The Duchess

Jeanne Cooper died Wednesday morning in Los Angeles. Her age is irrelevant, for she was timeless.

The IMDB credits her for appearing as Katherine Chancellor in 1006 episodes of The Young and the Restless, a tally that must surely fall short considering that she first appeared in 1973, the same year the show premiered on CBS. A single Daytime Emmy award is an indictment on the Emmys more than a statement of her acting abilities. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sits at 6801 Hollywood Blvd, a location I will surely visit when I am in California later this year.

Cooper was a legend in her own time if there ever was one, the dame of an era of television that the world left behind. America once loved its morning show anchors, evening newscasters and late night hosts who came into our lives on a daily basis. All of those daily institutions went into decline as entertainment options fragmented, including soap operas. Once-standard shows like All My Children and One Life To Live are gone and only four remain.  My grandpa surely went apeshit in his grave at the cancelation of his beloved Asa Buchanan. OLTL recently returned as a 30-minute series on Hulu, but Grandpa Julius ain’t got time for that. Asa belongs on television with the Cubs and Crossfire, dammit.

The Young and The Restless has not been immune from the decline even though its ratings improved after last year’s housecleaning of on- and off-screen talent. It still leads the other four remaining sudsers in all categories. Y&R is making a clear move towards youth in its talent and fresher, more modern sets, indicating that it probably knows it needs to keep and attract younger viewers. As it does, though, they will be coming into the show in a different way than past generations.

Soaps used to be passed down like a family heirloom. My mom’s dad passed Asa on to her, she passed Y&R on to my sister and me. If either of us ever has children, they may take it from us. That connection to their closest relationships is part of why soap fans are so incredibly tied to their shows. As more viewers come to the show without that connection they will be more difficult to retain.

Soap operas will then rely more on another connection unique to the genre. I obviously only knew Cooper in the way that all viewers did, but she and her co-stars have been a part of my life every weekday for half the time I’ve been alive. That might sound a little odd, to say that television stars we never meet can be a part of our lives, but think about it: Five days a week, for years on end. What other parts of your life are that frequent, that consistent? I’ve watched stars like Joshua Morrow and Sharon Case go from their 20s to near their 40s. Christel Khalil began her role as Lily Winters when she was 14 years old. We literally watched her grow up. A viewer cannot help but feel a connection when it devotes 39 minutes to them day after day, year after year. Soaps will need new viewers to stick with the show often enough and long enough for that connection to take root in them the way it has for so many of us for generations.

And through it all, there was Jeanne Cooper. Not young, still restless, forever the dame of daytime television.

Rest in peace, Duchess.

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Make it for TV?

Do you want your favorite book made into a television show or a movie?

I thought about this when I went to rasalvatore.com to discuss his latest novel. There is a sticky thread about turning his Drizzt novels into movies, which is something a lot of readers apparently want. I’m not so sure I do. The reason is something Salvatore said when he came to the Mall of America Barnes & Noble in 2008. Once a story is put on screen and you watch it, he said, your imagination can never recover. He used Tolkien as an example. Anyone who watches Peter Jackson’s movies first will never have the experience of imagining Middle Earth for the first time through Tolkien’s writing.

That is exactly what I experienced when I read Lord of the Rings for the first time in 2009. My imagination could only see the characters as they appeared in the movies, and it did feel like I wasn’t getting the full LOTR experience because of it. My mind was also always on alert for any time the book deviated from the movies. I definitely feel like I robbed myself and my imagination. After that I stopped watching the movies every winter in an attempt to clear it from my mind. I’ve since read the book a second time and enjoyed it much more. Hopefully with a few more years’ time I will be able to read it again and get closer to a true imagination experience.

When I take that experience back to Salvatore’s point about his own books, I am not sure I ever want to see an actor cast as Drizzt Do’Urden. I have 23 books in my imagination. Stories, characters and settings all there to be recalled at the drop of a name or a word on a page. No one else pictures Menzoberranzan the same way I do. Isn’t that the magic of reading? Everyone’s experience is different because our imaginations draw words in a different way.

I recently read the book 666 Park Avenue. It, allegedly, sparked the failed television show of the same name but could not have been more divergent from what appeared on screen. Other than the names and being set in New York City, the two had nothing in common. Being so wildly different helped get past having already seen the book on television. I’m not sure if that makes it worth it or not. If your favorite fictional character came to the screen in name only, wouldn’t that still disrupt how you picture it in your own mind?

I don’t think Salvatore fans have to worry. The Drizzt story has grown beyond what a movie can portray. Our imaginations are safe.

