January 27, 2016

When the story is not yours, but belongs to the guest star

GENA ROWLANDS AND EDUARD FRANZ IN ABC'S BREAKING POINT
The pivotal moment comes almost halfway through "Heart of Marble, Body of Stone," a 1963 episode of the ABC psychiatric series Breaking PointDr. Edward Raymer (Eduard Franz) is treating Shelly Peters (Gena Rowlands), a woman who attempted suicide while drunk. They are discussing why she and her husband were not able to conceive, and why she wanted children in the first place. At one point Peters asks Dr. Raymer "Are you married?" to which he replies, "Does it matter?"

With that, we see one of the major differences between television of the '50s and '60s and the television of today, within the context of an episode that tells us much about the different between culture then and now, and how people see themselves.

I've discussed Breaking Point in the past; it was a spin-off from ABC's successful doctor drama Ben Casey, following the protocol for medical dramas of the day: a young doctor dedicated to change (Paul Richards) with an older doctor who serves as a partner/mentor (Franz). It didn't achieve the success of its parent series, running for only 30 episodes in the 1963-64 season. It's never received an official DVD release, although episodes can be found on the grey market and, as was the case here, on YouTube.

My impression of it, having watched a few episodes, is that it's a very good show. Franz is an actor of great dignity and gravitas, and Richards, whose face will be familiar to classic television aficionados, shows a depth and subtlety that we haven't often seen in other settings. It's different from many other medical dramas in that it deals with illnesses of the mind, rather than those of the body, and while many doctors touch on that element, it's usually with a guest star portraying the psychiatric aspect of medicine.* Watching it, I've wondered why there seem to be no shows with psychiatrists or psychologists as leading characters, much as there are no shows with classic private detectives anymore.

*A notable exception, of course, being NBC's The Eleventh Hour, itself a spin-off from Ben Casey's great rival Dr. Kildare, which ran during the same period of time as Breaking Point.

And then there was Rowlands' question and Franz's answer, and it started to come clear to me. Unlike today's serialized programs, Breaking Point was not about its lead actors, but about the guest stars and their stories. Today, were the star of a drama, medical show or police procedural to be asked if they were married, we'd almost certainly be treated to a pained look of remembrance, a flashback, an invitation to the tortured backstory which so many of today's leading characters seem to have. In other words, the story is about them, not about the guest star. If you've read this blog for any length of time you already know that this is one of my real grievances with modern television*, this tendency toward turning all drama into soap opera.

*The feeling is a little too strong to simply be called a peeve.

But that's not what Breaking Point is, because that's not what psychiatry is. The only thing important to the therapist is the life of his or her patient, and it is their story which drives the narrative; hence the response by Dr. Raymer. If it had been material to his patient's well-being, one thinks, he might have given her - and us - the answer, but as it is, she never finds out, and neither do we. It simply isn't germane to the story.

Most of us realize how vulnerable we would make ourselves by putting ourselves in the hands of someone who is essentially a stranger, paid to listen to us unburden ourselves of the most intimate, the most personal details of our lives. It is a leap of faith in more ways than one, and it must include absolute trust in the doctor. As viewers, we also look to our protagonists to display that confidence and competence in order to assure us that the story will end well, and in the case of a series in which the doctors deal with these very delicate issues, I think it would be a logical extension of this theory to suggest that we'd be uncomfortable watching a psychiatrist treat someone whose welfare we're being asked to invest in, if said psychiatrist was struggling with problems of his or her own - substance abuse, infidelity, a financial crisis, or whatnot. Yes, it's true that it might create a compelling character, this doctor who can heal others but not himself - but then the series becomes all about the doctor rather than the patient.

That's not what '60s shows of this kind were about, and for that reason I think that's why it would be very difficult to have a successful series of this type today. When we demand serialization, when we want our dramas to be all about seething passions, we cannot afford for our protagonists to cede the focus of the story to a guest star, to act as a vehicle for the story and then recede into the background. It just isn't done that way. One could argue that the last successful series to portray a mental therapist as lead character was The Bob Newhart Show, but there again the show wasn't about the patients - it was about Bob. And anyway, we all know that Suzanne Pleshette was really the sane one. . .

It's a theory anyway. It may or may not be right, but for what it's worth, it's mine. Perhaps you have some thoughts on it?

***

I mentioned that this whole discussion played itself out in a larger context, and I want to come back to that briefly in conclusion. One of the central points in the episode was the relationship between Shelly Peters and her father, and between her and her husband. She wanted to have children, or at least she says so, but why? It's the matter that Dr. Raymer is probing when the question about being married came up.

She finally confesses to the doctor that she wanted children in order to feel like a "real wife," a complete woman, one who sits on a park bench with a stroller in front of her, discussing things like child care with other mothers. It may sound terribly sexist to modern ears, but that's the reason I bring it up. In 1964 the idea of the "Career Woman" had not completely overrun the culture, and it wasn't always because women were being oppressed, locked into stereotypical roles, kept prisoners in their own homes. It was because they saw a sense of fulfillment, of completion, in being a mother. There was something natural about it, and I think this is what you hear in many of the complaints today from women who find it so hard to have it all, to combine a career with motherhood, who wish the economy would allow them to concentrate on nurturing their family.

I touched on this a couple of years ago in a piece I wrote about the '50s medical drama Medic. I won't rehash it here now; I'd much rather you go back and read the original article, which I think is still quite good. The point, though, is that it is another episode in which a woman demonstrates her understanding as to the importance of child-bearing in a marriage. In this case, she carries the gene that causes hemophilia. The only sure way to prevent it from being passed on is to not have children, and her fear is that not being able to have children will make her less desirable as a wife.

Again, it's a thought that sounds very foreign to us today, but it was something very real back then, because of the societal understanding about the definition and purpose of marriage (which, of course, drives some of our most bitter political conflicts today). And it's another example of how television, the window to the world, gives us such a good portrait of our time. It doesn't need to preach, to make a point of it, to send a message: it simply gives us a story borne of the era, and allows us today to look back on it, and learn.

4 comments:

  1. For those of us who are a certain age, we understand that all events, including TV, has to be viewed in the context of its time. I remember watching the Dr Kildare episode in 1964 dealing with an unwanted teen pregnancy...my grandparents tried to change the channel but it was too late...at the tender age of 11, I already got it. Besides, the teen male culprit was Tony Dow from Leave It To Beaver!

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  2. Just watched this and really enjoyed it. The stellar performances of Burgess Meredith and Gena Rowlands elevate what could have been a drippy drama into highly watchable television. I'll definitely watch the other ones on YouTube.

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    1. I'm glad you liked it. I've found it to be very compelling drama. You're absolutely right that the performances elevate it above the regular. I'll be interested to see what you think of one of the episodes where Paul Richards is the lead.

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