The Young and the Restless: Katherine Chancellor, Always!

By Patrick ErwinJeanne Cooper

The Young and the Restless has a long history of being a solid hour of soap, mostly unmoved by trends or the fleeting fancies that other shows have lived (or died) by. But in the last few years, Y&R has undergone some substantial changes — changes in writers, in producers, and in the pace the story unfolds on screen. Fans are, as you might expect, divided on the pros and cons of all these changes.

I’ve got some very mixed feelings about the new direction Y&R is taking. But I am here today, not to bury Y&R, but to praise it. I’d like to rave about a minor miracle:  that in 2008, these days of budget cuts, demographic pandering, and the supposed death of daytime, a very substantial portion of Y&R’s canvas is (a) over 40 and (b) in a front-burner storyline!

And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the character of Katherine Chancellor, as played by Jeanne Cooper, is still in the midst of all the action in Genoa City. I may love As The World Turns and all of the veterans of Oakdale who’ve been on our screens for years, but compared to Kay, ATWT favorites like Lisa, Lucinda, and Kim are only occasional blips on our screen. Katherine may not always be absolutely front-burner, but she’s still on the storyline stove, and she’s integral to the show and to the lives of several other characters.

The show has given Cooper some meaty material to work with over the last several years. She’s revisited Katherine’s struggle with alcoholism, and discovered that Jill was the daughter she gave up for adoption. Last year, she started to have total recall about a long-ago bender,  and eventually remembered giving away baby Phillip (a memory she had suppressed for decades). She was even a part of the controversial Clear Springs collapse storyline. Katherine has been WAY too busy to pour tea or be a nodding, smiling talk-to!

It’s another miracle, of sorts, that Kay even became a candidate to be the grande dame of Genoa City. AMC‘s Erica Kane and OLTL’s Viki may have been guilty of bad behavior, but they had their reasons (daddy issues). But Kay’s past was not only checkered — it was completely unrepentant, and often scandalous. The fights with Jill! The gigolos she hired! The implied lesbian friendship! And the drinking … oh, yes, the drinking. We seldom saw Kay without a cocktail in those early years. And yet viewers rooted for Mrs. C, battle bruises and all.

Kay and Jill

This week, Y&R has been showcasing flashback scenes of some of Katherine’s most memorable moments. It may have been simply for storyline purposes (drawing parallels between the scheming Amber and the “old” Kay), but I was captivated by these scenes. And I doubt I’m the only one:  it may be heresy to the network programmers and suits, but when I hear from my twentysomething and thirtysomething friends about Y&R, one of the first topics of conversation is always — ALWAYS — Katherine Chancellor.

Katherine’s longevity and likeability is a direct result of Jeanne Cooper’s fearless portrayal. Cooper was a well-known actress before she ever came to Y&R; she often landed great supporting roles in films and on TV. But when she came to Y&R, Cooper became a star. Katherine may be a wealthy woman, but she is never aloof — it’s hard to keep a distant facade when your character has had an on-screen facelift! Fans identify with her — and have deeply invested in the character as a result. A lot of Cooper’s heart and soul is written all over this character. Marlena has interviewed her and remembers her joyful spirit. What a hoot and what a survivor!  It’s this spirit that has made this character so watchable for 35 years.

Y&R frequently uses its past to inform its present, and I think it’s almost always to their benefit. I never understood why most shows are so reluctant to refer to previous story, or have legacy characters visit.  The excuse is often made that the “old friend” would confuse new viewers who would be overwhelmed by an unfamiliar character. But these shows usually end up writing new backstory for new characters that comes off just as unfamiliar and convoluted, so that seems like a poor excuse. Shows CAN get overwhelmed or bogged down if they reference a character’s past story too much — Guiding Light, for example, revisited the Reva-in-a-red-dress-slut-of-Springfield well a few times too many — but Y&R seems to know to refer to its history when there’s an organic link to what’s currently on our screens.

It’s been many years since I was an everyday viewer of Y&R. But putting Katherine front and center is always a way to get me watching. I can’t wait to see what happens with the book she’s writing about her friends, family, and enemies (in some cases, all one and the same). Mrs. Chancellor is still a force of nature … now, if only she could get Esther to answer that damn doorbell!

Comments

  1. Bob says:

    Great piece, Patrick!

    I am one of the few viewers (I am worried) who has found Y&R delightful in the past few years. I’ve watched on and off for many years but, for me, the show has opened itself up in the recent past. Changes that have made me watch each episode from beginning to end… day in and day out!

    If you had asked me a few years ago about which soap held my loyalty Y&R wouldn’t have made the cut. For me there was simply too much recap, scenes and stories moved too slowly, Genoa City seemed like a place inside of a bubble, many of the characters spoke in the same tired language (how many times did we hear someone declare that “something heavy” was “going down”?) Sure, there were beautiful sets and lighting, those lingering shots of chandeliers or freshly cut flowers… but that wasn’t enough to entice this viewer to watch every episode.

    That all changed. I know it is absolutely the unpopular thing to admit, but I am going to say it: I LOVE Lynn Marie Latham’s Y&R. I do. I really do.

    All of a sudden, characters had little moments and beats with one another that revealed who they really were. Suddenly, pop culture references abounded in Genoa City and it became a real place (I love the mention of which state it is in, which county, etc.)… Suddenly the past really did inform the present and future for my favorite characters.

