Last week, the media was ablaze with news about Tony Geary’s last day of taping at General Hospital. This week, it was announced that his last air date would be July 27th. I’m a well-known GH fan, so a lot of people posted these articles to my Facebook page, expecting that I’d be sad. I’m not. Truthfully, I think Tony should have left a long time ago. His character did a lot to destroy soaps as we knew them, and the daytime soap industry all together.
Ah, the golden age of soaps. It was the late 70s/early 80s; there were a ton of them on TV and they all featured wonderful stories. Just a few: As the World Turns and that dynamic Lisa Hughes. Another World’s Rachel. All My Children’s Erica, of course. One Life to Live had Viki and a few of her personalities. Remember Edge of Night’s Raven? What about Kate and Siobhan Ryan from Ryan’s Hope? The Young and the Restless had the Brooks sisters. Guiding Light featured the Bauer family and that crazy love story with Holly and Roger. And General Hospital was built around the women at the hospital, like Jessie Brewer, Dr. Lesley Webber and her wild daughter Laura, and Lesley’s romantic rival, Monica.
(A quick digression: Is it any surprise that girls hooked on these shows grew up to be women with trailblazing careers? Erica showed us you could be anything you wanted to be, even a model when you were five feet tall and from Pine Valley. Viki ran a newspaper. Kate Ryan was a reporter. And Lesley and Monica were doctors – Monica was a cardiac surgeon! I didn’t know until years after I’d started watching how unusual it was for a woman to specialize in heart surgery. About the sexism that kept them down. Yeah, Lesley accused Monica of going into that specialty so she could follow Rick around all day long, but there was never a hint that she wasn’t good enough because she was a woman.)
Soap operas were shows by women, about women, and for women.
And then came along Luke Spencer. Does anyone remember this scene? (sorry, it’s not the greatest copy and the sound track doesn’t match up with the video, but pay attention Luke’s dialogue!) Incredibly controversial, yes, but an amazing portrayal of a man obsessed with a woman he can’t have. So amazing that the audience rooted for Luke and Laura to be together, and producer Gloria Monty scrapped plans to kill off Luke and eventually had the couple run off together. It turned General Hospital from the number one daytime soap to a national phenomenon.
But, it was still a story soap viewers had seen and loved before. A wounded man – a smalltime hood – is changed by the love of a good woman. When Luke first left the show in 1983, he was the hero of the city. In fact, they elected him mayor.
And then Luke and Laura returned in 1995. And it was the biggest mistake General Hospital could have made. It’s the mistake that began the downfall of the entire industry.
As every soap fan knows, no soap couple can stay together. Either one of them leaves the show (which is what broke up Luke and Laura in early 1982, when Genie Francis left), or the writers need something for them to do. Soap couples exist to break up. Sometimes it’s through no fault of their own – amnesia, kidnapping, an evil vixen who drugs the man and forces him to impregnate her. But for Luke and Laura, their problems were intrinsic. The man who wanted nothing more than to be good enough for Laura Webber Baldwin was suddenly bored at their home life (like running a diner in Canada was so incredibly stimulating). And it turned out Laura had had a child with Stavros Cassadine when she was imprisoned on Cassadine Island, and never told Luke. But the worst was when Tony Geary casually told the soap press that Luke cheated on Laura with prostitutes. It was nothing personal, he assured us. But Luke had grown up in a brothel and he was comfortable around those women so naturally he had to sleep with them. And then Luke teamed up with Sonny Corinthos to break Frank Smith out of jail, and General Hospital went on a downward spiral that it never recovered from. Rather than a show about women, it became about men – dark, angry, criminal men. And it destroyed the biggest soap opera supercouple of all time because it didn’t know what to do with them.
As the years passed, Laura came and went, and Luke became darker and darker. Although I stopped watching the show a long time ago and don’t know all the details, I believe it recently changed one of the foundations of Luke’s back story. He had had a lousy childhood that got even worse when his mother died of a burst appendix, and his father took one look at her body, grabbed a beer bottle and left. That was changed into Luke killing at least one if not both of his parents. And maybe a split personality and other stuff. Meanwhile, Sonny and his boy wonder Jason became the dark princes of Port Charles, turning the show into a starring vehicle about mobsters and the women they abuse.
General Hospital evolved from being a show about women, by women and for women, to a show by men about men. Is it still for women? Judging from the ratings, which go up and down depending on the storylines featuring female characters, I’d say no. Although as one of only four soaps still on the air, GH has received ratings bumps when others have been canceled, rumors still swirl about its imminent demise.
And can the cancellation of other soaps be blamed on the darkness that has infected General Hospital? I don’t know. I stopped following them closely years ago. But One Life to Live became the Todd Manning story (Todd was best known for raping Marty), and All My Children featured a chilling storyline around the rape of its beloved heroine, Bianca. While neither of these shows glorified the criminals as General Hospital did, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that viewers just got tired of all the darkness.
An early 80s promo for ABC soaps once sang: “Love, love, hurray for love! Who was ever too blasé for love?” In those years, ABC knew that love was the backbone of its soaps, and that people tuned in for strong women and satisfying love stories. Where do they go now? Primetime. Yes, primetime couples face the same dangers as daytime couples do: namely, contracts that require the killing off of half of a rooting couple. (RIP, Will and Alicia; Derek and Meredith.) But these serialized shows have made a name for themselves (Shondaland, anyone?) by featuring strong working women, complicated love stories and tangled plot lines. They are soaps, only requiring a weekly commitment rather than a daily one. No wonder the daytime shows are down to their last few viewers.
So goodbye, Tony Geary. As much as I enjoyed Luke in the early 1980s, I am not sorry to see this character go. I wish his departure would bring back the halcyon days of love stories by, about, and for women, but I’m afraid those days in daytime are gone for good. In the meantime, what does everyone think about Meredith’s new love interest on Grey’s Anatomy?