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Bernard's "World" View: In Defense of Christopher Goutman


Several days ago, I posted an entry about the fallout from the death of Dr. Reid Oliver (Eric Sheffer Stevens) on As The World Turns. There were three central ideas in that piece. First, despite the very legitimate complaints that any given fan might have, ATWT is providing great human drama here at the end of its run. Second, Reid’s tragic passing and donation of his heart to Chris (Daniel Cosgrove) encapsulated that goal mainly by thrusting the Hughes’— the show’s core family since its very debut— front and center toward its conclusion. Third, given the soap opera wrapped production months ago, the idea of kicking a dead horse with unrelenting criticism isn’t going to make it win the Kentucky Derby.

I have not budged one iota from any of those positions and I am about to incur the wrath of a whole lot more of you by making what I know will be a very controversial statement to many: I believe that in these final days, executive producer Christopher Goutman has made mostly the right decisions.

Before I go on, let’s wrestle with  my aforementioned post briefly. A number of readers agreed with my take on matters; just as many, if not more, took great issue against it. Some of those latter responses were the same old, predictable hoo-hash of rote complaints and used the occasion to voice an almost now-cliche litany of grievances against Goutman, CBS and the rest of the usual suspects. On the other hand, some of the dissents were very eloquent, one of the most notable from DC reader chip88.

As I read through them, I was struck by two emotional threads that connected the pros and the cons— passion and sadness. By the time Guiding Light went off the air in 2009, the dominant emotion that carried the day among fans was raw, visceral anger. Many fans railed against what then-executive producer Ellen Wheeler had “done” to GL; the shabby state of that show’s “new production model”; some of the ridiculous aspects of the final weeks and so on. Nonetheless, at the end of the day one came away with the sense that even diehard GL fans knew the show had reached the end of its viability. Many even felt that the “Light” had burned out long ago.

By contrast, even the angriest of ATWT’s detractors, at their core, seem more upset by the fact that there are/were so many vibrant stories still left to be told about the citizens of Oakdale, Illinois. With or without Goutman, the majority sentiment appears to be that the World doesn't have to stop spinning at all.

A prime example of the vibrancy evident on screen came in the form of last week’s brilliantly acted, incendiary scenes in which John Dixon (Larry Bryggman) confronted ex-wife Lucinda Walsh (Elizabeth Hubbard) over her self-destructive behavior and got a little insight into his own. Their confrontations were infused with a kind of instantly-recognizable emotional shorthand, as it related to the characters’ present circumstances. The scenesproved so electric and rich that viewers of any generation or length of time as fans could grasp their history.

What was most important was not a nod or flashback to something like the fabled John and Lucinda hot tub scene from way back when, but rather Lucinda calling John out for not having been there for her during her battle with cancer; or when John asked Lucinda why she fights everyone and everything in her life. Lucinda's answer revealed the true nature of her character: “[I fight] because it is the only thing I do well.” That exchange provided definitive insight into all 26 years of Lucinda’s battlles, neuroses, self-destructive tendencies, machinations and checkbook gangsterism, not the least of which was her most recent desire to destroy Craig (Jon Lindstrom) at any cost including the potential loss of her adopted daughter Lily (Noelle Beck).

So how did we get to such a brilliantly revealing question from John concerning Lucinda’s inner motivations and demons? By having Lucinda act in perfect, historical character during her  final ATWT story arc, launching an all-consuming vendetta against an enemy, forming highly-questionable alliances (Anthony Blackthorn, Ralph Manzo) and having it all blow up in her face at great personal cost.In the end, Lucinda once again fell backon the only perceived constant in life, Worldwide

In the midst of Lucinda’s chaos, Blackthorn (Billy Warlock) provided a catalyst for Janet (Julie Pinson) and Dusty (Grayson McCouch) to reunite. Likewise, Manzo’s (Stuart Damon) re-emergence not only gave Jack (Michael Park) closure about Brad’s death, but also allowed insight into Lucinda’s past and gave her the spark of an idea that she could live a life outside of her daughter and company— just not with Manzo— paving the way for a full reconciliation with John Dixon, the only man who gets Lucinda as she is.

