General Hospital Update: Understanding Itself, Misunderstanding Viewers

By Ed Martin

It’s been two months since executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati took control of ABC’s General Hospital – long enough by any measure for a creative team to make its mark on a soap opera and make clear what they intend to do with it.

Now, I don’t want to start right in with the complaints, because entirely too many people who have read my previous columns about GH think that I’ve been too hard on the show, or that I want to see it die. So let me make clear that nobody wants GH to survive and thrive more than I do. I’ve been a loyal viewer since 1978, and I have supported this show in the television and advertising businesses for more than half

General Hospital today doesn’t play like a show that is fighting for its life. Just because ABC has cancelled The Revolution and extended GH’s stay of execution doesn’t mean that anyone should assume the show is out of danger.

of that time. We can all agree that GH in particular and the soap genre overall has been crippled by the involvement over the last ten-plus years of executives, producers and writers who either didn’t care or simply didn’t care to care. One thing is certain: They rarely listened to fans. If they did, a number of recently cancelled soap operas might still be with us and as vital as they once were, and GH wouldn’t have been allowed to deteriorate in the way it did since before the turn of the millennium. (This begs the question: Why are sports fans and sci-fi fans marketed to and catered to in ways that swell their ranks and make billions for relevant franchises, while soap fans, an equally enthusiastic and devoted group, are all-too-often spit upon? I resent it. Do you? Discuss.)

Anyway, let’s begin with some compliments. Valentini and Carlivati have demonstrated a knowledge of and laudable respect for the history of GH (something that many previous producing and writing regimes largely ignored). Port Charles feels like a community again, just as Llanview did on their previous gig, One Life to Live. The return of Finola Hughesfinola hughes as Anna Devane has been a godsend. (I would like to see Hughes have more scenes with Jane Elliott and Nancy Lee Grahn, two of the best actresses in the history of daytime drama, yet both grievously underutilized on this show.) Similarly, the return of Robin Mattson as moon-bat Heather Webber, a character who was at center stage when I first started watching GH, has been big fun. (Heather at that time was portrayed by Cher’s sister, Georgianne LaPierre!)

Meantime, two veteran cast members who never made much of an impression are turning in outstanding performances under the new regime: Jason Thompson as grief-stricken Dr. Patrick Drake, who hasn’t had much to do since saying goodbye to the wife he thinks is dead, and Brandon Barash as mobster Johnny Zacchara, also in an emotional tailspin after learning that his late sister was actually his mother. Suddenly, Johnny is multi-dimensional, oddly sympathetic, dangerously sexy and infinitely more interesting than any of the other criminals on the GH canvas.

Michael Easton as Lt. John McBain, one of the many characters from One Life to Live that have been brought onto the GH canvas, has left all of the other male actors on GH in the dust (with the exceptions of Thompson and Barash.) His chemistry with Finola Hughes, Jane Elliott and especially Kelly Monaco has been so strong that I challenge anyone to admit that they fast-forward through his scenes with those actresses, even when they are repetitive. I’d like to see him stick around full time, and I wouldn’t mind if he brought along his former co-star Melissa Archer as his true love Natalie, a forensic technician. I would rather watch McBain and Natalie take charge of the Port Charles police station than suffer another day with Dante Falconeri and Lulu Spencer (two characters that could disappear tomorrow and not be missed).

Speaking of the influx of OLTL characters, where is Skye Quartermaine (Robin Christopher) when we need her? She knows these people from her years in Llanview. She would seem to be a natural bridge between the two shows. Further, Skye started out as a resident of Pine Valley, so she might also be utilized to clear up some of the questions that linger for fans of All My Children.

In fact, a blast from All My Children could be just what GH needs. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane blew into Port Charles for a day or two, perhaps to do an interview with Crimson editor Kate Howard  about the new movie she was going to Hollywood to star in when AMC ended its run. In the interview with Kate, and/or in conversations with Skye and Anna (whom she also knows) Erica could reveal all kinds of information about what has been happening in Pine Valley these last few months. (Who did J.R. shoot? Did Erica and Jackson break up? Who was the last person Dr. David Hayward miraculously brought back from apparent death?)

