February 24, 2004
Yesterday, something happened that caught me completely by surprise. I knew that Oprah would be having a General Hospital fan on the show, and that somehow Maurice Benard (Sonny Corinthos) would be involved in surprising the fan. I sat down to watch yesterday afternoon, with something of a smirk on my face, fully prepared to roll my eyes at this woman, who would no doubt be shrieking and swooning over Sonny or Jason, since they ARE General Hospital, right? Well, I was right. There was a lot of shrieking, jumping up and down and what I would categorize as swooning – and much of it was in relation to Sonny. I was also wrong though. I didn’t roll my eyes once.
The segment started with the usual stuff: longtime viewer, loves Sonny best, sweet husband who graciously is in on surprising his wife with a trip to see her “other love”, and etc. So far, I’m watching (and finding the lucky viewer to be very likeable which is always nice in these “dreams come true” things because if it can’t be me, it should be at least be someone I like!) and getting a smile or two out of her obvious excitement. Then, they pop in a tape of Maurice Benard, personally telling her that she will be coming to LA to meet him and will be an extra in a scene with him. While she’s shrieking some more and jumping around, I’m staring at Maurice…and thinking, what the hell? What the hell is that weird little feeling I have? Why, he’s almost…charming. Right there, in that moment, I felt a resurgence of my long-lost Sonny love. I considered jumping up and down myself.
Let me just be clear, I still cannot stand Sonny. I have never met Maurice Benard in person, and I don’t expect I ever will in a setting that would allow me to actually ascertain his true personality or judge what kind of person he is. Honestly, I don’t care what kind of person he is in real life, my interest in him isn’t even interest in *him*, it’s interest in Sonny, of General Hospital. There is little doubt however, that actors inject certain characteristics into the characters they play and therefore, there is often some Maurice in Sonny. Watching the rest of the Oprah segment (you can go to Oprah's Site for a few pictures and a synopsis of the segment) I saw the charm, charisma, sexiness, and just plain star quality I used to be able to get from Sonny on a regular basis. My esteemed colleague JenJen, of Eye on Soaps’ Soap Bubbles fame, put it best:
“That is what's wrong with Sonny. They took the Maurice out of him. He needs his disarming charm back.”
I could not agree more! I watched this woman having lunch with Maurice, with the same fervor that I used to watch General Hospital. I felt excited and happy when I finished watching. You know why? I was watching a fantasy, not necessarily my fantasy, but someone’s fantasy. I was watching a happy lady. I was watching a good looking, charming man, make a female happy (when’s the last time you saw that on GH?) with little more than the fact that he was treating her like she was worthwhile and meant something. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I truly felt hopeful after watching the whole thing. I was reminded of what I want from my soaps. I was reminded of why I want to be able to continue to watch them. I remembered the point. I realized that there are still viewers out there that are blissfully unaware of the backstage and upper brass turmoil. Viewers who don’t get a weekly update on all the idiotic and offensive quotes the writer’s might make on any given day. There really are viewers who don’t know about the stories behind actor exits and entrances. I will freely admit that I felt a pang of jealousy.
The Internet has changed viewing substantially for me. There was a time when I couldn’t wait to get a Soap Opera Digest every other week because it was my only link to what was going on with the shows. I read it cover to cover, and savored every second. I still enjoy reading it, but now it’s more about the commentary and feature articles whereas before, I was actively searching for tidbits and clues about upcoming story arcs. Almost anything that’s available for the general population to know about soaps is now available at a computer terminal near you. I spend far more time typing about soaps, reading about soaps, and looking at soap related pictures than I do actually watching GH…and that’s not even including writing this column. Most of my online friends came from GH related message boards. A great deal of my online reading is columns about GH or other soaps. Soap viewing, for me, has evolved into something I would never have recognized a few years ago.
I’ve often considered whether the Internet has helped or hindered me where GH is concerned. I’ve little doubt that spoilers take away an important facet of soap storytelling, the element of surprise. For me, gone are the days when the body is rolled over and I’m in complete shock at whose face I see. Gone are the days where we spend a week guessing whose feet those are walking around. Gone are the days where we actually *feel* the fear of characters watching a loved one struggle with injuries or terminal disease…when you already know she’s not going to die, there is definitely an inability to become truly immersed in the story the writers are trying to tell. That most definitely hurts in the long run. Soap storytelling is also hindered when writers or exec’s can get too much feedback, too fast. Do I think that tptb are sitting at a computer terminal somewhere, refreshing message boards and taking notes? Nah. I do however; think that a certain amount of generalization of opinion gets back to them and that inevitably does come into play when they write. Hearing how something is going over with fans can be helpful, but I would contend that hearing it before a story plays out can be detrimental. Soaps absolutely have to do things that are going to make entire fan bases angry and irate. If that never happened, soaps would be a step below a shampoo commercial on the excitement scale. The Internet can be vast and widespread, but it can also be a tiny little microcosm of what’s really going on in the world, particularly when you’re dealing with message boards. Somehow though, we expect that we can gauge what millions of viewers think by scanning through a few hundred posts. Unfortunately, the Internet is a breeding ground for mob mentality (not THE mob either) and it allows fans to delve into depths that the average offline viewer would never dream of.
