The Secrets to Being Young and Restless: Behind the Scenes of Daytime’s No. 1 Drama
Doppelgängers, characters back from the dead, affairs, and plane crashes: Life in Genoa City is rarely dull. But how does ‘Y&R’ keep the drama going five days a week?
Will the real Jack ever wake up from his coma, and if so what will his doppelgänger—the dangerous Marco—do next?
Will the full extent of mustachioed overlord Victor Newman’s crimes and deceptions be uncovered?
What will Chelsea do when she discovers Gabriel, the man she is seeing, is really her husband, Adam, returned from the dead with extensive plastic surgery?
Will Devon and Hillary (their followers have dedicated them “Hevon”) have a happy-ever-after, after Hillary married Devon’s father Neil, who is now bitter that his son and wife are together and who is possibly planning something despicable to scupper their happiness?
What will Billy do, because he thought the not-so-dead Adam killed his young daughter, Delia, in a hit-and-run? But did Adam really kill Delia that night?
Who is the mysterious killer, stalking town in a dreary, meandering plot most fans would gladly see consigned to the dumpster?
It is fair to say that no day in Genoa City, the fictional Wisconsin metropolis and setting for America’s most popular daytime drama, CBS’s The Young and The Restless, is ever quiet.
And now, at CBS’s Television City in Hollywood, just opposite The Bold and The Beautiful and down the hall a bit from The Price Is Right, I—a dedicated, very excited fan—am here amid the warren of sets that include the “athletic club” where confrontations take place over glasses of wine, and people are always hooking up in what appears to be Genoa City’s only hotel room.
Here is Victor’s office, with the Newman patriarch’s portrait staring demonically down, and there the tiny “roof” of the athletic club, which in the summer months is used purely to make the hottest actors gratuitously strip off to take a dip in the world’s smallest swimming pool.
While there are shows that people talk about at work the next day—Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Veep, among them—few cluster excitedly about The Young and The Restless, or at least few own up to watching the 42-year-old soap opera.
And so we 5.16 million viewers (Y&R is celebrating its biggest audience numbers since 2010) like to hold the show dear as something of a bespoke, private passion.
Reveal your passion and sometimes others respond by recalling rushing home from school to watch the totemic “supercouple” Luke and Laura getting married on General Hospital in 1981—Anthony Geary, who plays Luke, finally leaves the show on July 27—but people’s enjoyment of soaps is often recalled in the same wistful tone as other youthful follies.
There are only four daytime soaps left on the air—with Days of Our Lives, The Bold and The Beautiful, and General Hospital, alongside Y&R—after the dramatic cull of others like All My Children, Guiding Light, As The World Turns, and One Life To Live a few years back, when everybody predicted the genre’s demise.
However, the remaining quartet are not just surviving, but flourishing: a testament to our timeless thirst for the narrative saga, perhaps. If he were alive, Charles Dickens may well have loved The Young and The Restless.
“Film and television will always be evolving,” Jill Farren Phelps, the show’s executive producer, writes to me in an email, “but at the end of the day what stays the same is the desire for great storytelling.
“Budgets have gotten tighter and there is definitely more competition from cable, streaming content, the web, etc. There is still a strong desire for this type of programming as witnessed by the decades people have been captivated by their soap operas.”
Captivated is one way to express my amazement over the latest indignity to befall Y&R’s poor Jack Abbott, substituted on his wedding night by the devilish lookalike Marco. Jack has for the last few months been trying to get home to his true love, the mercurial Phyllis played by Gina Tognoni, after fan favorite Michelle Stafford exited the role.
Jack has been held captive and drugged by the lunatic Kelly, who wanted him all for herself and who—despite being dead, though nobody ever really dies on The Young and The Restless—continues to sporadically haunt him.
Then he escaped and found himself on board a ship, which blew up, but not before he was discovered by Marisa, Marco’s ex. All this in the middle of an ocean. The Y&R world can feel very small and coincidence-filled.
Fake Jack found out Real Jack was alive, and tried to have him killed. But Real Jack returned, to be briefly reunited with Phyllis, before he was shot by Victor.
And so now Jack is in a coma, and being willed to consciousness by Phyllis (a coma veteran herself, she went into a coma a while ago, and awoke a completely different actress), and us—because, really, how much can one man take?
Making the good suffer is the classic arc of any byzantine daytime story, through to whatever shattering denouement the writers can dream up.
As I have written before, the daytime soaps are brave buccaneers in a sea of otherwise shrill daytime chat shows like The View and The Talk. The soaps may be critically derided or ignored, and mocked, but they are as passionately crafted as they are adored by their fans.