Unfortunately, this is where the compliments and cheery good thoughts end. In every other way, GH today doesn’t play like a show that is fighting for its life. Just because ABC has cancelled The Revolution and extended GH’s stay of execution doesn’t mean that anyone should assume the show is out of danger. If the upcoming GMA in the Afternoon makes noise, makes news and generates ratings during its two-month run this summer ABC just might decide to keep it going when Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show makes its debut. Hell, ABC would be foolish not to. If properly produced, GMA in the Afternoon could be the perfect platform on which to promote the network’s upcoming fall shows, especially to women and young demographic groups. Throw in a few choice bands and other performers and the young ones will come running, infusing GMA in the Afternoon with the same crackling Times Square-centered energy that MTV once enjoyed with TRL. If this thing takes off like a rocket I really don’t think ABC will kill it come fall, and if that happens, GH and The Chew will have to fight it out for ABC’s last remaining afternoon time slot.

In other words, GH should have started kicking major butt several weeks ago. Instead, we’ve had almost two months in which Valentini and Carlivati have not started a single compelling storyline that is not somehow tied to one of the three main characters that have sent millions of former fans running and rendered those of us who refuse to give up feeling fatally fatigued. (Don’t take my word for it. Just check out the ratings.) Yes, I’m talking about Sonny Corinthos, Carly Corinthos Jacks and Jason Morgan. (I have detailed my complaints about these characters in previous columns that may be found here and here.) If ABC refuses to shift focus away from these characters, or if Valentini and Carlivati refuse to do something utterly drastic with them, then GH might as well close up shop now, because as long as it swirls around those three as the characters they are today it will remain the GH that most people do not want to see.

Sonny in recent weeks has been more deplorable than ever before, as have most of the people in his circle, all rallying to support him during his trial for the killingssonny of Cole Thornhart and his little girl, Hope. What a pointless and unpleasant story the death of these two innocent people turned out to be, especially for fans of OLTL. And what a waste of time that trial was, not because Sonny was found not guilty for something he didn’t do, but because nobody has come down on Sonny for putting into motion the series of events that led to the accident in the first place.

Carly has been similarly (and predictably) detestable, though not in any way that is new or interesting. How I wish something would happen that would put her through an emotional ringer resulting in pain and grief similar to that which she has caused so many other characters. Why hasn’t multi-millionaire Jax popped back into town to spirit his little girl Jocelyn away from her unbalanced mother, who has brought yet another very dangerous man (Johnny) into her home? Why isn’t Michael acting up? This poor kid was shot in the head, rendered comatose for a year, sent to prison and brutally raped all because of the choices Carly and Sonny made for him. Isn’t it time for him to deal with what he went through and lash out a bit?

And then there’s Jason, now the most revolting of this trio, known on many a soap blog as the Unholy Three. After discovering that the baby his wife is carrying is Franco’s, the now deceased twin brother he never knew he had, Jason has become so wrapped up in his own half-witted misery that he is showing almost no concern for Sam. That might be understandable, were it not true that Franco – a homicidal maniac – raped her! To repeat: Sam was kidnapped and raped. But the entire aftermath storyline is centered more on what it means to Jason than what it has done to Sam. The insensitivity of this storyline boggles the mind. Kelly Monaco kelly Monacoought to receive a shelf full of Emmys for playing through this junk as well as she has.

