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.
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 and 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,then 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.
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 at 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.