A guest commentary regarding The Young and the Restless‘ emotional and controversial storyline involving the death of Billy Abbott and Chloe Mitchell’s young daughter, Delia.
[notice]Editor’s note: Mark Harding contacted us earlier this week to write a response to an opinion piece written by TVSource’s executive editor, “The Young and the Restless Once Again Proves Gripping Drama Can Come from Tragedy.” Though he understands the intention behind the decision to kill off the child of two popular characters, he notes that there were other options to achieve the same, if not a better, desired result. Check it out, it’s a great read. – Omar White-Nobles, Executive Editor[/notice]
Drama does come from tragedy, but tragedy is only half the story
TVSource Magazine’s executive editor, Omar White-Nobles, recently published a beautifully written, balanced opinion of the current Young and Restless tale of Delia Abbott’s death. There is much about what he said that I agree with, but ultimately, I believe the Delia storyline is destructive of Y&R, and damages the show. Worse yet, I feel it is symptomatic of how lost, and disconnected from its audience, the show has been for several writing/producing regimes.
Let me first stipulate two things in agreement with Omar. First, the drama and performances coming out of Y&R since Delia’s death have been remarkable. Billy’s internalized rage, his amazing dialog about not know how to BE in this world; Chloe’s externalized rage and lashing out; Victoria’s remarkable, remarkable soulful openness as she struggles to reconcile guilt and a desperate need to love and support her man; Adam’s breathtaking interplay of guilt (did he kill her?), deception (hide the taillight!), desperation (buy black market corneas), sympathy (that awkward encounter with Billy at Chancellor Park), and love (as he holds his son). There is no question that the Delia story achieves what it was carefully designed to do: ramp up drama and showcase actors.
Second, the internet is rife with criticism of the show’s executive producer, Jill Farren Phelps. She is reputed, now serially, for overseeing shows in which death (of veterans and children) and sweeps stunts drive drama but have few long-term repercussions for the show. My own sense, as Omar argued, is that this is not directly germane to the conversation. Each show is a fresh start. The Delia story is not bad, prima facie, simply because it bears “trademark” features of the showrunner.
The Delia story is bad because it is manipulative and artificially evocative of drama, outcome-focused, short-sighted, tone deaf, and worst of all – derivative. Let me tackle each of these in turn.
Manipulative. You take the show’s best 30-something actors (or almost 30-something), and give them a pivotal death. OF COURSE, they run with the ball. But the tale feels terribly like paint-by-numbers. If we need drama next year, we can kill off Johnny? Or Nikki? Or Lily. Pick a character, and your sweeps death is delivered.
Outcome focused. In this past week, I have read maybe 50 times “this is Y&R’s Emmy show” or “this is Billy Miller’s Emmy episode”. And of course it is. Only the least initiated of fans can’t see that. Y&R is not alone in this trickery; Brad Bell won Emmy’s for years on stunts like Ann’s return and death, homelessness week, and Stephanie Forrester’s succumbing to lung cancer. The current Y&R showrunner produced legendary stunts on General Hospital that garnered attention and awards. But the instrumentality of such storytelling comes at the cost of sustainable drama…of slow burn stories that fill the gaps between November, February and May.
Short-sighted. Many have offered critiques like “Why is Y&R killing another legacy character—the intersection of Newmans, Abbotts, Fisher-Baldwins, and Valentine (Chancellors)?” or “Why must another Abbott die to give body parts to a Newman?” Some of this speaks to my critique of derivativeness (see next bullet), but some of this does speak to a failure to view children as next generation investments in the future of Y&R.
Tone-deaf. Soap towns are places that viewers either wanted to be, or enjoyed visiting to see the high and mighty fall. Soaps at their best are filled with high concept drama, scandal, betrayal, and LAUGHTER. General Hospital has returned to form as such a show recently, and viewer satisfaction and ratings have both grown in response. Meanwhile, in Genoa City, what has the last year brought? A war veteran with PTSD, and the horrific betrayal of him by a woman passing off another man’s child as his. The town’s elder scion playing mind games with his prodigal son – a man who lived only for his father’s approval. The (real-life) death of the show’s most beloved matriarch. Drug addiction and near death in sad young men. The rendering comatose of the show’s leading female and most celebrated Emmy winner (because the actress chose to leave). The rendering psychotic of the show’s most beloved young ingénue – whose bad deeds included paternity test switching and burning down one of the show’s signature sets. The on-screen murder of a young, sexy actor who captivated more viewer libido than any other new cast member in years. Darkness. Death. Crime. Descent into madness. Loss. Horrific deceptions. Into such a dark, depressing abyss (and one that moved painfully slowly during this past year), why would we throw a child’s death? When did the writers get the idea that stories of redemption, healing, laughter, happiness, consummated love might not also be welcomed?
