General Hospital Tragedy: Has This Soap Finally Gone Too Far?

Anyone who is still wondering why broadcast soap operas are disappearing before our eyes need only review recent episodes of ABC's General Hospital. Don't blame shrinking audiences. (Viewers aren't really going away. They're just harder to count.) Don't blame competition from other media. (Overall media consumption is on the rise, boosted by ever-evolving digital technologies that make following a favorite soap easier than ever.) Don't blame the recent round of network budget cuts. (Low-budget serialized storytelling is thriving on basic cable television, and there is no reason why broadcast soaps can't adapt.) Whatever you do, don't blame the actors. (There are dozens of fine performers of all ages on the six remaining soaps.)

So what's the problem? Take a good long look at the current Death of Jake Webber storyline on GH and you'll have your answer. It's the writing, plain and simple.

I've never been a fan of soap stories that involve the deaths of children, and that includes the now legendary Death of BJ Jones saga on GH almost 20 years ago, another tale in which one kid died a sudden death and made available a critical organ to save an afflicted child elsewhere on the canvas. At the time, I thought the loss of Nurse Bobbie Spencer Jones' little girl would in the long term damage the show, in that I could imagine dozens of stories about BJ in her troubled teen and young adult years and the impact her behavior would have on her mother, who had been a rather combustible teen herself. For the most part I was wrong about that. The show found plenty of stories to tell even without BJ, and the transplant story was so magnificently written and played that it brought a new level of respect to daytime drama. The only downside was that it forever damaged two previously vital characters: Nurse Bobbie and her husband, Dr. Tony Jones. Bobbie fared better than Tony, who suffered an emotional breakdown, lost his family, his job and the respect of his community, was physically brutalized by mob assassin Jason Morgan and gunned down by Carly Benson (the baby that Bobbie gave birth to during her time as a teenage prostitute and then forgot about for 20 years). Tony slowly put the pieces of his life back together only to fall victim to a fatal sweeps-induced virus.

The GH writing team, which for much of the last ten years has specialized in telling repetitive stories about local mobsters that play like a low-rent version of The Sopranos, has also during that time gone to great lengths to viciously subvert storylines and destroy characters from the show's most creatively successful periods of the past. I haven't been fond of those stories, but that has often been a matter of personal taste. My issues were with the stories themselves, not the way in which they were being told.

The current Death of Jake Webber disappointment is another matter entirely, and it comes at a time when soaps overall are in dire peril -- and in desperate need of stories that respect their shows' histories while reinventing them for the future. In that regard, this latest GH tale has done everything wrong: It has made viewers feel bad about the time they have invested in the Jake storyline during the last few years and killed off a character that was uniquely positioned to be at the center of dozens of compelling stories in the years to come. That's no way to improve a show or support a dying daypart.

If you aren't a follower of GH you may wish to stop reading now, because the examples used to illustrate this point won't be of much value to anyone unfamiliar with it. If the writers and producers of GH felt it necessary at this time to tell a story so reminiscent of the Death of BJ then they should have killed off baby Josslyn, the daughter of Carly and her current husband Jax and the recipient of one of poor little Jake's kidneys. (One of many telling aspects of the sub-par storytelling here is that Josslyn wasn't even sick two weeks ago and wasn't diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer until the night Jake was run down by a car. In the BJ story we had watched her little cousin Maxie suffer from a weakening heart over a period of time, a compelling tale in itself even before her cousin BJ was abruptly killed in a bus crash and Maxie received her heart.)

Why should they have killed Josslyn? To begin with, it has been reported that the actor who portrays Jax will be seen less on the show, which makes his one child comparatively unimportant in the long-term. Second, if Josslyn died and Jake needed a transplant, it would have been a fine opportunity for the writers to finally humanize Carly, a frequently detestable character with the emotional stability of an ill-tempered eight-year-old. She has done all sorts of nasty things during the last 15 years, but she has never been more disturbing than in recent weeks, when she chose to focus on sabotaging her ex-husband's wedding rather than deal with the fact that her oldest son had been raped in prison -- an incarceration that she had as much to do with as anyone else (as it was her decision to remove the boy from his family, the much put-upon Quartermaines, and insist that he be raised by a dangerous mobster). It would have made for powerful drama indeed to watch Carly and Jax say goodbye to their little girl, and then to watch Carly decide to give one of Josslyn's organs to Jake, the son of her best friend Jason Morgan and one of the countless women with whom she does not get along, Nurse Elizabeth Webber. I believe that would be the first time in the history of the character that Carly would have been motivated to behave in an entirely unselfish manner.

