Cliffhanger

02.22.12

‘General Hospital’ Fights Back!

No soap opera has achieved the pop cultural distinction of General Hospital. As the genre continues to fall apart, can it persevere to be the last soap standing?

General Hospital won’t go down without a fight.

The longest-running soap on the air, and the sole survivor on ABC, desperately wants to make it to 50 next year, which explains why Port Charles—its fictional epicenter—is blazing with activity. A beloved character has died; fan favorites from the show’s 80s heyday are returning; and some new faces are arriving who will definitely be familiar to many soap fans. Almost a year after receiving the bitter news that its ABC daytime counterparts, All My Children and One Life to Live, were being canceled, there’s a new hopeful energy on the Los Angeles stages, where General Hospital is taped.

“When All My Children and One Life to Live went off the air, you start going, ‘Gosh, what’s going to happen?’ Oh, well, we’ll just do our thing as long as we can,’” said Laura Wright, who joined General Hospital in 2005 and won a Daytime Emmy last year for her portrayal of Carly Corinthos. “We all showed up to work and we cared and we wanted to be there, but now we have an executive producer who is on fire and he’s like, ‘We’re not going nowhere and we’re gonna kick ass.’ That’s what it feels like. We finish scenes and we want to high five.”

General Hospital is one of four soaps left on the air—CBS has The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, and NBC still broadcasts Days of Our Lives—all of which have been shedding viewers over the years. General Hospital faces the daunting task of convincing ABC this spring that it deserves to stay on its daytime line-up more than the two talk shows that have recently replaced All My Children and One Life to Live. ABC must make room for Katie Couric’s new talk show in September, which means either the venerable soap, The Chew, or The Revolution, will need to go. Conventional wisdom for months has been that Port Charles’ days are numbered, what with its core audience of women ages 25 to 54 eroding 18 percent since last year. But in General Hospital’s favor now is that the chat show The Revolution, which replaced One Life last month, is pulling in only a little more than half of the viewers the soap had.

No one wants to beat the odds more than newly-installed executive producer Frank Valentini, who spent his 25-year career rising through the ranks of One Life to Live, and feels like he had to mourn the loss of that soap twice when a deal with production company Prospect Park to continue it and All My Children as online ventures fell apart. Valentini and One Life’s head writer Ron Carlivati relocated from New York City to Los Angeles to take over in January, after ABC fired Jill Farren Phelps, who had run General Hospital for the past 11 years. Phelps came under fire for the ratings declines and the abrupt departure of Emmy-winning Jonathan Jackson, who played Lucky Spencer. Jackson left in December because he’d grown tired of his character’s drug addiction and poorly developed storyline, including the sudden deaths of his son and wife, according to TV Guide

“The audience needs to understand that it’s a very challenging market right now and the whole economic paradigm, if you will, of the daytime landscape has changed with Oprah leaving, the soaps going off the air, and the reality genre entering into daytime,” said Valentini, who was the executive producer of One Life to Live since 2003. “And the networks are in the business of making shows that are profitable and it’s my job to do the best I can to get the ratings up and make the show run efficiently. If we can do that, I think we’ve got a chance.”

Looking for ways to spice up life in Port Charles, Valentini and Carlivati hatched a plan that would bring back some of the show’s shining stars to help deal with a story thread set in motion before they took over the show—the death of fan favorite Robin Scorpio played on and off by Kimberly McCullough since she was seven years old. Never recast to make her character older as is typically done in soaps, McCullough grew up in front of the cameras as the daughter of international spies Anna Devane (Finola Hughes) and Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers). McCullough took an eight-year break from the show to go to college and find other work as an actress.

Four months ago, after attending a prestigious directing workshop for women at the American Film Institute, McCullough asked Phelps to write her off so that she could pursue her directing career. Wanting closure for herself and the character, McCullough suggested that Robin die because it wouldn’t make sense for the surgeon who has won the hearts of fans with her fight against HIV to leave Port Charles without her husband or child.

“It would be such a shame if it came to an end,” said Emma Samms on the General Hospital set.

