When I was a kid, I was so addicted to television that I’d watch farm reports, daytime talk shows, commercials… everything, really, except soap operas. I made one stab at becoming a soap-watcher, in the summer of ‘84, when I was 13 years old and NBC debuted Santa Barbara. I figured that if I started watching from the beginning, I wouldn’t have any trouble keeping up, but I think I only lasted about three weeks. The slow pace and dryly “adult” tone of the storytelling killed my interest.
Then recently, when James Franco joined the cast of General Hospital for two one-month stints, I decided to venture back into soapville, in part because I’ve enjoyed Franco’s work dating back to his Freaks & Geeks days, and in part because the whole endeavor promised to be bewitchingly weird. I also wanted to see what it was like to watch a soap opera, and see what the genre has become some 25 years after I last tried. If you’re a regular soap-watcher, none of this will seem revelatory, but if not… consider this a field report. (And please note that these observations apply only to GH. I have no idea if they’re accurate genre-wide.)
1. The sets are remarkably elaborate.
Maybe I’m just noticing this because General Hospital is shot on crystal-clear high-definition video, but all the sets on GH look stunningly well-appointed, whether they be warm bars, mob lairs, bachelor apartments, upper-class family homes, artist’s lofts, or, on rare occasions, hospitals. I don’t know that I was expecting austerity exactly, but whenever a TV show or movie stages a scene on a soap opera set, they tend to keep them fairly stark, while each GH set is packed with props, few of which ever get handled or referred to in any way. (More on that in a moment.)
I’m sure the detail in General Hospital’s sets is a function of how long the show has been on the air, with plenty of time to build and add. But I couldn’t help but notice them because with the way soaps are shot and structured, characters often stay on the same set for multiple episodes—even for weeks at a stretch. (Last Christmas, General Hospital had a Christmas Tree lot set, which just about every character visited at least once during the month of December.) In fact, when Franco joined the cast—playing a sadistic performance artist named “Franco”—the show happened to be focusing more on its mob storylines and romantic storylines, so I watched for about three weeks before I ever saw a hospital. Franco’s second stint corresponded with more medical storylines, so the hospital was more prevalent, but still, I had expected a lot more disease-of-the-day melodrama from a show called General Hospital.
2. The acting’s not so bad.
Granted, a lot of soap opera acting is shallow by design. The actors have to learn (or at least read) a lot of lines in a short amount of time, and with five hours a week to fill, there’s probably not a lot of picking over scenes, looking for subtext. But that’s not always a drawback. There’s a directness to a lot of the performances on General Hospital that I found appealing, especially when combined with the occasional muffed line or unstudied gesture. (Maurice Bernard as mob boss Sonny Corinthos is especially good at underplaying.)
The problem with General Hospital’s cast is that it’s awfully large, and populated by generic-looked pretty boys and girls. I’d frequently forget who was who, and would have to consult one or more of the hundreds of Wikipedia pages devoted to the arcane history of GH. Out of that blandness though, it’s easier for certain actors and characters to pop. After a while, I started fast-forwarding through each episode, looking for scenes with Franco or scenes with the two characters that grabbed me the most: flighty fashion magazine assistant Maxie (played by Kirsten Storms) and her on-again/off-again boyfriend, the absurdly chivalrous computer hacker Spinelli (played by Bradford Anderson). Both are quirky in extremis—annoyingly so at times—but they were never boring. And when Maxie and Spinelli broke up towards the end of my time watching GH, Anderson had an impressive scene where he dropped his über-geeky persona and expressed some real hurt. I was glad I didn’t fast-forward through that one.
3. The stories are dull. And slow.
You wouldn’t think that a show where people have multiple affairs and threaten to kill each other at least once a week would be so enervating, but because all the action is stretched out over several days (or longer), it rarely generates what most dramatists call “tension.” Packing an episode with incident would defeat the purpose, which is to kill hour after hour of network television airtime. And so the writers keep those wheels spinning for as long as they can, even if it means having each new plot point examined from every possible angle by every possible character, in scenes that never seem to end. Congress is less deliberative that General Hospital.
The result is a show that has no flow. Characters disappear for a few episodes, then return, still engaged in the same drama they were engaged in before they were pushed aside. Each episode cuts back-and-forth between about a half-dozen scenes, many of which are completely disconnected. And because the conversations keep going and going, it’s as if time stands still for these characters. It can take over a week to get through one day in Port Charles.
4. There’s still something a little off about soaps.
“Like a comic book” used to be a fairly common term of dismissal for TV shows or movies that critics wanted to knock down a peg or two. But then comic books became hip, and the term became less insulting. So now “like a soap opera” gets trotted out, for everything from Mad Men to The Sopranos. If the drama derives as much from relationship woes as the stuff of life-and-death, then people who aren’t so impressed call a show “soapy,” and that’s supposed to be the end of it.
But to me, what makes “like a soap opera” pejorative isn’t the content, it’s the presentation. Even though the actors in General Hospital treat almost every scene as though they’re gravely important, the show still feels weightless. I mentioned those elaborate sets earlier; but because the characters rarely interact with their surroundings, the sets don’t really establish a sense of anything, beyond opulence. And the choppy storytelling seems to defy engagement, beyond a rudimentary “What happens next?” (It doesn’t help alleviate the feeling of unreality when a character is suddenly played by a new actor, or when GH devotes most of an episode to the characters singing karaoke.)
Also, I confess that my impressions of soap operas are still shaped to some extent by my prudish grandfather, who used to grumble that he didn’t like soaps because of all the “bed scenes.” When I see all these beefy, lacquered, unfamiliar actors on my TV screen, I half-expect any given scene to devolve into porn (or evolve, depending on your point-of-view). Either way, soap operas feel a little like entertainment beamed in from another dimension, where an entirely different set of people are celebrities.
As for Franco’s two turns on General Hospital, he’s claimed that they were part of an art project, to get viewers to confront the artificiality of daytime television by asking them to process the presence of a Hollywood movie star in a soap opera. So his performance was frequently exaggerated, and his storyline—which had him kidnapping women in Port Charles, taunting a local hit-man, and eventually dying at a freaky art exhibit in Los Angeles—was overtly bizarre.
But I’d call Franco’s experiment a failure, even though it did get me to watch General Hospital for roughly two months (which I’m sure was all that the producers of the show were hoping for, that Franco bring in some people who’d never watched GH before). It’s all-but-impossible to heighten the artificiality on a show where the phoniness is front-and-center.