The Young and the Restless: How Latham Tried But Failed to Reinvent the Wheel

Lynn Marie Latham

By Patrick Erwin

I confess I  was glued to my TV last week for the soap opera that was The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The governor, once praised as a smart, brave man, was stripped of his title in a very public and humiliating way. And the reaction reminded me of  “schadenfreude” a German word that describes when someone is joyous and happy at the downfall of another.

I mention all of this because it reminds me of the joy and happiness heard ’round the soap world when it was announced that Lynn Marie Latham, the former head writer and executive producer of The Young and the Restless, was fired. For a while there, I swear if I listened hard enough, I could hear choruses of “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” from Latham’s detractors and Y&R fans.

I’ve been pondering the hows and whys of Latham’s daytime career and its downwards spiral. On paper, she was a gifted writer and producer. After all, she and husband Bernard Lechowick wrote much of Knots Landing during its long run on CBS, and also co-created the nighttime historical soap Homefront, which was one of the best loved primetime shows ever, but was undervalued by its network and prematurely canceled.

The news of LML’s hiring at Y&R seemed at least initially to be good news. Y&R was by no means falling apart; it was simply showing a little wear and tear and needed a bit of tweaking — and new blood — to bring it back to life. Initially, the fans seem to like some of the changes — more concise dialogue, characters mixing more widely across the canvas.Eileen DavidsonVictoria Rowell

And then things went haywire. Y&R fans complained loudly about a multitude of disappointments, including the exits of Victoria Rowell (Drucilla) and Eileen Davidson (Ashley). Several key players, like Michael, Lauren, and Phyllis, were written so unlike the characters we knew, viewers wondered if they’d had lobotomies. While some characters were underused, others, like Gloria, were overexposed. New faces, like Vincent Irizarry’s David Chow, were ill-defined; David remains so months after his introduction, a disservice to the dynamically talented Irizarry. Storylines like the reliquary story and the Sheila-as-Phyllis farce, were just so unlike Y&R that they were jarring to watch. And then there was Clear Springs andVincent Irizarry the explosion, or as one of my friend calls it, “Much Ado About Nothing.” That story was a waste of screen time– a plot-driven story that left no permanent marks on any character or story and created no new story for anyone. What a waste!

I do think Latham may have made a few positive changes. There were certainly some visual changes and updates to sets. The ”old” Y&R could occasionally be maddeningly slow, and the “new” Y&R definitely picked up the pace. In terms of character, I think for all the misfires and misunderstandings with other characters, LML had a great take on Nikki. After years of writers who painted Nikki as either an aging bimbo or a domesticated bore, the character had a renaissance. Melody Thomas Scott had some of the best material in her career under LML’s penmanship, first by getting a chance to show Nikki’s passion and humor during the Senate campaign,Melody Scott Thomasthen her anger during Victor and Nikki’s divorce, and finally, her devastation and sorrow at nearly losing Victoria. (Scott did magnificent work with all three storylines.)

So what went wrong? I think a few very big mistakes were made. The biggest mistake was the jarring change in tone. My Y&R-loving friend said it best: The show took a soap that was the most romantic soap on the air, and killed all the romance.  No romance on a Bell soap? Sad, but true. There were shimmers of light here and there — Nick and Phyllis, and more recently, Cane and Lily — but more often than not, couples (like Jill and Ji Min) were stopped in their tracks. Filling the romance gap with murders — especially several unsolved ones — didn’t satisfy anyone.Michelle Stafford

You have to wonder if for someone like Latham, who is relatively new to daytime, if it wasn’t a big detriment having her be both head writer and executive producer? Bill Bell may have been both producer and writer, but he was also creator, so it made sense for him to play both roles to execute his vision. There may be a multitude of reasons why a show might combine roles (Power struggles? A more status-y title for the “exec producer/headwriter”). But creatively, I think the writer/producer roles staying distinct and separate is far healthier for a show. If a writer or a producer comes up with an idea, there’s another voice there to “push back.” A great idea will live through a little resistance and push and pull, and become a great storyline. But with LML okaying her own story ideas, there was no resistance. As a result, bad story that didn’t respect characters or history made it to our screens.