“I never want to plan things out too carefully; you need to let the story dictate how it twists and turns, always on the look-out for something different, surprising and emotionally compelling,” Charles Pratt Jr., Y&R’s Executive Producer/Head Writer, writes in an email.
“It’s the things you find in the middle that can explode a story, and those things usually come from certain ‘goals’ you set up.
“Many times I’ve started with the end of a story and worked backwards, ultimately timing the big reveals to correspond with sweeps periods, and an ultimate climax—and if you’re talking a perfect story, its ending is the next story’s beginning.”
When I arrive at the Y&R studio, a typically bizarre dream sequence is being filmed and I am sternly instructed to report on nothing I see that day. (I like to think I am being struck down with the kind of amnesia many of the characters themselves fall prey too.)
The 25-year-old actress Camryn Grimes mulls her most recent trajectory on the show.
“I was very surprised to get the call to come back as a ghost,” Grimes says. She had played much-loved teenager Cassie Newman until that character died in 2005.
“I had been a ‘memory’ a few times since I died,” says Grimes, “but to get a call for four to six episodes…I thought, ‘I’m dead, what will I do for four to six episodes?’ Then it became 30 episodes, and I went upstairs to ask what was going on.”
“Upstairs” is where Y&R’s executives live, a shadowy place where characters’ fates, romances, returns from the dead, and long-lost twins are decided.
Most of the shows Pratt has worked on have been ensemble shows—Melrose Place, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty—and they all vary in tone and content, he says. “But there is a bit of magic to each of them…I look to find that one scene, one moment that typifies the show, an iconic moment.
“For Y&R, it was easy for me—and there was plenty of history—anytime Jack and Victor are in a room together, and behaving so anti-each other—different looks, different styles—that I could say, ‘I know this show, I know what it is, I can write story for these blokes,’ and the youth and glamour and tradition and legacy and sexiness just fall into place. It’s wonderful to have such a wide palette of talented thespians, a huge crayon box with all the colors.”
The writers draw with these crayons as vividly as possible, but in many ways Y&R is relentlessly conservative: the twinned patriarchies of Victor Newman and Jack Abbott are the cornerstones of the show; women exist only to fall in love and be hurt or betrayed by men, their conversations are rarely about anything else and would fail every aspect of the Bechdel Test.
Feminism has a presence in Genoa City only in as much as women must use every ounce of their strength to survive, but their friendships are precarious because the presence of men means they are in constant competition.
The show’s business empires and money-making are a recession-proof hangover from Dynasty and Dallas; offices and homes are plushly furnished; family and its maintenance is re-emphasized.
The characters are always beautiful, poverty is a world away. Y&R, like the other daytime soaps, is both shamelessly escapist, and—despite its modern dressing—proudly antiquated.
Mariah, Grimes’ new character, is Cassie’s long-lost twin, stolen from the womb, now all grown up, and considerably bitchier. Fans particularly like that she sneeringly calls the perennially weepy good girl Summer Newman, “Snowflake.” It is the perfect putdown.
“Five million people watch us every day,” Grimes says. “That’s more than some primetime shows. There’s definitely a viewership for soaps, and the soaps that are still around have done a good job to adapt and keep going. It’s so important to connect to fans via social media.”
Grimes, like everyone here, talks about the show in terms of it being a family, and you can feel it: Somehow the team produces five episodes of Y&R a week. “It’s grueling,” says Grimes, “which you realize when you have a primetime gig and see how they work.” To wit: much slower.
Sean Carrigan, the sexy former professional boxer who plays the good doctor “Stitch” (now involved in a mother-daughter love triangle), says primetime actors come in to play guest roles and cannot believe how quickly the Y&R actors work.
At a recent Neil Young concert a fellow audience member had a heart attack, leading Carrigan to jump out of his seat and try to help. His neighbors, very impressed, asked if he was in the medical field. “I play a doctor on TV,” Carrigan replied.
Nothing surprises Grimes about what she is asked to do on screen. Playing a ghost, while the writers were trying to figure out who she would turn out to be as a real, living human, was tough, “because you’re just being perpetually ominous.
“What’s fun about this show, and soaps in general, is that you go through all sorts of different things. You can go from being terrified of your life in the face of some villain. or gut-wrenching tears, or have some really nice, sweet, quiet character to character moments.”
Does Pratt know where the story is going to go, or does it evolve on the page and screen? “This always depends on the story,” says Pratt. ”When it strikes us, how it’s born, what question or need it comes from. Such as…these two people need to fall in love, or this one has a secret past, when will it come out? You always find a premise, and usually before you start the story.”
