I Was Once A Die-Hard Soap Opera Junkie

When I read an essay on Double X by Willa Paskin called “General Hospital Is The Most Violent Show On Television,” I got a little sad. “General Hospital” is my show! Or at least it was, until I stopped watching regularly a few years ago, after 15+ years of dedicated viewership. The news that James Franco, celebrated thespian, would be appearing as a thug on the show has made deep thinkers and film aficionados suddenly take notice of the long-running soap. But Paskin did a truly fabulous job of summing up the appeal of “General Hospital” — the reasons why a serious actor like Franco might want to appear on it — and I felt jealous that I hadn’t written it myself.

Sonny nearly drove Brenda to insanity dozens of times, including one incident in which she grabbed a pair of scissors and hacked at her own hair. At the time, I remember thinking her love for him was so passionate and powerful, she just had to f**king do something.

Her essay describes how the show, once about doctors and nurses working and playing together at Port Charles’ General Hospital, is now centered around the violent world of organized crime, the heroes of which are Batman and Robin-esque mob bosses Sonny Corinthos and Jason Morgan. It made me nostalgic. There was once a time in my life where I was, um, actively involved in campaigning online in support of what Paskin calls the soap’s “last great super couple” (Sonny and Brenda for those in the know). (I am not going to go into the details of what campaigning for such a thing meant, but I will tell you I had two letters to the editor published in a national soap opera magazine. I also went to the “GH” fan club luncheon and, like, cried.) I was a shy, awkward teenager. I didn’t feel very pretty, and I didn’t fit in with lots of the people I went to school with. I had never kissed a boy and there were things at home that made me angry. “General Hospital” and the online community I was a part of were total escapism for me. As a result, the show was also one of the places where I learned some not-always-true-in-real-life-lessons about love and relationships.

It didn’t start out that way, of course. The first episode of “General Hospital” I ever watched was on my 2nd birthday — November 16, 1981, the day Luke and Laura got married — and I actually remember it. My grandma was a longtime “General Hospital” watcher and I must have been at her house for the afternoon, celebrating my birthday. I remember Scotty crashing the wedding and him and Luke getting in a fight. I remember Laura’s totally ’80s (read: hideous) wedding dress and sparkly eyes. Damn that episode was good!

I went many, many years again before becoming a hardcore “GH” fan, having little flings with other soaps — “All My Children” (remember when Janet dropped her twin sister Natalie down the well?) and “Days of Our Lives” (Marlena being possessed by the Devil is one of the pop culture highlights of my lifetime) — along my way. And then one day during the summer, while I was off for three months between 10th and 11th grade, I caught an episode of “General Hospital” that knocked me on my inexperienced ass. Brenda and Miguel (played by a long-haired pre-“La Vida Loca” Ricky Martin!) were gettin’ it on in the shower. This part grossed me out because the twosome didn’t really have any heat. Walking down the hall in just their towels, Brenda and Miguel encountered a dark, handsome, and serious-looking fella in a suit, who stared them down with a look of disgust on his face.

“Whore,” Sonny spat in Brenda’s direction. Electricity practically crackled off the screen. I was f**king hooked instantly.

As a feminist, it’s kind of weird to me that I still consider Sonny and Brenda’s love story to be among one of the greatest on any soap opera ever. It’s a love story that hasn’t ended well, by the way — Sonny has been married a handful of times, sired, like, five children with multiple women, and, as a mobster, has killed many people and called many women “whores.” Brenda is long gone (she’s got some sort of mental illness off-screen, I think?), but before leaving the show she offered herself to Sonny as his mistress, after he married a mob kingpin’s daughter instead. That mob daughter, by the way, died in a car bomb while she was pregnant with his child in an episode my online friends and I referred to as “Click, Boom.” During their on-and-off relationship,

Sonny nearly drove Brenda to insanity dozens of times, including one incident in which she grabbed a pair of scissors and hacked at her own hair. At the time, I remember thinking her love for him was so passionate and powerful, she just had to f**king do something.

Her hair looked like crap for a while after that.

But whatever, it’s a TV show, right? A soap opera at that. So while the acting was better than, say, the over-the-top camp of “DOOL”‘s devil-possession storyline, it was hardly realistic. But a soap opera airs a new episode every weekday, regardless of holidays — the only exception I can recall is the summer before my “GH” obsession began, when every single episode of “DOOL,” it seemed, didn’t air because of the OJ Simpson trial. The ongoing storyline and extremely slow pace (seriously, a week lasts, like, a month on soap opera time) make it very easy to get really attached to the characters, especially when you’re lonely and have no friends, which kind of sort of described me at the time my “GH” obsession began.

I engrossed myself and started to idealize a lot of what I saw happening between Sonny and Brenda. Yes, he could be an emotional numskull, withdrawn and silent, moody and prone to tantrums. But he was also passionate and loyal! And no one brought out those emotions quite the way Brenda did — she was special! She brought out the worst but also the best in him, and it was that dichotomy that started to represent the ultimate romantic relationship for me. If a man didn’t make you want to tear your hair out and clothes off, it wasn’t love. I fell for a lot of brooding bad boys, dudes who has issues that, once worked through with my loving support, would flourish. I wanted someone who needed me.

Brenda was always causing drama to get Sonny’s attention and he could never stay away from her and I thought it was unbearably romantic that the two knew they were bad for each other, but could not stay away. Their love was poisonous and dangerous and never boring. Having never had a boyfriend, I didn’t know that this kind of relationship doesn’t translate as entertainingly in real life. When I finally did start to have love affairs of my own, in college, my interest in the soap almost instantly dropped off. When I had drama with the men in my life, I realized I didn’t want to have make-up sex like Sonny and Brenda always did. And, like, if I was stuck in a cave, waiting for death — as S&B once had — I don’t think I’d want to have sex there either. And that time Brenda dressed up in saran wrap and showed up at Sonny’s apartment? That was pretty stupid, wasn’t it? And Lord almighty, I suddenly realized how pathetically desperate it was of Brenda to have offered herself to Sonny as his mistress — what self-respecting woman does that?

I wanted to fall in love and find someone to depend on and who could depend on me, but not in the way Sonny and Brenda did. Maybe if I had started watching “General Hospital” as an adult and had known from the get-go that their love story was so completely disconnected from reality then I could have kept watching and enjoyed it as pure fun and fantasy. But I watch the show now — or even clips from the Sonny and Brenda heyday on YouTube — and it just doesn’t pack the same punch it once did. I feel utterly disconnected from the person who once lived and breathed Sonny and Brenda’s every lovesick stare. I kind of wish I could get that psyched about a work of fiction again, but everyone has to grow up, I guess. Sonny has moved on. I guess it was time I did too.