Lost in The West Wing

Lost. The West Wing. We were treated to 13 seasons of great television between The West Wing’s debut in 1999 and Lost’s finale in 2010. Two shows with fabulous brilliance that can’t be truly compared, but can’t be separated either. 

The West Wing was an artful show. The dialogue with perfect timing and delivery gave it a rhythmic feel as if the characters were dancing their lines instead of speaking them. A lesser show could tip easily into ridicule. But The West Wing was so brilliant we accepted it, it actually made the show better. 

Its art played into our romantic notions of what the White House might be like; what a president might be like if he eschewed the fears that hem in our real life leaders. Jed Bartlet led from his heart in the way we hope all presidents do.  

These two things are what reached out from the rest of the show to bind it to viewers. There will always be movies and television shows set to the White House, but never one so endearing. 

The West Wing had a clear lead character in Jed Bartlet, which is what you would expect from a show about the presidency. Every other character’s actions were influenced by their proximity to him whether they intended them to or not. People in politics like to joke about how it is really nothing like The West Wing made it out to be, but in this one regard I think it did it right. You can’t escape from under the way working in politics will frame your life.  

They couldn’t escape it because of where the show put them: The White House. They did White House things and we saw how their personalities influenced their handling of those things and their decisions. The decision-making process is what revealed the characters. There is the source of drama — how are those decisions made? How does making them affect the people who do? How do their unique experiences influence their contributions? That was West Wing.

Lost was raw, a plane crash cutting a vein in its character’s lives that they had no choice but to stem. This was its White House. How they reacted, interacted and then reacted to their interactions. Who are these people? What life stories do they bring to this island? How will those stories affect the choices they make on this island? Their character was revealed through these interactions.

There was no balance or art to the dialogue between characters. It was drawn from within the characters in a way that The West Wing’s really wasn’t. You could take a lot of scenes from West Wing, shift the lines among characters and come out with the same scene, the same story and the characters would not be terribly disrupted. You could not switch Sawyer’s lines with John Locke’s. Sawyer didn’t seek destiny. He mocked destiny, denied it outright. Lost’s dialogue came from some place much deeper than The West Wing’s. 

We knew West Wing was going to be a show about the presidency and the people supporting it. Lost took our assumptions that it would be a show about escaping a deserted island and threw ’em away. It was not about that at all.

Lost was about characters. Deep, complex characters. Characters that change as they take a journey. None of them ended the show the same as they began it. They traveled toward something. Each had to come to a realization or find redemption, and they all did. No major character died or left the island without doing so. 

There was no dominant Jed Bartlet. Different characters rose and fell to drive the story from episode to episode. Using that structure allowed the writers to build each character such a deep background. If you try to think about Lost written in the format The West Wing was, you can’t see a way that it works. Lost needed four separate timelines to hold up its story. It becomes a pretty remarkable body of work when you think about it that way.  

There was no natural ending like what The West Wing ran into, not once Lost established that it was not a show about leaving an island. The drama came from what the characters did in this trying situation and the journey they took within it. The journey happened without the characters even realizing it as they faced one situation after another. Isn’t that what life is? We navigate thru the things that occupy our days and only when the journey is over do we have the wisdom to look back at where we were and know the end is where we belong. That is Lost. That is life. “This is the place you made together.” 

It’s no secret which show I like better but this isn’t about deciding between two shows. On the surface you would never think a show about politics and a show about castaways would be at all similar. Each’s greatness can be found there at the intersection of similar and different. 

Profiler: Before its time?

It must have been a strange feeling for Robert Davi when he made a guest appearance on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds. Davi played the role of Detective Eric Kurz in the final episode of season five and the premiere of season six. It was only 10 years earlier that he closed the book on Agent Bailey Malone.

Agent Malone was Aaron Hotchner before there was Aaron Hotchner, just like Malone’s show Profiler was Criminal Minds before there was Criminal Minds. Starting in 1997, Profiler ran for four seasons on NBC’s Saturday night schedule. It followed the story of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force and Dr. Samantha Waters, its profiler (Ally Walker). Malone, Detective John Grant (Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon), George Fraley (Peter Frechette) and Dr. Grace Alvarez (Roma Maffia) followed Waters’ profiling instinct across the country to track and stop violent killers.

The VCTF had its stern leader in Malone, detective muscle in Grant and even CBS’ patented computer wiz in Fraley. Dr. Alvarez filled the forensics role. Sound familiar? They were Hotchner’s Behavioral Analysis Unit by a different name. Each member of Profiler’s team kept its duties more specialized than Hotchner’s BAU where all the characters seem almost equally adept at all the skills they need to track their “unsubs.”