    In the years prior to LML, I believe that there was a strict policy of forgetting any character who wasn’t presently on-screen. To me, this smacked of the Chuck Cunningham (from primetime’s ‘Happy Days’) syndrome – once someone is gone lets forget he/she was ever there. In fact, I would venture to say that fifteen or more years flew by before Nikki remembered that she had a sister. For years Victor’s namesake son wasn’t mentioned, etc. (I do still have a bit of a pet peeve with Jack and his boys!)

    I am not saying that the show is perfect. There have been some big missteps such as the reliquary story, and Sheila is Phyllis. However, even during those stories I never felt fully disgusted (as I often have with my first love, GL) or wanted to fast-forward or stop watching. With this, new, Young and Restless I knew that something great would be coming right around the corner. I wasn’t disappointed.

    Complaining about newbies and teen crowds is understandable. Y&R, on the flip side, has worked miracles with weaving the teen characters into stories and allowing them to grow. Newer characters sometimes take center stage (remember when Daniel was a new character?) but are usually anchored into stories and scenes with established and popular characters.

    There has been a lot of complaining about the character of Amber. Much of the complaining has validity. I am not really interested in seeing Amber wear a disguise. However, I believe it was a stroke of genius to tie Amber’s character to Kay’s. Their scenes, in my opinion, have been great. Suddenly Amber has much more ‘rooting power’ than before. These two could potentially be Y&R’s next supercouple! A bonus is that the friendship between Kay and Amber, replete with confessions and secrets, could really rev up the animosity between Jill and Kay.

    Many people really seem to dislike Lily (as portrayed by Christel Khalil) — I’ve heard the character called ‘dull as dishwater’, etc. I’ve been fond of the character. Her burgeoning romance with Kane has made me like her character (and his!) even more. Everyone claims they want romance in the afternoon; well this couple is steeped in the tried-and-true tradition of daytime romance. Their story has been moving at a nice pace and is a joy to watch.

    Maybe seeing beatific Victoria languish in a coma for months wasn’t everyone’s idea of great television. I realize that. However, in this day of spoilers and knowing all about actors’ private lives, I found the story turn an excellent way of accommodating actress Amelia Heinle’s maternity leave while zeroing in on the amazing talent that surrounds her on-screen. Everyone knew that Victoria would wake up, yet that didn’t seem to take away from the performances of Melody Thomas-Scott (Nikki) and others. In fact, this storyline really seemed to illustrate what a capable player Thad Luckinbill (J.T.) really is, while simultaneously shifting his character from a spoiled boy to a humble man.

    Like all viewers, I have complaints and shake my head from time to time. For the most part though, I relish my hour (okay, well 42 minutes or so) in Genoa City every evening when I settle in after a crazy day at work. Sure, I miss the Brooks sisters and maybe even Vanessa Prentiss… but I like what’s going on in GC much more than I did in the 1990s.

  2. barbara says:

    Jeanne Cooper rocks!!!!

  3. Chris says:

    I totally agree with Patrick and respect Bob’s take on Y&R.

    I too didn’t resent all that LML brought to the table, but with the show getting back to its roots with the WGA Strike in force, I hope she never returns.

    Bob, I too appreciated the way LML made the characters more contemporary. I often felt that the characters spoke like people I didn’t know. That was a Bill Bell trait. But he was such a masterful storyteller that it was easy for me to overlook the day to day dialogue. His successors, while good, were not at his level and that repetitive day to day chit-chat was maddening at times. I actually agreed with CBS/Sony decision to replace Alden/Smith at the time because I felt the show had become stale. What I did not expect was the level of arrogance that the new regime would take over this show with. LML filled our screens with newbies I hated, but more importantly, didn’t have the sense to end a story when it wasn’t working. The Reliquary story was the first example of that. Despite it being panned by critics and viewers alike, she insisted on force feeding us that garbage day in and day out. At the time I excused some of it because I felt like the cast as a whole came alive. Suddenly they talked and sounded like people I could hang with. But then came the warp speed at which stories were told. I really felt the show suffered because important story beats were compromised in favor of it. In the end, I really didn’t care for her style.

    In the midst of all this however, has been Jeanne Cooper. I LOVE that she is in a front burner story again. More importantly it’s the first story in a long time that has me excited for Katherine. JC is the heart and soul of this show, in my most humble opinion. I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2008 brings for Katherine and I hope todays current writing team is there to weave their magic.

  4. Darn says:

    Sorry Bob but you’re wrong on a few things. Like we’ve known what state Genoa City is in for years (Wisconsin) and Nikki’s sister (Cassie) has been mentioned in the past 15 years (during that story when Nikki recalled killing her childhood friend) and Victor’s son has been mentioned as well, when Victor visited Hope during his Parade of Ex-Wives story.

    You give LML way too much credit. All of the changes you see have, IMO, made Y&R more ordinary. It used to be grandiose, something to admire, it used to have something no other soap on the air currently has: Class. Now it’s just another soap opera. And that’s turned me off as a viewer.

  5. Bet says:

    It would be nice if some of the morals would change in the story. Why can’t the marriages last? Victor and Niki should be together and stop changing partners. Let some relationships last till death…

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