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This is the kind of densely-plotted connective tissue that the Douglas Marland used to write; I say “real” in order to distinguish the television writer from the mythical “Douglas Marland” of selective nostalgia and chopped up YouTube clips. The way Lucinda’s plots, Reid’s death, Chris’ heart transplant and the Jack/Carly/Janet/Dusty imbroglio have been intertwined are true in spirit to Marland's canvas spanning, intricate storytelling. They have provided many opportunities for most of the cast, affected nearly all of the major characters and moved every story to some sort of closure in an economical fashion not seen on most soaps in their final days on the air.

This is why ATWT is in as good, if not better, dramatic shape as Texas at the end of its two-year run in 1982. Of all the soaps that I’ve watched fade to black since I began in the 1970’s (excluding Passions, a show I never cared for), only Texas seemed to look at the interior lives of all of the characters on its canvas and treat the show’s end as the opportunity for them all to move on to new chapters in their lives. Several serials (Generations, Capitol, Port Charles) continued their storylines and ended with unresolved cliffhangers. Other finales involved stunts (Loving and its spinoff The City with serial killers; Andie’s ridiculous wedding assassination plot during BJ and Warren’s nuptials on Santa Barbara; gorillas invading Bay City at the end of Another World before its beautiful, final scenes). Sunset Beach went out as forgettable as it came in. Search for Tomorrow faded out fitfully but gracefully. The Edge of Night stayed true to its mostly plot-based roots and sprang everyone into another mystery/adventure as the end credits music swelled and the final credits rolled.

Texas—which as I mentioned I feel is the soap to benchmark in terms of ending things well—under then headwriter Pamela K. Long, asked internal, character-based  questions of nearly all of its canvas. The one, overarching inquiry which fuels any soap opera and all of its principal, featured characters is: “What is most important to you?”Almost everyone on Texas had an opportunity to evaluate or re-evaluate their lives, loves and fortunes before moving on to new chapters in their lives. The two-year old Another World spinoff ended with the fitting sale of fictional television station KVIK and a moving toast that doubled as a tribute to the show and their efforts featuring the majority entire cast.

The citizens of Oakdale won’t get that specific kind of final sendoff, but will have gone on final journeys where these last stories have motivated its principals to reexamine their mistakes (Barbara (Colleen Zenk); Lucinda; Craig), triumphs (the reconciliation of Jack and Carly (Maura West) and Janet and Dusty and the birth of their baby), cherish all that they hold dear (almost all of the remaining Hughes’ in various forms), and embrace (mostly) hopeful futures (Gabriel (Ben Levin) in Montega; Liberty (Sarah Wilson) at F.I.T.; Parker (Mick Hazen) as a cop in honor of his fathers Hal (the late Benjamin Hendrickson) and Jack; Casey (Billy Magnussen) and Alison (Marnie Schulenberg) in marriage and new career paths). Their “final” decisions and actions have not come out of the blue as so many seem to think they have, but have been building for weeks and even months.

I think a lot of viewers these days watch day-to-day and week-to-week, often permanently judging characters and entire storylines on a scene-by-scene,  minute-to-minute basis as they air. Twitter, Facebook and other social media have only accelerated and underscored that tendency. Our instantaneous reactions can become etched in opinionated stone and we get so caught up in being “right’ that we sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Despite the fact that those trees have been a little ragged, in my opinion, Goutman has done a fine job at the end of the day. Do I agree with every last one of those decisions? Of course not. However, in the next two days as we say goodbye to As the World Turns’, I’m going to go to bat (mostly) for Goutman, look at the final two episodes, and within that context critique why some of the things that fans want are not always what’s in the best interest of a show.