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Soaps draw on beloved characters for stability

By and large, daytime soap operas are about as ephemeral as TV gets.

Soaps air for hours and hours each weekday, the TV equivalent of a running faucet. Many air only once. Cable's SoapNet runs daily and weekly repeats of ABC's soaps and NBC's Days of Our Lives, but that doesn't add much to the genre's short half-life.

The Young and the Restless isn't going to be putting out a DVD box set of last year's 200-plus episodes any time soon.

But the presence of veteran characters helps counteract the genre's here today-gone tomorrow schedule. Bringing back figures such as Emma Samms' Holly Scorpio last week on ABC's General Hospital keeps a soap from resembling a revolving door for the young, restless, bold and beautiful actors hired to attract the WB demographic. Now known as "legacy characters," the long-timers and returning stars have become the rocks in a river of changing faces.

A few vintage characters have been brought back to General Hospital recently. Samms came back Monday, bringing with her a strong sense of Port Charles history. And Samms' Holly, last on in 1993, joins two other recently returned classic GH characters, Rick Springfield's Noah Drake, last seen in 1983, and Tristan Rogers' Robert Scorpio, whose 1992 death turned out to be a widely exaggerated rumor.

This is reunion season for characters from back in the heyday - the 1980s GH heyday of Luke and Laura.

Visiting alumni is a good trick for TV's important sweeps ratings months, of which this is one. So was Luke and Laura's wedding in November 1981. But creatively speaking, the return of the likes of Rogers and Springfield also lends a sense of durability and dignity to General Hospital, just as Erika Slezak's Victoria Lord has anchored One Life to Live for many years. Just think of the decades folded into her full name: Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson.

Reuniting Scorpio with Luke, his former adventure buddy, lifts them above the many forgettable story lines they've played out together; we remember their famous bond, even if we zone out on their superfluous doings over the years.

The primary plot that reunites the gang involves an outbreak of a type of encephalitis, and the good (and not so good) citizens of Port Charles are suddenly feverish and delivering up delirious monologues. Yes, there's lots of moaning, much simplistic hysteria about "the antidote" and a few transparent plays for Daytime Emmy attention. There are goodbye kisses during which, in true soap opera fashion, we can hear every breath and rumpling of cloth.

But that doesn't matter. It's just fun to see characters convene once again, as they continue to define the show across its life-span. If growing rumors of the impending return of Finola Hughes' Anna Devane come true, GH will have quite a memorable deja vu thing happening.

Naturally, the returnees look good. Soap opera actors, especially the women, tend to age remarkably well (some with surgical help). Samms isn't the chipmunk she once was, but she's lovely enough. Though Leslie Charleson, still onboard as Monica Quartemaine, wears an odd, early Barbra Streisand coif, her face is still remarkable and angular. Jacklyn Zeman remains bright as Bobbie. Rogers has thickened and grayed, but he still has that interestingly crooked face. And though Springfield is a little haggard, he bears vestiges of his pretty-boy past.

But still, it's a pleasure to spy signs of maturity behind their makeup. After all, as legacy characters, they are the show's heirlooms.

AT A GLANCE: General Hospital airs at 3 p.m. weekdays on WFTS-Ch. 28 and repeats at 10 weeknights on SoapNet.