Before I get to the main event regarding the much ballyhooed resurrection of the lost Spaulding heir, a little housekeeping is in order.
First, no matter what one may think of the current state of Guiding Light or its prospects for survival, one cannot fault CBS for not marketing the high holy hell out of the return of Grant Aleksander and the character of Phillip Granville Spaulding. GL/Phillip/Aleksander has been everywhere: print ads and a steady barrage of television commercials have been broadcast non-stop, right down to a live interview with Sarah Bibel on Fancast.com. Internet advertising has been almost overwhelming.
Think I'm exaggerating? Consider that the publicity has run so deep and so wide that outlets as disparate as TVGuide.com have featured two video packages to The Wall Street Journal's financial/investment website MarketWatch.com have featured Aleksander/GL related material. Hell, all that was missing was a Super Bowl commercial; given how ubiquitous the marketing has been, no doubt CBS would have run one had it broadcast the game! I don't believe I have seen this much publicity for a soap since the heydey of General Hospital's Luke & Laura or, more recently, Susan Lucci's reported pay cut.
To be clear, this massive push of and investment in marketing muscle is nothing short of a last ditch effort to give the show a much-needed push before the executioner's axe swings to and fro. However, it is far better and far more impressive treatment than a lot of now defunct soaps received from their networks when they were rumored to get the axe. I would even go so far as to say that the kind of marketing prowess that CBS has demonstrated here should be a textbook example for NBC, ABC (long the leader in this kind of thing) and for the rest of the CBS lineup of how to market the genre to the general public going forward.
Second, if we only have to go by what we see onscreen without benefit of knowing that a lot of GL's location footage in Peapack, New Jersey is shot out of sequence and on different dates, Springfield apparently has the freakiest weather and topography in the northern hemisphere!
And now The Main Event: for those who have been reading some of my recent GL postings, it might not come as a shock that I've been thoroughly enjoying the return/reintroduction of Phillip and portrayer Aleksander to the canvas. What might surprise you is that much of that enjoyment has less to do with Phillip himself than you might think.
With all of the hype surrounding Phillip's return, it has been a pleasant surprise how low-key the whole affair has been onscreen. By contrast, TV Guide Canada'sNelson Brancoreports that my all-time soap journalism hero Mimi Torchin considers this soap version of the Second Coming "anti-climatic but somewhat enjoyable." I would argue that we look more to recent history regarding big name comebacks of actors in their popular roles for some comparison and clarity:
One Life to Live totally botched the (writer's strike crippled) return of Andrea Evans as Tina Lord, but has scored big with Florencia Lozano as Tea Delgado. As the World Turns has mangled Dusty Donovan (Grayson McCouch) by throwing him in one short-term, unfocused storyline after another and rendered original portrayer Scott Bryce's version of Craig Montgomery — once a nearly flawless merger of performer & character — nearly unrecognizable. On the other side of the mountain, The Young and the Restless has brilliantly been using former cast members and their characters in a nod to fabled history.
The difference between the successful and unsuccessful comebacks mentioned above is not so much the utilization of history, but rather the ones that worked were where characters have been folded into the canvas without sacrificing or compromising ongoing story. In this regard, Phillip's return wasn't a literal showstopper like Dusty's on ATWT, where a third of the romantic canvas was rearranged (the split of popular Emily & Casey pairing and sending him into Alison's orbit; immersion into Paul & Meg once again) to accommodate the character. Instead, Phillip was folded into the action and is spinning things in new directions, especially the question of who the Spaulding Prince is now.
Philip's rescue of Coop (John Driscoll) from a burning car re-established Phillip's bonafides as a heroic figure. On the other hand, he's had unreadable flashes in his eyes such as his expression when he interrupted Alan (a remarkably consistent Ron Raines) and Beth's (Beth Chamberlin) wedding that he might not yet be quite right in the head. He had that same crazy look when he pulled a gun on Alan — at his own gravesite no less! — but later in typical, familiar Phillip-esque fashion, stepped back to let Buzz (Justin Deas) punch Alan in the kisser after the elder Spaulding cruelly insinuated that Coop should have died in the crash.
Finally, all of the characters who have come face to face with Phillip have had fairly logical reactions: shock, fear, uncertainty, anger and bewilderment. They are pulling each other aside and basically asking, "WTF?" After all, they have known for several years Phillip has been alive and they are asking the kinds of most basic questions that might be glossed over by other shows: Why did he come back now? What is his agenda, if any? Most importantly, is Phillip sane again? Questions that for one reason or another, Phillip has yet to provide any concrete answers. He says he's not the same man that he was when he was shot and later left town for good. But which Phillip Spaulding returned to Springfield? Intriguing.
Within that same vein of thought, one the things that separates a good return from a bad one is how the newly returned dearly or not-so-dearly departed impacts others and how their presence ripples across the canvas. On the downside again is ATWT's Dusty, whose back from the dead routine could best be summed up as "Dusty. You're back. How would you like the Stenbeck fortune with a bowl of Worldwide on the side?," developments of which have had not much of an impact for anyone, most of all it seems, Dusty.
