13 January 2009

Think of Laura

During these last few days, for no other reason than sheer boredom, I have spent many hours on YouToob exploring the epic saga that was the story of General Hospital's premier supercouple, Luke and Laura Spencer. (Don't worry, I haven't blown a gasket.)

What did I find?

That perhaps I have been a wee too hard on Gloria Monty in the past. I found myself, admittedly, drawn to this grand and epic tale of love, rape (or was it seduction??), and adventure. The production values were superb. The pacing made the storyline compelling to watch. The acting and dialogue were excellent. The use of Herb Alpert's classic instrumental "Rise" for one crucial scene, which shall go nameless to protect the guilty, remains legendary.

But in effect, it seems as if Ms. Monty, in order to save the soap opera, had to destroy it. Primetime production values and all that aside, it brushes away the fact that at heart, soap operas are about relationships, and lives, and the contorted routes which they lead. At best, this interplay should be rooted in a thorough grounding in the subtleties of human relationships as they exist in real life. The best soaps, such as The Edge of Night, for the most part remained true to this premise.

Watching daytime television is watching people's lives, minute by minute. The soap writers of the 1950s and 1960s understood this. The soap writers of the current epoch (post-Luke and Laura) do not.

It makes sense, of course - most television writers to-day are young people with little real life experience, so they get their ideas mainly from films and other television programs. What do they find there? Spectacle and fantasy largely, of course. So soaps (and other programs, I might add), seeking the path to higher ratings and armed with a slew of cinematic and television cliches and formulas, have all attempted to imitate Ms. Monty's approach ever since. Of course, that has done them much good, seeing that daytime ratings are in the toilet. Consider that small fact when I refer to "destroying the soap opera in order to save it".

The characters of Luke and Laura, appealing as they are as a couple, are squarely to blame for this turn of events. The Luke and Laura saga reeks of rank unbelievability, and more so by the minute. From the disco "seduction" (IT WAS RAPE, PEOPLE!! How horribly insulting to women to pass such a thing off as 'seduction' all those years.) to the summer "on the run", to the treasure hunts and culminating in that most ridiculous daytime storyline of all time, the plot to freeze the world (!!!), the whole thing was one big, long, crass fantasy from beginning to end.

First off, no woman since time immemorial has ever fallen in love with her rapist.

Secondly, rape is brutal, and personality and life changing. For a more accurate and honest portrayal of the horror that is rape, bip over to my fiction page where such realism is reflected on a daily basis.

Lastly, rapists should go to prison (ideally). The last thing a rapist deserves is to wind up marrying his victim in the biggest daytime wedding extravaganza of all time (with Elizabeth Taylor in attendance! Yee yowakers!).

To their (minimal) credit, the producers did revisit the subject 20 years later and finally admitted that "it was rape" as opposed to "seduction" or some such blather. But too late, too lame, in my estimation.


But back to production values. Here lies the germ which perhaps led to the death of my beloved deceased daytime melodrama, The Edge of Night, and which perhaps was a lost opportunity for GH's competitor soaps to obtain an advantage against the Luke and Laura machine.

Procter and Gamble Productions was, and remains, cheap.

Everyone who watched daytime teevee to-day complains of Guiding Light's "new look" and justly so. As I have heard it put, and damn succinctly in my opinion, the program to-day looks like it was the first production of a bunch of college television majors. 

This historic underinvestment in its television product is characteristic of P&G, and perhaps a major reason why its once-mighty soaps are now raking the bottom of the ratings barrel. In the 1950s and 1960s it was fine and good to get away with the use of cheap sets and a scarcity of props. (Much of daytime TV was live, after all, long after live broadcasts had disappeared from primetime. Remember Hal Simms' exhortation "Presented live!" before each early 1970s episode of Edge?) But viewers expect more to-day. Production standards for all programs have increased, for better or worse. Viewers don't expect location shoots every week or frequent explosions (or do they? Curse you, Gloria Monty!), but they do expect soaps that actually, you know, look like soaps, and most of all they expect competent writing and acting. Sad to say, little of that anywhere nowadays.

In the early 1980s there was a clear trend of the ABC network-produced soaps investing greater sums in their programs than the P&G-produced serials which predominated on CBS. The rating performance for these programs at the time largely paralleled the level of production quality. And one by one the lower-rated P&G soaps, many of them veteran serials, fell: The Edge of Night in 1984, Search for Tomorrow in 1986, Another World in 1999.

If you don't believe me, observe this clip of The Edge of Night episode #6180 (originally broadcast in 1979) - skip to roughly the 2:20 mark.

Don't tell me - that's a prop wall!!!

Then compare to the Luke and Laura footage (search for it yourself, there's plenty lying around on YouToob). See what I'm talking about? Underinvestment.

Maybe not the definitive factor which led to the cancellation of Edge and its sister shows. (Bad writing and timeslot difficulties contributed a large part toward the ratings decline of Edge's last years, after the Master had departed and he was replaced with what amounted to a hack.) But certainly one factor, among several...

If Edge had contained one fast paced, action packed plot line such as Luke and Laura, but done the right way, Edge style, they might have survived yet. Recall that at one time, GH itself was on the bubble (this was pre-Monty) and there was a distinct possibility that Edge could have expanded to an hour on ABC, claiming GH's slot.

Oh how soap history might have been different.

As it is, most of the soaps to-day liberally crib from Edge, and GH was/is no exception. A Luke and Laura style plotline would have been far more at home on Edge than on an ostensibly medically-oriented drama. (Just where does the "General Hospital" in General Hospital come in to-day, anyway?) The mob, lovers on the run, rape and other criminal mayhem...tailor made for Edge. The Sonny Corinthos mafia empire would have had a far more suitable home on Edge, without the hordes of complaining fans who recall the days when General Hospital was, you know, set in a hospital. On Edge, Sonny would have fit well in the tradition of a long line of crazed mob bosses and criminal masterminds such as Louis Van Dine and his ilk.

Edge tried such a plotline eventually, way late and way lame, with the Jody/Preacher storyline, which was an obvious Luke/Laura ripoff. (Shameful that Edge, of all programs, should have had to resort to cribbing from other soaps.) But by then it was too little, too late. Edge would be off the air by the end of the year.

Such is the verdict of history. Thanx, P&G.

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