Profiler’s story had an additional serial element that Criminal Minds mostly avoids. Its week-to-week stories took place on top of Dr. Waters’ personal life marked by an extreme tragedy: The death of her husband at the hands of a serial killer known only as “Jack.” Sam is haunted by the continual torture-hold Jack keeps her in as he weaves in and out of the show’s first three seasons until the VCTF ultimately apprehends him. It would be as if Foyet haunted Hotch for the entirety of Minds. Walker then left the show and it floundered quickly, lasting only one more season. Interestingly enough, Walker’s replacement was played by Madison Riley, who had a guest appearance on Criminal Minds in 2013.

Had it aired today, Profiler may have enjoyed a more successful fate. Broadcast television is a different place now than it was in the late 1990s. A look at last season’s top ratings compared to those of 1997 shows how much things have changed.

2011-12 Total Viewership

  1. NCIS 19.2 million
  2. American Idol (Wed) 17.7 million
  3. Dancing with the Stars (fall perf) 17.6 million
  4. Dancing with the Stars (spring perf) 17 million
  5. American Idol (Thurs) 16.6 million
  6. NCIS: Los Angeles 15.5 million
  7. Dancing with the Stars (fall results) 15.4 million
  8. The Big Bang Theory 14.9 million
  9. Dancing with the Stars (spring results) 14.7 million
  10. Two and a Half Men 14.6 million

See the rest.

Now the top broadcast shows of the 1996-97 television season

  1. ER 20.6 million
  2. Seinfeld 19.9 million
  3. Suddenly Susan 16.5 million
  4. Friends 16.3 million
  5. The Naked Truth 16.3 million
  6. Fired Up 16.6 million
  7. Monday Night Football 15.5 million
  8. The Single Guy 13.7 million
  9. Home Improvement 13.6 million
  10. Touched by an Angel 12.9 million

See the next 20 here.

Most glaringly, six of last year’s top shows were of the reality genre, which didn’t exist in  1997. Sitcoms accounted for similar bulk in 1997 taking up 70 percent of the list.

How would Profiler have ranked? Its 1996-97 viewership of 7.4 million put it 82nd. The same viewership last year would have vaulted it 30 spots higher, near the likes of Glee, House, Revenge and Scandal – all of which survived. Nearby shows like Terra Nova, NYC 22 and Missing weren’t so lucky. Following seasons saw Profiler jump to 9-10 million viewers, on par with Undercover Boss, How I Met Your Mother, Greys Anatomy, CSI: NY and The Amazing Race. Those shows survive easily.

Criminal Minds is a more mature show than Profiler. That could be due to CBS having perfected the criminal drama format. It turns out these shows like suburban model homes,  and that’s not a knock on the shows or suburban model homes. Okay maybe a little bit. This Business Insider piece from two years ago explains how they do it (even though it was prompted by a Minds spinoff that didn’t last the season). Each show benefits from the others’ successes, and Profiler never had that benefit on the NBC of the late 1990s. Not to say it would have lasted longer if it had, just that it existed on more of an island than Criminal Minds does today.

Even with that help, I don’t think Criminal Minds is perfect. Minds is set up in a way that removes as much of a viewer’s need to think as it possibly can. Dr. Spencer Reid does most of the hand holding as the team member with an eidetic memory – basically he knows everything. That’s awfully convenient. Every development in the show is revealed through dialogue, usually as a series of questions, discussions and realizations by the BAU team. Very little is actually shown. You can close your eyes and listen to it for an entire episode without missing much of anything. Profiler was more artful than that. I’d love to see a breakdown between the average amount of time in each show without dialogue. My bet would be Profiler comes out on top. And that’s why it’s my favourite of the two. It could also be why it didn’t last half as long as Minds.

Davi appeared in two of what I think are Criminal Minds’ darkest episodes as a serial killer murdered families and left only one survivor to remember the horrors. As he looked around the set, I wonder if Davi saw Profiler as a show that came before its time?

What I’m watching

By day of the week and live/DVR status.

Sunday:
Revenge. Live.
Was watching 666 Park but that got canceled. DVR.

Monday:
The Following. DVR.
Revolution was Mondays but I dropped that.

Tuesday:
Nothing

Wednesday:
Nashville. DVR.
The Americans. Live.

Thursday:
Was watching Last Resort but it ended. Live.
Person if Interest. Live.
*Zero Hour will air on Thursdays, it’ll be iPad-only until it proves itself.

Friday:
Fringe but that’s over. Live.

Saturday:
Nothing.