A guest commentary on the state of CBS’ The Young and the Restless from a 40-year veteran viewer of daytime’s number one drama. Months after the changing of the guard that brought about positive results, the Y&R of today remains one daytime best dramas, though one that engenders the least amount of enthusiasm among its fans and a clear disconnect with many viewers.
[notice]Editor’s note: We asked Mark Harding to contribute this commentary last week. He makes some specific recommendations about the need for more melodrama on The Young and The Restless. After this report was filed, major new developments in the story suggest that the Y&R “got the memo” before we even posted this opinion. We’re looking forward to a more exciting May in Genoa City.[/notice]
As a 40-year veteran viewer of The Young and the Restless, I have seen my show through a wide variety of ups and downs during these past decades. Like many viewers, I welcomed “regime change” last summer, and I have been pleased with many of the changes introduced by executive producer Jill Farren Phelps and head writer Josh Griffith.
When I think of all the positive changes since last summer, it really is quite incredible. A partial list:
- Moribund, visibly aged sets have been replaced by beautiful new feasts for the eyes (Newman penthouse, On the Boulevard); some existing sets were re-imagined (Victoria & Billy’s house, Katherine’s living room got a new angle)
- In general aspects of production showed renewed energy and attention to detail. We saw new angles in sets as varied as Adam/Genevieve’s mansion, Nick’s Tack house, Victoria and Billy’s Father Knows Best house. Though not uncontroversial, General Hospital’s R. C. Cates arrived to provide a completely new soundscape for the show musically.
- Terrific transplanted actors from other shows, whose characters didn’t work, were released – often to return to their places of glory (Debbie Morgan, Darnell Williams, Genie Francis). We also lost some terrific folks (Jen Landon, Emme Rylan). These moves brought great hope of a leaner, more focused Y&R, centered around core families and characters.
- The worst excesses of lazy plotting (Victor’s umpteenth death; Cricket rehashing a hit-and-run from decades ago – one Bill Bell wanted to never revisit) and off the wall characterization (Victor as the epitome of unsympathetic evil; Adam’s “huh” insta-romance with Chelsea; Phyllis’ out-of-the-blue affair with Ronan) gradually made way for characters whose motivations again were clear and made sense.
- Early signs of character repair included Sharon’s return from “bipolar” campiness to a wiser, quieter “recovering” persona, Michael Baldwin questioning (months before he quit his DA job) why he was constantly prosecuting friends and family; Jack abandoning his fruitless Bugs-Bunny-Road-Runner feud to focus on his family and romance.
- The new regime also took decisive steps to combat both the lack of diversity, and the lack of young and restless romance. New hires plus heightened emphasis on under-used characters brought us Tyler, Leslie, Avery, Dylan, Carmine, Kyle, Summer, Alex, Noah, and others. Since many of these represented next-generation members of core family members, it brought hope that – finally – a viable next generation of Y&R might come to the fore.
These Y&R based changes were complimented by major new initiative by CBS to increase daypart synergy and promotional attention. CBS and Y&R publicity began regularly issuing teasers, backstage extras, and social media interaction. Indeed, Sony and CBS decided to work together in promoting the show on the web. Suddenly, the rest of the CBS daypart (Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, The Talk) became regular homes for Y&R cross-promotion. It was clear to see that CBS was interested in sustaining and growing Genoa City. By promoting, in particular, the many gorgeous new men in Genoa City, it was also clear that the goal was to attract more young women and gay men; these are necessary steps to sustain the show for future generations.
Despite Y&R taking many positive steps, the Y&R of today is curiously the best written/acted/produced/directed/promoted daytime show that engenders the least amount of enthusiasm amongst its fans. There is a clear disconnect with many viewers.
I think the recent re-launch of All My Children and One Life to Live by Prospect Park serves as teachable examples of what may have gone wrong. Driven by cost cutting and the inability to restore their canvases to where they were at cancellation, the Prospect Park soaps have built (a) relatively small casts; (b) a near perfectly balanced mix of “veterans”, “next-generation” recasts, and entirely new characters; (c) narrowed focus on a small number of main plots; (d) heavy intergenerational mixing; (e) many characters seen all/most days of the week (so there is a feeling of momentum). It is also the case that All My Children, in particular, has reverted back to a clear sense of its identity, with tales of high school lovers and gothic forbidden romances that harken back to Phil and Tara, Jenny and Greg, Nina and Cliff.
Where Y&R remains stuck, I think, is that it has avoided almost all of the positive attributes just mentioned for the Prospect Park soaps. It is fair to say that the cast has been over-stuffed for at least half a decade, and there is simply not time to service many characters. After a successful housecleaning in 2012, Y&R in 2013 added in many new actors, and recent casting notices suggest that the influx has not begun to slow.
Perhaps the most vexing element of the current Y&R can be seen in looking at the front-burner stories. Jessica Collins‘ Avery and Steve Burton‘s Dylan (two characters/actors I genuinely enjoy) led the cast in April appearances. The widely liked Leslie/Tyler Michaelson spent months driving story about a “mysterious past” that relatively few audience members cared about. Nikki was given Multiple Sclerosis and a wedding, and then promptly disappeared. Fan favorites Victoria and Billy were seldom seen, and they were immediately sunk into another “baby for Victoria” plot – a direction many fans thought was rehash rather than moving forward. The critical next generation (Summer, Noah, Kyle, Abby) consisted of recasts who had far too few scenes with their “elders”. Moreover, rather than being plunged into front burner tales (as on the Prospect Park soaps), so the audience could get to know them, they played relatively few days, taking a sideline to the Michaelsons and the Avery/Dylans.