Conversely though, that ability to delve deeper is what keeps many of us watching, even when the writers fail time and again to produce stories that will do that work for us. We’re absolutely starving for good storytelling, exciting human drama, over the top antics that are inherent to the genre, and romance fit for princesses. When we don’t get it, and we see something that has become a part of life that provides relaxation, fun and yes, even stimulating conversation, we see it slipping away…then we go ahead and start creating it for ourselves. We write fan fiction; we work hard at generating conversation – oftentimes about things that are only rumored to possibly be going to occur in some form, someday…maybe. We have entire discussions based around what’s “in character” and what’s not. We dissect, critique, research, and debate anything that occurs that is of even slight interest. We do all of it because we want to still enjoy something we love, even when it seems impossible to enjoy. A great example would be the fact that somehow, I’m writing an entire column about how I felt seeing an excited fan for a change. Good grief!
Is the Internet saving General Hospital, keeping scores of viewers that would otherwise have called it quits and moved on to escapes that better fulfill their cravings? Is the Internet ruining General Hospital, giving birth to fans that stand by “their” character no matter what and are willing to band together and spend money to try to sway the writing their way? I’m told that GH has by far the largest online community. I’d wager a guess that hundreds of GH viewers fire off emails to the top brass for every one viewer that comments on other shows. While I personally have absolutely no problem with fan clubs and their unofficial counterparts (the online fan base), I do think there are times when story can be hurt by the push for fair treatment of whatever character. Of course, there is one more aspect to the whole thing, and that is trust. If General Hospital viewers had one iota of trust for the current regime, they’d be MUCH more willing to sit back and watch instead of jumping on the bandwagon of criticism the moment something untoward happens to their favorite character. The fact is, this regime has proven to all viewers that they are equal opportunity destructors. Fans have very real reason to feel like the breath has been knocked out of them when tptb suddenly seem to be focusing on their favorite. Sadly, these days, most fans hold their breath and hope that the writers will just leave certain characters alone, rather than take the risk of seeing said character get a “story” that only ends up adding the character to an already long list of “who cares anymore, he/she is ruined…or dead”, but once loved characters. Maybe if GH gets its act together and gives fans someone they can trust to cherish and love the show as much as they do, then maybe we would see a shift in how even online viewers watch their soap. You cannot undo progress, and the Internet is here to stay. GH would do well to stop trying to “out shock” even itself, and instead work on the nuances that cannot be told in spoilers. The expressions, the feelings, the motivations.
Bottom line is, I want it back. I want to feel as excited as that lucky lady felt. Jumping up and down and shrieking are not actually in my genetic make-up, I admit, but I once was very excited to hear any new information about my favorite show. I want that back; I’m sick and tired of cringing when someone says, “Did you hear what ______ said in the mags?” I want my favorite actors to be able to perform like they used to. I want them given a story that lets some amount of likeability to come through. Where is the charm, the romance, the Valentine’s? Where are the women we can watch and relate to when they suffer through their personal trials (Alexis used to be relatable, remember that?) and dream through when they are handed fantastical adventures? Where are the characters I can like? Why is everyone so angry, sad and ruined in Port Charles? Sure, the occasional divorce, break-up, custody battle, and death are inevitable…but does the ENTIRE cast of characters have to be suffering every damn day? If a couple is supposedly “happy” on GH, they have gotten there only through considerable acts of betrayal, criminality, and psychosis (and they’re always, every second, teetering on the brink of it again), and then they are only used for 20 second filler between the current acts of betrayal, criminality and psychosis…you get the point.
I’ve no doubt that there are viewers who are still enjoying GH, maybe even not still, but newly enjoying it. That’s great! I’m thrilled about that. I do believe though, that it is possible to put enough of what’s missing back into the show and allow the majority of us to retrieve our enjoyment as well. Ratings show that I’m not alone in my apathy, and that’s something we all need to be concerned about. Something has to be done, before even Oprah’s Dream day recipient starts to notice that Sonny isn’t turning on the charm for anybody on screen these days. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep her, and Maurice’s smile, in mind when I need to be reminded of why I still watch. I watch because I want that feeling back.
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