The 32-year-old actress got her wish, though it came two months sooner than she anticipated with the changing of the guard at the show. In Tuesday’s episode, Robin died in a lab explosion as her frustrated and locked-out husband, Patrick Drake (Jason Thompson) looked on and her mother, Anna, waited for her in the hospital lobby with her granddaughter. Hughes, who has played Anna sporadically since 1985, returned to the show last week after a four-year break when Anna surprised Robin on Valentine’s Day. Robin died while working on a new medical protocol in an attempt to save Jason (Steve Burton), who is suffering from inoperable brain swelling.

“I was of the hope that we would do something where the character was fulfilled,” McCullough said. “I was intent that I wanted Robin to die but, because of the way it all went down, I wasn’t comfortable with that anymore. I didn’t feel it was earned. There wasn’t a good lead-up to it. The history of soaps is that you have a meaty story before you leave.”

The transition may have been handled awkwardly—episodes overseen by the Valentini and Carlivati regime began airing Tuesday—but Robin’s death was hastened because it serves as a catalyst for the return of other characters who helped General Hospital hit the cultural mainstream in the 1980s. Emma Samms reprises her role as con artist Holly Sutton-Scorpio beginning Tuesday, and a broken-hearted Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers) returns to Port Charles on Wednesday to deal with his daughter’s death. Rick Springfield’s Noah Drake also will set foot in Port Charles in March, followed by Robin Mattson, who plays villain Heather Webber, in April.

“Because of where we were in the story when I took over, I think it was really important to have those characters come back,” Valentini said. “They’re all such talented actors, and they have such wonderful connections to the present actors and that’s really fun for the audience.”

Samms and Rogers, who were last on the show in 2006, played one of General Hospital’s super couples in the ‘80s, the end result of one of the best love triangles in daytime storytelling. Holly had a love affair with Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary), believed him to be dead, and took up with his best friend, Robert. In a scene for an upcoming episode filmed in February, their storied past is front and center as the threesome joins forces for the sake of Ethan (Nathan Parsons), Holly and Luke’s son.

Clad in a leather dress and boots during an interview on the General Hospital set, Samms said she considered not returning to the show this time because she was disappointed with the way the writers handled her character six years ago. But Valentini changed her mind.

“Deep down Holly’s a con woman, she comes from a family of con artists, but the thing about her is that she always had compassion,” Samms said. “And I think it completely disappeared the last time around. So I made sure I would not be an unrecognizable Holly. Frank is a very hands-on producer, right there on the floor with us. He obviously knows the characters and cares about the history. If anybody can save the show, I think he can. He’s really pushing in the right direction to make it doable and make it financially feasible. It would be such a shame if it came to an end.”

Before Holly lands in Port Charles next week, another character will be driving upstate—Starr Manning from One Life to Live. On Friday, Kristen Alderson reprises the role she created in One Life’s fictional town of Llanview on General Hospital as part of Valentini’s and Carlivati’s strategy to introduce new young blood to the show. To smooth the transition, three other One Life to Live characters also will show up in Port Charles—John McBain (Michael Easton) will move there, and Todd Manning (Roger Howarth) and Blair Cramer (Kassie DePaiva) will visit temporarily.

“I’ve been working with them and it’s been so exciting to have them on set,” Laura Wright said. “They come with their history established and they come knowing how to do things. The way that Frank and Ron have weaved their characters in with ours is perfect and everybody has a high stake in it. I grew up working at my dad’s gas station and watching Loving and General Hospital on a little black-and-white TV in a little booth, and Frank has brought back the Friday cliff-hanger. It’s all just very exciting again.”

This isn’t the first time General Hospital’s life has hung in the balance. When the revered Gloria Monty took over as executive producer in 1978, ABC gave her 13 weeks to turn the dying show around. Not only did General Hospital became the top-rated soap for a decade, it earned 10 Daytime Emmys for outstanding drama series—more than any other show in history. The Luke and Laura phenomenon, which landed Tony Geary and Genie Francis on the cover of Newsweek in 1981, catapulted the soap into the stratosphere, averaging 14 million daily viewers. Luke and Laura’s wedding in Nov. 1981 brought in 30 million viewers and a visit from Elizabeth Taylor as Helena Cassadine.

It also inspired a Top 30 song by Afternoon Delights in 1981 titled “General Hospi-tale.”  Fans campaigning to save the show might be well served to use its refrain as their slogan: “I just can’t cope/Without my soap.”