Because I’ve only been an occasional soap opera viewer in the past, I’d forgotten a key fact about the daytime genre: There’s not really a narrative middle ground. Either what’s happening is utterly bat guano ridiculous, or nothing is happening at all.
And unusually, you get both extremes in the same episode.
On Friday’s (Nov. 20) “General Hospital,” one plotline featured a protracted gunfight in a suburban residential neighborhood, think “Heat” on a soap opera budget and you’d have some sense of the amount of carnage and shellcasings littering the brownstone exterior.
Two other plotlines had people sitting on couches delivering exposition for the entire hour, without any movement or blocking at all, unless you count the occasional wild gesticulation as “business.”
Those were the plotlines I didn’t care about, of course. They made reference to a bunch of characters I’d never heard of before, though I gathered that there’s a mobster who wants to go straight, a cop who’s undercover as the mobster’s henchman and so much talk about surveillance that I thought I was watching an extra installment of AMC’s “The Prisoner.” One of the nice things about soap opera dialogue is the near absence of pronouns. Everybody is constantly referring to people by their first names so that the process of catching up on at least the basics ought to be swift, assuming one might care.
I watched Friday’s “General Hospital” for one reason and one reason only: The odd spectacle of watching A-ish List Thespian James Franco strutting his stuff, Daytime-style.
How did the first appearance in James Franco’s “General Hospital” run go? I’ll talk a little bit about it after the break…
I’ve been told by frends-of-friends who watch “GH” regularly that Franco’s debut on Friday was set up by weeks of hinting, insinuations and discussion of a mysterious stranger, as well as extensive promotion and the oddball introduction of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” as a building melodic theme on the soundtrack.
I missed all of that hype and was relieved when Franco, like Heather Locklear in her recent “Melrose Place” return, wasn’t held back til the end of his first episode. Instead, he was introduced early on, dressed as a homeless man and spraying graffiti on a lamppost. He went on to ask a low-level mobster for a handout, giving a big win to people who had placed money on “Spare some change?” in the “What Will James Franco’s First “GH” Line Be?” betting pools.
As he was identified as “Special Guest Star James Franco” (again, echoing Ms. Locklear), Franco issued a small smirk and “Mad World” moved from incidental music to an actual cover (the Adam Lambert version?).
Mad world, indeed.
Oddly, viewers learned more about Franco’s character from the ABC promos (“An artist whose canvas is murder”) before the episode than they did from anything in Franco’s first hour.
We heard a lot of talk about an artist named Franco, putting on an exhibition in Port Charles. Franco, we were told, had made the transition from anonymous tagger to world renowned artist and photographer in only five years, with five years also being the length of time that Franco had been out of the country. We heard that Kristen Storms’ Maxie has been tasked with getting Franco to do a photo shoot of some sort, a responsibility that promises to be complicated indeed. We even saw a couple examples of Franco’s art, which ranged from sub-Basquiat graffiti-inspired scrawlings to creepier staged pieces like a chalk outline next to an unmade bed.
One thing we didn’t learn for sure? That Franco is actually the character being played by James Franco. Oh, sure, we *assume* that to be the case, based upon the actor’s name and his introduction, spray paint can in hand. But for the bulk of the episode, Franco was playing his character as a creepy drifter, a voyeur ducking behind a dumpster to watch the aforementioned mob gunfight.
Wait. Make that a *very* creepy drifter, since after the shootout ended, he gave a malevolent smile and wave to the departing goons and then walked over to one of the wounded wiseguys and crushed his windpipe. Or at least we were later told that the guy had died of a crushed windpipe, though the scene was so poorly shot and sound designed that he might just have been standing on the guy’s chest for all I could tell. He then rearranged the body and threw several coins at the corpse. And no, I’d never have recognized the dead guy as the mobster who gave Franco change earlier if I hadn’t been told.
In the episode’s final scene, Franco got a well-deserved shave and costume change courtesy of “Lost” and “Las Vegas” veteran Marsha Thomason, whose guest appearance was a complete surprise to me. She urged him to stay, but he turned away, suddenly looking like a dapper movie star and said, “They’re expecting me.”
So how did James Franco do as a soap star?
Well, he wasn’t distractingly James Franco-y. He wasn’t lit or shot any differently from the other males in the cast and since most soap stars are pretty good-looking, it’s not like Franco popped up on screen and you suddenly went, “Well there’s a handsome dude” (not that I’m prone to doing that anyway).
He also wasn’t distractingly good. Just as you didn’t go, “Damn, that guy looks like a movie star” when he appeared, you also didn’t go, “Damn, that guy’s a Golden Globe-winning thespian whose last regular TV role was on one of the greatest network dramedies of the past 10 years.” He’s always been an actor prone to twitching and smirking and that’s what he got to do on “General Hospital,” but from what I could tell, he’s far from the only affected twitcher in the “GH” cast. Dominic Zamprogna, Brandon Barash and Bradford Anderson all seem capable of giving Franco a run for his money.
It’s admirable that Franco isn’t a distraction. It goes with the theory that he’s just always been an experimental actor and “General Hospital” was just another thing he though it’d be funny to try out. He isn’t going to turn the show into “James Franco’s General Hospital,” nor is he using it as a venue to workshop a bizarre accent, a pronounced limp, bushy facial hair or an eye-patch. In fact, as you look over Franco’s recent movie roles, this may be the most conventional he’s ever sounded or looked. He actually seems to just be playing a middle-of-the-road, proficient soap star (not a hammy hack like Joey Tribbiani). It’s probably the most experimental thing he could have done, as I think over it, or at least the most experimental think he’s done since pretending to be a generic movie star in duds like “Annapolis,” “The Great Raid” and “Tristan + Isolde.” Franco has always been great at raising or lowering the level of his performance to the needs of his environment.
But having Franco camouflage himself into the “General Hospital” cast took away a lot of the fun that was supposed to come from seeing the “Milk” and “Freaks & Geeks” star as a fish-out-of-water in fictional Port Charles. Watching Friday’s “General Hospital” felt exactly like watching a soap opera on any other day, except that I knew one of the actors by name.
At HitFix, we had contemplated doing day-by-day recaps or reports on James Franco’s “General Hospital” tenure. But while it looks as if he’s going to get involved in sex, murder and modern art, it doesn’t feel like logging the ups and downs of this character will prove any more gratifying than recapping the travails of any other character on any other soap.
Might Franco prove to be too perfect of a chameleon? We’ll see if we’re entertained enough to keep watching, much less to keep recapping.
Did you watch Franco’s first episode of “General Hospital”? What’d you think?