Friday, September 04, 2009

The Things We 'Love'

Recently Kaye Barley had a blogpost on Meanderings and Muses about inanimate objects to which we are inordinately attached, things that someone else would either look away from or go “Whaaa?” in complete bewilderment over the attraction. Well, honestly, I think I have plenty of those, but I want to take the discussion a step further.

Into the realm of TV land.

I already know the answer to this, as does the television industry, because a great deal of money has been made for years off re-runs, syndication, and videos. How many of us have just loved a television show, or identified with one, to the extent that its ending was akin to losing a relative? In fact, probably more grievous than losing certain relatives.

We know the kinds of numbers Dallas and M*A*S*H and Seinfeld sent up on their finales. Record numbers of people watching the final hours of these television lives. We had invited these characters into our homes and our lives, and we didn’t want to let them go. We didn’t want their stories to end. (I’m sure I’m not the only one still wondering, where Hawkeye Pierce is today.)

Fan devotion can run deep, a fact some actors appreciate while others shy away from it. But I think, our involvement with television shows is at once different and deeper than mere celebrity adulation or fantasy.

This month, two shows that hold a great deal of meaning for me are ending. Reading Rainbow has completed its 26 year run on PBS. I don’t accept the reasons they’ve given for ending the show. ‘Studies’ notwithstanding, I don’t think it is public television’s job to teach our children to read. You need interaction for that. Some shows do provide reinforcement for what parents and teachers do, but a one-sided non-interactive program won’t cut it. Computer software does it better; live people do it best. However, what Reading Rainbow accomplished was to inspire children to read beyond those years when the ‘how-to’ learning is done. Host LeVar Burton made it cool to like books. He showed where books could take us in entertaining and educational ways. He let kids see that their opinions of books mattered, and challenged them to write their own in Reading Rainbow’s book-writing contest. Should this show have ended? No. It could have evolved, maybe gotten a new host if LeVar was busy. But such a program leaves an enormous hole in PBS’ line-up. My kids (all six of them) and my husband and I shed a tear over the loss of this video ‘friend’ from their childhood. It was a part of their preschool and after-school lives. We still own several of the books covered on the show, and one of my children has an Honorable Mention from the writing contest. And they even remember some of the music from the dance numbers! Reading Rainbow and all it did and could have accomplished are already sorely missed.

The second show that is ending – and I may take a lot of ribbing for this – is The Guiding Light. Starting on radio in 1937 and making various metamorphoses until it became an hourlong TV show, Guiding Light is the oldest soap opera in existence, 72 years old. It will end – forever, they say – on September 18, 2009.

Now, let me say that I am not a woman who spends her whole day watching soaps. And I’ve only been a dedicated fan to a few. But I have either watched or ‘kept track of’ Guiding Light since I was introduced to it in 1983. The storyline at the time involved a character named Annabelle Reardon, who was wonderfully portrayed by Harley Jane Kozak. That plotline, and the writing and the acting drew me into this soap opera like no other. The fact that I shared a maiden name with one of the stars (Kim Zimmer) didn’t hurt, either.

So Guiding Light became my backdrop to raising our six kids. Eventually it became something I shared with them, talking about story lines, quality of acting or writing, or the philanthropic things the members of the cast and crew did. I would even use GL moments as teachable moments; soap operas are nothing if not morality tales.

I appreciated the writing, the soliloquies, the sometimes off-the-wall plotlines, always portrayed with sincere emotion – which was, I think, what sold some of the most over-the-top scenes. I even toyed with the idea of trying to write for GL, but – I have to admit – I chickened out.

I have a Guiding Light bracelet my husband ordered for me. I contributed to one of their on-line projects. And I was even able to break the ‘6 degrees from Kevin Bacon’ via Guiding Light, because a childhood friend had walk-on roles twice, putting me at most 3 degrees from Mr. Bacon.

The only time I ever even considered ‘dumping’ the show from my viewing habits, was when they lost continuity. I’m used to soaps aging their children off-screen and then bringing them back. However, it was both disappointing and aggravating to see GL back up a character. A character who’d left the show for boarding school as a fifteen-year-old came back four real years later as – a fifteen-year-old and proceeded to relive her teenage years with a new troubled teen storyline. I’m afraid I’ve never forgiven the writers or producers for that.

I’m hating the fact that the show is ending. I think it got a raw deal from the producers; I think it could have adapted. I hate seeing anything that has lasted so long be ended. I tend to go for records and longevity.

But, I don’t think I’ve yet gotten down to what is really behind all this. Television shows, regardless of their quality, sort of become the soundtrack of our lives. Sometimes they help us ‘remember when’ as we look back on styles that have changed or events that have been covered in story. Sometimes it’s just an ‘oh yeah, I remember watching that when I was going through my divorce or when the kids had the flu’. Maybe watching Robert Young talk to Bud did provide us a clue as to how Father could know best. But mostly these shows become the familiar photograph of the living room with the net curtains, the chicken always served on Sunday, the gathering around a piano to sing Christmas carols. They are part of what ‘we always did’.

When the writing and acting is good, television shows help us work out things in our own daily lives. Not that they replace interaction with living human beings (or even human beings on the internet!), but if the writers and actors have done their job right, there is a conclusion, a take-away a person can get to mull over and see if it applies to his own life. Sometimes a show just lets us see that our own lives aren’t so bad after all.

I’ve gone a long way to say something that is probably very simple. Humans can attach themselves to anything, I think. Things, places, even television shows, take on a value far beyond the intrinsic as they are woven into the fabric of our lives. We invest emotion in them, because they represent a segment of our lives that is important to us. We use them to hang onto the feelings, the memories, the essence of who we are and who we’ve been. So, I’ll be silly and shed some tears for shows that drop the curtain, books that close the cover, and raggedy old stuffed toys that gaze at me with scuffed up beaded eyes. They’ve been witnesses and sound tracks to the movie of my life, and I’ll hang on to them until I absolutely have to let them go.