So where are we now? We’ve watched young Starr Manning lose her little girl and her boyfriend in the umpteenth story of mob violence involving Sonny, who is now destroying the lives of characters from another show since he has pretty much ruined those of almost everyone on GH. We’ve watched Sonny slide through yet another trial without ever doubting that he would be found not guilty. (Imagine the compelling stories that could have followed if he had been wrongfully convicted and sent to prison!) We’ve watched Carly continue to act like her usual unhinged self while boffing yet another bad guy. We’ve watched Jason process the rape of his wife as something that happened primarily to him. We’re still suffering through three wildly unpopular stories that had already overstayed their welcome before Valentini and Carlivati even took over: Solving the murder of murderous Lisa Niles, identifying the assailant in the stripper attacks and processing the aftermath of the Franco mess. (The fact that Franco is the father of Sam’s baby might be interesting if Franco were still alive, or if Dr. Alan Quartermaine, who never knew that Franco was his son, hadn’t been stupidly killed off in a sweeps stunt some years back. Imagine Alan’s confrontation with Heather!)

Meanwhile, we continue to watch the town grieve for the late Robin Scorpio, even though she isn’t dead, just improbably abducted by a sinister someone who will likely be revealed to be Caesar Faison or Helena Cassadine, two characters at the center of more abduction stories than I care to remember. They ought to recast Robin and get this story going as soon as possible, though I don’t see how they can make it into anything fresh and exciting, unless it marks the return of Casey the alien! (Maybe he could utilize one of the crystals from his home planet of Lumina to destroy Sonny once and for all.)

Finally, the less said about the Kate/Connie weirdness, the better, except to note that watching Connie attack a chocolate cake like it had killed her child was some kind of low point for this show (though I have to admit that I think Kelly Sullivan is making the most of what has become a truly thankless role). Kate is supposed to be at the helm of a highly influential international fashion magazine, though I wonder how she can be such without a staff and while she’s so busy running around as crazy Connie.

Valentini and Carlivati managed to wrap up the wretched Woman in White storyline in one week’s time, but they continue to play with the Lisa Niles, Franco and stripper stories as though anyone cares. Better they should start something new, or address other lingering storylines that could prove to be interesting and possibly entertaining, like the whereabouts of Valentin Cassadine or the identity of the driver of the other car that went speeding by Elizabeth Webber’s house the night poor little Jake was run down. I would also like them to figure out a way to bring a few recently deceased characters back from the dead, especially Alan, AJ and Emily Quartermaine and Georgie Jones. Those are stories the audience would like to watch. While the new regime at GH clearly understands the show itself, they have much to learn about its fans.

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Ed Martin is a veteran television journalist who writes for many national publications and websites, including the Huffington Post. He blogs regularly at TV Worth Watching,  http://www.tvworthwatching.com/contributors/martin.shtml

Comments

  1. Dee says:

    Once again, you totally hit it on the head, Mr.Martin. Hopefully, in the next couple months, there’ll be some kind of shift in the stories, but then again, I’ve said this crap forever. Call me a pessimist, but I hope there’ll be some kind of changes for this show.

  2. Dee says:

    Oh, and Jason’s angry that Sam didn’t tell him that she was carrying Franco’s kid, the McPain business, and that Robin died? What a joke!!! The man KILLS for a living, and don’t forget, this is the same guy that helped Carly and Sonny deny AJ his own son. So that’s all right, but what Sam did isn’t?!? Plus, he has no empathy for what Sam’s going through- once again, just another example of how the writing makes Jason sympathethic, and how everything has to be about poor widdle Jasey. Sickening, sickening, sickening.

  3. Chris says:

    You got Lisa’s last name wrong, Ed! It’s Niles, not Miller!

    Marlena says: You’re right. Ed just was carried away by passion while writing this column and mispoke! I do it all the time.

  4. Mary Chayko says:

    Ed, I’m a sociologist, but it doesn’t take a sociologist to explain the differential treatment of sports/sci-fi/soap fans and franchises. I can do it in one word: Sexism. Soaps are a traditionally female-centered, female-consumed cultural genre, which explains a good portion of the disrespect they’ve gotten in the past and still get today. Sexism is playing one of the biggest roles in soaps’ destruction — the disrespect for and devaluation of women and their culture.

    Marlena says: I’ve written about misogyny quite a bit, but get ready for a grand treatment on it in the future!

