02/28/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

At 50, General Hospital Feels Like It's Just Getting Started

April will mark the 50th anniversary of ABC's General Hospital. I'll be marking my 35th anniversary as a steady GH viewer just a couple of months after that. One year ago, I was almost certain that neither anniversary would come to pass, what with the show in a death spiral after more than ten years of dreadful mob-based stories that had gutted virtually everything that had once been wonderful about it and turned it into a bargain basement version of The Sopranos. Not to mention grievous mismanagement on the part of ABC Daytime, which had seen fit to cancel the network's two other signature soap operas and seemed to be gunning for GH, as well. And while it was sad to see the somewhat played out All My Children go, and distressing to see the still very vital One Life to Live die, it was damn near impossible to muster up any true outrage over the seemingly inevitable end of GH because it had been so terrible for so long.

If you had told me in early 2012 that one year later I would once again be relishing GH the way I did in the '70s and '80s, and for much of the '90s, I might have suggested that you were in need of a long rest. Like millions of other people, I was certain GH was a goner, and I wasn't all that conflicted about it, since in many ways it had been dead for quite some time.

But in the last 12 months, with GH having been in the very capable hands of executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati -- the two people who were largely responsible for One Life to Live being as much fun as it was during its final years on ABC -- something borderline miraculous has happened: It is once again pulsing with dramatic, romantic and sometimes humorous stories about the people who work at the title institution. Their families and friends, many of whom are caught up in adventures involving larger-than-life villains, the likes of which were once a staple on the show. Refreshingly, there hasn't been a mob-based story in months.

Much of the excitement surrounding GH at the moment has to do with the bumper crop of veteran characters that Valentini and Carlivati have brought back to the show. Almost always in grand fashion, and never with the complete disregard for the history of legacy characters shown by previous production regimes, not to mention disrespect for viewers who had invested years in their past stories. The cavalcade of returning fan favorites in advance of the show's 50th anniversary celebration has been glorious to see. A.J. Quartermaine has returned, undoing the corrosive impact of a particularly wretched story six years ago that seemed to end with his death, and thrusting the long-sidelined Q family back into the spotlight. Felicia Jones is back, reunited with her former boyfriend Mac Scorpio and her troubled daughter, Maxie. Her secret agent ex-husband Frisco Jones is back as well, awkwardly attempting to reconnect with his ex-wife and daughter after shutting them out for almost 20 years. Duke Lavery is back from the dead (he was actually in a Turkish prison) and after a false start, courtesy of the veteran super-villain Cesar Faison, he is trying to rekindle his relationship with former super-spy Anna Devane. (The Faison fondue face-melt was an instant classic moment, the likes of which this show hasn't delivered in decades.)

There have been appearances by Robert Scorpio, Holly Sutton, Noah Drake, Kevin Collins and Skye Quartermaine. The returns of Bobbie Spencer and Audrey Hardy are right around the corner, hopefully with Lesley Webber in tow. Murderous '80s super-loon Heather Webber is now an integral part of the narrative, as is long-time vamp, Lucy Coe. Even the long-absent Laura Spencer has returned to town -- with new fiancé Scotty Baldwin (her first husband). She was, in fact, reunited with ex-husband Luke outside the ship-turned-floating-nightclub, the Haunted Star, which they once owned. (The actors who play Luke and Laura, Anthony Geary and Genie Francis, have lost none of the chemistry that made them pop-culture superstars more than three decades ago. Interestingly, Ms. Francis and Kin Shriner, the actor who has played Scotty off-and-on since the '70s, have still got "it," as well.)

The show is suddenly loaded with fresh details from past storylines that may be a bit jarring to newer viewers but have long-time fans smiling from ear to ear, like the Pickle-Lila relish with which the late Lila Quartermaine once saved the fading fortunes of ELQ, and the Ice Princess diamond that brought the Cassadine family onto the canvas and kicked off the legendary story about a weather machine that caused a blizzard to cripple Port Charles in the summer of 1981. If Luke and Laura pay a visit to Beecher's Corners or run into Hutch, the Hit Man, the old-timers and their aging-fan base just might expire from nostalgia overload.

Even as they have thoroughly revitalized it, Valentini and Carlivati have skillfully used GH to keep alive their previous series, One Life to Live, having brought three characters (Todd Manning, John McBain and Starr Manning) from it to GH on a full-time basis and three others (Cole Thornhart, Blair Cramer and Tea Delgado) in limited capacities. With the exception of Cole, who came and went in two episodes before he was "killed," they have all brought a great deal to what has been their new home, all the while keeping other OLTL characters alive through conversations they have with each other and the new people in their lives. This has been a bold experiment and a surprisingly satisfying one, though much of it is in jeopardy now that Prospect Park has finally reactivated OLTL (along with AMC) as an online series and is staking claim to its characters. (Prospect Park has suggested in a statement that it will agree to share the Todd, John and Starr characters with GH as scheduling permits.)

