Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Light that Finally Failed

I agree with Edward Copeland, attention must be paid: Guiding Light aired its final episode yesterday, Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. It had run continuously for 72 years—-an actual lifetime-—five days a week, 52 weeks a year, first on radio, starting in 1937, then on television, beginning in 1952. It was the brainchild of Irna Phillips, a force of nature generally credited with creating the soap genre, with later show running by the soap opera royalty of Agnes Nixon and Douglas Marland.

I didn’t watch any of the soaps, but I grew to appreciate them when I edited a book for the day job, Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. [A highlight of the book is I reprinted three pieces about radio soaps by James Thurber from the New Yorker.] Generally considered the lesser stepchild of nighttime drama, soaps are actually storytelling in its purest form. They are tales spun out over decades, not just seasons. They unfold like “real life” every week day. There is never a repeat. When you think about it, that’s a staggering creative achievement.

Their plots enter realms of the absurd, but that does not alienate their viewers. Why? Because they offered a deeply strong sense of virtual community, long before the internet. The bread and butter of the storylines are rooted in family and friends and deal with common issues of health and love. That’s what brings viewers back day by day. And implicit in the genre, going back to radio, is the feeling that you are not watching this alone; you can almost sense everyone else out there, following along.

Some of soap opera culture seeps in to the broader stream, like the days of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura. GL’s equivalent was the romance of Josh and Reva (Robert Newman and Kim Zimmer). They had the classic couple chemistry that catches fire and sets them apart from the literally hundreds of couples that populate daytime. Like Rachel and Ross their fate for television eternity was a huge open question for the finale. I’m glad to report that the current producers awarded their loyal fans with a generally happy ending across the board. The Reverend Rutledge, on whose desk the original lamp of guiding light sat, would be pleased with the final scene at the lighthouse in Springfield.