Can This Soap Be Saved?

Curator's Note

 With Katie Couric's syndicated talk show poised to take over General Hospital's time slot on a substantial number of ABC affiliaties come September 2012, ABC's last remaining daytime soap is fighting for its life. Whether in an effort to give the soap one last chance of survival or as a fitting send-off, ABC has hired the well-regarded executive producer and head writer for the recently ended One Life to Live to take over at GH.  This clip is from the February 2, 2012 episode, the first with Frank Valenti as executive producer (head writer Ron Carlivati's work has yet to air).  In it, attorney Alexis Davis and her friend and fellow attorney Diane talk about the onset of Alexis' menopause--a subject almost never dealt with in mainstream media. The humorous scene puts a light-hearted spin on Alexis' situation, emphasizing the lifestage as one of sexual empowerment rather than decline.  

The scene is even more meaningful as a signifier of the state of General Hospital--and perhaps of soaps in general--in these trying times for the genre. Over the past 10-15 years daytime soaps have repeatedly turned away from storylines focused on "veteran" performers in favor of screen time devoted to younger (and cheaper) talent. Too often, soap fans complain, this focus has kept the soaps from maximizing one of their most valuable elements, the extensive backstories of long time characters and impressive experience that veteran performers bring to those roles. In addition, GH in particular has privileged male characters and masculinized concerns over female leads and the feminized interests long central to soapdom.  When Diane and Alexis discuss the ways Alexis' menopausal state can protect her from the "warrior" sperm of Sonny Corinthos, they are referencing fans' disgust with the recent prominence of the character of Sonny-a misogynistic mob boss-in GH storylines, a prominence made evident in the number of pregnancies, and resultant storylines, he has initiated. In foregrounding these strong, older female characters, highlighting their sexual power, and poking fun at Sonny's overblown sexual and storyline potency, this clip might just be a sign that the "new" General Hospital is embracing some of the strongest and most cherished features of the genre. Can such a move save the soap? Tune in tomorrow . . .


It seems like a promising turnaround and a bit of a hit as to how the "meta" nature of OLTL might creep over to GH. I know all soaps have a propinsity for these sorts of self-referential jokes (I think, for instance, of Stuart Damon's run on ATWT as a mob boss as a great in-joke on that show...too bad the ABC lovers over at ATWT sometimes seemed more interested in ABC Daytime history than their own...) But, in any case, I am curious how GH--if they make this shift in what I'd see as the right direction--will deal with a more recent fan-base steeped on the Sonny era. In all honesty, the potential fan base of lapsed fans from yesteryear is much, much greater than the number of fans from the past several years...many of them might also not be in the target demo. But, at this point, GH has nothing to lose, it seems, in bucking traditional ways of thinking as a way to try and keep the show on the air.

I now return the compliment to you, Elana. That is one amazing clip. And I really like how your post captures two key aspects of soap greatness, depth of character reference and social relevance. In regard to the former, OLTL did take some fan criticism in its final months for focusing too much on new characters (like the Ford brothers, the shirtless guys in the parody clip from yesterday) at the expense of old characters like the Woleks and Max, who never returned. Many rightly perceived this as part of a larger problem of soaps today, that in trying to target a younger audience, they sacrificed a core pleasure of soap storytelling, a connection with characters who have decades-long backstories (whether you watched them for that whole time or not). Whether this was inevitable or not in today’s entertainment landscape is a fascinating question, but this clip stands out so significantly in comparison. Then in terms of social relevance, I can’t help but think of this clip in light of the recent debate over birth control and women’s sexuality. It boldly acknowledges that a women -- an “old” woman, even -- might like to have sex for personal pleasure, and not having to worry about getting pregnant would make it even better. What a revelation!* (*That’s sarcasm, Rick Santorum)

 Chris, I hope, like you, that this moment on GH is a sign of a change, although as Sam references, there is surely a contingent of GH fans who like the Sonny-centricness of the show in recent years. I should, clarify, however, that this Alexis storyline is VERY small, at least so far. It takes up much less screen time than the exploits of younger and/or more mob-centric characters. It's definitely a step, though, one that I hope will be as significant as I'd like it to be in terms of a "new" GH.

 There are two decisions that I think have made life tougher for daytime soaps, and both of them have to do with how they tell their stories, as much as they do with the types of characters they feature. First was the decision to copy prime-time soaps like Dallas, which led to a focus on people with huge fortunes and power, as opposed to "real people." The second was the expansion to 60 minutes, which leads to episodes of water-treading rather than to more complex storytelling. I remain impressed with Eastenders, whose intense pace combines with a focus on non-glamorous people. I suspect that need to fill 60 minutes is one reason why new characters get introduced: writers don't know how to write new stories for the core characters.

 Yes, Sandy, these are among the problems soaps have faced in recent years. In addition, the 60 minute format is expensive to produce! A show like The Bold & the Beautiful has done well in part because it has kept to 30 minutes, which makes for a much more affordable production process.

What a great clip! Is that Barb from Cougartown?! Your point about the character histories makes me think about British prime-time soaps like Eastenders, which maintain a strong focus on middle aged and older characters (particularly important in terms of public service broadcasting). The recent death of a central character Pat Butcher touched off a range of stories that dealt with both the narrative history of characters in storylines which played out years before, and memories of older characters in their youth. Here conversations weaved a dense tapestry of character history, and long buried family antagonism resurfaced to set off new conflicts and stories.

This makes me really thankful for the quiet bits of everyday contemplation we get in soaps amidst all of more ratings-grabbing events. This is what really ties us to our soaps.

I 'm really glad you and Sandy brought up EastEnders (which I've watched some of; I'm not really familiar with Coronation Street, only watched a handful of episodes of Emmerdale). The half-hour running time is a very significant difference (perhaps akin to the differing episode volumes in US vs. UK TV non-soap drama). And about the Pat storyline, I tuned in for some of that, having only the slightest bit of familiarity with the character histories, yet still really enjoyed watching those character interactions play out. I certainly couldn't get as much out of it as Faye would, but we get so few of these "quiet bits" elsewhere in drama that I ate it up anyway. 

 Faye, yes Carolyn Hennessy is a recurring actor on GH as well as on Cougar Town. She's great on the soap. I've long wanted to get into a British soap but have never taken the time to do it. Your description makes me want to all the more! Sounds like Eastenders, at least, has held closely to some of the genre's core strengths.

Only 2 hours a week Elana, ha! Dewit! I like Sandy's point about Eastenders maintaining a pace - it manages to parcel out stories and play the long game of serialised storytelling, whilst mirroring shifts in contemporary televisual storytelling. The 30m is key though, I don't think they could be as tight if they had to go to an hour daily like US soaps. But we have seen a shift to the more 'melodramatic' (not to use the term pejoratively), as Christine Geraghty has noted, with the move from 2, to 3 to 4 and in the ITV soaps 5, 30m episodes a week and the competition for ratings. Yet they still manage to weave these in with bits of comedy - like in your clip, but never meta, never break the bubble - and little interpersonal stories. When someone isn't burying their husband alive at Easter that is!

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