Monday, January 11, 2010

Popular Culture: Life and Death and the Half Century Mark

The last days of 2009 marked major milestones for some half-century-old entertainment institutions.

On a neative note, nearly 54-year-old soap, As the World Turns, was cancelled. We still have months of the World left (it will last air on the 52-week anniversary of the last showing of its sister show, Guiding Light), but the end is scheduled.

When it was at its best (a place it hasn’t been since the 2005-departure of headwriter Hogan Sheffer), As the World Turns was one of the most accurate and riveting portrayals of middle American life. I missed the Irna Phillips years (when the show was written by its creator—and soap opera genre founder—a prickly spinster who, according to her one-time protégé, Harding Lemay, had rather binary views of the world). But her work is considered to be pioneering; As the World Turns was the first soap to air in 30-minute format, the first to make an adultress into a sympathetic character, and created several prototypical characters, including Lisa Miller Hughes … Grimaldi (I can’t remember all of her last names).

I started watching at the beginning of longtime headwriter Douglas Marland’s years. Much is made of some of his groundbreaking stories—like the incest-based story of Iva, Rod, and Lily, the interracial romance between Duncan and Jessica, and the introduction of daytime’s first gay character.

But Marland’s Oakdale wasn’t a 1970s movie-of-the-week issue-prone story; it was a character driven story that contrasted people by their backgrounds and personalities, reflecting the whole canvas of modern American life, from farmers going into default to working wives who order their meals from the Pampered Palette—and couldn’t cook a meal if they tried. His characters were real and, as a result, they constantly surprised. No wonder ratings were high under his leadership.

His unexpected death sent the show into years of turmoil and disarray. The show recovered for a time, when Hogan Sheffer head wrote the show (his stories were great and true to the history of the show, and he won more Emmys than Marland, but I was always partial to Marland’s work). But when Sheffer left, he was replaced by a “showwrecker,” (as I recall her being characterized in the Wikipedia.

In the past, showwrecker merely meant the author of incomprehensible stories in which characters consistently act of character. But in this case, showwrecker seems to be an appropriate monicker. She wrecked the show all the way to cancellation.

Although the press and the network credit changing viewer tastes and lifestyle patterns for the cancellation (Daytime soap operas: why the bubble burst--A fragmenting audience and the rise of celebrity-driven talk shows spell the beginning of the end for one of television's oldest genres, Andrew Ryan, Globe and Mail, December 9, 2009, Visited December 11, 2009.)

And Today isn’t the only entertainment still going strong after a half century .

The Bee Gees, who celebrate 50 years in show business (Stayin’ Alive, New York Times: November 28, 2009,, also continue going strong.

Surviving as a duo following the unexpected passing of brother Maurice in 2003, Barry and Robin recently performed on Dancing with the Stars, and released an anniversary CD and DVD of their greatest hits.

Although they haven’t charted big as a group since the 1990s, they’ve continued to produce good work and work with other artists as well (Barry’s 1980s collaborations with Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, Barbara Streisand, and Dionne Warwick were win-wins for all involved. A collaboration soon afterwards with Diana Ross was not as successful.)

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