Most importantly, though, I think the biggest mistake LML and the show made was something several shows have done: they’ve attempted to reinvent the wheel. A lot of Latham’s work reminded me a great deal of when Linda Gottlieb was executive producer Judith Chapmanat One Life to Live. Gottlieb and Michael Malone eventually struck a balance, but the first days of Gottlieb’s tenure at OLTL were filled with changes — a new theme and quirky, self-contained scenes with eccentric newcomers — that alienated the audience. Believe me, I’m a big fan of quirky and different in the right doses. But you can’t use it as a substitute for years of character growth and story momentum. When writers like Latham try to reinvent the wheel, the message the audience gets is that the show is ashamed to be what it should be proud to be — a multigenerational, character-driven, romance-loving soap. That’s what we tune in for!

And that, hopefully, is what new executive producer Josh Griffith (and new head writer Maria Arena Bell) can give Y&R fans, as the show heads into its 35th year on the air. Latham may have tried to reinvent the wheel, but hopefully Griffith and Bell can repair the damage and keep the world turning at Y&R.

Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Patrick, I agree. The good news here is that Y&R is on its way to recovery. I’m amazed at how quickly Griffith and Bell have been able to repair the damage done by LML and her staff.

    I’d also like to add that in addition to LML trying to recreate the wheel, she also alienated a lot of the behind the scene staffers that were responsible for Y&R’s success. The amount of backstage talent that quit during her tenure didn’t help. She also seemed rather clueless as to what the audience REALLY wanted to see. Her reliquary story will go down as the worst story that show EVER told. She actually came off rather arrogant by pushing stories like these that audience and critics alike complained about. Her agenda always played the most important role.

    But I didn’t hate everything. Early on, I’m one of the fans that actually enjoyed Victors epilepsy storyline. However, like many of her stories, it lost steam, was dropped and never referred to again. And like you, I too felt she reinvigorated Nikki. One thing she did do was write for several vets…even if not all the ideas were good ones. I also liked the sharper and wittier dialogue. Sadly her biggest failure as a writer was her execution. Stories, albeit good or bad, always came out of the gate punching and kicking, but lost steam quickly…then it was endless scenes of characters sitting around talking about nothing.

    I also agree that HW and EP should NEVER be the same person. That only worked in the golden age of soaps with powerhouses like Bell and Labine. I actually felt like Jack Smiths tenure went south when he juggled both hats too. I hope the show has learned from this mistake.

    Here’s toasting to 2008, the year I hope Y&R makes a full comeback.

  2. MsT says:

    Small (clarification): Victoria Rowell didn’t just “exit.” She quit. I’m sure LML’s shoddy writing for Dru and the Winters played a part in it.

    I really do think it’s a horrible idea to have the EP and HW be the same person. There should be checks and balances.

  3. esther says:

    While Bell held the title of EP, he also had Ed Scott or John Conboy doing the real EP workload. I’m not sure anyone in daytime ever really did both (at least not real head writers; there are certainly cases of EPs thinking they should also write — like Goutman and JFP). Then again, I’m not sure LML did either but rather made sure no one was high enough to contradict her.

    She did alienate people on that set, for what she did to the characters/story AND for doing it all so late. She’s notorious on all her shows post Homefront (possibly pre, but that I don’t have knowledge) of turning in scripts so late, it costs productions a TON. That never makes anyone popular.

    I agree with your take on how she handled Nikki. I appreciated it great, being a fan of MTS. I actually agree with almost everything you said. i look forward to seeing what JG/MA team will do to fix things.

