Sunday, September 8, 2013

General Hospital at 50: Thinking about Soap Operas

I'll be the first to admit: I never thought I would find myself watching a daytime soap opera on a semi-regular basis. Or any basis, for that matter.

And which one did I find myself getting sucked into? None other than the longest-running American scripted program still in production, General Hospital, which is celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year (it was actually on April 1). As soap operas continue to leave the airwaves over the past decade, GH has managed to remain a relative success, if not just by maintaining its spot in ABC weekday afternoon lineup (right after The Chew on Asheville's affiliate), but by surviving cast shakeups and time-slot shifts. It's a survivor of a dying format.

Well, "dying" is too harsh a term (as it always is). No medium or form of art ever really "dies" so much as loses its prominence or status. For example, though neither enjoys the kind of praise and popularity that they did in previous centuries, opera and ballet continue to thrive, just on a much smaller cultural scale.

The soap opera, too, is witnessing a sea change, mostly because television as a whole is in the midst of a crucial turning point. As the way we watch television has diversified, soap operas became some of the first victims of network hand-wringing: though they don't cost much to produce per episode, they do churn out a new episode five days a week for most of the year. The Big Three - CBS, ABC, NBC - cut a number of soap operas from the air in order to run even cheaper programs, such as syndicated talk shows or re-runs. Some of these soap operas, such as Guiding Light, faded away for good. Others, like One Life to Live and All My Children, have become online exclusives through Hulu, with abbreviated episode lengths and production orders. The way they're presented may change, but the genre still has plenty of life in it.

Besides, as any fan knows, death is not always permanent in the world of soaps. However, that doesn't make it any less of an event. When a major character died in a recent episode of GH, it was treated as a major turning point, bringing a number of characters together (or tearing them apart) in unexpected and emotionally satisfying ways, as well as further twisting the plots and motivations of the various other arcs that were in motion.

A soap as long-running as GH, though, has by now become a well-oiled machine. Impressively, despite the plethora of characters and intersecting plots, it's very easy to jump into the show through just about any episode. This is to the credit of the show's writers, who have done an excellent job keeping up with character histories and the complicated plots. Of course, there's a lot of expository dialogue - characters reiterate things that other characters already know - but this is necessary for the show, as it allows viewers to keep up with what's happening as well as helping newcomers - like myself - dive in without having to scour the Internet for details. Even over the course of writing this article (it's been in drafts for nearly a month now...*sigh*), I've only caught pieces of certain episodes, while seeing only one or two in full. But there's still solid entertainment to be found in the heightened world of Port Charles, where everyone's scheming against everyone else. 

Oh yeah, Richard Simmons showed up this year on GH. It was as weird as it sounds.

If I don't seem to have too much to say on this topic, it's because I'm just not exceptionally well-versed in this particular genre. I have, though, been thoroughly enjoying my foray into these strange daytime hours of television. In this "golden age of television," when we celebrate the anti-hero, it's refreshing to find programs where the characters have always been anti-heroes, schemers and dreamers; where children grow up to become entangled in the webs their parents wove, and those parents must bear the consequences of what they've wrought. It's campy and over-the-top, but no less entertaining.

Watching more General Hospital - which produces five episodes per week for most of the year - has me thinking more about primetime soaps as well. There have been a number of these over the years that have found success: Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Revenge, and Scandal, to name a few (though some would argue that Grey's and Scandal are not, but, come on). In particular, though, I thought of Nashville, ABC's country-music soap starring Connie Britton (who scored a surprising Emmy nomination - but also a worthy one) and Hayden Panettiere. The show's major issue in it's first season - apart from not really investing us in any characters outside of country legend Rayna James (Britton) and up-and-coming Taylor Swift-type Juliet Barnes (Panettiere) - is that the show tried to play the soapy storylines as if it were a "Major Prestige Drama." In fact, for most of the show's first season, Juliet seemed to be the only character who realized she was in a soap opera, and that made Panettiere's performance easily the most enjoyable on the show. Of course, a show like Nashville can only produce 24 episodes over the course of several months, and structure it's narratives the same way that GH can, but there certainly are some lessons that the primetime soaps can learn from their daytime companions: embrace the camp, and leave the pretension at the door.

In short, soap operas may never become major television hits again, or provide "oh no they didn't!" moments that become pop culture touchstones a la "who shot J.R.?" But they're far from extinct, and still just as much the guilty pleasure they've always been - and there's no reason for guilt. As for General Hospital: here's to another 50 years.

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