Why shouldn't they have killed Jake? He's actually a member of four core families on the canvas: The Hardys (his maternal great-grandfather is Dr. Steve Hardy, the main character when GH began), the Webbers (his maternal grandfather is Dr. Jeff Webber, the illegitimate son of Dr. Steve), the Quartermaines (his biological father Jason is the son of the late great Dr. Alan Quartermaine and the stepson of Dr. Monica Quartermaine) and the Spencers (his adoption father is Lucky Spencer, son of the legendary Luke and Laura). Jake's true identity as Jason's son has been kept secret in order to keep Jake safe from Jason's mobster enemies. It isn't too much of a stretch to assert that Jake could have been the very foundation of the show's future.

The only good thing I can think of to say about this story is that it has been a showcase for several actors on the show, especially the incomparable Jonathan Jackson, who plays Lucky. I haven't seen a performance of such emotional intensity on a daytime drama since Judith Light's still unsurpassed work as a tortured former prostitute forced to tell all in court on One Life to Live. Similarly, Steve Burton, the actor who plays Jason, hasn't been this good since the story of Monica's breast cancer, and Rebecca Herbst, arguably the most popular female actor in the GH cast, has never been better as Elizabeth. (ABC recently reduced Herbst to "recurring status," apparently unaware of her legion of fans. Their collective outrage moved the network to briskly rehire her.)

There is so much else to complain about here that the mind boggles. I'll begin by noting that Jake has never been anything but a plot point. Viewers never had the chance to get to know the poor little guy, so the sense of loss here has been lessened. (BJ, on the other hand, had been a significant part of GH, and viewers had seen her grow up over the years. The same is true of her cousin Maxie, who remains on the canvas to this day.) Further, it is inconceivable that a number of legacy characters with strong ties to this story haven't even been seen in the background of the drama. Elizabeth's grandmother Audrey, who has taken care of Jake since he was born, has mysteriously disappeared. (Rachel Ames, the actress who played Audrey for more than 40 years, has retired, but if she wasn't able to return for a day or two then couldn't the character have been recast?) Jason's stepmother Monica, who never even knew Jake was her grandson, has also been absent, as has Carly's mother Bobbie, even though they both work in the hospital. Lucky's mother Laura is currently receiving medical treatment in France, but we could have seen Luke or Lucky talking with her on the phone. Laura's mother and Lucky's grandmother Lesley hasn't been around, either. Brief appearances by characters that viewers have known for decades always enhance stories of families in crisis. Not to have seen any of these people at a time of such searing tragedy is not simply annoying. It's unrealistic and irresponsible to the storytelling overall.

It is also unfortunate that the GH writers chose to muck up the emotionally dismantling drama of it all with an absurd subplot that found six characters driving at night on the dark road where Elizabeth lives at the very time that Jake toddled out the front door and into the path of an oncoming car. As of this writing we have been lead to believe that Lucky's boozy father Luke hit the boy, but I'm guessing the real culprit is the driver of a mysterious black town car (license plate obscured on traffic camera footage) that was also speeding along that same road at the same time. Shouldn't the death of one child and the near-death of another have been enough drama for this storyline? If it had to be told in the first place, why build in so silly a distraction? Further, if Luke really is to blame, is that an experience we really want to attach to a character that has been crucially important to an entire programming genre for more than thirty years? As creative decisions go, this one is perfectly wretched.

The ruination of Luke Spencer is just the latest assault on the GH audience. The writers of this show have during the last decade-plus destroyed fond memories of Dr. Rick Webber and Scott Baldwin by reworking their long-ago histories (in the process revealing a complete lack of respect for soap opera viewers); destroyed the marriage of Luke and Laura and then sent Laura spiraling into madness (another character development nobody wanted to see); killed off good-girl Georgie Jones (who was conceived during the Death of BJ storyline and was the perfect foil for her wild sister Maxie) and, most distressingly, killed off most of the hugely popular Quartermaine family, including the all-important Alan (who should have been allowed to retire with Monica), bad-seed AJ (like Jake a character that could have driven plot for years), adopted daughter Emily (a much-loved character who touchingly came onto the canvas when Monica was battling breast cancer), lawyer Justus (Edward Quartermaine's illegitimate grandson and one of the few African American characters on the canvas) and now poor Jake.

I'll never understand the wisdom of continually killing or otherwise destroying characters that matter to millions of viewers, especially at a time when a show is struggling to hold onto its audience. The overriding issue for those involved in daytime drama is this: As in any other business, if you don't give people what they want they are going to go away. If you give them what they don't want they will leave even faster.