Fifty years after it hit the air, ABC's General Hospital is still cooking with gas — but when a show's this hot it leaves us with burning questions! TV Guide Magazine called up head writer Ron Carlivati to get some answers.
TV Guide Magazine: Friday's episode (Nov. 8) had a whopper shock — Heather and Scott are Franco's parents! Uh, what are you smoking? Franco already has parents!
Carlivati: That idea was kind of floating from the first minute we ever put Roger Howarth [Franco] and Robin Mattson [Heather] together. As actors, they have such great chemistry and, as we know, their characters were tied to each other from the beginning, what with Heather being present at Franco's birth. Changing his parentage really solved a problem for us. We brought Roger back onto the show and he had great ties to GH history — Alan Quartermaine is Franco's father, Susan Moore is his mother and Jason Morgan is his twin brother — but they're all dead! So, after the dust settled, Franco had no real ties. We needed a richer, deeper well to draw from. This will tie Franco to two great legacy characters still with us today and now Scott's the D.A. with a son who's a reformed serial killer. It means Steven Lars is Franco's brother, so who knows what we're going to do with that some day? This also helps explain Heather's obsession with Franco. She's not just a psychopath. This takes her to another level. We found a moment in GH history where she and Scott could have conceived this child, so it all adds up. [Laughs] If you want it to, that is, and you're not one of those people who's looking to poke a hole in this. Because you know they're out there!
TV Guide Magazine: Is the Miscavige Institute for the Criminally Insane — the loony bin Heather keeps escaping from — a dig at Scientology?
Carlivati: [Laughs] No! Of course not! I love everyone, all Scientologists and everyone. It's a name that just...uh...popped into my head.
TV Guide Magazine: You've taken GH back to the golden age of soaps where the surprises happen on-air instead of being spoiled beforehand in the magazines. As frustrating as that can be for press peeps like me, I have to applaud it. Your ratings are up, up, up. How are you pulling off all this secrecy?
Carlivati: ABC has been very cooperative with me and [executive producer] Frank Valentini in terms of keeping secrets, though there are times when they say, "We'd really like to get some buzz going about so-and-so's return." But, as a fan, I like to be surprised. I love having my jaw drop open at the end of an episode. That's the way soap-watching was when I was growing up. There was no going on the Internet to find out who's coming back to the show, or who's hiding behind that Halloween mask. It's always a letdown when weeks before a big reveal everyone is trading the information on social media or you're reading about it in a magazine. I'm not going to make it easy for anyone to find out what's coming up.
TV Guide Magazine: You've ushered in a new way of soap writing by only using actors when you really need them, and that makes for a much better show. But then the fans of anybody you temporarily set aside get boiling mad. Is it a no-win situation?
Carlivati: It's really a constraint when you have a big contract cast and they all have their guarantees that need to be met. You end up putting people on screen just because they're getting paid, not because they have something important to do. And the result is audience boredom. Not only does this new way work better with our tighter budget, it makes for a better show when you have the freedom to rest a character.
TV Guide Magazine: Unless you're a Genie Francis fan. They're having cows because she disappeared from the show. Ditto with Sean Kanan's following. The Rebecca Herbst fans are steamed because she hasn't had a storyline in ages.
Carlivati: What's the point of seeing your favorites if they're not doing something crucial and interesting? Why not let someone else have the spotlight? Now we have a bunch of folks who are not on contract and they can pop in and out when we need them. It has allowed us to broaden our canvas of characters and pull from so many different eras of the show. But, yeah, it is no-win. People will complain because Anna doesn't have much to do. I'll say, 'Hang on, she's got a big story coming." But, then it's never like "Great! Thanks!" It's, "Well, then, what about Liz?" [Laughs] You can't win!
TV Guide Magazine: Well, what about Liz? What do you want to say to Herbst's fanbase?
Carlivati: I never watch a show just for a character or a couple. I watch it for the story, but I understand that's just my way of appreciating a show. There are people who are watching just for Liz. Sadly, you're putting yourself in a difficult situation if you're watching GH that way because you'll end up disappointed. Liz becomes very important as the Sabrina-Patrick wedding draws closer, and she'll figure in the A.J. trial, which will start soon. I'm sorry people are disappointed when their favorite is not in story. You can't please everybody.
TV Guide Magazine: What about Genie Francis? What happened there? Her exit was so abrupt.
Carlivati: I had to write her character off the show because it's my job, not because I wanted to. I don't make the contracts. I sit in New York and write the show. As I understand it, Genie came back to us on a short-term contract, which is what both she and ABC wanted. I was given her dates and worked with them the best I could. Genie had made another obligation before she returned to us, one that meant there were several weeks during the summer where she wasn't available to us. It made the most sense to have Laura's marriage to Scotty blow up and write her out where we did. We gave her this appointment and sent her back to Paris but we weren't saying that's the last you'll ever see of Laura. I love having Genie. I wanted Laura back on GH from the minute I came onto this show. I'm always open to having her back. Contrary to rumor, I assure you nobody got fired. Nobody got thrown under the bus.
TV Guide Magazine: What's up with Sean Kanan disappearing for so long, especially when his character A.J. is the prime suspect in the death of Connie?
Carlivati: We started that big murder story but didn't know at the time that everything would work out with Kimberly McCullough and that we'd get Robin back. As soon as that happened, we knew we had to put A.J. on hold because Robin's return to Port Charles would be big and impact nearly every character. We looked at A.J. and realized that his story could rest as he awaited trial. And, for the record, Sean Kanan was more episodes over his guarantee than any other person on the show, including Maurice Benard [Sonny], so he didn't lose money. Even resting him for all those weeks, he never fell under his guarantee.
