Doing the most and the least.
PART I: Storytelling
If you’ve found this article, you probably know that General Hospital is celebrating its 50th year on ABC. GH is the longest-running American soap-opera on the air and the 3rd longest-running drama in television history. By any standard, producing nearly 12,900 episodes is a remarkable achievement. A stretch this far is dependent upon the progression of storylines. This is why daytime soap-operas have large, ever-changing casts, and as of late, ever-changing creative teams. GH’s executive producer Frank Valentini and head-writer Ron Carlivati, formerly of the recently-revived One Life to Live, were long heralded as daytime’s wunderkinder. The work this team did with the ratings-challenged, critically-lauded OLTL represented the fearless storytelling that sets daytime drama series apart from any other media. At OLTL, Valentini and Carlivati (referred to by fans as CarTini, for short) crafted an emotionally-driven soap about a small town inhabited by the privileged, using the most ethnically and age diverse cast ever seen on American daytime television. Alas, OLTL was cancelled, and you probably know the rest of the story. In short, CarTini (daytime’s wunderkinder, I remind you) were eventually hired to shepherd ABC’s flagship daytime program, the reason you are here, our beloved GH.
When CarTini came to GH, the show had its own set of problems. Ratings were fine, but they weren’t great (no one’s ratings were great, compared to soap numbers in the 80’s or 90’s, for that matter). The biggest problem was that GH’s ratings weren’t high enough to justify the exorbitant budget Jill Farren Phelps (executive producer from 2001-2012) demanded to run the show. Moreover, the show was rarely produced within the parameters dictated by the budget. Valentini, on the other hand, was notorious in the daytime community for being, shall we say, cost efficient. The decision to hire CarTini was simple: bring in an exciting (relatively) young head writer and an executive producer who knows how to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of the product. If you watch GH, especially if you have been watching for years or decades, you know by now that something went terribly wrong with this regime change. Here’s what: in the buildup to the 50th Anniversary episodes, the storytelling became lazy and unfocused.
Let’s start with the biggest changes made in GH’s CarTini era so far: the vets! In all honesty, I was not even alive when many of these characters were popular, but for classic fans and new fans alike, it’s certainly interesting to learn more about the long history of the show. Seeing legendary soap actors like Genie Francis, Finola Hughes, Lynn Herring and Kristina Wagner (to name just a few) reprising the roles that made them famous is a treat for any viewer. The problem is what to do next. Valentini cut production costs so that the show could afford to bring these fan favorites back to Port Charles. Carlivati, on the other hand, allowed these returning characters to completely derail storytelling. Our leading characters were now lucky to get 3 days on screen a week because we are focusing on the half-assed rehashing of stories that ended in the 80’s. Even less ancient veterans, like Daytime Emmy Award winner Tyler Christopher, have come back full-time for no reason. I have never been crazy about Nikolas as a character, but Christopher is a talented actor and if he’s back at GH, he needs a solid front-burner storyline. It’s great for GH and the fans that he’s willing and able to come back, but Carlivati’s got nothing for him to do. What enables a soap-opera to run for so long is that the storylines must always be looking forward. Even if stories alter the events of the past, the focus must be on how the altering of the past affects the present and the future.
Stories that could bring the heavy drama (and Emmys) that made GH the most popular soap-opera of all-time, like the buildup to Connie’s murder, have been written in a nonchalant, quiet and subtle style. Sam’s (Kelly Monaco) son and only link to her great love had cancer, but it never felt heavy. No one, except Morgan (Bryan Craig), is disgusted by Kiki & Michael (Kristen Alderson, Chad Duell), even if they aren’t cousins. Left and right, we’re dealing with massive paternity reveals and murders, but it’s all being done in such a matter of fact way more appropriate for a primetime series on FX. I wish the writers were doing the work to give these plot-lines the punch they should have. The scenarios presented are wrought with emotion, but they’re written very straightforward; informational even. This a 50-year old soap-opera on broadcast network television: you need writing and performances to push it over the edge and we’re not getting that. The recent critical and ratings successes of soaps like Days of our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful, stem from writers and producers knowing what their show is. Days is the small-town, big values, middle America soap. B&B is flashy, trashy and decadent. CarTini seem to have no clue. All at once, GH is an adventure soap (Luke and his bevy of ladies from the 80’s), a medical soap (Sam’s search for a bone marrow donor for Danny) and a business soap (the EMBARRASING year-long saga that was the battle for ELQ). It’s a tall order, but it is doable; a head writer and his team must focus first, and maybe, just maybe, that means cutting some folks.
PART II: The Next Generation is coming soon!