April can be a cruel month. CBS announced the cancellation of Guiding Light, ER broadcast its final episode and The New York Times Corporation is threatening to close down my hometown newspaper of record, The Boston Globe – and that was just the first week. Here’s hoping for the promised May flowers because we’ve certainly had plenty of April showers, literally here in Boston, as well as figuratively.
Maybe it was the close proximity to the announcement of GL’s cancellation. But as I watched the series finales of ER and U.S. version of the British series, Life on Mars, I saw one parallel after another between the two primetime series and soap opera in general – and GL in particular.
Given its 15 year run on NBC, ER might be the primetime equivalent of GL’s 57 years on CBS. When ER premiered in 1994, I was writing about nursing and how nurses were portrayed in the media, so of course I watched. Fascinating as the cases were, it was the characters and their relationships, personal and professional, that kept me watching. As with daytime soaps, when actors left new characters arrived and were seamlessly woven into the action with the remaining characters. But through it all, it was chief resident Mark Greene who held the show together. After Anthony Edwards left in 2002, the show was never quite the same.
The writers had positioned the last remaining original character, Noah Wyle’s John Carter, to assume Mark Greene’s mantle. But then the story took Carter out of the ER. His time in Africa interested me not at all, so I pretty muched stopped watching. When I did tune in now and then, I recognized some of the new actors, but not the characters they played and I never reconnected with the show.
The situation on ER was roughly analogous to GL in the early 2000s. The action was split between San Cristobel, where Reva had married a prince during Kim Zimmer’s absence from the show, and Springfield, where a mob family, the Santos, dominated. Returning viewers asked themselves the same question I did about ER: “Who are these people?” which is what happens when a soap’s core family is pushed to the sidelines. The difference, of course, is that on ER, it was the actors who made the decision to leave, not TPTB.
But when the end came, brought back all of the original cast members, weaving them seamlessly into several episodes that culminated in a rich and emotionally satisfying series finale that evoked the very first episode.
As word of GL’s cancellation spread, so did the suggestions (here and here among others) for how to end the show, but Mark Harding was the first to understand the lessons ER’s finale held for GL. The possibility that GL will find a new home on cable or on-line raises the ante a bit; not everything can be wrapped up and tied with a pretty bow. Here, the ER finale offered a valuable lesson: the show might be ending, but life in the ER continues with the next generation. The third season finale of Friday Night Lights offers some insights as well. Because that episode was written and shot before FNL was picked up, there had to be enough closure should it have been the series finale, yet leave enough potential story should the show continues, which, thankfully, it will.
Switching gears, Life on Mars’ final show was an object lesson in how not to end a show. Not a primetime soap per se, there were still some interesting parallels. First, because the show was moved from LA to NYC (reportedly for tax advantages), LOM, like Dick Wolf’s Law and Order franchise, featured current and former soap actors: Jennifer Ferrin, Elizabeth Hubbard, Matthew Cowles, Phyllis Somerville, Renee Goldsberry – and from GL, Grant Aleksander, and the first Dinah, Paige Turco.
Then there’s the time slot issue. A significant (though difficult to quantify) problem for GL has been the 14 media markets where the show airs in the morning. This includes some major markets – Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City. For LOM fans, finding the show was often a challenge as ABC tried to find the best time slot. And it didn’t help matters when ABC left viewers hanging for seven – yes, seven – weeks after a cliffhanger of staggering proportions while the show was off the air. Then, when LOM returned after the season premier of Lost, instead of airing the next episode, they… Well, read the sorry details here. I know it seems as though I’m getting a little off track here, but the disdain ABC exhibited toward viewers with this incident echoes so much of what soap fans have had to put up with over the years. And it also throws into sharp relief the sad reality that scripted continuing drama is as endangered a species on network primetime as it is in the afternoon.
But while LOM was a sci-fi time-travel tale, it was fundamentally about relationships, in particular, the relationship between Sam and his parents. The set-up was that in 2008 police officer Sam Tyler was hit by a car trying to save his girlfriend and woke up as a cop in 1973. The emotional thrust of the story was Sam getting back to 2008 (okay, 2009). Since the writers had the opportunity to prepare a final episode, viewers were expecting Sam to return to the present and pick up where he had left. Since the show’s premier featured the David Bowie classic, Life on Mars, few viewers took the title literally. And yet, at the end of the finale, evoking for me memories of clone Reva, Amish Reva, and perhaps most apropos, time-travel Reva, there was the cast of LOM waking up on a spaceship in 2035, hurtling towards Mars.
© 2009 Lynn Liccardo
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