TV Guide Magazine: Plus it's a lot more realistic to have a murder suspect sitting in the clink for a few weeks or months before the trial starts. In soaps, the trial usually begins 48 hours after the crime!
Carlivati: [Laughs] Well, don't hold me to that! When I need to be unrealistic and make a trial happen instantly, I'm going to write it that way! But, yeah, in the real world A.J. would be behind bars for a long time but there was only so much drama to be had from having characters wonder "How is A.J. doing today?" and sending them off to see him in jail.
TV Guide Magazine: The tone of GH is all over the place. You combine gutsy, reality-based drama like the Maxie-Lulu custody battle with off-the-wall goofiness that's straight out of Passions — from Obrecht running around in an Anna Devane mask to Heather freely going in and out of the nuthouse like it's Macy's. And somehow it all miraculously works!
Carlivati: Now that, to me, is the highest compliment. This is what a soap should be. If it's all about masks, then it's just silly. If it's all about real life and relatable angst, it can get dark and heavy and not fun to watch.
TV Guide Magazine: Any worries that you're overdoing it with the masks? First Faison faked being Duke, then Obrecht faked being Anna. If you make it seem like anyone can get access to these state-of-the-art Hollywood prosthetics, don't you risk losing audience trust? I mean, how do we know that's really Maxie?
Carlivati: [Laughs] Even the network said, "OK, can this be it for the masks?" when Duke had his confrontation with "Anna," but I gotta say they let me run with it and I have to respect that. No, we can't do it very often. In fact, we thought we were done with the masks with Faison but then it worked so beautifully to do it on the flip side with Obrecht. To me it was 100 percent worth it to see Finola Hughes playing Obrecht pretending to be Anna. But it was always meant to be a short thing. It's not like Obrecht will be running around taking over Anna's life for weeks and weeks. For now, that's it. The masks have served their purpose.
TV Guide Magazine: You are the only one among the current roster of soap head writers or exec producers who is on Twitter in a really big, immersive way. Valentini does have a bit of a presence but, beyond you two, it seems like the rest of them are hiding.
Carlivati: [Laughs] And I see the value in hiding! There are times when I'm, like, "What am I doing? Do not hit Send!" [Note: This interview took place before Carlivati's Twitter war with John Stamos this past weekend!]
TV Guide Magazine: You do seem to take offense on a fairly regular basis. Would you say you're overly sensitive to Twitter criticism?
Carlivati: People have different ideas of what constitutes criticism and, to me, "This show sucks" is not criticism. I will listen and respond very thoughtfully to someone who says, "I had a problem with this because of such and such..." That doesn't mean I'll change my plans, but that's completely valid. But, yeah, call me sensitive when someone says, "You're the worst writer and human being on the planet!" There are some very angry, very hateful people out there and who needs that in your life? I would never talk about people the way some of them talk about me. But the fun part of Twitter is really fun. It's a great way to interact with the fans, promote what we're doing, and really show my excitement about this show. The danger is that you're very accessible and people want answers to everything under the sun, and when I don't give them what they want they end up frustrated. Or they make up rumors and want me to refute them. I'm not going to do that. But I love checking out the Tweets while the show is airing and seeing how the audience is responding. "Oh, my God! Nikolas just found Robin!" There are also times when I feel the need to take a step back. But, for the most part, it's an overwhelmingly positive experience. [Laughs] As long as you know how to work the Block button!
TV Guide Magazine: Are you maybe making Twitter too important? It's still just a sliver of your total audience.
Carlivati: You're right. It's always a wakeup call for me when I encounter fans in other arenas, people who aren't on social media. I will often get a very different point of view about how the public is responding from the one I might get on Twitter, where there's a real pile-on mentality. I'll meet someone on the street or I'll talk to the girl who works behind the counter at my gym and they'll say, "Oh, I love that character!" — the same one everyone on Twitter seems to hate!
TV Guide Magazine: Does the Twitter noise ever mess with you head?
Carlivati: It does. When I first came on GH, people were in an uproar because Liz was comforting Patrick after Robin's death. I was getting an outpouring of hatred on Twitter for letting the character move in on this guy, when she was merely comforting a friend. It was absolutely insane! They were, like, "That hussy! She's trying to steal a man whose wife just died!" I have to say it made me gun-shy after that to put Liz and Patrick in a scene together.
TV Guide Magazine: 'Fess up! Aren't you glad that Prospect Park mess forced you to turn Todd, Starr and John into Franco, Kiki and Silas? This is a better show because you had to overcome that massive problem, right?
Carlivati: I have certain regrets because I had great things planned for those One Life to Live characters, things I'll never be able to make happen now. But so many good things were born out of this situation, like our entire Jerome story. We wouldn't have Julian or Ava, or all the complications resulting from their arrival in Port Charles. I don't know that we'd be introducing Sam's father or that Heather would be so prominent again. So, for all of that, I'm definitely grateful. God closes a door and opens a window — and we climbed right through it. Of course, we had no choice.
TV Guide Magazine: How was it, emotionally speaking, when you had to make such drastic and fast changes with the Llanview Three? Were you nervous? Scared? Pissed?
Carlivati: It was hard, job-wise, to write out three major characters all at once and then write in three new ones. Emotionally, it was really hard because I love those OLTL characters and I love that show, you know? And to suddenly find myself in this very, very awkward position that made it seem like I was on the opposite side of a show I love so much, well...I hated it. It's not a place I ever wanted to be.