Derivative. Critics have been quick to show parallels between Delia’s death and child death tales on many other shows. But the DEFINITIVE child death was that of Cassie Newman on Y&R, now, almost a decade ago. The death was shocking and unexpected. At the time, it spun off into Y&R’s wildest ride in years – a location shoot and manhunt for the young man suspected of leading to her death (intensified with a beautiful “lovers on the run” sub story), the INCENDIARY and controversial affair of Nick and Phyllis; the long, slow devolution of Sharon Newman (controversial, but utterly compelling to watch). In 2013, Cassie Newman’s death is STILL front burner, as we see how it played out for Nick (paternity shenanigans so he wouldn’t lose another daughter) and Sharon (sadness and madness).
Bill Bell swore, after killing a child on Days of our Lives, that he would never do so again. He relented during the Sheila years, killing “Dylan” (the child Sheila gave Lauren after stealing her blood child, Scotty). Dylan’s death was an essential plot point, but it was a rare deviation from Bill Bell’s vow, and it was POWERFUL. When Jack Smith and Kay Alden scripted Cassie’s death, it was horrific…but it was precisely the way such a death should be written. The horror was felt across the canvas, and the death created story for a decade.
Why do it again? Why so “soon” in soap time? If you’ve painted the Mona Lisa, why would you try to paint a copy? Why not paint something fresh? Even the organ donation angle was done more recently, when another next-generation death (Colleen – who SHOULD NOT have been killed – drowned) was used to provide Victor Newman with a heart (one he continues to misuse, by the way, with his reprehensible coldness and manipulative behavior).
Instead of telling a child-death story that Bill Bell would never have wanted told, and one that is simply reheated leftovers from stories Y&R told with supreme artistry in the past, why not tell fresh stories? There was already so much potential on the canvas. Stories that so many fans were really looking forward to – unanswered questions – seem never to be answered. Like:
- Why could Jamie not stick around? Be fostered or adopted by Paul and Christine, giving him a chance to get parenting right?
- In the same vein, why is Paul not the REAL bio-dad of Dylan? That would fit with his past, and would give Doug Davidson another remarkable opportunity to revisit parenting.
- Was Fen’s jealousy of Summer-Jamie not REALLY about Summer, but about Jamie? Was he sublimating his true emotional and love issues, which were for Jamie?
- In the same vein, was Fen’s extreme reaction to Lauren/Carmine NOT because of the dissolution of his family, but because of his unspoken and unwelcome lust for Carmine?
- Why is Nick such an unfeeling brick while one love-of-life lies in a coma, another STILL struggles with mental health issues and grief from the loss of their daughter, and a third is confused since a love she once thought dead is back again?
- When did Victor Newman become Stefano DiMera, needing to clutch onto any heir – by blood or otherwise – instead of a complex man who showed both gentleness and control and rage?
- Why did Esther learn of Delia’s death in the commercial break, rather than with us? Why is Jill apparently learning it off screen?
- Why is the battle for Chancellor not front burner, and why are Nikki and Jill not at the front burner of those tales?
- Why is Neil perennially back burnered? He is perhaps Genoa City’s best and most stable father, and he is one of the sexiest men in town, with one of the sexiest women…but he has a tortured life and history. Why are his relationship concerns not being mined? Why is he not the paterfamilias to his clan?
- Why is Devon now the richest man in Genoa City? Ostensibly this is so Hilary can entrap him but… this is a young character with the richest backstory of all the 20somethings, but he is only seen a few times a month?
- Why aren’t Noah, Abby, Summer, Kyle, and other next-generation characters played OFTEN, even daily, with their parents and grandparents so they can be solidified and tied to story? Only then might we care about them?
- Why can’t Sharon’s be healed? Why can’t she, as a sign of recovery, reach out to Chloe and Billy and be a true comfort to them? Why can’t she reach out to the wounded Dylan and do the same? The audience aches for the return of their plucky heroine.
- Why is the show’s single most fascinating female character, Gloria Bardwell Abbott, virtually absent? She was, de facto, Delia’s grandmother (or step grandmother). We need her glorious melodrama to berate Billy and amp up the opera in this tale.
There are so many other questions, but it is almost soul-crushing to type them, because it seems so many of them will never be answered.
There have been far better recent analyses of Y&R’s lost potential and drift into mediocrity and “generic soap” (this We Love Soaps op-ed springs to mind). Like me, he notes that so much potential for natural human drama inherent in current characters and situations is squandered or cut short for these adrenaline fueled plot infusions (Carmine killed! Delia killed! Nikki’s lost child!).
I have been a fan of Y&R since 1973, and – unless something drastic happens – I will be there till the last frame has aired. I love the show, and I love what it has meant to me – running through my life. This is why I am so saddened by the current descent into plotty, artificial, Emmy-bait storytelling. The performances are superb, but the actors are not served by this redundant, bleak tale. I hope Y&R does not suffer in viewership, as saddened viewers decide they’ve had enough darkness, and they need to embrace lightness elsewhere.
[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. Follow him on Twitter @MarkHSoap[/textblock]