Thinking what he calls “long story,” says Pratt, “is the ultimate joy of the job [alongside his co-head writer Tracey Thomson], the meringue on the pie! Just sit back, grab a few hours, a weekend, and spit-ball story.”
He tries to identify “a new character who is exploding… Our goal is to make them a pivotal part of a big story. Couples are another goal. Putting them together. Breaking them up. Giving them children. There is absolutely no formula to a successful story. My goal is to have story come out of character—and usually a successful character will almost dictate the story to us. They speak to us in our dreams!”
The long story is then “spun into gold” by a team of writers who pace it out and stud it with twists. “The goal is always to add more and more ‘moments’ at each step along the assembly line. And, then, when the actors bring it to life.”
Grimes welcomes the crazier stuff Mariah perpetrates or endures—at one point her character was kidnapped and made to marry a cult leader she saw as her father—although crying all day is the hardest, she says.
How about “the fade,” I ask. That moment at the end of the scene, where a threat is issued, someone perches on the edge of discovery, or takes in life-changing information before, lips trembling, eyes swiveling, the screen fades to black.
“I don’t like it,” Grimes insists, when I say surely every actor wants the fade. “I’d rather not have the camera on me. The second I know they’re not holding on me, I laugh.”
Most of those fades for Grimes happen with the handsome Greg Rikaart, who is in his 13th year of playing screwed-up, police-investigation-assisting, computer wunderkind Kevin.
I ask what his craziest storyline has been. “Kevin was kidnapped, then suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, then he started robbing backs with a giant chipmunk mask on him. I had to breathe life into that and make it real, which was a challenge for months. He ended up in an insane asylum in a straitjacket.”
Rikaart smiles and pauses. “Hey, it’s a living, right? It’s like being a kid when you’re playing make believe. ‘There’s a villain.’ ‘We’re going to destroy the aliens.’ It’s like that.”
He dismisses any snobbery leveled at the soaps. “Any real artist knows that if you can make a living doing your art in whatever capacity, you do it. I’ve never heard snobbery from real artists or actors. I take all the lovely comments and bad comments with a pinch of salt.
“There are times when I have opinions about the storytelling—and whether my thoughts are incorporated is debatable. I don’t get too married to my ideas—but,” he shrugs equitably, “what’s the alternative? I used to be a waiter. I think I know Kevin, but the writers and directors can take a step back and look objectively at him. I don’t find myself asking ‘Why did he do this?’ because he makes a lot of questionable decisions.”
He laughs. “I never want Kevin to be happy, because who wants to see happy people on TV?”
Rikaart imagines fatherhood might be an interesting route for his character, and—an out-gay actor himself—would like Kevin himself to come out, especially as there are evolved LGBT storylines on the other soaps.
Rikaart recently married his partner, Robert Sudduth, on a Maui beach, a ukelele player accompanying the ceremony; many fans sent heartfelt congratulations.
“If they wanted to tell the story of Kevin coming out it would be socially fascinating,” Rikaart says. “These stories are being represented on daytime and primetime TV, but not on our show. What would be socially responsible would be to take someone who’s already on the canvas and tell the entire story.”
Great, but will the Genoa City Police Department, arguably the world’s most inept police department, ever solve a crime? “I certainly hope not,” says Rikaart. “I always really wanted the background cops to be shown just walking bang into the walls.”
The lovely Peter Bergman, who plays the much-beaten up Jack and his doppelganger Marco, reveals he got paid extra for playing two characters.
“It was a gift out of nowhere,” the self-confessed “political junkie” and Daily Beast fan says. He has been on The Young and The Restless for 25 years, and All My Children for 10 years before that. “I’m looking for wood to touch,” he says genuinely humbly. “It’s a fine, fine thing.”
Did he ever worry about being seen as simply a soap actor?
“I just liked being an actor. I wanted to act. I do more acting that most actors you’ll ever meet in any medium. That’s a cool thing. I have a very challenging script tomorrow, then on Thursday I have two episodes where I’m not sure how I am going to say what I have to say. It’s an exciting, intellectual, creative challenge. I ask them not to tell me where things are going next. I never want to know.”
Bergman, like Rikaart, likes his character: similar to Jack, he is fiercely loyal to his family, though Jack is more “hare-trigger” than the mellower actor.
Bergman thinks daytime soaps are in a blossoming patch now because people themselves are binge-watching serials like House of Cards on Netflix.
“People’s viewing habits have reverted back to what they used to be. There’s a thirst for this stuff. As other soaps went off the air, we picked up the best of their talent. We have actors who know how to do this shit.”
