Baby boomer TV revisited
Last night, Tim and I were staying up way too late channel surfing, and we happened upon an episode of General Hospital on Soap TV. I watched for a few minutes, then cried out in a strangled voice (it was after 2 a.m.) “They’re killing off Alan Quartermaine!””What!” Tim shouted in a whisper, as he hastily pulled his recliner to an upright position. “They can’t be! They’re just doing a teaser, like they always do … they’ll bring him back to life …”Just then, a commercial came on and a chirpy female voice assaulted us, “In this week’s issue of ‘ABC Soaps In Depth’ – Alan dies! Watch his tearful goodbye!” The cover showed a photo of actor Stuart Damon, who plays the character, looking anything but tearful. In fact, he looked pissed.”No,” I said wonderingly, “They’re really killing him off.” Tim and I looked at each other sadly. Lest you think that Tim and I watch soap operas, let me hasten to assure you – we don’t. We hate the things. But we both had memories of General Hospital that go back many years.You see, TV not only has the power to make us laugh or cry; it also has the power to dredge up memories. And I’m not just talking about good TV. Like Noel Coward’s deathless line about the potency of cheap music, bad television can create memories just as powerful as good ones – not because of the quality of the show, but because of who and where we were when we first saw it. And often, it can bring back memories of someone we loved, if we happened to be sharing our time with them at that moment. In generations past, people’s memories reverberated to the sound of old songs being played. But for those of us in the television generation, it’s sitcom episodes.I became aware of this fact recently when one of the cable TV channels started airing the color episodes of “The Honeymooners” – not the old black and white ones from the 1950s, but the much later ones from “The Jackie Gleason Show” in the late 1960s (for those of you cult fans keeping score, I mean the ones with Sheila McCrae playing Alice). I hadn’t seen this particular episode since I was 6 years old, but suddenly I could remember, with better total recall than a conversation I’d had the day before, the exact plot and what was going to happen next. I even remembered some of the lines. Rather unnerved at this discovery, I called my brother, and his recollection of that episode was as clear and faultless as mine.To get back to “General Hospital,” I first discovered it during my mercifully brief career as a student at Mercer University, when I used to see everyone huddled around the television set every afternoon between classes. Soon, I had joined them. A huge chunk of the student population (both sexes) was engrossed in the whole Luke and Laura plot, which was rife with romance and Mafioso. It was daytime TV’s answer to “The Godfather,” written and performed so well, Coppola himself might have been directing. Up until then, I had always thought of the soaps as something my grandmother watched (she was addicted to them). Like “The Lawrence Welk Show,” it was geriatric TV, complete with life insurance and fiber supplement commercials.Like me, Tim also discovered GH when he was in college in Milwaukee. Maybe this says something about our commitment to higher learning. I forgot about Luke and Laura when I went to Europe to live, but when I came back to the states a few years later, they were still there. I was invalided at home – temporarily put out to pasture, as it were – for a time in my life, and shared a lot of quality TV time with my Dad, who was in the same predicament. We had always been close and shared the same tastes, and now, suddenly we were watching good ol’ GH together, cheering on the middle-aged characters and making fun of the younger wimpy ones.We liked the feisty rich Quartermaines, bickering and trying to kill each other all the time – an exaggeration of real life, but hey, who doesn’t want to knock off a close relative or two sometime in their lives? The older characters were especially fun, partly because they had even less scruples, but mainly because they were played by better actors who believed, as my actor friend Tom Key back in Atlanta used to put it, in “the school of big ol’ acting.”I stopped watching some years ago after my father died – I was back on the road living an active life once more, and besides, Luke and Laura had disappeared from the show. But the other night, suddenly, there I was, living all the drama all over again, and in an indescribable fury because they were killing off one of the show’s main older characters. And my very first thought was of my Dad, and how he would have felt about it. I almost reached over for the phone to call him, before I remembered he was gone.”My Dad would have hated this,” I told Tim. According to various indignant website postings that have popped up in the last day or two, 48,000 fans have written or called ABC to protest the firing of Stuart Damon, with many speculating that it was, after all, an age issue, calculated to appeal to some of the younger fans who don’t want all those old fogies cluttering up the show. I read some of the e-mails posted online, several of which begin, “I’m only in my 20s, and I hate the younger characters – why don’t you kill off some of them?” These reactions may indicate that there is, indeed, a burgeoning widespread rebellion against the “youth cult” of today’s TV. After all, it’s the baby boomers who made television what it is. And we still happen to be around – whether our tastes are catered to or not.
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