Growing up, I was an NBC kid.


To this day, I have clear memories of getting home from half-day preschool just in time to catch the closing minutes of “Texas,” have lunch, and settle in at my mother’s knee for a full afternoon of “Days of Our Lives” and “Another World.” That marvelous lineup of daytime entertainment underwent multiple changes as time marched forward — “Texas” (the first soap cancellation I ever survived, funnily enough) left the air in 1982 (just as it was getting good!) around the same time that “Search for Tomorrow” came over from CBS to finish out its legendary life, and my beloved “Santa Barbara” came along in 1984 for a remarkable nine-year run — but throughout my formative years as a television fan, NBC — with its softly glowing series (didn’t you always love the way “Days” looked just a tad fuzzy back then, almost as though it were shot through a thin film of super-sheer pantyhose?) and its magnificently endearing characters (Marlena! Roman! Felicia! Cass! Rachel! Cruz! Mason! Julia!) — was always home.


Around 1988, things started to falter. After years of floating through Nielsen heaven on the strength of its iconic break-up-to-make-up supercouples (Kim and Shane, Patch and Kayla, Bo and Hope), “Days” and its simple, unfettered formula began to grow tiresome and irritating. And wholly in spite of the fact that it possessed one of the finest, most eclectic casts in all of television, daytime or otherwise (Linda Dano, Doug Watson, Vicky Wyndham, and a budding young superstar name of Anne Heche), poor “Another World” somehow or other lost all of its zest, as though it were a helium balloon the soap gods punctured with a push pin. And, good lord, “Santa Barbara”! With its creators Bridget and Jerome Dobson locked in a bizarre lawsuit with NBC and New World Television over control of the show, and with its interim writers lacking wholly the Dobsons’ signature witty joie and kinky sophistication, the soap which came to pride itself on being nothing like any other on the dial slowly began to flounder. All of a sudden, as a whole, the entire network was breaking the cardinal rule — thou shalt not bore. your. audience. — of soap opera.


That’s why, when an interesting blurb caught my eye in Soap Opera Digest that June — a blurb which read something to the effect of, “Is Bo really Bo? That question and more will be answered when (so-and-so — sorry, can’t remember the actress’ name, and I’m too lazy to Google it) returns to ‘One Life to Live’ next week” — it was painfully easy to switch channels and check out what was happening over at ABC. What I found (and immediately responded to) in “One Life” was an eclectic, fearless cast who seemed to take a sort of demented glee in the fact that the plots they were being paid to act out made utterly no sense. And, indeed, as promised in the periodical, the show’s umbrella story that summer involved poor oil-rich Buchanan scion Bo, who, alongside his wife, had been kidnapped and held prisoner in a dungeon, and whose life, identity, and face had been stolen by mad scientist Patrick London, who was hell-bent on exacting revenge against Bo’s family for too many perceived slights to list here, and who had been gallavanting around Llanview (the soap’s home base) for months masquerading as Bo and wreaking all manner of unseen havoc. (Was it mind-numbingly nonsensical, this storyline? Damn straight. But unlike the dull pablum I had been forcing myself to sit through over at NBC, this plotline alone made the show so compulsively watchable that you literally couldn’t miss an episode, and it made the long gaps between Friday and Monday seem utterly interminable. And little did I know that, with the discovery of a functioning underground city the following year, as well as the imminent revelation that the show’s central heroine had given birth in high school and then had been hypnotized into forgetting all about it, the show was ’bout to get even more apeshit nuts.)


Around roughly that same time, also thanks to Soap Opera Digest (whose recaps of the goings-on proved to be invaluable in catching me up), I found myself drifting over to CBS at the end of each day to check out what was happening over at “Guiding Light” — you had to know you’d reach the main thrust of this blog post if you just hung in there long enough! — where something eminently fascinating was unfolding: in the season which the soaps had generally long turned over to the teenagers amongst their casts (the fallacious idea there being that the kids who were home from school for the summer and would be watching preferred to see hormone-ravaged young folks playing out their angst on a daily basis), the powers that be at “Light” were taking a chance on a sticky, psychologically complex, thoroughly compelling adult storyline. (The story, which involved the show’s star-crossed couple, Josh and Reva, as well as Josh’s mentally unstable latest wife Sonni and his former best friend, Dr. Will Jeffries, became impossibly convoluted thanks to a months-long writers’ strike that same year, and its ins and outs are way too complicated to condense to even a rudimentary thumbnail sketch, but the emotional fireworks set off by the tale resonated across the show’s canvas for years thereafter, and the performances therein — particularly by the electrifying Michelle Forbes (who played crazy Sonni with a breathtaking, almost Method clarity) and the brilliant Kim Zimmer (ever the live wire, she, too, was right at home playing out the operatic levels of this soapy stew) — were absolutely intoxicating.)