The long, meandering speeches that used to make soaps so laughably plodding years ago have sped up in recent years, and the pace of the soaps has increased, too.
“Thank god,” says Bergman. “Some people like all that drawn-out stuff. It drives me insane. I’m trying to get to the fucking finish line every time I’m out there. People ask me all the time why am I not bored. I play a mercurial character who can be good, or bad, or ruthless. I love getting to my dressing room and opening my script.”
When Bergman started on All My Children, he was snobby about daytime soap acting, he admits. “I was between jobs as a theater actor, but very quickly thought, ‘Wait a minute—some of these people are really good.’ I got into it. I’m not someone who wants to pick apart every moment of every scene and have endless rehearsal.
“I’m not one who wants to do 25 takes of every scene. I’d go out of my fucking mind. I’m an early riser, I have been all my life. I wake up at 5 o’clock, and 5:15 Saturday and Sunday. This is a perfect job. I’m on camera at 8:05 and I better look good,” he says, laughing.
Will Jack ever beat his arch-nemesis Victor?
“People ask, ‘How long will you stay?’ I’m staying until Jack puts Victor through a wall. I may be a very old man before that happens. I think they’re willing to write it. I’m not sure he’s [Eric Braeden] willing to play it.”
It’s the day-in, day-out familiarity with Jack and Co. that keeps the show’s fans dedicated. And although viewing figures are up, fan forums are always in uproar about the perceived wrongdoings of executive producers Phelps and Pratt.
They do not like that Jessica Collins, who plays the lawyer Avery and is one of the show’s best actresses, is leaving the show. They didn’t like the old Adam Newman (Michael Muhney) being let go, after allegedly inappropriate behavior toward Hunter King, who plays Summer.
They ask for certain actors to be let go. The length and nature of storylines is howled over. The volubility of their complaining is testament to the close way the show is watched. Phelps particularly is the target for much of the fans’ ire.
She does not answer specific questions about the negative criticism hurled her way, but in an email writes, “Our audience is incredibly loyal and protective about Y&R. I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to make sure we not only entertain but honor Y&R’s legacy. So many of our viewers have been watching for decades.
“My job is to try to strike a balance between what the audience is familiar with, while also finding compelling ways to grow and take risks as we look to the future.”
Daniel Goddard recalls his character, Cane Ashby, had been killed off in 2010 when fans hired a plane to fly over the studios demanding his reinstatement—which then happened. The explanation: It wasn’t Cane that died, but yes, his evil twin!
Goddard says he likes the family feeling of the show. Tristan Rogers, sitting next to him who plays his father, laughs that he was brought on the show to kill his son, but now they’re good friends. He preferred his character when he was a more sinister criminal than the gentler ne’er-do-well he has become.
“Fans are intensely loyal,” says Rogers, “and that loyalty does come at a price, and that price is ‘Thou shalt not screw up the show too much.’ Thou shalt not screw up the characters, because the fans are the conscience of the show. If you are deviating from history, they’ll tell you.”
“The fan base refuses to accept that Lily cheated on Cane today [the plot of the show that transmitted the day I am there],” Goddard says. “No fan base is more loyal than the daytime soap opera fan base. It was the fans who got me back. I love working with my screen family. We’re very attached. I like to delve into human truths, the trials and tribulations of love, and the possibility of failure of that love.”
This passion of fans certainly sustains the show, and guides the success and failure of its characters. The show is fiercely interactive.
Bryton James, who has played the billionaire Devon Winters for 11 years, says that fans know the show intimately and passionately, watching “stories unravel and evolve. It’s part of their life, it’s not a show that’s on once a week, or away for months at a time. You watch people grow up: They have watched me as a teenager when I started at 17 to where I am now.”
Mishael Morgan, who plays Hilary, was one of those fans. She grew up watching The Young and The Restless and almost cried when meeting Braeden for the first time.
The fans have inspired the direction of Hilary’s romance with Devon, although—she laughs, running off to film a scene and indicating her baby bump—she hadn’t told producers she was pregnant when they buried Hilary under rubble after a recent plane crash in the mountains.
Tracey Bregman also laughs when she notes that she has played Lauren Fenmore “since the Jurassic Period. 32 years. Every day I am grateful and excited to come to work do the job I love. Other people’s dramas on TV make people feel better about their own lives. My craziest storyline? Probably being buried alive.”
Lauren and husband Michael (Christian Le Blanc) are separated, he wanting to “free” her from their marriage after he contracted prostate cancer, now feeling that he is not ‘man enough for her.