  5. James says:

    Thank you for a much more balanced review of GH this time. I agree with virtually everything that you said. The show’s not perfect. There are parts I’m loving, parts that are boring me. But its still substantially better than this time a year ago.

    As much as I disliked the John McBane character on OLTL, he works perfectly in Port Charles. Doesn’t irritate me in the least here. He’s got great chemistry with all his scene partners so far. And I’m loving the inside jokes to vampires and knowing Sam from somewhere before.

    Brandon Barash! Have always thought he was good in the role, but now he’s giving a can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-screen performance. So sexy and dangerous, yet hurting and fragile. He’s truly the best thing on the show right now.

    And its amazing I say that about Brandon, because two years ago, I was saying it about Dominic Zampronga, who is now boring me to death. Clearly, it’s all in the writing since I know he Dominic can give compelling performances too. As much as I like Dante and Lulu together initially, they’re boring now. Ahh, the old saying, happy couples are boring couples.

    Loving that Heather is back. Loving Anna back. Now, I want to see them get Scotty and Laura back too. And find a way to resurrect Alan and AJ. Maybe David Hayward has been working with Helena to preserve these lost Quartermaines way down 50 levels underneath the hospital . . .

    Starr’s not working for me on the show. But maybe when Todd and some more Llanview people are there, the character will begin to work in Port Charles. We’ll see . . . .

    Would prefer the Sonny, Jason, Carly screen time be reduced. But I also understand that many of the viewers who signed on in the past decade only know the show as centering around Sonny. Don’t want to risk alienating the existing viewers by making too substantial a shift in storytelling focus too quickly. Hopefully, it will be more gradual and lapsed viewers will get back to the show.

    I still believe firmly in Ron and Frank. Am confident they can do wonders with the show just like they did with OLTL.

  6. Dee says:

    Well, James, kind’ve agree with you, but the Sonny/Carly/Jason stuff is the number one thing that is totally killing this show. We understand that we know the show is centered around Sonny, but we also understand that the storyline needs a quick shift. I mean, how much violence, dysfunction, and darkness do we need to see every day? Soap operas are a method of entertainment, an escape from the real world’s problems, I don’t need to see Sonny go nuts and threaten to kill anyone every day, I don’t need to see Jason treat his wife like dirt, kill people, and be relegated to sainthood every day, and Carly act like a spineless, immature dope every day.

    Bottom line, to make a show great, you need balance in storytelling. Yeah, you can have the mob, but come on, at least give some other deserving characters like the Quartermaines, Mac, and Alexis (who have been the cornerstones of this show for a long time), along with stories that make sense. Plus, inject some stories with some heart, humor, and fun. And if you want to bring in the OLTL characters, try not to make the focus of the show, just integrate them slowly and purposely with the other characters in just the right mix so it can be entertaining, not aggravating.

    The goal isn’t to alienate viewers; it’s to entertain. And in order to entertain and survive in this dwindling genre, GH needs to shift the storyline focus. We’re not saying get rid of the mob wholesale, just a little more balance and more focus on happy things and other characters.

  7. GHFAN says:

    I couldn’t disagree MORE about McBain. He’s boring!!! And I don’t need anymore OLTL’ers coming to GH. They had their show. Let GH fans have theirs. I don’t see their value and the ratings aren’t showing it either.

    The show is still one-sided. While I agree some things have gotten better.

    I saw no need to fire so many GH writers and replace them with OLTL writers. That makes it obvious to me Frank and Ron are writing for OLTL not GH. I don’t want a Hybrid show. The ratings are showing it’s NOT WORKING.

    Give me back General Hospital. Quit glorifying the mob, more balance and STOP with the characters being absent for weeks and weeks.

  8. GHFAN says:

    Well said Dee

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have been a loyal fan for almost 20 years but when they broke Sam and Jason up the first time I quit watching until20 09 when they put them back togther. They have been through so much they need to let Jason go and beg Sam to forgive him and help her raise the baby. It’s not her fault or the baby’s. He is an ass for treating her like this.

