By Patrick Erwin
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.
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!