I was all of twelve years old that summer, the summer of 1988, but that was the year that “One Life to Live” and “Guiding Light” — two daytime serials that literally built their reputations on daring to be different — became my shows. (I’m now thirty-two, and rest assured, there’s not much I can’t tell you about any- and everything that has transpired on my shows in the two decades that span then and now, and even though I’ve periodically tuned out from time to time over that same period, some new actor or story event or new head writer — something — would always come along and suck me right back in.)


Last week, in a classless move that makes nothing but sense from a clinically cold business perspective and incites nothing but confusion, anger, and chilling frustration from a sentimentally warm personal one, the ax fell on one of my shows, when, after years of falling ratings and no less than a decade of, at very best, uneven quality, CBS made the decision to cancel “Guiding Light.” Never mind that, at 72 years (57 of them on TV, with a previous 15 on radio) and some fifteen thousand-plus episodes, it’s the longest-running and most prolific television series of any stripe in the history of the world. (You can damn well make book that you’ll never see the likes of those mind-blowing statistics again.) And never mind that, having gone on the air just a handful of days into Franklin Roosevelt’s second term as the country’s commander in chief, the show has seen thirteen presidents come and go over the course of its remarkable lifetime. (Hell, never mind that the show predates Pearl Harbor, the computer, and even television itself!) This was solely a bottom-line-based decision: even though the show probably wasn’t hemorrhaging money, it probably wasn’t making much either, and in these uneasy economic times, CBS has apparently concluded there is no longer any room at the inn for a loss leader, no matter how long-lived and/or prestigious, and no matter how crucially important to the inception and survival of its very genre the show, as the first and only radio serial to successfully leap to television, ultimately was.


In September, when “Guiding Light” airs its final episode, only seven American soap operas will remain standing; in the early seventies, there were as many as nineteen on the air at once, a great many of them productions of Procter & Gamble, the conglomerate largely credited with inventing the genre seventy years ago as a way to subconsciously sell laundry detergent to rapt housewives who instantly got hooked on the heightened tales of love and woe which were created and performed solely so the soap commercials wouldn’t bump into each other. (Sadly, come fall, only one of those — CBS’ venerable stalwart “As the World Turns,” which received a (reportedly) ceremonial one year pickup just as the ax was swinging right next door — will be left.) And having evidently learned nothing from their befuddled brethren over at NBC — who had the disastrously short-sighted gall to replace “Santa Barbara” with dishwater-dull television adaptations of “Scrabble” (!) and “Scattergories” (!!) sixteen years ago — word is that CBS is keen on sliding an updated version of “The $25,000 Pyramid” into “GL’s” timeslot, which seems somewhat akin to pouring motor oil instead of milk over your morning bowl of Fruit Loops. (To be fair, a hot rumor emerged earlier this week that the cable channel Lifetime is in talks to pick up a radically reinvented “GL” once it finishes its network run, but quite frankly, I’ll believe that when I see it: having already turned itself inside out (with the advent of a switch to digital cameras and outdoor locales) trying to stay alive this year, how much further can the show realistically scale itself down chasing mere survival? Better, I absolutely believe (as painful as that is to admit!), that “Guiding Light” be allowed to gather what little dignity it has left and go out gracefully.)