“He can slay me with a look,” Bregman says of Le Blanc, and their scenes together are genuinely raw, and very different to the glossier melodramatics around them. “The fans are very, very upset about us being apart.”
Lauren was also famed for her rivalry with the now-dead (or is she? who knows?) villainess Sheila Carter (Kimberlin Brown). “I have had more fight scenes than all the guys on this show put together, and I was always fighting in a cocktail dress and heels. Thank god Kimberlin was so strong. She wore tennis shoes, and literally held me up.”
The speed of shooting is “like doing a play a day,” says Bregman. “What’s fun about it is that sometimes you can prepare and prepare, then in front of the cameras you don’t know what’s going to come out of you. I get surprised all the time, but if they ever seriously broke Christian and me up I’ll probably need some therapy.”
Le Blanc, who plays every scene intensely, carries his character’s screwed-up past into whatever fresh hell Michael is plunged into. In Le Blanc’s eyes, Michael tries to assert control over whatever he can having been unable to stop the abuse he saw unfold at home when he was younger.
“He’s not a hero,” says the very funny and engaging Le Blanc. “Humans do the best things for the worst reasons and the worst things for the best reasons.” Which sums up the perfect personality profile of a long-running daytime soap character.
When she’s running errands, Melody Thomas Scott gets “a lot of advice” from other shoppers about her character Nikki’s travails with Victor, or her alcoholism. “God help me if I’m seen in a restaurant drinking a glass of wine. Oh my gaaad. If I ever start behaving like her, please slap me.”
Thomas Scott tested to play Lucy Ewing in Dallas, she tells me, but the producers went for the more vixenish Charlene Tilton.
Nikki has certainly had more longevity than Lucy. A show regular for 36 years and its most dramatic diva, Nikki is overburdened with trauma: discovering secret love children, addicted to the booze, or having to put up with Victor’s toxic abuse (this is one unchallenged Y&R constant that seems weird and disturbing to this viewer).
Like Bergman, Thomas Scott reads scripts with the same curiosity as fans tuning in to the show every day. “It’s fun, like reading a novel that never ends.”
“I thank God every day for having a job I love so much,” says Thomas Scott in her cozy dressing room, lined with covers of soap magazines cataloguing every imaginable Nikki Newman drama. “People like Meryl Streep, and other movie stars, will never know the wonderful thing our fans do for us. A big film star will never have the same enthusiasm from a fan as we do in daytime.
“Daytime has incredible fans. You become something more to them than we actually are, which are just lucky actors who got a job. We become members of their family. They break down, they’re so excited to see me. They have so much to tell me: ‘I’ve watched you for 27 years,’ ‘I named my kid after you.’”
Everyone prefers Nikki drunk rather than sober, including Thomas Scott, who says she and the writers are trying to find a way to make Nikki respectable but still allowed to drink.
The writers balance trying to be responsible about tackling alcoholism, but also, laughs Thomas Scott, “everybody knows sober equals boring.”
As for Nikki and Victor, Thomas Scott sees the love and hate they share as akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Thomas Scott “never feared for our show” when all the talk was of the end of the daytime soap genre a few years ago.
“It was just an unfortunate ball of snow that kept rolling and getting bigger,” she says, “and we were very fortunate it did not reach our show. They said soaps were going down the toilet, and they weren’t.
“Everything is fine: we are number one, my husband [Edward Scott] produces Bold and Beautiful, which is number two, so our household is happy. The only thing I would love Nikki to do is go absolutely insane in a rubber room, straitjacket time, wouldn’t that be fun?”
An ideal story on the show, says Pratt, “has to have family front and center, and a real driving force and conflict. There must be equal parts romance and heart. A secret should be at its heart, and surprises around every corner. A splash of returning characters, but Victor and Jack and all the Newmans and Abbotts at its center. And above all else, the stakes need to be life and death.”
Pratt is successful in his mission: every day on Y&R is a rollercoaster. If credulity is stretched it is done so shamelessly. The story powers or inches forward. Despite the fury of fans in social media, and their threats to quit watching the show over the latest storyline or casting offense, Y&R’s audience is growing.
As for the future, Farren Phelps says Y&R fans can breathe easy. “Sony and CBS are both very invested in Y&R. Our ratings are steady and healthy. There is a wonderful sense of devotion from the daytime audience as so many viewers have been watching these shows for decades.”
Pratt is even more ebullient. “I feel a real awakening,” he says. ”This kind of story-telling is all over network, cable, and not just surviving on daytime, but thriving! My goal: To make them all regret getting rid of the ones they did! Long live soaps!”