There is one tale on Y&R that almost everyone seems to love, and it is a perfect reflection of the best formula: The destruction of Lauren and Michael. We saw, on screen, week by week how they fractured apart. We were introduced to a thoroughly engaging next generation member (Max Ehrich‘s Fen); the actor has fearlessly chosen to play damaged and creepy and labile – shades of both his mother and father’s histories in decades past. A “newbie”, Marco Dapper‘s Carmine was perfectly positioned as Lauren’s new lover. Not only can most audience members clearly see how mouth-watering Carmine would incite Lauren’s lust, but Carmine’s backstory as an obsessive and slightly dangerous jilted lover (in the Angelina story/Chloe kidnapping) promised to take this tale in dark directions. The tale is a classic potboiler melodrama (think Fatal Attraction), with the delicious spin of a gender reversal (the lady cheated), and rooted in decades of history. The story is also getting relative heavy front burner play, so it has momentum and causes “tune in tomorrow”. Every beat is played (guilt, near misses, recrimination and lust). The tale draws in many supporting players (Paul, Kevin). This is absolutely the best story on Y&R right now and, if properly stewarded, could drive years of plotting. (Does Fen secretly lust after Carmine? Will Michael go dark and build a dungeon for his wife’s lover? Can Lauren and Michael ever find their ways back to one another?). The tale is a beautiful follow-up to the Fenmore bullying storyline, in which Fen (true to his mother’s high school roots) nearly drove the sweet, guileless Jamie to suicide. That bullying story was also widely praised – until it was disappointingly aborted when Daniel Polo‘s Jamie suddenly left town. Hopefully, Jamie will return – possibly tied to Doug Davidson‘s Paul, with whom he shared amazing “familial” chemistry.
If only Y&R could tell more of these melodramatic tales centered on characters and families the audience loves. (Ed. Note: But watch what happens in May 2013!) After aiding her recovery, why is Adam suddenly using Sharon as a sex toy? After putting Victor and Nikki together, why aren’t we seeing their romantic exploits as a lovely counterpoint to darkness? Why isn’t Avery’s “good girl” complex being explored in a supporting capacity with Phyllis, rather than the other way around? Why aren’t the Newmans being forced to grudgingly work together for a common purpose, rather than warring with one another all the time? Why isn’t Tyler being positioned as Noah’s “bro” and friend (think Jeffrey and Matthew on OLTL), rather than as the distasteful interloper who has no regard for marital vows? Why isn’t Leslie’s story about helping Neil to get past Dru, rather than about a family mystery involving strangers that few fans care about?
Imagine if Noah, Summer, Kyle and Abby each fronted “A” tales that played 4 days a week. Imagine if the elder Newmans and Abbotts were seen heavily involved in those tales most of those days. Y&R has had success in the past with that kind of focus on a next generation (think Glow By Jabot or JT and Colleen).
The biggest problem with Y&R continues to be the over-stuffed cast. As welcome as many of the new players are, until other players are dropped, cohesive and focused storytelling can’t happen. I recently suggested, only partially in jest, that the writers should have a meteor or earthquake or even the Rapture randomly remove 15 contract players from the canvas. I am sincere about “random”, in the sense that the removals need to include a mix of veterans, next-generation characters, and new outsiders. There is no “right” character to drop, since every character has fans. But there must be a sincere housecleaning, along with commitment to drive limited stories most days of the week with a narrower cast. Y&R needs to re-embrace itself as a melodrama, with soaring music and daily “oh my goodness” moments. Secrets, lies, forbidden affairs, parents separated from children, feuds rooted in love gone sour … these are the ingredients that Y&R had for most of its 40 years; why are they no longer there? All My Children demonstrates that a show can return to its core themes, while being contemporary and using new young players. The devastating loss of Jeanne Cooper demands that she be honored with a major storyline – nothing less than the war for the future of Chancellor Industries (most viewers want to see a fierce Jill pulverize unworthy upstart sheep herder/bartender/con man/Mafioso Cane into dust). That is the melodrama viewers want to watch. Larry Hagman’s recent passing on Dallas provides the template for how to script a death that is honored, rather than trivialized.
I will also note that there are a few characters that are engendering pretty wide pushback from fans right now. Avery earns wide rebuke because she is “too perfect”, even as she commits the ultimate sins of the romantic heroine (betraying her sister and waffling about her feelings for two men). Chelsea was introduced as a rapist and con artist, and she continues to lie and deceive. Worse than being unrepentant, she takes no delight in her villainy – nor does she signal deep damage like Michelle Stafford’s Phyllis – so she’s not even much fun to watch. Kevin, a character/actor I personally love but whom many feel is fully played out, further lost goodwill by stealing – even from his beloved Mrs. Chancellor. Y&R should carefully and objectively consider audience feedback about some of these folks, because my sense is they are generating an animus that is actively dissuading some viewers from watching.
Y&R is a show with an embarrassment of riches. Truly every element of the show – from cast to crew – is top notch. A refocusing of storytelling on heightened melodrama, using a trimmed cast of beloved longer-term cast members and their offspring, seems essential to solidify their many accomplishments during this past year.
[textblock style="9"]Mark Harding is a behavioral scientist and statistician with a particular interest in aging and gerontology. His soap viewing days began in the late 1960s with his grandmother (General Hospital, All My Children) and continued in the 1970s and 1980s, encompassing the entire ABC lineup, The Young and the Restless and later, The Bold and The Beautiful.[/textblock]