By comparison, Tea's arrival in OLTL's Llanview has been nearly picture perfect by setting up the resolutions to not one, but two major trials; reigniting an old romantic rivalry;establishing a new enemy based on their individual histories with the same man; touching on a past relationship with a now-nearly grown child; and underscoring a mysterious relationship under a new plot/mystery. That's a lot of stuff and yet her multitudinous connections and her impact on other stories, by and large, make perfect sense.
With a week's worth of airtime under our belts — and we should bear in mind it's only been one week — and with other fallout to come, it must be stated for the record that Phillip's return is meeting the latter criteria quite nicely so far. This gets to my earlier statement about how much my enjoyment of Phillip's return has little to do with Phillip himself: people are being shaken up by his mere presence. Despite Alan's bluster, he is so unnerved that he went to a slightly dazed Rick (the still wry Michael O'Leary) to try to get answers. Lizzie (the marvelous Marcy Rylan) physically recoiled at the sight of her long missing father, then almost melted at his gesture of kindness when he presented her with a memento from her childhood. Beth spilled her guilt about her children and her anger about Phillip's disappearance and the weight of her often bad choices. Olivia (Crystal Chappell at her edgy, jumpy best) freaked out to a totally supportive Natalia (Jessica Leccia) who took control of Liv and moved their relationship and inch or two closer to...something. When Natalia brushed back Olivia's hair, the lights in my home flickered from the surge of electricity! The common thread here is that Phillip either mostly listened or wasn't physically present in the scenes. Phillip's return so far, like the best soap returns, is as much about the people he is affecting as it is about him.
This leads us to the final reason why Phillip's return to Springfield has been so good: the rest of the show didn't grind to a halt. This was captured brilliantly in the scenes where Phillip interrupted the wedding, stopping the proceedings in their literal tracks...until he revealed Coop had been in an accident and a stunned Beth and just about everyone ran off to the hospital. Yes, Phillip is back but not at the expense of other developments!
Moreover, the lead up to the impending death (as of this writing) of Coop has been one of the most interesting storylines involving the Coopers in years. Special mention must be made of Mandy Bruno's (Marina) performance, who knocked her scenes out of the park upon her realization that Coop was the person driving Buzz's car. Deas has been riveting as the shell-shocked, guilt-ridden Buzz, whose nervous ball of energy and fury erupted in a great scene where Buzz was about to clock Alan upside the head with a rock. I've seen that kind of white hot anger in real life and Deas caught the mood perfectly. As a nice little bonus, it has been great seeing Daisy (Bonnie Dennison) act as a supporting player to Buzz instead of the other way around.
On a personal level, I've loved Chamberlin's performance these last few weeks and the tilt-a-whirl of emotions she's had to play in very difficult scenes. For my money, no one in daytime does nervous desperation anywhere near as good as she does. I know she is criticized by some fans for her affectations and acting choices (the hair brushing and hand to the forehead, for example) but no matter. I think she's been fantastic.
And what of Grant Aleksander? Overlooking for the moment that there were many outdoor scenes where he looked like he was clearly, yes, freezing his balls off in Peapack, I think Aleksander's first week has been pretty damn impressive. He's straddled the fence as an actor by conveying hints of the crazy Phillip who was written off GL in 1994 while showing us that the Phillip of old is back in the fold. Aleksander has displayed various shades of Phillip's charm, exasperation, and eternal bemusement. Aleksander is quite literally interpreting the Spaulding Prince as a shell of his former self. In this case, it is a good thing. Previous head writers Ellen Weston and David Kreizman had stripped Phillip of almost all of the qualities that fans knew and loved. Now co-headwriter Jill Lorie Hurst and the GL writing team, along with Aleksander, have the opportunity to redefine Phillip and refill him with those qualities that made him an iconic character in GL history while still keeping his edge.
It is from this vantage point that we can see any number of storyline possibilities. Will Phillip really search for Jonathan (Tom Pelphrey) and Sarah? How will he factor in Lizzie's relationship with Bill (Daniel Cosgrove)? What are his goals for Spaulding Enterprises and where might his beloved Aunt Alexandra (Marj Dusay) fit in? What are the possible complications for Emma and Otalia? Will he side with Buzz against Alan or does he have his own plan for his father in mind? How will the return of Mindy Lewis (the radiant Krista Tesereau) stir the pot? And what has Phillip been doing for five years that he didn't know about anything from his grandchild Sarah to the marriage of his ex-wife to his father?
I'm not saying GL will explore all these potential stories or that it even has time to do so if it doesn't meet its network dictated ratings goals. Like so many fans however, I am very encouraged that Guiding Light is better than it has been in a long, long time. What is being done on screen and within narrative is more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; there is a true effort to fundamentally return to the basics of soap opera instead of engaging in a misguided hitchhiking expedition through The Hills. So far, the return of Phillip has been very entertaining for this viewer. So far. Let's hope EP Ellen Wheeler and her team of writers maintain the emphasis of stories with momentum over reality show faux-ennui and character based drama over artificial "realism."
Welcome back, Grant Aleksander and Phillip Granville Spaulding. It's good to have you home.