  4. Carl says:

    Do you really think Homefront was one of the most beloved primetime shows ever? I liked the first season quite a bit…until it decided to get preachy. Then I engaged in lots of eye rolling when I watched. (Oh, if only TiVo had been around at the time for FF-ing.) I was sad, I suppose, to see it canceled, but no one I knew also watched it at the time, and I was far sadder to see WIOU or the Lucie Arnaz show Sons & Daughters or the Teri Garr (and Lane Davies!) show Good & Evil go away.

    I don’t have any attachment to Y&R, but I can understand people’s anguish over its apparent fall. They got to experience what I felt with Santa Barbara under first John Conboy and then Paul Rauch and Pam Long.

  5. Jon says:

    Latham was not all that perfect at Knots Landing either. John Pleshette and Joan Van Ark both criticize her time in charge (read their chats at the big Kntos Landing website) and under her guise the show was basically The Paige Hour, guest starring everyone else. She was never a good fit for Y&R. She should try an ABC soap. They can’t get any worse.

    I’m just glad that awful Jack Smith isn’t coming back either.

  6. Aaron says:

    I’m of two minds on this one. First off, I loved LML’s work on Knots and Homefront. I’ve never really been one to care too much what the actors personally think, as long as the show is enjoyable and both of those shows were.

    I thought Homefront was a quality show through both seasons. I never noticed it being preachy, but that could be because I agreed with most of the sentiments expressed during the show.

    As for LML’s reign on Y&R, I agree it was unbalanced, but I think she did a really decent job of steering the ship while the other shows went through wild stages of peaks and valleys. I hadn’t watched Y&R in years, since before Bill Bell died, and I found the show to be quite well written.

    I loved Phyllis and Nick, Michael and Lauren, Gloria, etc. There were a few missteps I didn’t like, such as the Carmen Mesta mystery, the reliquary story and the recast of Colleen, but overall I thought the cast made the best of some questionable plots.

    I have to give LML credit, she made amazing use of her multigenerational cast. No other show would be using characters like Katherine, Jill, Jack, Victor, etc AT ALL, much less several times a week. Yeah, they could all be BETTER used, but I’m grateful they are used as much as they are.

    So, I’m not saying some new blood is a bad thing, but I’m also not leaping for joy that LML is out. If I’ve learned anything about today’s daytime landscape, new blood RARELY makes a show BETTER anymore. Those days are long gone. A new regime usually means more viewer erosion within a few months. Y&R would truly be an exception to the rule if they somehow turn things around.

    We also have to remember that Y&R doesn’t have the budget to be the show Bill Bell created back in the day. That show was sweeping, epic and highly melodramatic (back before melodrama was considered a bad word.) It was the closest thing to a primetime soap we had in daytime. Now we have to adjust our expectations for a world of lower ratings and lower budgets and focus on some good, solid character building storylines.

    Time will tell if the new blood understands that. I’m cautiously optimistic.

    Aaron

    Patrick says: Aaron, I agree that new blood isn’t always a positive. In this case, however, we have Maria Arena Bell, who is a member of the Bell family and is schooled in the Bill Bell storytelling style. I think Maria represents a great hybrid of new and classic — which leaves me cautiously optimistic for Y&R.

  7. Great column Patrick. I agree with you about MTS. LML seemed to just “get” Nikki and it was a welcome change in her personality.

    LML’s biggest problem was firing all the people who really understood what Y&R was and should be, and replacing them with those who would push her plot-heavy agenda. Had she kept on Alden and the rest of the writers who spend years on the show, they would have (hopefully) balanced her out.

  8. Sara says:

    Firing of Adrianne Leon as Colleen was dreadful!

  9. Val says:

    “New faces, like Vincent Irizarry’s David Chow, were ill-defined; David remains so months after his introduction, a disservice to the dynamically talented Irizarry.”

    Thank you for saying this, and I agree wholeheartedly! I hope MAB is wise enough to challenge VI, because the more complex the characterization she creates for David, the more he’ll shine! :)

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