen's profane tribute to his mother, the late Jeanne Cooper, (which, of course, assures next year's event will have a 7-second delay:)
The Daytime Emmys have always included categories other than soaps -- game shows and talk shows at the first ceremony in 1974. Over the years, children's programming and animation were added. Now, there are categories for morning, travel, culinary programming, as soaps' presence continues to shrink, which will likely continue down the road. Yet, soap fans are likely to make up the bulk of viewers. Because, really, does anyone believe that fans of those other categories will DVR and live blog the show? So...
The one award I really cared about, Lead Actor, was announced first and went to Y&R's Doug Davidson. I had been pulling for General Hospital's Jason Thompson, whose performance was the heart of the March 2012 episode that inspired this essay (which I used to close my ebook, as the world stopped turning...).
"One thing soap operas do not do is flinch...what they bring home is the most steady, open-ended sadness to be found outside life itself..."
For a while now I’ve been thinking about collecting the dozens of essays I’ve written over the four years into an e-book. So, I finally bit the bullet and began selecting and editing the collection that became this book. Shaping the essays to form a cohesive whole greater than the sum of its parts is more work than might appear at first glance, but it’s work, as a writer friend said, that doesn’t require summoning the muse. And right now, that’s a good thing.
I began on a Monday, and things progressed nicely. Selecting the essays was easier than I expected. As was deciding the tentative order in which they should appear. I made a first pass cleaning up typos, updating information, eliminating unnecessary redundancy, checking for points requiring clarification or amplification, making sure embedded links still work, then sent the draft to a few colleagues for comment and jotted down some notes for the preface By Wednesday afternoon, things were in pretty good shape, so when General Hospital finished recording at four, I decided to take a little break.
The first scene wasn’t anything special: Jason Morgan, wearing his trademark black t-shirt, hair gelled and spiked, woke up in the hospital after the most recent of who knows how many brain surgeries. The action shifted to the living room of Jason’s surgeon, Patrick Drake. As Patrick’s brother, Matthew, welcomed Elizabeth Weber, his niece, Emma, enters and tells Elizabeth about the chocolate chip pancakes her uncle made her for breakfast – “Mommy’s favorite.” When Elizabeth asks Emma if she would like to put on “the pretty dress your mommy bought for you,” Emma demurs, “I don’t want to say goodbye to Mommy.” Upstairs, a sleeping Patrick feels a hand on his shoulder and turns to see his wife, Robin, smiling at him.
It was at this point that I paused the DVR, turned the phone off, found a box of tissues, swapped the lukewarm tea I was going finish while I watched for a big glass of wine (after all, it was past five in Nova Scotia), then settled in to immerse myself in the most heartbreaking, emotionally satisfying hour of soap opera I had seen since – well, since One Life to Live’s penultimate episode aired back in January.
Sara Bibel said of that episode:
"The penultimate episode of 'One Life to Live' (it is killing me to write that) contained a beautiful love letter to soaps and its fans. In what has got to be the most meta scenario in television history, everyone gathered to watch the final episode of Llanview’s favorite soap, 'Fraternity Row'...Viki (Erika Slezak) made an emotional speech about why the show was so important to so many people that summed up why the soap genre is unique and important. Grab a box of tissues and watch it.
Heartfelt as the love letter was, it was the need for tissues that made this episode so powerful. The final months of OLTL were often difficult to watch. Whatever stories executive producer, Frank Valentini, and head writer, Ron Carlivati, had planned to close out the show after its cancellation was announced last April were thrown into disarray when, in July, Prospect Park announced it would be moving the show to the Web. And while those plans never materialized, PP’s demand that Valentini and Carlivati create a cliffhanger ending meant, not only would the pacing of the final months be choppy, at best, but that much of the sadness viewers felt would come more from the fact of the show’s ending rather than from an emotional response to the story. By making the final episode of Fraternity Row the focal point of that episode, Valentini and Carlivati created a space where everyone connected to the show – however much distance and time separated them – could come together and share a collective cathartic moment which, while intangible, was nevertheless palpable.