Gracefully, but leaving in its wake a minefield of impenetrable memories. Memories of the combustible chemistry between Robert Newman and Kim Zimmer as Josh and Reva, the show’s lead couple for most of the past twenty-five years. Of the ice-sharp Beverlee McKinsey, who literally played tough dame Alexandra Spaulding on terms that were exclusively her own for the entirety of her indelible seven-year run on the show, and of the irascible Marj Dusay, who dared to step into that role (which many thought couldn’t be successfully recast) and made it her own from moment one. Of the magnificent Cynthia Watros, who painstakingly charted the harrowing course of a good girl’s descent into delicious madness over the course of her three-year stint as nurse Annie Dutton Lewis Spaulding. Of the stunningly gorgeous Laura Wright, who hit “GL” in the fall of 1997 as an eager neophyte and left it eight years later as a bona fide star. Of dear Michael Zaslow, who very much set forth the soap template of the evildoer you love to hate. Of Clone Reva (oy!), and of Teen Clone Reva, and of Marian Crane (the cross-dressing psychotic rapist!), and of Zachary the shirtless angel, and of Jonathan and Tammy, the kissing cousins. Of the terrifying venom spit forth from Ellen Parker in her bone-chilling (and, natch, Emmy-garnering) final scenes as Maureen Bauer (calling Lillian Raines out as a hypocritical, homewrecking whore and herself as a “subarban joke” just before plunging off an icy bridge to her death, in a bold, shocking story move more than a few fans claim to this day the show never quite recovered from). Of “his mother!!” and “I could take you without breakin’ a sweat” and “I think that officially makes you Queen of the Tramps!” and “Hey! You’re a lawyer!” and “Words to live by, I should think” and “OK!!” (Dear God, Sherry Ann, half of our vernacular emanates from this show!) Of life, lived and lived fully, both by the characters who have spent the last seventy years inhabiting Springfield, and by the boy-cum-man who has spent the last twenty eavesdropping on said characters’ attitudes and activities.


You can bet the news of this cancellation sent tremors rumbling through the production offices of the remaining soaps, because if the mightiest oak in the forest can be chopped down with such flippant disregard, it seems fair to say that there no longer exists a safe harbor for soaps. Ever since “Texas” was sacrificed in 1982, I’ve survived thirteen subsequent cancellations over the years, and while some unquestionably meant more than others (didn’t really give a flip about “Search for Tomorrow” or “Port Charles,” but “Santa Barbara’s” ignominious demise nearly leveled me), something tells me the “Guiding Light” finale is going to be the toughest, simply on account of how much of my own history is intertwined with (and, indeed, can be measured against) this show’s. And for a guy who has spent the lion’s share of his entire life tuning in tomorrow, the idea of all the remaining stories’ tomorrows getting caught in the crossfire of impartial network economics feels too brutal to bear.


4 responses to “history’s end product is myth
(or: fare thee well, gee to the ell)”

  1. the buzz from Damon L. Jacobs:

    Great piece, Brandon! We had very similar NBC rearin’ backgrounds. My first heartbreak was when the “The Doctors” was canceled, same day as “Texas.” Sheesh. Thank you for sharing these memories.

  2. the buzz from Michele:

    A very astute and thought-provoking piece. Great job Brandon! I am awed by your memory of s/l’s. I hope that GL’s cancellation does not lead to more soaps’ demise. But I think the cancellation of this grandmother of all soaps has shaken the soap world to its core and has put fear in all soap lovers’ hearts that their beloved soap will be next.

  3. the buzz from djbixby:

    The Santa Barbara cancellation hit me hard as a teen, but nothing like GL. I’m crushed. Springfield could use a little Roger Thorpe and Maureen to polarize the place, but they are finally getting the Spauldings right (more Marj please) and the Otalia storyline is wonderfully written. Women joining the workplace put soaps back in the ratings. But with more on demand viewing options (dvr, web streaming, etc), I think they will pick back up. Its just the industry needs to keep up with new viewing habits. With the history and branding GL has, I hope they make the jump to cable or the internet.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. the buzz from brandon:

    You’re so right, Michele. I remember years ago reading an interview with Felicia Behr back when she was the EP of “All My Children,” and she said something that has turned out to be eerily prophetic, something along the lines of, if major and sweeping changes weren’t made and made soon, there would only be four or five shows left standing. I remember thinking at the time that it was doomsaying hogwash, but here we are just a decade and a half later: “GL” is gone in September, “ATWT” has reportedly been put on notice that this will be its last year, and “Days” has been hanging by a fraying thread for a while now. That just leaves the ABC shows (which seem fairly stable and safe, if only because of their multiple means of distribution) and the highly-rated Bell shows, for a grand total of five.