As if fixing past mistakes and making essential corrections to GH and keeping OLTL alive aren't challenges enough, Valentini and Carlivati have also taken it upon themselves to address the madness that surrounded the 1997-2003 GH spin-off Port Charles. An epic fail of a show that in its later years added vampires and other supernatural entities to its canvas in a desperate attempt to attract new viewers, only to drive away the few it had left. Caleb Morley, the villainous vampire on that series, has resurfaced on GH, and because he was played by Michael Easton, the same actor who played Det. John McBain on OLTL and has continued the role on GH. The writers are having a field day with the old mistaken-identity-thing. It looks as if Caleb will be exposed as a serial killer who made his past crimes look like the work of a vampire, but I'm not sure how Valentini and Carlivati will explain away the near-insanity of Lucy Coe as a manic vampire slayer, or Sam McCall's resemblance to Caleb's lost love Livvie Locke (both played by Kelly Monaco), or the death of Scott Baldwin's daughter Karen in some kind of supernatural scenario ten years ago.

For all the wonderful surprises they have brought to the show, and despite having once again made it an essential five-day-week viewing experience, not everything Valentini and Carlivati have done has been worth shouting about. For example, consider the strange story of Maxie Jones, which so far hasn't worked on any level. Maxie was a surrogate for her friends Lulu and Dante, but lost their baby on New Year's Eve, and then in her grief had sex just a few hours after her miscarriage with her ex-boyfriend Damian Spinelli. Now she's pregnant again and trying to pass off her pregnancy as the one initiated for Dante and Lulu, ostensibly to keep everyone happy, including Spinelli, who is deeply in love with another woman. But she's setting Dante and Lulu up for massive heartbreak down the road once the medical history of the baby's parents inevitably comes into play, and she's preventing sweet Spinelli from experiencing the joys of impending fatherhood. She was being blackmailed by the evil Dr. Britt Westbourne (so far a very poorly developed character), who threatened to expose her secret if Maxie didn't do her bidding, which involved destroying the career of innocent young nurse Sabrina Santiago, but the visiting Frisco put a stop to that. Nothing about this story has been all that interesting or entertaining.

And speaking of stories that don't feel quite right, I can't help but wonder why there has been no mention of the late Edward Quartermaine's illegitimate son Jimmy Lee Holt in the ongoing drama over Edward's estate. Jimmy Lee was a big part of Edward's life, for a while, anyway. This oversight doesn't wash with the show's sudden rich respect for its history. I keep waiting for Monica Quartermaine to ask, "What about Jimmy Lee?" After all, he had a torrid affair with her cousin, Lorena Sharpe.

I also think killing off Kate/Connie's son Trey was a mistake, as there was a lot of story to play there with his mentally ill mother and her boyfriend Sonny.

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles given the big fun that GH now provides almost every day of the week. I'm already wondering what Valentini and Carlivati will do with it once they wrap up the sweeping stories of the Nurses Ball and the return of Caleb Morley. I'm hoping they might continue to work their magic at reviving past characters and repairing the damage done to them by previous writing teams. As I have mentioned before, I would like to see them bring Emily Quartermaine and Georgie Jones back from the beyond, mainly because the serial killer storyline in which these once important characters were killed off was so bloody pointless. (Emily is a no-brainer, as she briefly returned in the form of Rebecca, an unconvincing long-lost twin nobody knew she had. Georgie might take a little more work.) Having Alan Quartermaine also return from the dead might be too much to ask for, but at least we have occasional visits from his spirit or ghost to remind us of how much he brought to the show (and how much the show lost when he left). And I would be thrilled if they could somehow correct the legendary Rick Webber mess from 2002, a storyline that left long-term viewers muttering, "WTF"?

Just thinking about everything that has happened on GH in recent months, and everything yet to come as its special anniversary storylines play out, is enough to make one's head spin. I'm not sure what anyone who has come to the show during the last ten years might make of the tsunami of nostalgia currently washing over it, but those of us who have been around for the long haul can only be delighted. There is literally something for anyone who has watched GH during any of the last five decades, not to mention fans of OLTL and Port Charles. Talk about a long tail. GH today is the finest example of something that only broadcast television can do -- that is, tell a story that lasts for 50 years and yet feels like it's just getting started.