Fifty years after a simple story started about hope and healing, the past comes round to say hello again on ABC’s General Hospital.
“Another thing demonstrated will be the propriety of every man’s waiting for his time for appearing upon the stage of the world.” — Benjamin Vaughan, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin
“My name is Dr. Patrick Drake,” Tall and confident, he fixes steady brown eyes on a nervous cadre of interns. “I’m the chief of neurology. Welcome to General Hospital.”
And as he takes them on a tour, he talks about them: Monica, Alan, the history of the hospital and the Nurses Ball. He tells them about Steve Hardy, the legendary man whose story started everything. “Dr. Steve Hardy, the first and best chief of staff general hospital has ever seen — the reason why we’re all here 50 years later. Dr. Hardy died in 1996, but make no mistake about it — he was the driving force behind this hospital. The good doctors try to live up to his legacy. The better doctors know they never will.”
I was somewhere around fourteen or fifteen years old, I think, when I first started watching General Hospital. I was definitely in Middle/Jr. High School, because I have the visual memory of sitting in my English classroom and hearing my classmates whispering about getting home in time to “see who kills Diana”, or “find out if Diana dies”. It seemed to be on everyone’s mind, the well-being of this person. I turned to the person sitting at the desk next to me and whispered, “Who’s Diana?”
“This girl on General Hospital,” she answered back, before turning her attention back to our teacher and leaving me with precious little more knowledge than I had had before asking the question.
That was around thirty years ago. I have since mapped the streets and shores of Port Charles in the shelter of my imagination; I know how to get to Kelly’s for a hot cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal. I know how to find the safe docks to walk, and I know to avoid Pier 52. I know that Metro Court is the best place to stay in town, and I know that in the labyrinth of General Hospital, the best thing to do is ask a nurse if you really need help.
I know this town. I love this town. There have been years in the distance when I’ve been away for a while, but I kept in touch. And when I came back and looked around, some of the faces were different, but the breathing and the heartbeat were the same. There is a length and width and breadth to this universe, Port Charles. And it informs the angels and devils in our real lives, because that’s what storytelling is supposed to do.
Over twenty years on from my first encounters with the Prometheus Disk and Aztec adventures, of mad romances with mob bosses and spies who loved each other, I watched with a mix of disbelief and renewed optimism the 50th Anniversary episode of the longest-running daytime drama on television. Wait, scratch that. The longest-running drama in television; forget the qualifier. Fifty years. No other show on American air, anywhere, can make that claim.
They say everything old is new again, and why shouldn’t it be? Just as in life, the fiction of lives plays out on a stage and keeps kicking the same lessons towards the people who most need it. People like Monica and Tracy, who beat up on the past as much as they do each other, in their loneliness and their chagrin at having realized they have only each other to rely on for support now. Even the spirits of their loved ones couldn’t fight that wind – Alan, Emily, and even Rick Webber, whose redemption was gifted in a beautiful, one-minute display of simple words and eloquent expression. Rick knew this conflict was for the living: “No no,” he admonished, gently tilting his head. “Don’t drag me into this.”
The dilemmas and the problems and the choices are fundamentally the same; it’s just the people who deal with them differently. Carly, bereft and confused and lonely and trying so desperately to be strong – “Who knew I could stand on my own two feet?” – she marvels. But she reaches out in hope for Jax, then watches it crumble again almost as fast.
Brenda ‘reads’ her letter to Sonny, and I realize the sadness behind that; you realize she must have read that letter over and over again before she sent it, must have repeated it to herself for weeks, months, afterward, waiting for a response that never came.
Elizabeth balanced a happiness and sorrow as she spent time with her grandmother Audrey. “It would make grandpa happy knowing how many Hardys have followed in his footsteps. Their work, their patients, their life.” Audrey knew there was a “but” coming after that. “I just wish we all made an effort to stay in touch. You know, gets kind of lonely here, especially now that Steven’s gone.”
Her pain resonated as she was saddened at being the only one of her family in Port Charles, besides her grandmother and children. “Kind of wish everybody could have been here. Sarah’s in Monterey, mom and dad are in Asia, Tom’s in Africa. You know that Tommy just graduated from medical school? So if he’s anything like the Hardys, I’m sure he’s off to practice medicine in some exotic place.”
But those people we miss have never really been gone, or forgotten. Lucy’s here, and it looks like Kevin is going stick around awhile. Felicia and Frisco are still doing that dance they do, while Mac is priming a new band. Duke, wounded but determined, ready to begin again. Heather was here, and now her old pal Scotty is wreaking a new kind of emotional havoc, because he’s just as torn up about the past as anyone. We’re missing a few other pieces at the moment, but we know they’re returning, and look forward to welcoming them home when they do.
This show is more than just an anthology of bed hopping, or murderous lovers, cheating spouses, or far-fetched adventures and vampires and ice machines that freeze the world. It’s about kids and generations and weddings and death and birth. It’s about second chances and third and fourth and even ninth chances. It’s about loneliness and heartache and the hope that those spaces can be healed and filled. It’s about the cusps of intertwining lives – “What’s life but one person’s story crossing another?” Audrey points out – and the choices each person makes, and how those choices affect so many others.
If real life is a journey, then perhaps these stories are a tapestry of thread and weave that give us an example of one journey. You touch the past, and by so doing, affirm the future. Laura meets her ex-husband’s son and is pleased to finally see him; Ethan smiles and says the same. Helena can’t let go of the past, and therefore can’t affirm anything, much less any future, while her nephew is her last, best hope for that and any sort of redemption.
And we wait for tomorrow to see what happens next.
Patrick watched as the interns scurry away and try to look as if they have important things to do. “You realize,” he muses to Epiphany, “there’s fifty years of tradition riding on your shoulders, and it’s your job to move it forward.” He contemplates Steve Hardy’s portrait. “And make the legacy your own.”
His words are a pact, an obvious promise and commitment from Head Writer Ron Carlivati and his cadre of wordsmiths; from Frank Valentini and the crew, and one of the best casts of hard-working actors to tear up a soundstage. Its optimism and its confidence in the power of a story told and shared.
“How am I doing?” asked Steve Hardy in a poignant, black and white flashback. His eyes hopeful as he danced with his lovely wife in his arms.
He did great. And so did General Hospital over these last 50 years. But the work isn’t done, there’s still more stories to tell, and I hope there’s another 50 years’ worth to showcase.