Guiding Light did the same thing in its finals days, albeit on a much smaller scale, when Alan Spaulding died during the show’s last week. GL’s barebones production model precluded the kind of polished episodes on the ABC soaps. And, because GL was squeezing a lot of stories and characters into its last few episodes, there was not enough time to devote an entire episode to Alan’s death. But the effort was there
Sadness is as intrinsic to soap opera as it is to life. So, sad episodes aren’t always about a show ending. Although the General Hospital episode that had me reaching for tissues aired while the show’s future was in doubt [GH seems to be settling into its new time slot preceding Katie Couric's new talk show, which premiered in September], what fans and characters – and the actors who play them – were mourning was the loss of a legacy character, Robin Scorpio, and the departure of the actor who had played her since childhood, Kimberly McCullough. While the funeral that followed had many touching moments, I found the quiet expressions of grief in the preceding episode even more powerful. Particularly poignant were the scenes of Edward and Tracy Quartermaine looking at photographs of family members who had passed away. What made these scenes all the more touching was realizing that they were likely taped around the time John Ingle’s (Edward) wife of 58 years died. [As Ingle's health deteriorated over the summer, the actor requested one final appearance on the show. Carlivati wrote him into the episode that aired on 9/11; Ingle passed away five days later.]
A couple of years before OLTL was canceled, there were two 2009 episodes that provided the same kind of shared emotional release that lie at the heart of soap operas’ appeal when a baby presumed to have died at birth, Hope, was reunited with her parents.
In fact, the two episodes, Friday (5 June) and Monday (7 June), were as heartbreakingly beautiful a two hours of soap opera as I've seen in a long, long time. They were two hours to be savored, not rushed through with remote control in hand. While we all knew what was going to happen, the emotional payoff in those two shows was as much as any soap fan has a right to expect. And the fact that just as her father holds her for the first time, the perfectly adorable baby playing Hope/Chloe decided to play dropsy with her toy only added to the poignancy of the moment.
None of these episodes had to be as sad as they were. Ron Carlivati didn’t have to provide viewer with two heartbreakingly beautiful episodes in 2009, or to write “a beautiful love letter to soaps and its fans” when the show ended. He could have used that episode to shore up the stories for the characters moving to Prospect Park; he certainly didn’t have to create such a profoundly sad goodbye to Robin Scorpio just a few months later. And Lord knows, there were plenty of other things GL could have done with even the relatively small amount of time devoted to Alan’s death.
But what Valentini, Carlivati, and GL’s executive producer, Ellen Wheeler, and head writer, Jill Lorie Hurst, all understood was that when shows that have aired for decades come to an end, fans need a space in which express and share their sadness – not their thoughts and responses to losing their show, that’s what friends, family and fan boards are for – but the actual experience of grief. And not just the fans, but the actors and writers, as well; the depth of Phillip Spaulding’s grief when he found his dead father sitting on that park bench was so clearly shared by Phillip’s portrayer, Grant Aleksander, whose powerful performance, like GH’s Jason Thompson’s when Robin appeared to Patrick as he showered and dressed for her funeral, transcended whatever words had been on the page.
Three months after Guiding Light’s final episode aired in September 2009, CBS announced that GL’s sister soap, As the World Turns, would end its 54-year run in September 2010. Fan response to the news included pleas that 91-year old Helen Wagner, who as Nancy Hughes uttered the show’s opening words, “Good morning, dear,” in 1954, tape the show’s final scene, “Good night, dear,” – just in case...
Much as I loved the symmetry of Nancy delivering the show’s closing line, I also found the idea kind of morbid – maybe even a little precious. As it turns out, Helen Wagner passed away May 1st, less than two months before the show taped its final episode on June 23rd. The timing of her death should have been a gift for the show’s executive producer, Christopher Goutman: providing him both the opportunity, and sufficient time to create a space for the collective cathartic moment ATWT fans yearned for. Of course, considering the short-shrift Goutman had given to Kim and Bob Hughes 25th wedding anniversary, not to mention his contentious relationship with fans over the last few years of the show, no one was really surprised when he squandered the opportunity; rather than an episode that would have honored Nancy’s place in Oakdale, while allowing the actors to express their grief , both at Helen’s passing and the end of the show, Goutman instead opted for a single, amphetamine-fueled episode which, when over, left viewers feeling cheated and empty – and angry.
I’ve often wondered if Christopher Goutman has ever realized that by denying the gift of sadness – the true power of soap opera – to ‘World Turns fans, writers and actors, he was denying also himself.
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