Thursday, November 19, 2009

What James Franco Will And Will Not Do For General Hospital

It happens tomorrow. After all the doubts and speculation that it couldn’t be possible, that it shouldn’t be possible, daytime viewers will see James Franco enter the fictional town of Port Charles, New York. Actors typically use daytime as a jumping off point at the beginning of their careers, and not so much a legitimate gig after they’ve already locked lips onscreen with Sean Penn. Franco fans aren’t used to daytime drama, where instead of pushing their boundaries or broadening thought, characters snit and complain, kiss and cry, talk and stare distraught into the camera. From the looks of recent promos, Franco’s character is right on cue, abandoning his award-winning fare to fit right in the complexity-resistant daytime soap. Recently, it’s the most exciting thing to happen in daytime since Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos “Big Pussy” fame did a handful of episodes last year.

What James Franco is already doing for General Hospital is boosting ratings. Two weeks before his appearance ratings jumped by over 50,000 viewers, according to Soap Opera Network. Franco is set to play a mysterious stranger—an artist, producers have revealed—and buildup to his arrival in the teaser endings of these last few episodes show a slow pan over a darkly lit loft full of stalker-ish photos and sinister objects while Adam Lambert’s cover of “Mad World” plays forebodingly in the background. The occupant of this suspicious loft, I suspect, will be none other than the famous guest.

For a soap where the leading males are a mob boss and his hitman, and the supercouple of the century, Luke and Laura, met on a date rape, Franco’s evil stranger isn’t too far out of the ordinary. In fact, it is almost a perfect match. General Hospital holding a unique place as the only daytime drama centered around the mob, and Franco holding a reputation for being a bit of an oddball, someone who enrolled in three New York graduate programs at the same time and whose Method ways are notorious for rubbing costars the wrong way (specifically, the notorious “punching” incident with Tyrese on the set of Annapolis.) Franco’s friend and sometimes collaborator, John Carter, recently revealed in a Movieline interview that Franco was doing the role as part of a separate project, a “feature film” the details of which he is keeping mum on. But if the GH writers are being played the fool, it is surprising that they seem to be missing their chance to use the (maybe dubious) gift of such a fascinating actor by giving him something unique and interesting to do.

Temporary roles like Franco’s are frequently trotted in to give the General Hospital mob a nothing-but-bad, morally repugnant character to do battle with and then kill. Most recently it was Russian mobster Andrei Karpov, who was killed after threatening a child, and before that Manny Ruiz—coincidentally, actor Robert LaSardo, who played a similar Nip/Tuck bad guy—who is thrown off a roof after terrorizing Port Charles citizens. Because God forbid the viewer for a second think that the mob kingpin Sonny Corinthos did anything but good for the folks in Port Charles. You see, he’s protecting them. He’s big, he’s bad, he’ll kill on a dime…but everyone loves Sonny.

It’s got to be a challenge for the writers to dream up seemingly realistic mob stories without making their main man look like a serial killer. Which is why it is common knowledge in Port Charles that Sonny Corinthos doesn’t go near the drug business (he has kids, for god’s sake), and he doesn’t trade guns, and the wildest joint in town is a karaoke bar so there isn’t any “Bada Bing” action here either. The writers give us a lot of cellphone mobtalk—“We need someone guarding that shipment”—and periodic mob wars coupled with tame gunplay, and Sonny’s children wrestle with knowing their father’s coffee importing business isn’t quite legit, his wives and ex-wives come to grips with the violence that surrounds his life, and he spends his money on entire wings for the hospital (yes, a hospital is in fact a part of the show) to prove he’s an upstanding citizen.  

Soap operas do not traffic in heavily thought-inducing moral quandries. That is not to say that the characters don’t feel the moral weight of illicit behavior, but the viewer is never forced to come to a moral judgment about that behavior. If on Mad Men we root for the business and personal wrongdoings of Jon Hamm’s philandering Don Draper, it is because we understand the potential ramifications of his actions, and the resulting fact that telling wife Betty the truth brings complete family upheaval. In General Hospital, the sweetly maternal Elizabeth Webber can twice cheat on her husband—once with his brother—and we barely bat an eye. It is easier to watch her fit and moan about her guilt without feeling the need to judge, because daytime is more like idle gossip than real life. We need it to be that way.

The gold medal of soap operas is the bounty of characters who sleep with their husband’s brother, or their mother’s second husband, or their best friend’s girlfriend. While Don Draper cheats on his wife in our living rooms once a week, twenty weeks a year, General Hospital unleashes cheating spouses and romantic hitmen every day, year round. There is no time for moral judgments—in Sonny Corinthos’ 16 years of daytime he’s slept with his best friend’s girlfriend, his best friend’s sister, his lawyer and his lawyer’s daughter—because what would happen to our hero if we found him too morally repugnant to watch?

Which is why James Franco can swagger in for a couple weeks, delight us all with his characteristic oddball devilishness, then get killed when he stops playing by town rules; Sonny may be a mobster, but he’s also a gentleman. Just like Manny Ruiz before him (and Mateo Ruiz, identical twin brother to Manny, who also came into town for vengeance) my guess is that Franco’s character will somehow threaten to harm someone innocent, star hitman Jason Morgan will save the day, someone will inevitably have to go to the hospital, the General Hospital, and the citizens of Port Charles will rejoice. James Franco will go back to working on what his partner calls “the best movie ever made.” Sonny will continue importing crates full of mob-related objects that the Port Charles police are consistently unable to stop or identify. And that’s what everyone is comfortable with.