  10. Marilyn Henry says:

    Guess I always try to look at it from the writers’ and producers’ standpoint.
    A show at the bottom of the soap ratings was kept, even though the fan magazines and fans alike were fed up with it and many were tuning out and had tuned out. (Keeping it seemed to be the decision primarily of Frons, head of daytime TV, no longer employed there.)
    Another soap near the top of the soap ratings was canceled. It was a show that came in on budget, had cheering, dedicated fans and had enjoyed a couple of sterling years, plus 40-some years of off-and-on degrees of excellence. Hundreds of people were put out of work in a profession where there are fewer jobs all the time, before or behind camera. Skilled actors who had the experience of 5 to 30 years on soaps were out of work and unlikely to find new work. Most had strong fan bases, viewers who were outraged over the cancellations and the ending of their relationships with these actors and their characters. And those actors needed no seasoning, no periods of learning the work.

    Soap acting is one of the most demanding and stressful professions around; Learning 40 to 50 pages each day, mostly no rehearsal time (lucky if they find time to ‘run’ lines with their scene partners), and a quick run-thru on the floor and then taping, often till far late in the afternoon. To be good, an actor has to develop an approach, a technique for getting into the character, and once establishing that ‘take’, be consistent. In the last few years the studios have cut cost by lessening the time to shoot, by expecting actors to hit it the first time, often without rehearsal. Crews felt the pinch as well. Experience in both actors and crews made these demands somewhat workable, if not exactly comfortable.

    AND the shows were constantly under threat of PTB shortsightedness and greed. Unwilling to fund the shows well enough to get the quality the fans had long enjoyed, the PTB saw the shows began to slip and they were growing restless. (The old axiom of ‘you have to spend money to make money’ never occurred to them.) They began to interfere drastically with writers and producers, making their jobs harder. This put more pressure on everyone in the soap business.
    So, if bringing some of those out-of-work actors to the remaining show, bringing in some skilled writers and crew members, and trying some proven techniques that just might save the bottom rated soap–well, it just makes sense.

    I see Frank Valanti making some VERY tough decisions, trying not to change the show TOO much too soon, but knowing it must change into a far more watchable soap if it hopes to survive. Ron C was probably going without sleep for months. The OLTL fans were still angry and grieving without a soap to watch. If some of them could be enticed to GH, great. Michael Easton was OLTL’s most popular leading man. OLTL had just been able to bring back Roger Haworth when the show got canceled and in those few months it was obvious he was able to stir much excitement. GH had practically no teen or young people stories. How to get that age group to watch? So FV chose, some for popularity, some to fill needs. I would guess as many GH fans loath Sonny as love him, so he needed a law-abiding adversary rather than another mob-style enemy, thus enabling the show to pull away from the constant violence and mob-related complaints. Anna is a perfect choice as she is a vet of GH as well as a beloved character, and she brings energy and warmth. Turning Luke around also saves the show’s most iconic character. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I love them together!
    Okay, it isn’t 100% yet, but it is FAR more watchable already. Easton seems to have been happily accepted and is, frankly, even better on GH. PC is more his kind of town! Starr has played nothing but tears, angst and anger since she arrived and that isn’t going over well for her character, but it will change. Todd fits right in with Carly, Heather and the other deviate characters. I’m not sure it was a good idea to ‘save’ Robin because Kimberly isn’t coming back to stay and that means Patrick is left in limbo. Alexis is a very popular character who was nearly ignored by the previous regime and that needs correcting. I don’t mind Ewan, but they have to actually give him a character to play soon. The need for ethnic balance could work for Shawn and I rather like the actor. But it is important for the new regime to remember what is important to GH fans. We love the Qs, the old familiar places like Kellys, and a PCPD that can win some for a change!

    Still, the main decisions have been, on balance, pretty wise. Spreading the word is difficult, given that ABC only touts its stupid talk and reality shows, but maybe with the net and twitter that word of good change can be sent out there to those who gave up on GH after the turn of the new century…

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